In Captain Fantastic, Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) has a crisis of confidence about his parenting style. The offbeat patriarch, once so gung-ho about raising his brood off the grid, far from the consumerism and technology that he was force-fed, begins to rethink his extreme child rearing.
The film's writer-director Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms), also known for playing Gavin Belson on HBO's Silicon Valley, experienced something similar when, after being reared by a single mom on several NorCal communes, chose to raise his two kids in a more comfortable two-parent household, in Berkeley. The real trick for the Berkeleyite was in finding a balance or maintaining his core values within his new lifestyle.
SF Weekly spoke to Matt Ross about getting the balance right as a Hollywood actor-director, parent and iPhone addict.
[jump] If Captain Fantastic is an exploration of parental choices, then what did you uncover at the end?
The questions for me were around conscious parenting. We live in a culture, where there's a lot of helicopter parenting and discussion of what's the correct way to parent, like how much is too much, and how little is too little? My questions were, is it an insane idea to give up your professional ambitions to devote every moment of your life to raising your children, or is that insanely great?
How were you raised?
My mom raised my brother and me in communal situations, in Northern California, in addition to living in England and Oregon. They weren't hippie communes, but it was the '80s, not the '60s, so some of the homes had electricity and plumbing and some did not. There were people that would objectively look like hippies, but they weren't.
How did that influence the way you reared your own children?
I chose to not live in a way that I was raised, partially. I've chosen to raise my kids in a town, Berkeley, and try to have my same values, even though we live where we live.
So I was thinking a great deal about my core values and what I want to pass on to my kids in the time they're with me. What do I believe they should know before they leave the nest? Those core questions were poured into the Captain Fantastic script.
In Captain Fantastic, Ben Cash's wife, Leslie, succumbs to psychiatric illness. But she could have died from cancer or heart disease. What inspired your decision to make her bipolar with psychotic delusions?
I think it's hard to remember exactly why I came up with that. My wife suffered from really profound postpartum depression, and she's a very half-glass-full person, so that was the first time in her life that she had these thoughts. Women, sometimes through breastfeeding or from postpartum depression, have homicidal thoughts toward their kids. So I put that in the script, because I knew it was real and something not discussed very much. There's bipolar disorder in my family, too, so I knew I could portray it with authenticity.
Did you give the Cash family that surname to indirectly highlight their anti-consumeristic tendencies?
I think if I'm guilty of anything, it's my own stupidity to not think about the fact that Cash is also money and the whole anti-consumeristic thing. I named them Cash, because I'm a huge Johnny Cash fan, so it was just a kind of call-out to Johnny Cash. If I had been aware, I would have changed the name to something like Dash. It's not supposed to be a comment because I think that's a little cute.
A reviewer, early on, had said something like, “And they're stupidly named Cash, which is a facile way of looking at the world,” and I think only then did I realize, “Oh, that is kind of stupid.”
Do you still read your reviews?
I stopped reading reviews. People can think whatever they want, but it's unhealthy for me to have the emotional rollercoaster about whether you like the movie or not. You have to have your own experience, and I don't have to share in that.
Is that why you've chosen to live in Berkeley instead of Hollywood?
Yeah, you become aware of where you are on the food chain of your business. Clearly, if you work in federal politics, you have to live in Washington, D.C.. Los Angeles is the film and television center, and it's very difficult for me not to live there because I have to be there on a weekly basis for meetings and such. I think, though, that ultimately it's very healthy because I can remove myself from others' views of where I fit and just focus on my work.
Since you're a cast member on Silicon Valley and a longtime Bay Area resident, I have to ask if you think the Bay Area's lost its balance and become too tech-focused?
I wrote this before Silicon Valley, and it's coincidental that I'm on a show about tech and in a movie that deals a little bit with tech in regard to parenting. I think, though, that computers and iPhones are extraordinary tools, but it's all about how you use them.
My daughter's 13, and she was the last of her friends to get an iPhone. I try to teach my children that there are positives and negatives, and many times we need to turn the fucking thing off and step away and read a book and have an experience out in the real world. I ultimately believe — and think the film comes to this conclusion — in moderation. It's hard, though. I'm as addicted to these tools as anyone else.