Former “Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen has a very personal story to tell in his directorial debut.
The Watertown High School graduate writes, directs, produces, scores, and stars in “Falling” as John Peterson, who lives with his partner (Terry Chen) and their daughter (Gabby Velis) in California, far from the rural life he left behind at the family farm in Upstate New York. Worlds collide when John’s father Willis, struggling with dementia, comes to stay and refuses to change.
“Aliens” actor Lance Henriksen plays the older version of Willis, a codger who angrily calls his ex-wives “whores” and often makes homophobic comments in front of his gay son. Viggo lookalike Sverrir Gudnason, best known for playing tennis legend Bjorn Borg in “Borg vs. McEnroe,” plays the younger version of Willis, driving John’s mother away. Scenes flash back and forth between the past and present, to illustrate Willis’ struggles with memory and his many failed relationships.
The movie was largely shot in Ontario, but many scenes are set in Northern NY with locations resembling where Mortensen spent his formative years.
“Southern Ontario looks a lot like the other side of the St. Lawrence river,” Mortensen, 62, explained in an interview with syracuse.com | The Post-Standard.
“Just a landscape that I’m familiar with, which is why I set it in that place,” he added. “I used things that I knew very well. Landscapes, seasons, what things looked like in the ’60s and ‘70s up around there: Cars, clothes, people, houses, farms, and to some degree what they look like now.”
“In an indirect way it is a salute to the North Country and to New York state. You’ll see it when you watch it.”
The film will be especially compelling to those who know someone with dementia, which afflicts more than 50 million people worldwide. The World Health Organization projects three times as many people will be living with dementia by 2050, with symptoms that include forgetfulness or getting lost and confused.
“We’ve had a lot of that in our family,” Mortensen said. Both Mortensen’s mother and father had dementia, as well as his stepfather and grandparents on both sides of the family.
Mortensen currently lives in Spain but still has family in the North Country and returns often. He was spotted at the Mustard Seed Natural Market and Cafe in Watertown around Christmas 2019 and he made extended stays helping take care of his mother, Grace, when she died in 2015 and his father, Viggo Sr., when he died two years later.
On his website, Mortensen said his father started to confuse Viggo with his own father, “slipping now and then into the distant past of his childhood and adolescence, speaking to me in Danish instead of English.”
But while the movie’s dementia battle and John’s hometown — the Watertown Daily Times newspaper is even featured in some scenes — are based on real experiences, the rest of the story is largely fictional. Mortensen started writing “Falling” shortly after his mother’s funeral.
“When my mom died, I just wanted to remember everything about her. I loved her and I still love her and… I just wanted to write them down, these ideas, these memories,” he told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show” last week. “I started writing and it became a story, a fictional story. Which I guess I felt freer to write than the documentary thing where I would have to call my brothers and say ‘Did this happen? When did that happen? Who said that?’ I said, ‘I’m just going to make it up and use the feelings, a few memories, a few incidents, but it’s a made-up story.’”
One scene that’s drawn from a real experience is a quirky flashback where young John shoots a duck on his first time hunting with his father, but wants to keep the animal for a bathtub toy or a stuffed animal, not dinner. Mortensen says he did just that when he was 4 years old, though he wasn’t in Watertown at the time.
A notable fictional scene shows teenage John angrily knocked off his horse by his father, leading to a scar on John’s upper lip in adulthood. Mortensen has a scar in real life, but actually go it while attending college at St. Lawrence University.
“That was a stupid thing. I had just turned 18. It was Halloween 1976, my first year of college and I was out partying with friends… I got shoved into a barb wire fence (in a) stupid accident. But it did sever my lip badly and I had to get it sewn up,” Mortensen recalled to syracuse.com. “And I thought, well, I’ll use it. I’ll make a story about that.”
“Boonville’s the ugliest town in New York state”
Mortensen also wants viewers to know that he doesn’t mean anything ill towards the Oneida County village of Boonville, which is referenced in one of Willis’ ornery rants: “Boonville’s the ugliest town in New York state,” Henriksen snarls, much to the chagrin of John’s sister (played by Laura Linney).
“Apologies to Boonville,” Mortensen said. “Sometimes people watch a movie and think, ‘This guy’s saying all this and that and that must mean the director thinks that or the writer’ — in my case, both. But no. Boonville is beautiful. I know it really well, having spent my adolescence in the area. It was just one of those random things that gets stuck in (the character’s) head. Ridiculous…”
“It’ll probably get a rise out of people from Boonville,” he chuckled. “But I don’t think that (it’s ugly). That’s the character that thinks that.”
Boonville, Lowville and Utica are thanked in the credits for “Falling.” The film is also dedicated to Viggo’s brothers Charles and Walter Mortensen; he doesn’t have a sister, another point where the story deviates from reality.
“Oh sh-t. It’s the middle of winter and I’m in Watertown, New York.”
Viggo Mortensen was born in Watertown, N.Y., on Oct. 20, 1958. His mother was from Watertown and met his father, a Danish farmer, on a trip to Norway. Young Viggo spent part of his childhood in Argentina, but moved back to Watertown at age 11 when his parents divorced. He graduated from Watertown High School in 1976 and St. Lawrence University in 1980.
Today, he’s best known as the Oscar-nominated actor who played Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as well as roles in “Eastern Promises,” “Captain Fantastic,” “A History of Violence,” “Hidalgo” “The Road” and “Green Book.” He’s also a poet, photographer, painter, publisher (through his own Perceval Press), and has released more than 20 albums featuring collaborations with guitarist Buckethead.
He turned down playing Wolverine in the first “X-Men” movie (a part that later went to Hugh Jackman) due to a scheduling conflict, and reportedly came close to roles in the 2013 Superman movie “Man of Steel,” 2012′s “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and as Batman’s dad, Thomas Wayne, in 2019′s “Joker.”
But Mortensen’s classmates probably wouldn’t have predicted that the captain of the swim team at Watertown High School would one day be world famous.
“I always kept to myself,” Mortensen told syracuse.com. “I had friends, but… I wasn’t so big on going to parties or dances. I would never have thought public speaking would be in my area of activities as an adult.”
Bill Wallace, who was Mortensen’s swim coach at Watertown High School, says he never imagined little Viggo would one day be a movie star.
“Never crossed my mind,” Wallace told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard. “He was quiet around me, but the other kids said he could raise a little hell now and then.”
Mortensen did try out for a musical once in junior high after someone recommended he try acting, but the audition didn’t go very well.
“You just had to go up and read something… and I think I was reading the opening page of Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ and they kept saying ‘Louder! Louder!’ And I just freaked out. They couldn’t hear me because I was mumbling, and I just closed the book and ran out and said that was the end of that,” Mortensen recalled.
“I never would’ve thought (I’d become an actor), but I always loved movies. My mom took me to movies all the time… in Watertown, we went all the time. I was always fascinated by moving stories and I wanted to be sort of involved in that world somehow,” he continued. “You watch a movie. It transports you or takes you somewhere, and the lights come up at the end. You walk out on the street and you’re like ‘Oh sh-t. It’s the middle of winter and I’m in Watertown, New York. I’m not in Arabia on a camel.’”
Mortensen also speaks seven different languages — no, Elvish is not one of them — which helped him land a job as an interpreter for the Swedish and Danish hockey teams at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. He saw the “Miracle on Ice” in person and included a reference to U.S. speed skater Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals that year, in “Falling.”
Lord of the Rings
“Falling” marks Mortensen’s first foray into directing and he’s been nominated for three Academy Awards for acting, but he’s well aware that he’ll always be associated with “The Lord of the Rings.” Jackson’s adaptations of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” are among the top 75 highest-grossing movies of all time, and led to another movie trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”
An Amazon television series is currently in production that will reportedly explore the Second Age of Middle-earth’s history, and may include Sauron’s forging of the One Ring and the fall of the Nine Kings into becoming Ringwraiths. Mortensen’s Aragorn won’t be in it, but he still plans to watch.
“I’m curious as to what they’re doing with it. I mean, Tolkien has so much material – not just ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Those worlds and mythology and stories” are interesting, he told syracuse.com.
Mortensen also briefly reflected on his favorite scenes from “Lord of the Rings.”
“The relationship I had with the actor Sean Bean, who plays Boromir. I like that relationship. There’s a scene where he dies… towards the end of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring.’ That’s an important moment for both those characters,” Mortensen said. “It’s beautifully done and it’s very true, it’s really in the spirit of how the books were written by Tolkien.”
He also had fond memories of scenes that weren’t in the original theatrical cuts of the trilogy. Mortensen was glad to see them in Peter Jackson’s extended versions, and highly recommends fans watch them.
“Falling,” released by Mortensen’s film company Perceval Pictures, is available to rent or buy on Video On Demand (VOD) and digital starting Friday, Feb. 5.
The Hollywood Reporter called the movie “As intelligent and sensitive a directing debut as you’d expect, and a highlight of Henriksen’s career,” and The Guardian gave it a four-star review: “Really valuable work, beautifully edited and shot, with a wonderful performance by the veteran actor Lance Henriksen.” The New York Times’ critic applauded the brief comic cameo by Mortensen collaborator David Cronenberg playing a proctologist, helping balance a movie “keenly aware of the effort involved in reconciling the parent we have with the one we might have wished for.”