Indie filmmaker Rick Alverson has been described by Screen International as “one of the more idiosyncratic voices in American independent cinema of late, with discomforting tales involving unpleasant characters.”
The lead in his 2012 “The Comedy,” for instance, spent his days wandering around with his friends, mocking strangers, while 2015’s “Entertainment,” centered on a stand-up comic whose career is dwindling along with his own relationship to his audience.
Now comes “The Mountain,” a film set in the 1950s and focused on an introverted photographer (Tye Sheridan) who travels with an eccentric lobotomist (Jeff Goldblum) from hospital to hospital, documenting the doctor as he performs and promotes his bizarre procedure. All the while, controversy over the lobotomist and his methods begin to mount as the photographer, whose mother herself was institutionalized, begins to empathize with the patients.
IndieWire calls the film “a somber and lyrical achievement.” Its review warns, however, that “fans of Goldblum’s typically exuberant, irony-laced performances will be caught off-guard by the sadder, withdrawn figure the actor plays here, but that itself is key to the movie’s unique spell, as it deconstructs the country’s psychology from the inside out.”
Casting Networks spoke to Alverson about how he cast the leads for “The Mountain.”
The charming and charismatic Jeff Goldblum who we know from “Jurassic Park” or the “Life Aquatic” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is nowhere to be found here. What made you decide to cast him in a role like this?
I’m fascinated by the energy that can be created by subverting audience’s expectations. I’m also very interested in the constructive nature of discomfort in cinema. There is an awareness of a flirtation with the audiences’ expectations of what Jeff Goldblum would deliver. But his performance in this film is unique in his career insofar that his charm is more muted. I was interested in the audiences’ expectation of him and weaponizing his natural charisma to some degree.
The entire project for both me and Jeff was a process of de-romanticizing not just an era but cinematic representations of that era. It’s a place in history that the “Making America Great Again” slogan points to. And we now know that the cinematic representations of the ’50s and this supposed artificial utopia of that time was a very different experience for the majority of the populace in real life.
Who was cast first, Tye or Jeff?
Tye was in my previous film, “Entertainment,” where he played a very different character—an animated, hyperbolic obscene clown. He was incredible to work with, and we got along really well. We’re friends so we jumped into this together. I had been developing this with Tye on board for several years.
Tye hardly says a word in this film. What this casting choice also about subverting audiences’ expectations of him?
Tye first surprised me on “Entertainment” because the films he’d done previously were films like “Mud” and “Tree of Life” and “Joe,” where his talents as an empathic, vulnerable, fragile young man were on full display. He was known for that. In “Entertainment,” he came out of that shell so dramatically, and I saw this dynamic. So, he and I purposely and mischievously didn’t use any of that dynamic of his as performer in “The Mountain.” We wanted him to be this unknown quantity.
Protagonists are traditionally very welcoming and sympathetic, but we wanted him to be kind of an obstruction, and the one thing we could never really know.
Did you have a chemistry test between Jeff and Tye before teaming them together on screen?
For this film, I was much more interested in the struggle for connection. Jeff and Tye got along very well, but I like actors to discover (a connection) and flail a little bit. To me, there is a kind of vitality in that.
Who helped you in the casting process?
Some of the casting came from people I knew and had connections to. Avy Kaufman came on pretty early and was instrumental in ironing out the major roles. We had locals casting in upstate New York.
You employ a lot of non-actors in your movies. Is that important to you?
My first two films were largely non-actors. I’ve always been interested in that approach. To be crude about it, you want to cut through some of the artifice that the industry has developed around representing actors. There’s a lot of augmentation and obfuscation in the hiding of their personalities that the industry does. It’s an obstruction. It’s bad for actors. It’s bad for directors. I want to cut through that.