With his new movie Captain Fantastic, director Matt Ross — whom you might know better as Gavin Belson on Silicon Valley — asks a provocative question: What if, instead of letting kids eat from the endless sugar trough and stare at the omnipresent screens of modern childhood, a couple of parents went out into the wilderness and raised them away from the corrupting influence of society? And what if they did this not as a lark or an intellectual experiment, but as an honest-to-goodness way of life?
That's the makings of Captain Fantastic, out today, which premiered at Sundance and won Ross a directing prize at Cannes. In it, a proudly self-sufficient man named Ben Cash (Viggo Mortensen) must take his woods-raised brood back into the real world after the death of his wife. One of the main challenges for Ross was creating believable characters and respecting a way of life that for some people actually exists. "With this movie," Ross explains, "I said over and over again, These are real people, this is the real world, this is happening, this is not a fantasy." Here's how he went about (convincingly) bringing that reality to the screen.
The idea behind Captain Fantastic may seem extreme, but it came from a familiar drama: choosing how to parent in a world that offers very different approaches. Ross lived with his mother and brother in commune environments as a child in the '80s, and he recalls wandering for hours and hours across public land with his brother, playing death-defying games with bows and arrows. When he sat down to write about the experience of deciding how to raise children, it led him back to his childhood and his mother's atypical lifestyle.
"I had this idea of, 'what if there's a couple that really say, I'm going to devote my entire existence to my children, every waking moment, because it goes fast, it's not going to last forever, but I want to be present for them, and I want to give them that gift.' What would that be like?" Ross says. "I think we've lost connection to the natural environment in ways that are profound and sad. For me, it's aspirational."
THE LIVING SITUATION
Once he had decided to place the Cash family in the woods, Ross had to figure out how they'd survive there. Of chief concern were basic necessities: food, sanitation, shelter, and water. Ross, production designer Russell Barnes, and Mortensen went about building a plausible living situation, drawing on their own experiences as well as discussions with experts and people who lived this way.
"One Christmas, I bumped into a friend from high school, and I told him I was working on this movie," Ross says. "And he said, 'Oh, remember so-and-so from high school? He lives like this!' So I called that guy. He lives in rural Washington state, he built his own house, he lives off the grid. He did many of the things that are represented in the film, and I had long conversations with him — asked him what he read, how he did it, what his sources were."
For food, Mortensen planted a seasonally accurate garden, and the film depicts hunting and fish being smoked. There's a modernized outhouse, of course, and the residence includes a teepee reminiscent of one Ross lived in when he was younger. And there's a filtration system, because, as Ross makes sure to note, you can live a long time without food — but you've got to have drinking water.
As Captain Fantastic tells it, Ben Cash's retreat from society wasn't just a return to nature. It was also a desire to raise their kids as "philosopher kings," in the words of his wife. Ben's home-school-on-steroids curriculum is a 360-degree education that includes the arts, the political and natural sciences, physical training, and functional skills. "The kids and I got to spend a couple weeks doing things together: playing music, rock climbing, martial arts, learning how to process an animal and skin it, light fires, live in the woods," Mortensen says. "When you see that first part of the movie, you believe they live this way, and that it's feasible that they could be self-sufficient."
Ross and Mortensen discussed Ben's possible careers before he fled to the woods, deciding that he could've been a professor of literature or philosophy. That academic background is reflected in his reading list and library, which the two men supplied themselves: It's got books like Howard Zinn's The Peoples' History of the United States; Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe; Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel; and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The Cash family even celebrates Noam Chomsky Day, a fact that the most rebellious of Ben's sons uses as a sort of trump card — we're so weird, we celebrate a political philosopher's birthday instead of Christmas!
The film is largely devoted to what happens when this unique family reenters the quote-unquote real world, where so many things the children were isolated from — fast food, video games, societal expectations, sex — reemerge with a vengeance. All of a sudden, Ben's methods are put in stark contrast to a conventional upbringing, and we're left to make a judgment: Is Ben a visionary or a lunatic? Is he an aspirational character, or is he endangering the lives of his children? Or is the question more nuanced than that?
"The best thing any filmmaker can do is provide a lot of raw material and not tell you what to think," Ross says. "I wasn't delivering a message. I had a lot of questions, and I have my own answers, but I want you to read the film and have your own. But I think, like all of us, Ben's a complex and flawed human being who has the best of intentions. If he's rigid in any way, it's in his desire to provide his children with the best of the world."
The success of Captain Fantastic has a lot to do with these multiple perspectives, if only because it's rare to see a movie take all of its characters' beliefs so seriously. Regardless of what you think about Ben's particular approach to parenting, though, we can all take comfort in one transcendent detail: They don't have Twitter in the woods.