Viggo Mortensen Tells Us Why He Hasn't Done Blockbusters Since 'Lord Of The Rings'

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Viggo Mortensen in a scene from Lisandro Alonso's 'Jauja.' (Courtesy of Cinema Guild)

Viggo Mortensen became a household name when he was in three of the biggest films of all time, playing the warrior-king Aragorn in The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. This week, though, sees the release of a film of a considerably smaller scale that Mortensen stars in.

In the Argentinian art film Jauja, Mortensen plays a 19th century Danish officer searching for his daughter in the Patagonian frontier. Although the trek into the forbidding frontier recalls classic Westerns or adventure epics, an unexpected metaphysical turn at the end adds a stranger, dreamlike dimension to the film that defies explanation and makes it more akin to a sci-fi mindbender. A modest project, its dialogue is entirely in Spanish and Danish (both of which Mortensen is fluent in) and marks the first time the arthouse director Lisandro Alonso actually worked with professional actors. As unusual of a work it may seem for an American star, it doesn't feel out of place in a body of work as varied and unusual as Mortensen's.

Since Lord Of The Rings, Mortensen has gone on to receive critical acclaim in the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and three films with David Cronenberg (A History Of Violence, A Dangerous Method, and receiving his first Oscar nomination for Eastern Promises), but nothing even close to blockbuster territory. This doesn't seem to bother Mortensen, though, whose interests lie beyond box office numbers. In 2002 the actor founded Perceval Press, an independent publishing house for books and music through which he releases books, photography, poetry, and music by himself and other artists. More recently, the actor has taken to producing, with 2014's Argentine thriller Everybody Has A Plan along with Jauja.

This week the Danish-American actor took some time to speak with LAist about Jauja and how he chooses his projects.

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Viilbjørk Malling Agger and Viggo Mortensen in 'Jauja' (Cinema Guild)

What exactly attracted you to 'Jauja' in the first place? Aside from the fact that your friend (poet Fabián Casas) was a co-screenwriter on the script, was there something about the film that drew you in?

Well I liked the basic premise. Lisandro [Alonso] told it to me before I read the script, which was in principle an old-fashioned adventure story in the 19th century. Kind of a Western where a guys goes into the frontier with his daughter, and she runs away into dangerous territory and he goes after her on a horse. That alone as a point of departure was interesting, and the fact that it'd be directed by Lisandro, whose movies I knew and liked.

I especially liked the feel of his movies—in terms of the treatment of landscape and the pace of the stories. He reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky. It'd be an interesting thing to do and something I wanted to do and hadn't done before. And also the fact I'd be among the first professional actors that had worked with him—it seemed like a good recipe for a movie.

How much of the much of the movie is based on actual history or the mythology of the city of Jauja, or was that all a total invention of Lisandro Alonso and Fabián Casas?

The title Jauja and the paragraph you see at the beginning of the movie [explaining the mythology of the city of Jauja] I came up with that in concert with them. I sent them a bunch of information about the historical facts of Jauja... you know the sort of 'El Dorado' idea of it.

I'm playing a guy who's an officer and an engineer. Basically a farmer from Denmark; a very practical man. All the medals that I wear in Jauja are actual period pieces I found in Denmark. Those are all from the wars he would've served in. They signify he's a veteran of the two wars against the Prussians, in 1848 and 1864. That big ditch you see being built in the film was to both keep cattle from running out of the general area of Buenos Aires and also to keep the enemy from coming in and stealing the cattle. The character early in the story that's sort of a bureaucratic figure was real political figure at the time who was vicious in his genocidal war against the Indians.

If you want to look for them, there are elements that are true to Danish and Argentine history of the time. But that being said, everything else is invented and you don't really need to know the history. It doesn't even matter that it's in Argentina.

I don't even think that it's mentioned in the film that it's in Argentina.

It's a place where someone is out of their element. The daughter likes where she is and she's interested, but the father has no intention of staying and he doesn't allow himself to be taken in by the landscape or the culture—whether it's the indigenous or the colonial. He's the European outsider with an imperialist mindset, even if he's not overt about it. Being such a fish out of water, it becomes more obvious his way of doing things and dressing and dealing with the obstacles he faces aren't very useful. It's almost like he's a Don Quixote figure at the end. Once he's out there in his uniform, he looks kind of silly.

Did Alonso ever explain what he felt the movie was about? Or did he leave you in the dark about that and said we're gonna shoot this movie...

What do you mean "about"?

It's such a strange, puzzling ending very open to interpretation.

What I like about him is that he's the kind of artist who likes to set up a situation and tell a story that asks a lot of questions, but doesn't set about answering them. His ego isn't such that he purports to knows all things. In that sense, he's a lot like David Cronenberg, if different on a technical level and in storytelling style. He leaves the answers up to you. He's reluctant to be pushed into explaining his movies. I think all great artists are that way with their work

Even after the movie was done and we'd see it at festivals, based on questions people asked and things that we saw subsequent viewings there'd be more things I hadn't even realized. There's always something new—some new layer. Most things were planned. But when you're on the right track you trust your instincts, like Lisandro does, and a lot of unexpected layers or gifts come your way. There were a lot of things we didn't realize until we were done that had resonance—little details or echoes from the beginning of the story—later on. Things that are said and gestures that pay off later and that I didn't even notice myself until I had seen it the second or third time.

The short answer is: no, he didn't feel a need to explain anything, but he was open to talking about anything we felt like. I trusted the story already. I like historical accuracy, and Alonso was open to helping with that, but I was happy with the story the way it was and I was happy to just explore and I felt free to do so.

It's such a short script—about 20 pages—and a lot of the scenes are just you walking from one side of the frame to the other.

Or riding horseback.

How much direction did Alonso give you for those scenes?

We didn't have much film. We were shooting it on real film and we had a limited amount, so in the latter stages of the shoot we were down to short ends and that was clear. I'd ask, "Well, how much [film] do you have left?" And [Alonso] would say, "Well I have a piece about a minute or less, and one that's about 39 seconds." And I'd tell him, "Well, at a quick trot to cross that piece of ground, 39 seconds would be cutting it a little close so save that longer bit for the next scene."

We'd talk about what we would do, like any good director, and only jump in to give some guidance or explanation if he felt we weren't on the same page. But that didn't really happen very much.

And even though he had never done it before, he worked well with professional actors. For example, the actress [Viilbjørk Malling Agger] who plays my daughter Ingeborg in the film. I was very helpful with him because of the language, but he was also very calm and very helpful with her. It was the first movie she had done, so that was quite a big thing to take on for her—to go to a country she had never been and work with a crew she didn't understand when speaking. Your first movie and you're being directed by a guy who's never directed actors [laughs] it's a pretty big thing.

Especially out in the wilderness.

The first thing we shot she was nervous, but that was useful. It's a scene where I run up to her and she has this strange attitude and she seemed ethereally calm and unconcerned with the dangers of the desert. The fact that she was nervous gave her this strangeness that was actually useful.

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Viggo Mortensen on the set of 'Jauja' (NDM)

When I first saw the movie I sat through the credits and was surprised to see that you actually did the music for the film with Buckethead. Did you write the music before or after you saw the completed film?

Those two pieces are from a record that Buckethead and I recorded a while back, from an album called Please Tomorrow.

What happened there was sort of an accident. In his previous movies he'd never used music in that way. You might've heard music coming from a radio, organically, in a scene but he never had a music soundtrack. So that was another new thing that he took on here. And well into the process he suddenly said, "The big first transition is the night where you sleep and you wake up and, unbeknownst to the character and the audience, linear time and everything has changed. That transition is important, and I hear a certain kind of music. I'm not sure what it should be."

We didn't have any money in the budget to buy music, but I told him, "I know a brilliant guitar player and we've recorded together." I sent him 10 tracks to see what he's interested in, and he picked "Moonset". He was right—it was perfect. He also liked this other song ("Sunrise") because it had a circular structure to the music, and he used it in the end credits because it mirrors what happens in the story, where time isn't linear.

So that's how that happened. One of those things where I'd never imagine I'd be providing music for a movie.

You broke through with 'The Lord Of The Rings', but since then you've stuck mostly to making smaller and artistically inclined projects. In fact, 'Jauja' was one of your first producer credits.

My second one. My third one, Far From Men, is gonna premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.

Do you plan on producing more films in the vein of 'Jauja'?

I don't know. The three movies I've produced were just projects where I wanted to be able to in every way help protect the vision of the director. From the way it's allowed to be shot or cast, where it's shot, what the schedule is, how it's presented, who it's sold too, what the poster looks like... all those decisions are what an actor doesn't necessarily have any say about but a producer does. And in that way I can be helpful in protecting the director—having their vision be respected right 'til the end. So that's the main reason to do that.

Who knows? I might. I don't have anything planned right now. I don't only intend to do small movies. I don't really look at the budget or the nationality or the location of a story. I'm just looking for stories that I think are interesting to me and that are blueprints for movies that I'd go to the movie theater and see. It's hard work to prepare, shoot, and promote a movie of any kind, so I'd rather do something that I feel good about. Something that I know ten or twenty years from now have a chance to be something I can still feel good about having done, rather than just doing something for the money.

I've learned a lot, and worked with different directors and cultures. It continues to be an education that I appreciate, as someone that works in telling stories.

Jauja opens on Friday, March 20 in New York at IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center. In Los Angeles it opens Friday, March 27 at the Nuart and Viggo Mortensen will be on hand for Q&As after the 7:30 screenings on Friday and Saturday, and introducing the 9:50 screenings.