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The American Way: Writer/Director Rick Alverson on The Mountain

Jeff Goldblum and Tye Sheridan in The Mountain (courtesy of Kino Lorber)

Divisive. Vexing. Hilarious. Disturbing. Stimulating. Exhilarating. However one feels about the films of Rick Alverson, one thing’s for certain: the adjectives used to express that opinion will be strong. From The Builder (2010) to Entertainment (2015), Alverson has relentlessly challenged his audiences to confront—and dare to release—their preconceived notions of narrative cinema. At a time when the independent festival circuit has begun to feel more like a breeding ground for the major studios and television networks than a showcase for brash, defiantly original stand-alone works of art, Alverson is providing a desperately needed jolt—a reminder of what truly independent cinema is. It is that dizzying feeling of emerging from a theater and thinking, No one else could have made that movie. 

With his latest film, Alverson widens his production palette while retaining his rigorous, provocative voice. Set in 1950s America, The Mountain follows Andy (Tye Sheridan), a withdrawn young man who falls under the charismatic spell of Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum), a traveling doctor performing lobotomies at a time when the world is finally starting to realize that, huh, maybe these crude mutilations aren’t, in fact, the appropriate way to treat mental health issues after all. As Andy photographs these ghastly procedures and simultaneously witnesses Fiennes’s inward-and-downward spiral, he finds himself drawn to a female patient (Hannah Gross), whose unhinged father, Jack, just so happens to be played by the inimitable Denis Lavant in one of his most unhinged, mesmerizing performances ever (and, yes, that’s factoring Holy Motors into the equation).

In the lead-up to Kino Lorber’s summer release of The Mountain, I spoke to Alverson about the arc of his career, the technical and ideological challenges of pulling off a film as audacious as this and how someone who is so resolutely committed to making polarizing cinema grapples with the issue of “career sustainability.”

Filmmaker: When you set out to make your first feature, The Builder, after making music for so many years, was an ambitious film like The Mountain—a period piece with bankable stars and all that mumbo jumbo—the kind of goal you wanted to work toward?

Alverson: I think initially [filmmaking] was just a formal preoccupation. I had gone to NYU briefly in the early 1990s, dropped out, left New York City and moved to Richmond, Virginia, where I still live. I was a carpenter and a cook, and I had just built a house and was beginning to play with the video technology of the day—smaller sensors, lens adapters—and [filmmaking] just felt approachable again. It became a yearlong process with me and Colm O’Leary, my cowriter and the star of The Builder, to explore the medium and see what it had to offer and what I had to offer it. [I had] a lot of curiosity and a preoccupation with nonactors. So [I was] scrutinizing the form and letting the questions get in the way, making sure that you could feel them in the product to some degree. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Filmmaker: You share writing credits on all of your films, and particularly with Colm O’Leary, who cowrote The Mountain. Over the course of five features, has your writing process remained consistent or does each project dictate its own specific terms with how you set out to attack it?

Alverson: Initially, I was really interested in the traditional script-to-screen process having more elasticity. Again, I was interested in nonactors and the reflexive quality of independent cinema, so I worked with fairly short treatments. The Builder was essentially written as it was made, and now, with The Mountain, there was a full script with dialogue, and the improvisation is more spatial and physical.

Filmmaker: Has that trajectory been an extension of “playing the game”—presenting talent and managers and agents something that’s in screenplay form and thus more recognizable to them?

Alverson: Well, of course, as you go through the process of struggling to make films, struggling to convey your vision for them, and the projects get bigger and you’re dealing with people outside your circle, you have to convey more on the page. There’s the classic “increased financial risk,” and there’s also risk mitigation for the filmmaker. You know, there are a lot of production problems that really interested me and that I tried to cultivate in the early films, and there are a lot that don’t interest me and that were just sort of cumbersome. It is a fine line—independent cinema’s contribution for me has always been that, out of necessity, it had to be scrappy and reflexive and reactive, and that the detriments and the obstacles all left their imprint on the thing, [giving it] a vitality that the cold manufacture of a completely and supposedly “realized” project on the page and in development didn’t have. There’s a vitality that is evident in Cassavetes’s work and Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky—you can really see the imprint of the problem of development and production. That’s actually the contribution of independent cinema, and the sort of “whimsical” stamp that has since been put on it is, I think, an unfortunate byproduct.

Filmmaker: Not to get too therapeutic about it, but how much of your vision and voice would you say is driven by a conscious desire to put something distinct in the world versus simply how you creatively express yourself in the way you know how?

Alverson: I think that in a world where there’s a glut of content, where content is the holy grail, to just fill up the digital receptacle is a kind of pollution to me. When I talk to younger people who are interested in filmmaking, the first thing I say is, “What is your contribution? If you’re going to be just contributing to the glut, you need to ask yourself bigger questions about who [that film] is nourishing and what it’s actually doing.” I’m very conscious of some element that feels unique to my perspective, and a lot of that [has to do with] problems. I think of The Mountain as “a problem film.” I think of it as an anti-utopian film. I think of it as even an antinarrative film, at times, in a constructed way—one that wears its dilemma on its sleeve in the hope that there’s something useful in that for the audience.

Filmmaker: Can you talk a little bit about the history behind Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Wallace Fiennes, and whatever types of philosophies or critical thinking crept into him as a character? I’ve read a little, and it seems like the inspiration for him was a 20th-century doctor, Walter Freeman. But you don’t call him Walter Freeman, so there’s a separation right there. 

Alverson: [He is] built very loosely on the architecture of a historic character, Dr. Walter Freeman, who popularized lobotomy in the early to mid-century and fell from grace as drugs came on the market that made the lobotomy superfluous. The problems [of mental illness] could be hidden a little more, and there weren’t as many evident side effects—or carnage, to be blunt about it. But that’s just a springboard. In a larger sense, like with my other films, it’s about the unique characteristics of particular individuals and a particular American psyche that is hell-bent on progress and lunges into the future without consideration for the ramifications of an act. That’s a utopian lunge, you know? Largely, it was white American males of European descent who contributed, if you can call it that, to this brand of progress. I saw Freeman as a really chiseled, articulated example of that kind of psychology.

Filmmaker: A more traditional movie would have had Andy go through a showier devolution from lively and vivacious into an eventual lobotomized condition. You start with him already in a state of recoiled passivity. Could you talk about that choice? Did that icky question ever come up about Tye needing to be a “proactive lead character?”

Alverson: Well, I have all these theories about what cinema and media and episodic narrative—and narrative in general—does to us culturally and psychologically. We’re subject to manipulations of form because we’re increasingly ignorant of form. I think when we look at cinema, we look for it to do the thinking for us. We love to become vacant and have that oneiric spectacle be our brain outside of our body. Narrative is a big part of this—we don’t just desire but we need our characters to experience not just some sort of salvation but change. They must shift within the envelope of the film, and that’s always driven me crazy. I grew up on the television of the late ’70s and ’80s, and the cinema of the late ’80s and ’90s, and I could never find that [change] in the real world. At some point, it just seemed a kind of fantastical novelty to comfort us.

I always preferred as an audience member to be changed by a film, and that seemed to happen the most the less [the characters in] the film changed. [That approach] would force me to become engaged and be an active participant in the thing. So, I wanted to tamp down that very evident radical transformation of [Tye’s] character. He lives an internal life. The evidence of that isn’t available to us. The film pushes us to deal with the material itself, the form, and to speculate about the shifts. It’s kind of a creative partnership with the audience, whether they like it or not.

Filmmaker: I was talking with Filmmaker’s editor, Scott Macaulay, about the film, and he saw in its dialogue about the relationship between photography and death echoes of the writings of Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes. 

Alverson: Well, I like Sontag a lot. Against Interpretation was big for me when I was younger. But I think there’s a lot about representation in the film, and I wanted to pull the audience back into awareness of the material of the film and it being representation, you know? There are all of these flirtations and augmentations and failures of historical representation in the movie, and I hope to make us realize that it’s a byproduct, an artificial construct, and that this is an easy avenue of moving through the form into the content. I wanted it to be an obstruction, kind of. I joke at Q&As that I describe the film as “a beige obstruction.”

I hate metaphors in cinema. I always have. I think that they are something that was useful in the oral narrative and in literature as a kind of mechanism, but film is experiential, and the fact that you’re redirected through the veiled metaphor of symbolism has always driven me crazy. I understand its necessity in Soviet cinema and in countries and cultures where there’s profound censorship, where you literally have to hide the actual exploration. But we don’t live in that culture, and I think it’s gone off the rails a bit in the way that we just look to read cinema as opposed to experience it.

Filmmaker: At your Venice press conference you described America as an “antiseptic utopia,” a description that seems to play out in the film’s production design, not to mention how it’s shot with a square aspect ratio and all of that. Could you discuss how you worked with your production designer, Jacqueline Abrahams, on creating these period locations?

Alverson: Jacqueline and her art department were great. Everything was essentially built but in the locations. We spent our money on traveling—14 different towns and cities and counties in upstate New York, then another 10 in the Pacific Northwest. Essentially, we’d find historically accurate architecture and then dress everything. It was pretty difficult and grueling. A lot of the institutions, like the Kirkbride Plan institutions of the 19th century—which were, strangely enough, beautiful places with incredibly progressive behavioral approaches to psychiatric medicine and a lot of [natural] light—were overcrowded and gruesome by the mid-20th century. And I was sort of pushed up against the wall—like, “What are we doing?” There’s this common thinking [in period moviemaking] that we’re reconstructing something and that [reconstruction] is a window onto a reality, which is so far from the truth. It gets really dangerous, I think, when the recreation is close enough—deceptively close—that we feel like it is an actual representation. So, we sort of moved back from that and played up the wax museum–quality of the audacity of time travel, essentially. The horrors of these institutions [as they were by midcentury] started to feel crippling, to some degree, so I essentially pulled back from that and let the artifice bleed through. I created something that felt just slightly artificial while playing with the historical reality. 

Filmmaker: You just anticipated my next question, which is about the ambitious nature of the production. Were there scenes that, on the day, were more of a beast than you had imagined when you wrote them?

Alverson: I mean, we jammed in a lot on this film. It was a five-week shoot, which is the most I’ve ever had, and there were, I think, 198 scenes. I definitely learned some lessons. There was a lot that the budget ultimately couldn’t support for whatever reason, as inevitably there is in what we do. A lot was about creative use of extras. Studios will throw money at something to try and make it conform to the expectations of the writer—what’s on the page and that sort of thing. I find it so much more interesting to say, “What does the thing want to do and what can it do? We have to cut 200 extras, so how does this scene work?”

Filmmaker: There’s a scene that reminded me of Titicut Follies. That had to have been the scene with the most extras, right?

Alverson: Yeah, there were a few others that were cut that were supposed to have a lot of extras, too, but that was the scene with the most extras. I had [director] Zia Anger come on. With the short amount of time we had to shoot it, it seemed interesting to have another director in there to work with some of the actors. We talked about behavioral modes and the diversity of behavior but then also what the film was trying to achieve. She was helpful in that regard.

Filmmaker: At points in the film, you use god’s eye view perspective—an overhead shot. At what point in the writing or prep or shooting did you, or you and your DP, Lorenzo Hagerman, make those coverage choices?

Alverson: Well, I have a lot of hang-ups. I don’t want to say that I want to make it hard for the audience, but I think their having access to everything in terms of discovering the world is really problematic. I think our vantage [point] needs to be limited to some degree. I have all these bizarre rules that Tye would tease me about. Like, no protagonist or supporting actor can ever enter or exit the frame unless they go through a door. And if you look through the film, that’s the case. But there were these moments where it felt useful to just break that entirely and have that sort of, like you say, deity vantage. But there was a list of approaches that have been done before that would be the default [approach to coverage] and that we want to stay clear of.

Filmmaker: Is it really true that Denis Lavant’s epic monologue in the film was scripted down to the word?

Alverson: Yes, it’s scripted. He’s a living, breathing masterwork, that guy. He’s the most rigorous performer I’ve ever worked with. Initially, it was a 13- to 15-minute monologue that he performed the totality of in two takes, even down to where it went in and out of English and French. It seems spontaneous, but that’s just his discipline as a theatrical performer. Some of the gesticulations were his, but yeah—he’s just incredibly, incredibly disciplined. We talked a lot about it. I speak no French, and his English is all right, but he’s a little tentative about it, so we worked with a translator. Sometimes the translator would disappear, and we would just be making faces at each other, which was a joy. And there were references to some of the mania of Antonin Artaud and Lautréamont and the French surrealists. It is a theatrical kind of performance, and he also nailed that, and I think that that gets under people’s skin a little bit. Some people who have seen the film feel that falseness and think that it’s inadvertent. But, I mean, he literally is performing for those [people]—he occupies a real performative space at the end that is necessarily a smidge false.

Filmmaker: I live in Austin, Texas, which is known as a film town. There are 24 first-run movie theaters here, three of which define themselves as art houses. Last weekend, only one theater in Austin was not showing the Avengers movie on at least one screen, and that was the Austin Film Society Cinema. Do you think things are getting worse in terms of the dominance of blockbuster cinema?

Alverson: In Richmond, Virginia, which is a much smaller version of Austin but with fewer food trucks, all of the art-house cinemas have closed, with the exception of one, which is sort of a spinoff of a chain cinema. I definitely think that, yeah, it’s bad. I think it’s inevitable, too. Those tentpole films satisfy all of the spectacle requirements of cinema—all of that access, all of the expectation. Even when they’re able now to work in some sort of supposedly challenging content or politics or something, they’re still completely performing for the audience’s expectation and validation. I think the most frightening thing about it is that that’s the utility of cinema now. It needs to “work,” and all of us are schooled by the hall of mirrors of social media, where we’re constantly surrounded by representations and validations of ourselves. That’s where all this maniacal social media in-fighting comes from: when somebody is challenged in the slightest bit by an opinion other than their own or when something doesn’t validate their worldview. So, it’s a bit of a battle, and I think it’s more important than ever for there to be problematic cinema.

Filmmaker: How do you balance the unavoidable issue of career sustainability—growing and making bigger, more ambitious work—when that is the reality that we’re up against? How do you personally keep going and thriving?

Alverson: I mean, there are people like Jeff Goldblum and Tye who require and thirst for more challenging and problematic content. There are people in that space who then lend their credibility and reputation, and that helps. Even if it’s a bit of a red herring, you want people to come into the door and be subject to the thing and have to contend with it. I have friends in the gallery and experimental cinema space [whose work is] seen by a very, from my perspective, minute portion of the population. Sometimes, I prefer to be making work that’s as uncompromising as that, but then the conversation doesn’t happen. So, I think it’s a tightrope walk, but there is a threshold that any filmmaker can find. It can be established fairly easily what people will tolerate—what they won’t and what they’ve been taught to tolerate mostly—and then to step up from that. That’s why I love the idea of metaphors and symbolism that are dysfunctional. Essentially, there are metaphors all over this film, but the metaphors don’t work properly. They fall apart. My dream is that people step over the threshold into the film and then they’re sort of caught there because they can’t entirely transport themselves into the thing, but they also can’t entirely remove themselves because of their prurience.

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