Matt Ross has written and directed 'Captain Fantastic' which opens Friday in Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Matt Ross has written and directed Captain Fantastic, which opens Friday in Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Matt Ross had a smile on his face. Maybe it was no surprise, as he was at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco for a long string of press interviews about his movie, Captain Fantastic.

The smile, and accompanying open demeanor, are not how most of the world usually sees Ross, who lives in Berkeley. He is best known for his roles as Gavin Belson, the competitive and ruthless tech tycoon on the hit HBO TV show, “Silicon Valley,” and Albie Grant, the controlling Mormon polygamist who represses his homosexuality in HBO’s “Big Love.” Both of those parts require Ross to purse his lips and scowl — a lot.

But the world is now about to see another side of Ross, one that brings out his smile. Although he is a classically trained actor who went to Juilliard, Ross has been writing movie scripts and making short films since he was 12. His first feature movie, 28 Hotel Rooms, was decently received. Captain Fantastic has been enthusiastically embraced. John Seal, Berkeleyside’s film reviewer, called it “frequently excellent (if periodically absurd).” This reporter loved the film for its intelligent and unpredictable script. Ross won Best Director in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival in July.

Ross will be doing a Q&A in Berkeley this Friday, July 22, after the 7:05 p.m. screening of Captain Fantastic at the California Theatres on Kittredge Street.

Ross, who wrote and directed the film while maintaining his busy acting career in Los Angeles, lives in a duplex in the Elmwood area with his wife, Phyllis Grant, a well-known food writer who has her first book coming out soon. There’s also their two children: Bella, 13, and Dash, 9. When Ross is at home, the family lives a normal Berkeley life. Ross likes to take his children to their school, Ecole Bilingue, and pick them up when possible. He eats at the Elmwood Café, shops for books at Mrs. Dalloway’s, and takes his kids to the park. Grant is from Berkeley and still has family here, and the couple has a wide circle of friends.

But interspersed with quotidian life is Ross’s other life in Hollywood. Every week from October to February, the shooting season for “Silicon Valley,” he gets into his Prius for the six-hour drive to Los Angeles. Ross says driving is easier than flying, and, while it is tiring, he listens to a lot of books on tape during his drives. He also has time for reflection.

Sometimes Ross will only spend a few days in southern California. Sometimes it’s longer than that. It depends how many scenes he has to shoot, and in how many different locations.

“It’s rough,” said Ross. “I have this really nomadic life. I am constantly back and forth. A part of me likes that, but it would be easier if I had a high-speed train I could jump on. But I choose to live here. It’s not so much a rejection of Los Angeles as it is more that we love the Bay Area.”

Making Captain Fantastic meant Ross had to stay away from his family for weeks at a time, which is somewhat ironic since the film explores the nature of fatherhood.

It took Ross about two years to write Captain Fantastic. He said he got the idea from talking with his wife about their values and what they wanted to instill in their children. There was no “aha’ moment when the plot came to him, but Ross mentioned a particular chess game with his son a few years ago that brought clarity to the movie. During the game, Ross answered a business email, prompting his son to complain about his father’s lack of attention. Ross eventually shut his computer, but the interaction remained with him.

“I started thinking about what it would be like if you gave up your professional and creative ambitions and devoted every waking moment [to your children] like the Viggo Mortensen character Ben Cash does in the movie,” said Ross. “What would that be like? Is than an insanely great idea or just an insane idea?… What’s an extreme version of conscious parenting?”

A scene from Captain Fantastic. (l to r) Nicholas Hamilton stars as Rellian, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Samantha Isler as Kielyr, George MacKay as Bo, and Viggo Mortensen as their dad Ben. Photo: Bleecker Street/ Erik Simkins
A scene from Captain Fantastic: (l to r) Nicholas Hamilton stars as Rellian, Annalise Basso as Vespyr, Samantha Isler as Kielyr, George MacKay as Bo, and Viggo Mortensen as their dad Ben. Photo: Bleecker Street/ Erik Simkins

In Captain Fantastic, the Mortensen character lives off the grid deep in the forest in the Pacific Northwest. He and his wife (who has left the hand-built compound to seek medical treatment) have programmed every waking moment of their children’s lives from rigorous workouts to which books they read. The homeschooled children are critical thinkers with deep knowledge about American history, protests movements, and other forces that have shaped civilization. The family doesn’t celebrate Christmas or other traditional American holidays. Instead, they celebrate “Noam Chomsky Day.”

The movie has some autobiographical moments. Ross grew up in a communal living situation in Oregon on a compound that was miles away from any store. He slept in a teepee. In numerous interviews, he has stressed that his mother was not a hippie and that he grew up in the 1980s, not the 1960s. Still, living in a remote area made him appreciate the changing of the seasons and living close to the land, elements which appear in the film.

There is a light moment in Captain Fantastic when the sugar-averse father steals a chocolate cake from a grocery store so the family can celebrate “Noam Chomsky Day.” The scene is intended to show how the Cash family has created their own distinct rituals in a world full of commercialized holidays. After Ross wrote that scene, he decided to have his own family celebrate “Noam Chomsky Day.”

“All the kids read a quote from Chomsky,” said Ross. “I read a quote. Everyone who participates in Noam Chomsky Day can pick out their own quote. It can be about politics or it can be about social justice. It’s really a way of introducing my kids to someone I think is a great American. I don’t expect the nine-year old to read Chomsky on a regular basis, but he can tell you he’s a professor of linguistics at MIT and can tell you a couple of things about him.”

Ross plans to continue acting, but it’s clear that, going forward, writing and directing films will be a large part, if not the largest part, of his life.

“I have been trying to do this for a very long time,” he said. “I have a lot of creative ambition and have liked certain filmmakers my whole life and have wanted to emulate their careers. I’m very ambitious in terms of the things I want to do in film and cinema.”

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Captain Fantastic’ and ‘Breaking a Monster’ (07.21.16)
Matt Ross may play a greedy tech titan in ‘Silicon Valley’ but in Berkeley he’s just a regular guy (04.15.15)
Phyllis Grant: Not your average mommy food blogger (01.27.12)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...