Filmmaker Rick Alverson’s The Mountain is a sublime piece of cinema that will frustrate some viewers while pulling others into its narrative. I fell into the latter category, and was intrigued about what Alverson had to say about his film and challenging cinema’s oftentimes predictable narrative stylings during our interview.
The Mountain, directed by Rick Alverson (Entertainment, The Comedy), is simply a film that’s hard to shake. Tye Sheridan (Joe, Ready Player One) is Andy, a reserved youth who travels on the road with Dr. Wallace Fiennes (Jeff Goldbum) in 1950s America after his father (Udo Kier) dies.
Fiennes is a lobotomist who treated Andy’s mother, and he hires Andy as his photographer to aid him on his lobotomy tour of America. Eventually the pair encounter a French healer (Denis Lavant) who wants his daughter (Hannah Gross) lobotomized, leading to a profound change in Fiennes and Andy’s partnership.
In the interview below, Alverson discusses working with Tye Sheridan, how he approached the writing process of The Mountain, and why he questions some of cinema’s most intoxicating elements.
Can you talk about the collaboration with your co-writers Dustin Guy Defa and Colm O’Leary?
I created the story and wrote a first draft and Dustin sort of dug in and we worked on a collaborative, technical sense with some of the narrative strategies. And then I also worked with Colm O’Leary, my longtime writing partner on some of the more poetic strategies, for lack of a better word.
This is such an immersive film, so I’m assuming writing the film was a long process.
Sure. For me, the writing process goes all the way through the cut and it’s in the casting. It’s in the scouting – to me it feels like writing. And if there’s a contribution that independent film has had since John Cassavetes and Elaine May, it has limitations to it. But these limitations have created a necessary reflexivity so that all of those things contribute to it as opposed to having unlimited means and just essentially re-creating something that was imagined years before.
Hopefully it changes and there can be an evolution over the process that is a byproduct of the limitations of the form.
Having worked with Tye before (Sheridan starred in Entertainment), can you talk about what he brought to your story?
More than anything, he’s just a brave and curious actor that is not afraid to work against his assets (laughs) which is something I’m curious about. He’s a very empathic, emotional actor that is capable of a lot of fragility and vulnerability. So we both strategically were interested in muting that and making him sort of opaque and inaccessible to some degree which is something I’m very fascinated with in protagonists.
***my review of The Mountain starts at 57:14 of CinemAddicts:
Can you talk about the research Dr. Wallace Fiennes, as he’s based on a real character.
I should say Wallace Fiennes is entirely a creation of the film. It is very much a fictional character. We borrowed the sturdy architecture of this historical figure of Dr. Walter Freeman who popularized and invented the lobotomy in the 1950s.
We borrowed some of the foundations of his narrative arc and his decline and fall from grace in the 1950s. With modernity, there were more stealthier ways to sort of sublimate anxiety and intelligence and eccentricities through pharmaceuticals.
I’m more interested in the idea of the lobotomy and the idea of lunging headlong into the future without any consideration or capacity to consider the ramifications of the act. I think very much it is the American motive and the fuel in which we operate in the country.
Note: here’s an interview with Stephen Colbert and Jeff Goldblum talking about The Mountain and the benefits of Ricola (Alverson is briefly seen in the discussion)!
Can you talk about why the use of the iconic song “Home on the Range” was such an important element to your narrative?
Well I’m a huge Perry Como fan and that’s a huge show in the late 40s and 50s. It’s actually emotional for me. I grew up in an environment where we listened to a lot of that type of music. There’s a melodramatic component (it) and some of the pepperings of sentimentality in the film too. I hope that those intoxicate us a little bit because there is plenty else that will . . . there’s a lot of barrenness in the (story) and it just becomes formalism that is devoid of feeling in the film. And so, there has to be something to bring you in order to be pushed out.
I think for me what the film has become about, its central focus is to question the veracity of narrative as a delivery device for meaning and information. I’m really skeptical that it’s useful or beneficial anymore. The best that can happen through the tropes and the meat and clarity of narrative as a form, as an envelope, is are these intoxicated states – for example, when you listen to a great story, it’s great when it hits those beats. It’s like popular music – narrative is literally like a genre that does a particular thing well.
Some of the limitations are the clarity. When it works well, it does a very particular thing. I’m curious at just how functional to society that thing is. That sort of sentimental, intoxicated state – I’m not saying it’s not enjoyable. I enjoy it as much as anybody.
In the content of the film, Fiennes is caught in a narrative loop of his own functionality and the functionality of his own procedure. I think cinema, in a larger sense, is caught in its own narrative loop of the functionality of its own medium in a narrative sense.
Where was it a rule where filmmakers had to spell out their own narrative. When you were growing up were filmmakers that pushed the form inspire you as a director?
I mean what made me want to be a filmmaker were directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson. These sort of just passionate, restless flirtations with the medium and what it can do as a way of looking at the world.
In a contemporary sense that is not celebrated because what it really does is it destabilizes populations and it makes them restless and I think that’s a beneficial thing but it’s only good to be restless at a particular bandwidth. So you’re restless for the anestesia of an episodic series, or you’re restless for a Snickers bar, or a set of towels from Target that somehow don’t dry you.
The Mountain opens today in New York (IFC Center) and Los Angeles (Landmark Nuart Theatre). The feature will also have dates through September 16. For the full schedule, go to Kino Lorber’s official site.