The Mountain press conference with director Rick Alverson, Jeff Goldblum, Tye Sheridan and Hannah Gross
The Mountain is the latest picture from director Rick Alverson and is set in 1950s America. The story follows the young Andy, played by Tye Sheridan, who is employed by Dr Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldblum) as a photographer in his asylum as he attempts to advocate the lobotomy procedure. The movie also stars Hannah Gross as Susan, a young women brought to Fiennes by her father to be lobotomised.
At the film’s press conference, the director and his cast spoke about the practice of lobotomy in 1950s America and why women were most often subject to the procedure, the real Dr Fiennes and the boundaries of utopian cinema.
Rick, you have defined this film as an anti-utopian picture. Can you elaborate a little bit?
Rick Alverson: We have an excess of utopian narratives in privileged societies. That aspirational model’s more functional to deprived populations and in privileged societies it can become a cancer. There’s a disproportionate amount of aspirational cinema that doesn’t recognise limitation and boundaries, which are necessary. I think the film operates in that vein.
Jeff, do you have something to add to this?
Jeff Goldblum: I think Rick is a genius and this is a brilliant movie and poetical. I’m an idiot so I love to know what you are talking about here. For me, it’s so rich, but I do love the ideas of the particularly human – but even more particularly American – utopian dream in its misguided elements, as Arthur Miller wrote about in Death of a Salesman, when a sculpture is too ambitious for notoriety, attention, glamour – empty glamour – and deluded fantasy, in too much proportion. We saw how that can go very bad. In this movie, one of the most barbaric mistakes, the lobotomy, is depicted, and the American quick fix and narcissistic need for attention and assembly line solutions of an unnatural, inorganic kind…not factual kind. As it overlaps with the victims of deluded fantasy in the realm of spiritual aspirations, and in the particularly American variation of that, as it’s cropped up so abundantly since its inception. I’m provoked and inflamed by all of that, I think they’re important subjects to me and to us, I dare say. In the coming days I’d love to talk and hear more about those things.
Psychiatry and lobotomy – do you know about these well or did you study them for the film?
RA: Doctor Fiennes is very loosely based on Doctor Walter Freeman, who popularised and invented the lobotomy based on a European procedure called a leucotomy. Ultimately, he disposed of his surgeon and found a way to perform the intervention without that expertise. It was in 1954, he kind of fell from grace as Thorazine came on the market and people scrutinised the procedure more. For me, that was indicative of a very particular American male ambition that moves and lunges unbridled into the future without considering the ramifications. And there were a lot in the case of the lobotomy.
And the actors, how much did you know about the lobotomy to portray these characters and the loneliness of the mentally ill person?
JG: I play the character based on Walter Freeman. I’ve been aware of lobotomy as it was depicted in a couple of things. We got together, I wasn’t aware of the name Walter Freeman but I read about him and I watched documentaries. Our movie is not a bio, literal depiction of him – it’s a springboard that takes off from him – but I wanted to know as much as possible and we had to recreate the procedure. He is a very interesting American character. He had a grandfather who was a famous surgeon in the civil war and his father was a very successful doctor so he suffered from this need of making something of himself and wanted to make his mark conspicuously. One doctor from Portugal finally won the Nobel Prize for lobotomy so he thought: I could do this in America. This Italian guy thought of going in through the eyeball so he wanted to adopt that. He tried to cure homosexuals and housewives who he thought needed to be mollified and more domesticated. He did it to people as young as four years old.
What’s Hannah’s perspective, considering women were often subject to this desire to sedate her spirit?
Hannah Gross: Actually, I have a friend whose grandmother was lobotomised in the 70s, in Arkansas, which was one of the last states to ban lobotomies. So I was asking her what her grandma was like. She was one of the most successful cases where she was fully functional but completely docile and had this creepy effect of repeating things. Every time a sibling was born she would say “Oh sweet, sweet baby”. In terms of my character’s perspective, it wasn’t uncommon for anyone, any husband or father or the Kennedys, who wanted a more docile wife or daughter to order a lobotomy for them. But I think Susan was interesting because it wasn’t thoroughly against her will. I think she had sort of a wish. She was already institutionalised by her father numerous times, and in the 50s in the mountains there weren’t many options for someone who had a brain on fire.
You don’t want Susan to submit to that procedure and you want Tye to do something heroic at that moment. And not being allowed to be heroic or make the right decision, it’s a brutal moment but it’s so powerful. What was it like being directed in that sequence?
JG: Walter Freeman was the guy who also lobotomised Rosemary Kennedy, JFK’s sister. I’m so interested in what you were saying [referring to Hannah]. Your character seems to be overlapped by submissiveness caused by her father, and causing you to be less heroic at that moment; but your father – you seemed to be obliquely and beautifully ambiguously in thrall to his ways and his teaching. Maybe you were already susceptible to another man who wants to impose something that will change your state. Is that true?
HG: No. I don’t think so. Going back to the theme, and what this movie’s about and why it’s important – I think it’s the most important film I’ve been part of. I decided to see Susan as the only person who knows what’s going on in the film. Even the concept of the ineffable has been corrupted by her father, so what do you do when there are no answers anyway rather than kill yourself? You just go deeper inside your body, which is what lobotomy did to her.
JG: I’m about to lobotomise her on the kitchen table, which is a come down for [my character] personally. I’ve just been kicked out of an institution so I’ve got to to people’s houses, to do it on a kitchen table. His house, Denis’s [Lavant’s character], I go down the hall and I see my coworker losing his virginity to the patient about to be lobotomised. And then I have to lobotomise her. There are a thousand things going on under the surface. It’s provocative.
Rick, in your films, you refuse to give easy empathy to your characters, but in this one it’s a little more of a fine line, because the doctor has some approachable, emotional moments and Tye’s character obviously is someone that leads himself closer to empathy. What kind of relationship do you want to establish between the viewer and any of your characters?
RA: I developed a very strong feeling that our surplus of sympathetic characters that meet our particular demographic standards engineers a sort of bigotry in the world. And there is a lot of that: there are surrogates, there are avatars, we explore various worlds through these characters. They give us perfect access, it’s unimpeded. Usually they match our sex, race, gender and ideology – our sympathy in cinema sort of operates by those rules. We walk out on the streets and we look for those surrogates and we’re unaccustomed to otherness in a way that we don’t exercise that contention with the flat, strange, unavailable people and objects of the world. I think cinema has a lot of blood on its hands for that.
Tye, how do you go from Ready Player One to a role like this?
Tye Sheridan: I worked with Rick once more, I always admired his bravery. Especially thematically like this movie, they are not super easy to grasp – in a good way.
I think that in this movie the idea of the lobotomy has a bigger metaphor. Jeff’s character takes advantage of people in an America where people believe their mental illness and struggles with sexuality can be cured by some operation on the brain. He’s taking advantage of that in the same way so many people in the world take advantage of the mass public. [The Mountain] provokes and challenges the way in this world the movies and media influence us.
What about the style and references in the film, and why these colours and angles?
RA: The movie is hyper formal. Lorenzo Hagerman, my DOP, we talked a lot about that. It was meant to resemble still lifes and touched on a lot of 20th century cinema, and the 4:3 aspect ratio – it’s all in some degree an obstruction. I even think it could be excruciatingly formal, and I hope that that happens, actually. For some reason pillar box 4:3 feels restrictive to us – the blacks on our laptop and television screens are an obstruction. But when you put them horizontally it’s cinema and it has access. I love the idea that there’s an obstruction. We are such a content-driven society, increasingly, we just move straight through the form, we are conditioned to not give it a second thought. We are blind to it, increasingly, to the materials and the makeup of the world around us. So I hope that that experience is something people have to contend with. The narrative isn’t easily digestible intentionally. There’s a lot in it, it’s difficult. It’s not quickly consumable. I hope it will sit with people for a week and they would struggle with it and maybe even find it impossible for a moment. They have to contend with it.
Was Tye’s character based on a real person? Assistant or photographer.
RA: Historically [Freeman] did his own photos, he was obsessed with cameras. Tye’s character is a fictional take on the classic male coming-of-age model. There’s some sort of fruition and some attainment through loss of virginity in the world of union, in the heteronormative sense. This character is totally in that mode, on that path. A lot of the film and what tension is in it narratively, is consistent with his struggle to conform to that easily.
TS: He faces it openly. Contemplating some of the ideology we live behind…living in the shadow of his father… A lot of the movie is about male supremacy and gender in general and how we identify with our own sex and who people tell us to be. Sometimes the idea of the great man and what a man should be and should act like is not always what you feel inside. It has some flaw to it. For me that was the most interesting thing to explore with this character. I fell in love with [the script] when I first read it and admire Rick’s bravery to go outside the box. It’s not a conventional take on…you don’t often see a character who is, I guess you’d call him the protagonist, who is this silent and this subtle and open to experiencing the movie in parallel with you, the audience.
Is everything scripted or is there some improvisation?
RA: Dialogues are scripted. There’s always elasticity and things come alive – there’s always room for improvisation. But it’s largely scripted.
What’s the most interesting part about your characters?
TS: I kind of just spoke about it. The struggle and contemplation of identity and gender. The film really explores a lot of themes and for my character specifically, I think he’s just a vehicle for that.
JG: Everything you say is interesting, Tye Sheridan. It was interesting when I read [the script] and prepared for it. Until the last shooting day I was wildly interested and in love with Rick and the whole process and this character. The whole thing is an indictment of patriarchal, conventional maleness… I love that idea. And that a search for something I can concretely connect with more, although I was wildly touched by the poetry of it. I found this book while we were preparing for [the movie], called Fantasyland: How When America Went Haywire by Kurt Anderson. It seemed to overlap and clarify a lot of the things we were doing. It talks about the American experience and immigrants like their fathers [Tye and Hanna’s characters] who come to America, who still come to America, and seem to flourish there until there’s nothing left and everybody is destroyed. So that was urgently interesting to me. And I was always interested in how much my character needed to, like Willy Loman or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in The Master or Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, how much they were in the death throes in the protection of their old ways. How much [my character] was self-aware and realised the damage he was doing to the boys and girls and women around me. And how much regret and pain I had to face with what I was doing and how much guilt I had about that.
Video/photo: Filippo L’Astorina
The Mountain does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Venice Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Venice Film Festival website here.