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He Writes, He Shoots, He Scores: Viggo Mortensen On His New Film 'Falling'

Viggo Mortensen in "Falling." (Brendan Adam-Zwelling)
Viggo Mortensen in "Falling." (Brendan Adam-Zwelling)

Actor Viggo Mortensen makes his debut as a director with his new film, “Falling.”

Mortensen also wrote the screenplay and stars as John, a middle-aged man who has a troubled and sometimes violent relationship with his father, Willis. The family connections are strained even further as Willis begins to show signs of dementia.

“Falling” opens in theaters and on demand on Friday. Mortensen says he drew inspiration for the fictional story from his own childhood and adolescence, but also his more recent experiences with dementia in his family. His parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles on both sides of the family have battled dementia.

“I’m familiar with [dementia] and wanted to depict that respectfully and accurately, which is not always the case in movies,” he says. “I started writing it after my mom’s funeral. I just wanted to remember her. I wanted to keep images of her and my feelings about her as much as anything alive.”

Even some good movies about dementia aren’t clear about what stage of the disease it’s portraying, he says. Films will depict characters with dementia as confused, but in Mortensen’s experience caregivers and observers are often the ones feeling perplexed.

“That person really is gradually seeing and hearing and feeling these things,” he says. “It’s very real for them in the present, regardless of how strange it may seem to you or inexplicable.”

Lance Henriksen gives “the performance of his lifetime” and realistically portrays the disease as Willis — who was a troubled man long before dementia hit, Mortensen says. Mortensen tried to help Henriksen dive deep into the character by answering any questions about dementia.

Most of the film shows a “psychological battle” occurring at “the tail end of a lifetime of conflict and spotty communication” between its main characters, he says.

Younger viewers who haven’t been caregivers might want to sever ties from the intense conflict portrayed in the film, he says. The film poses a question about the decisions people make when a difficult disease like dementia strikes their family.

“If you want to walk away, you can. Everybody has to make their own decision,” he says. “If you don’t walk away, it is a minefield and it is difficult and it tries your patience. But in the end, it can be rewarding and there might be a glimpse — there’s no guarantee — but there might be a glimmer of empathy there.”

In addition to writing, directing and starring in “Falling,” Mortensen also wrote the film’s score. Most of the score is “discreet” and piano-based, he says, with a few pieces from his longtime friend and collaborator, guitar player Buckethead.

Editing the film felt similar to making music, Mortensen says. He enjoys every step in the process of telling a story through movies — writing, shooting, editing, scoring.

The tense, conflict-heavy film calms down and goes quiet at the very end, taking the audience’s breath away. Though there isn’t a complete resolution, the main characters learn to accept each other, he says.

“Peace does come and it frees Willis up to see his first wife — my mother — maybe in a different way, with an open heart for the first time in years,” he says. “And it also allows me to see my mother and my father, to remember them happy and connecting, that something must have been good at some point, something must have been right.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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