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Interview: Rick Alverson on The Mountain and Challenging Narrative Convention

The filmmaker discusses his latest, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.

Rick Alverson
Photo: Kino Lorber

Writer-director Rick Alverson is as intense and intelligent as films like The Comedy, Entertainment, and the forthcoming The Mountain would lead you to believe, with a pointed distrust of sentiment that indicates an urge to forge a connection that isn’t muddied by platitude. Alverson’s protagonists yearn for connection, too, especially Tye Sheridan’s wounded and adrift young man in The Mountain, a pursuit that also mirrors the filmmaker’s urge to discard or challenge narrative convention in order to reach a kind of purity of observation. The Mountain is rich in self-consciously still and idyllic compositions that parody the characters’ various pretenses, while also capturing their internal reverberations.

Since at least the rise of postmodernism, artists and critics alike have been trying to free certain art forms—particularly the novel and later cinema—of the constrictions of plot, presumably to access a free-associative and primordial truth. This struggle was at the heart of Susan Sontag’s essay collection Against Interpretation, and it’s a concern shared by Alverson. Yet the filmmaker, in his art and in conversation, runs into the same irony as Sontag: Their rejection of interpretation, embodied mostly in Alverson’s case by the rejection of plot, is interpretation. Most critics and artists, even if they confine themselves to discussions of formalism (and Alverson and I did not) still run headfirst into ideas of meaning, which could be more prosaically and perhaps more truthfully be described as notions of theme.

However, it’s refreshing that Alverson even bothers to grapple with such paradoxes, and he has a knack for speaking in full and winding sentences that mirror the thorny poetry of his cinema. Alverson and I also happen to live in the same city—Richmond, Virginia—and we met last week over coffee in a local spot and chewed over The Mountain, Alverson’s earlier work, and his antipathy toward the mass machine of modern pop culture.

Given that you travel quite a bit, is it comforting to have a central home to return to?

“Comfort” is a complex word. [laughs]

I know. I think I’m asking if the concept of a nest appeals to you.

Yeah, but there’s always acclimating to coming home. There’s this whole process of reevaluating things around you that have been with you for a quarter century. But, yeah, it’s nice being in a city that’s oblique and a little removed from the hustle and bustle of the industry obsessions. Now, if I can clean up my Twitter feed to reflect the world as opposed to the film industry, I’ll be a better person.

My Twitter game is extremely rudimentary. A variety of passing fancies.

Yeah.

Where did you go to film The Mountain? California?

It was shot in upstate New York, from the Seneca in the Finger Lakes to the Bronx—14 different towns. Then we took the production and did a leg out in the Pacific Northwest. Mount Baker and the Canadian border all the way through the rain forest. A company move across the country is substantial. [laughs]

Do you purposefully seek narratives in which characters are wandering?

Yeah, I’m sort of turned off by certainty in films. Movies that have always meant something to me are open and unmoored. The idea of resolution is so fantastical. In so much of consumer cinema, resolution is pushed as a necessary element. Not only as a cathartic moment in the last act, but the very nature in every journey in most films feels like it’s destined to be resolved. It’s so uninteresting to me. It’s so removed from the way we experience life.

When watching The Mountain and Entertainment, I thought at certain points that it’s a relief to be free of exposition. That opens films up, gives them space to do and say something else. Your characters don’t talk about a plot. I’m not saying that those films don’t have narratives, but your characters are allowed to say these poetic and surprising things because they are accorded both geographic and emotional space.

Yeah, in the consumer model for cinema, there isn’t that air in the thing. The act of “tightening it up”—from the script reviews to the test audiences—kills a thing and deprives it of its incoherence, which is poetry, the stuff of life. Also, I never like as a viewer to feel that I’m being coddled. I love the act of discovery. The act of curiosity. The reason so many films are so boring to me is because it’s all laid out; there’s no place to maneuver in there. You’re supposed to be a passive subject that watches the thing live and find you and actually becomes your consciousness, because these movies aren’t giving your mind anything to do.

I think of the moment in The Mountain where the father tells his son, Andy, the Tye Sheridan character, that he never thought the boy would stop growing. And then he compares his son to the child’s mother, seemingly unflatteringly. There’s a lot of texture there in just a few lines. A conventional film might have elaborated more on the psychology, though we don’t need it. And those lines haunt the entire movie.

Well, good, I appreciate that. A lot of audiences are conditioned to let those things pass them by, because movies teach them to look for expositional triggers. Like “what is this telling me, does it make sense?”—and if it doesn’t they discard it. They’re conditioned in films and episodic television to do that. It’s literally a grammar that says “this is the particular kind of information that’s going to be valuable to you to be able to compartmentalize this whole thing when you’re done.” I think we’re being deprived of a lot of the stuff of life in these grammars.

Even in art cinema, there’s this narrative fixation, and The Mountain looks at this quite a lot, both as a toxic element for these men in this film, and for the audience that’s imbibing them. Is narrative, in the space of cinema, still functional? Even in a broader space, has narrative outlived its functionality as a delivery mechanism for complexity? We’re increasingly taught to have caches, and to reduce things down to very simple narrative ideas, and that’s weaponized by your Trumps and by everybody. The larger concern isn’t “Oh we should just tell more positive and better stories.” We’re using something that was designed in the oral tradition, and in the written tradition, for an entirely other space. Can we criticize the rules of the game?

I don’t want to put The Mountain in a box myself, but Jeff Goldblum’s character, Wallace, is himself addicted to a narrative, to an idea of how lobotomies work.

That’s a reduction of the complexity and nuance of his life into a tidy narrative bubble, essentially. That then allows for a hell of a lot of misfortune, because he’s succumbing to ignorance, and ignorance breeds that shit.

Andy, maybe like his mother, refutes ideas of how we should behave, and you wonder if they’re actually wrestling with madness. From what you give us lobotomizing Andy feels disproportionate to his actions, which is terrifying. We see the social bridge: He’s on the bench entirely accepted and a moment later he’s at society’s mercy.

It’s about surfaces, signifiers, and clarity. I hope the film looks at problems of clarity. We often speak of clarity in celebratory terms, but what is lost in that? The whole mission statement of the arts is to interrupt that idea somehow.

A scene that struck me in The Mountain, and that testifies to the benefits of how you work, making the audience come to you to a certain extent, is when Andy grasps the face of one of Wallace’s patients.

Yeah, I like that scene a lot.

It’s a profound moment. You’re thinking about the potential similarity of this woman to Andy’s mother, and what Andy thinks about that, and his desire for communion. It is poetry—a pure moment. It’s not emotion-by-the-yard, like in a more conventional narrative, with waves of catharses. This is a moment where you’re in this room and you have to look at these people. It reminds me a little bit of Bresson. He slows your biorhythms down, and when certain moments come they hit you in the solar plexus.

It’s funny with Bresson, you, and particularly a contemporary audience, have to be receptive to that state. And there are treasures in there, you know. I think about emotion and the capacity for cinema or what’s left of it to viscerally engage with you emotionally. The emotions that we typically experience in cinema are nostalgic and reverential. I’m not a fan of Tarantino because he’s very tightly recirculating something, and there’s no air in it. I understand he’s a great craftsman, but that’s not why I go to cinema. This idea of “oh this reminds me of this and now I’m reminded in the vein of nostalgia for this emotion”—it’s all triggering. And when the uncertain events of a natural experience, uncoupled with another experience, occurs to an audience, they just shut it out because it makes them uncomfortable. If your mission statement is to engineer that discomfort, it can be tricky.

I watched your first film, The Builder, last night for the first time. It’s very good.

It was a petri dish. Me shooting and, at any given time, one other person holding a boom mic, that was the extent of the crew for a year. It was an investigation into the relevance of the medium to me.

The Builder is shaggier visually than your recent films, but your aesthetic seems to be pretty fully formed. You seem to have already known what kind of filmmaker you wanted to be. Is that fair or off-key?

Yeah, I don’t believe we change very much as individuals in our lives. [laughs] We have a bandwidth, which is another reason why I’ve been forced to value limitations. Because the fact of the matter is that if we can better understand what that bandwidth is, we can explore it. One of my favorite writers is the novelist Thomas Bernhard, and every one of his books resemble one another. They have surrogates for the same position and value of characters in previous books, and so there’s this tonal exploration of a very small space over the course of many novels. I think there’s something beautiful about that.

It seems to me that most major artists have one idea that they’re seeking to express purely. They seem to be chasing a purity of expression.

Well, expression is a vocalization, and the process of cinema is still complex. It’s cumbersome it’s so complex, down to the distribution, and the promotion and development, and the number of people and orientations that are involved. It’s not tidy, but in that process there’s a potential wrestling with the medium itself, which I think is really vital. And if independent cinema has anything to offer, it’s in that contention with the shape and limitations of the medium, rather than it all being a well-oiled machine that you step into. I envy those directors who have that opportunity to create such enterprises. At the same time, it’s reflexive contention that has value.

Did the wide recognition of The Comedy place any pressure on you to try to broaden your audience, or did it enable you to further mine your own interests?

It did allow me to expand in terms of budget, and so the movies became less scrappy. Fortunately. There’re scenes in Entertainment that I couldn’t have shot on those earlier budgets. With any sort of mild recognition in a practitioner’s life, there are doors that open and people say, “Oh, step in, we’ve been waiting for you.”

How do you like to talk to actors? Are you someone who talks a lot to them?

I think there are actors with very particular curiosities that want to work with me, because it’s imperative that the person wrestle a little bit with the process, and that we go into that together and that there’s a discovery. I’m very physical, oriented toward physical concerns of the production, blocking, composition—those sorts of things. And, in casting, there are conversations about the objectives, so that motives—not the character’s motivations but our motivations as creators—are somewhat in concert. There’s a lot I don’t tell because it’s not necessary. During a film’s release or even a year afterward, an actor might discover something in it and ask me if it was intentional. They’ll discover something about how they were used.

Jeff Goldblum is extraordinary in The Mountain.

He should get a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for it. He honestly should.

He should. I’ve always liked him. I’m a very big fan of The Fly.

Yeah, I’m a Cronenberg fan. I love The Brood. I wish Jeff had played one of the diminutive personalities in that. [both laugh]

Goldblum’s energy in this film has a robustness that contrasts with the withdrawn mood of the other characters, and with the austerity of the film in general.

He’s incredibly curious as an individual and an artist. And his charisma has a life of its own. He’s great to work with and is a very kind person, and inevitably some of that comes across in the film.

This next question is motivated by that scene we discussed earlier, when Andy is looking at this woman and caressing her face: Are you minutely advising the physical gestures of the actors? Their movements feel very exact.

Yes. Me and my cinematographer, Lorenzo Hagerman, who I did Entertainment with, designed this movie to be formal to a fault. It’s supposed to almost verge on the fastidious, with a kind of compulsive artificiality. It’s supposed to feel stilted. So, yeah, it’s rigorously blocked, even on a short production schedule. We don’t do a lot of rehearsals, but there are blocking rehearsals and those are, to me, also gestural. I also talk about physical components, and will give direction like “part your lips.” It’s nice to work with people who recognize our limitations of access to this two-dimensional space. First of all, there’s no interior beyond the screen. It literally is a flat expanse, in which you’re generating the illusion of access, which is really just an event that is occurring in the audience. Someone like Bresson proves that it’s silly to believe that an emotional event can’t be generated entirely on the surfaces, though it’s not where we typically look for it.

Do your actors ever resist this sort of direction?

Some, but not who I work with. Nobody has for a long time.

The Mountain reminded me a bit of The Master. Do you admire that movie?

I thought it had problems. I mean, I admire everybody involved in it. Paul Thomas Anderson is the last great steward of a dying part of the industry, he’s an astute craftsman with a conscience and a capacity for nuance that Tarantino doesn’t have. I don’t know. I can understand that they have some literal similarities: there’s a photographer in that film, and there’s this concept of a mentor. I’m fascinated with these huckster characters, and so is Goldblum, and we bonded over that. Essentially our nation was forged by entrepreneurial fraudulence, even if you’re going back to the entirety of the new world. What’s being searched for is a fantastical unreality, and that desire is harnessed by industry whether it’s the Virginia Company or Joseph Smith’s enterprises. I find these characters incredibly fascinating, and I think Paul Thomas Anderson has a mutual fixation with that. Of course, the two films were being made during the same time period.

To return to a familiar theme of this conversation, neither you nor Anderson are cowed by the idea of offering resolution. You’re both determined to forge your own paths, and you both follow your characters into the ether.

He’s more generous than I am. [both laugh]

He might be more of a humanist, though I wouldn’t call you ungenerous. There’s a lot of earnest searching in your films.

I feel deeply about people and their environments and frailties. I’m sometimes painted as a cynic or a contrarian.

I’ve heard that too, and I think that’s a misreading of your work.

I appreciate that. There’s this fella, I forget who, who said it was evident that I hate the medium, and that I hate humanity. Just because you’re trying to interrupt this greased conduit into self-absorption and validation, just because you’re trying to provide an obstacle. I believe that obstacle is constructive, and I want to become more alive and less pacified. Some critics get kind of personal about me and I’m like “Christ Almighty you don’t even know me.” What did Francis Bacon get for God’s sake, you know? Talk about obstinate.

Yeah, in Entertainment, I think your refusal to judge or editorialize that central character is humanistic. I think a lot of directors would’ve scored points off that character.

Well, yeah, and I got shit for The Comedy because there was no on-screen reckoning. The author didn’t imprint his morality on the thing and therefore the author is immoral. That’s tiredly outmoded. It’s like postmodernism never happened.

Contemporary moralism is often at war with empathy anyway. If you have this tidy moral point, you aren’t dealing with the characters, you’re dealing with the author’s preconceived intentions.

Yeah, there’s a lot of maneuvering for comfort, which I think is part of the reason why the medium is changing and some factions of it are dying. The works of someone like Bresson or Godard—although Godard’s work is the most experimental it’s ever been, and God bless Kino for releasing his films in the United States—are now mostly relegated to the museum set. When people wrestle with the form or the medium now, I would say that it’s strange that it’s not more welcomed in the critical community, since critics romanticize iconoclasts like the French New Wave directors.

Revolution looks better in retrospect, because we know the ending.

Yeah. [laughs]

And before we go, I’d just like to say, for all the seriousness of your movies, there’s certainly a dollop of absurdism.

Oh, yeah, totally. And had The Mountain been less of a difficult process to make, I would’ve had a lot more fun. I’ve been watching the recent Bruno Dumont movies. With the Quinquin and Coincoin series, it’s fascinating to see how he weaponizes absurdist slapstick in order to have the audience become vulnerable, only to then have those characters moments later become grotesque bigots. That’s exactly what I was aiming for in The Comedy: to disarm some faction of the audience so they become complicit in the thing, and so that I become complicit too. A morality tale is uninteresting if it’s merely allowing you to shore up your moral voice.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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