America Lobotomized

Filmmaker Rick Alverson chats with us about the irrelevance of ‘consumer cinema’, the fascinating failure of masculinity, and causing trouble with Jeff Goldblum.

If I have any value now, my responsibility lies in nurturing the limitations of cinema and making them apparent.” —⁠Rick Alverson

Musician, writer and director Rick Alverson makes the kind of films that are, as Letterboxd member DirkH enthuses, “hard to love and impossible to enjoy”. One of the decade’s most challenging directors, his confrontational style is take-it-or-leave-it, but those who like to take it find something deeply profound in his take-downs of concepts like the American Dream.

Alverson’s newest feature, The Mountain, departs from the ironic realism of his earlier films, creating a lushly immaculate, desolate poke at American society. Set in the 1950s, The Mountain is loosely based on the controversial American neurologist Walter Freeman, here represented as the fictional Dr Wallace Fiennes.

While Alverson’s earlier films have tapped into the twisted comic talent of Tim and Eric (and friends), The Mountain uses the hefty star power of Jeff Goldblum (also a Tim and Eric alumnus) against itself, with Tye Sheridan (of the vulgar mime act in Alverson’s Entertainment) as a mostly wordless photographer who is selected to follow Goldblum’s Dr Fiennes on an asylum tour. French great Denis Lavant appears as an unconventional healer, in one of his few English-language roles; Alverson unleashes him at will.

A rigorous, alienating work about the rot at the core of the nation”, The Mountain divided audiences when it premiered at Venice last year, and divides Letterboxd members still. “Easy answers don’t always have to be there,” writes Allison, “but it quickly became pointless and even monotonous.” “A modern master is at work,” counters Tyler. “It’s rare in these times to find a movie so precise. Every cut reveals a wonderful new, immaculately composed shot.”

Tye Sheridan and Jeff Goldblum in The Mountain (2018).
Tye Sheridan and Jeff Goldblum in The Mountain (2018).

Can you talk about when and how you got the inspiration for the premise of The Mountain and why you felt now was the right time to make this film?
Rick Alverson: I’ve had an interest that I’ve explored since The Comedy and Entertainment where I’m trying to comprehend what fuels this blind propulsion of American progress in today’s political climate, where we’re romanticizing the white male privilege era of the 1950s.

It’s also something often romanticized in American cinema; if not in its subject matter, then it’s romanticized in its formal depiction. I wanted to take that on and watch it deflate and see how it would hold up to a more nuanced and muddy immersion of the era.

You’ve described the film as anti-utopian. Do you think nostalgia is a dangerous thing?
Nostalgia is definitely a very rich intoxicant that’s difficult to pull oneself away from. Commercial American cinema peddles almost entirely on those triggers of compartmentalized representation and clean—marginally pornographic—singular dimensions. I find that troubling to some degree because it pretends to be something else.

The remake of The Lion King kinda sums that up.
[Chuckles] Yeah.

Toxic masculinity has been central to many of your films and it’s in many ways the enemy of the moment right now. You’ve been ahead of the game in a way. Is that always your starting point? What influenced you to focus on men at their worst?
I was raised at a time with influences that come from particular periods so there was a binary presentation of masculinity and I think it’s something that men are mired in. That has been problematic for men in a way that stripped away the wholeness of an individual.

Frailty, or a nuance of communication, hadn’t been as accessible to a generation of men, and that crippled them in a way which inflamed the damage that they did in their privileged space and [for] everyone around them. It’s a cyclone. In my demographic, we have been exposed to that, caught in it, and wrestled with it. Maybe that’s why I look at it so much.

I find failure in masculinity fascinating, too. The problematic American ‘wandering cinema’ of the 1970s is what made me want to do what I do. It’s the great unsung song of cinema that fell out of favor by the 1980s.

As a working American filmmaker, do you feel it’s your social responsibility to use your medium to comment on and expose what you’re seeing happening in this country? Is this your version of political activism?
[Laughs] Maybe. I think that there needs to be a politics of form. It’s the responsibility of filmmakers to not be ignorant of this gesture and what it does to the population. There’s a responsibility of cinema to ask itself some very hard questions before it ends up wrapping into total irrelevancy. What is narrative? What value does it have? How is it destructive? How is it being used for destruction? Is it functional anymore? I think that a lot of consumer cinema doesn’t ask those questions because it’s afraid to expose its vulnerabilities or its potential irrelevance.

How did your experience with Entertainment affect your approach to The Mountain?
Entertainment was the first film that played with cinematic influences that I had. It played with things that kind of grossed me out in cinema, with the defaults of metaphors and symbolism to create false profundities.

With The Comedy, I was focusing on a subset of class privilege in nuclear centers like New York City that I find reprehensible. I wanted to engage with it, investigate how to understand it, and make myself uncomfortable. Suddenly the medium felt a little more vital to me. It wasn’t just a propagandistic grandstanding, where essentially I would be showing off my likes and dislikes. I try to play a cat-and-mouse game with my own comfort and hopefully the audience finds some vitality in that.

Your last two films have felt very surreal, stylistically. They’re more lush yet still quite detached. What’s compelling you to stray from the slice-of-life realism you were using with your first few films?
I had always wanted to have a career working with non-actors, but as I’ve gradually become more interested in the problems that make me uncomfortable I find myself engaging with them head-on, instead of just ignoring them for my comfort zone. The unreality of cinema has also become increasingly interesting to me.

There are some obsessive-compulsive approaches I took in The Mountain, which viewers might not see off-hand, that sort of heighten that falseness. Nobody leaves or enters the frame unless they go through a door. I’ve padded and loaded the film with limitations and, if I have any value now, my responsibility lies in nurturing the limitations of cinema and making them apparent.

For a long time we’ve been living in a fantasy land of unlimited potential and an abundance of opportunity, but the fact of the matter is we’ve been ignoring the beauty of the finite quality of the world. I think the same thing goes for cinema.

You’ve mentioned before that you don’t usually stick to a script but you did this time, though obviously the film utilizes a lot of long pauses and still imagery. Do you map out this sense of pacing in the script, or is there an element of you finding the film in the editing suite? How important is the sense of discovery in post for you?
Editing the movie is incremental in its own way. But for me, the film really becomes alive during production and I find the pacing there. As far as mapping out those things in the script goes, it’s an obligation that I find tedious sometimes. My scripts used to be very short but they’re longer now because they’re a little bit more traditional on the page.

I do relish the moment when something isn’t satisfying our expectations. There’s a very exciting moment there when you let the comfort of distance go on too long. If you curtail it in the right way, it’s like surfing.

This is a reunion between you and Tye Sheridan. He’s grown a lot since Entertainment, very literally too.
Yeah, at least 4 or 5 inches.

Was he your first choice for the role? How did he contribute to the film beyond what you and your co-writers had on the page?
He was my first choice and we developed the film together. It was an idea I brought to him when Entertainment wrapped. I talked to him about playing a ‘black hole’—something neutral at the centre of everything—that the whole world would move around.

He has a tremendous amount of patience and generosity. He’s very disciplined and we had a lot of fun subverting some of his capacities for empathy and fragility as an actor to make him inaccessible. That was a mission statement for us.

His character is very literally an audience surrogate. He’s passive, then he becomes pacified. I’m wondering what that says about what you think of your own audience? Do you feel unheard and misunderstood?
It’s hard to say. I guess we’re interested in the reception of the film because I do want to engage an audience and there’re all sort of experiments in flirtation of audience expectations—in a constructive sense, I hope.

I do think that audiences have been conditioned to prefer pacificity and media as an anesthesia. I’m trying in my little way to interrupt that. Maybe I’m just having a fit in the corner of the room, I don’t know.

So how did Jeff Goldblum come on board? I was very surprised to see him attached to one of your films, unless I’m underestimating his taste in modern arthouse cinema.
He’s getting in the mud of it all. He’s up for anything these days. I think he’s having not just a popularity revival but a revival of his artistic interests. Jeff has a tremendous amount of vitality and he was very interested in causing a small trouble with me.

Director Rick Alverson.
Director Rick Alverson.

In what way?
He wanted to subvert expectations of the audiences of how they’ve considered him and what he does for them and we utilized that. He’s really keen and smart and I think he understood that it could have a potency in the film. This is one of his more muted performances, even though the personality of Goldblum percolates out of that. He restrained himself in a way I found really refreshing.

We really want to commend your location scout on a fantastic job. What were you looking for in the production design and the sets? Especially for the final shot.
The final shot was its own kind of nightmare. We shot that on Mount Baker on the Canadian border in Washington and we isolated the location based on this expanse that’s usually full of four or five feet of snow most of the year. The night before we shot, they plowed all that snow for the parking lot underneath. Those sorts of things drive you crazy.

My production designer Jacqueline Abrahams—who worked on The Lobster among other great films—is an incredibly keen, hardworking person. We wanted to neuter some of the romance of the era, to make it muddy and give it a bland complexity. Obviously when making a period film, the production design and costume design are the most difficult but nerve-wrecking and exciting tools in the whole toolbox. I think we came at it obliquely enough that it became interesting.

Are you still hoping to make your KKK film soon? Now should be the time, right?
I’d like to move back to it, but I’ve moved onto another project for now [a horror movie and a comedy series, according to IndieWire]. It still fascinates me, but I don’t want to be too reactionary. It’s a tough time now, for a lot of things.

Would you say you’re drawn to films similar to yours? What are your favorite recent films that challenged you?
Oh gosh. The other day I saw Slack Bay by Bruno Dumont, which I found very funny. I’m sorry, I’m terrible at this question.

I’d say that’s a very on-brand choice for you. Thank you.

The Mountain’ is in select French cinemas now and opens in US cinemas on August 2.


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