“Ultimately, it’s an extremely emotional and transformative journey for a very close-knit family that has chosen to live in an unusual way.”
In the woodlands of the Pacific Northwest, Ben Cash, the fiercely independent patriarch of Captain Fantastic, is raising his family as far as he can from the influence of modern consumerist culture.
Filling the days of his six children with rigorous education, demanding physical training and intense instruction for surviving in the wild, Ben raises a tribe of “philosopher kings” with the cardiovascular and muscular endurance of elite athletes and a grasp of classic texts far beyond their years.
For Matt Ross, the writer and director of Captain Fantastic, the story is an exploration of the choices that parents make for their children. “I’m fascinated by all the issues that revolve around parenting,”
Ross says. “Ben has given up the outside world and whatever personal ambitions it held for him to devote his life to being the best father he thinks he can be. The question becomes: is he the best father in the world or the worst? Is what he’s doing insane or insanely great?”
Some of the Cash family’s experiences have roots in Ross’ own upbringing. “My mother was interested in alternative living situations,” he says.
“When I was a kid, it wasn’t called living ‘off the grid,’ but we did live in communes in Northern California and Oregon. We were in the middle of nowhere without television or most modern technology.”
Like the family in Captain Fantastic, Ross’ early life was in some ways a grand adventure and, in others, a dislocating experience for a child. “
It became especially hard during adolescence,” he notes.
“I was separated from kids my own age when I started becoming attracted to the opposite sex. My friends were far away. I wanted to have that social element in my life. The eldest Cash son, Bo, is at that point in the film, while the younger kids are still finding this life exhilarating.”
Ross admits that in writing the screenplay, he was also grappling with his own questions about how to be a parent in contemporary America.
“Is it intelligent to allow our children to be electronically connected at all times?” he asks. “You also could ask, is it responsible to allow your kid to play full-contact tackle football, which I played as a kid. There’s a lot of evidence that shows how dangerous it is. You don’t have to live in the woods and go rock climbing with your kids like Ben does to take risks.”
The character of Ben is in some ways aspirational for Ross. “I wish I were brave and selfless enough to give up my creative goals or my career ambitions for my kids,” he says.
“For Ben, whatever he was doing before this takes second place to the raising of his children. He does it at a cost, and that’s really the movie.”
Ben’s choices are far more extreme than most parents would ever consider. For ten years, Ben and his family have lived completely off the grid in a remote compound where they hunt and grow their own food. He and his wife Leslie have chosen to bring up their brood in a manner so far from the norm that it poses questions about whether the ends justify the means. “He does things that you could legitimately argue endanger their lives,” says Ross.
“The questions about the best ways to nurture children are very real.”
Those weighty questions aside, Captain Fantastic is an exciting, poignant and often humorous adventure, set in part in a rustic wonderland of Ben’s creation, where he and his children celebrate their uncommon achievements, whether they are mastering martial arts or demonstrating their prodigious knowledge of American political thought.
“Making the movie entertaining as well as grounded and honest was always our priority,” says Lynette Howell Taylor, producer of Captain Fantastic.
Also a producer of Ross’s first feature film, 28 Hotel Rooms, Taylor says she admires the director’s approach to filmmaking.
“Matt’s long history of success as an actor has made him an excellent director,” she explains. “When you get in a room with Matt, there’s a warmth and an energy there. As an actor, you know it will be safe to experiment. It’s always a collaborative experience with him, as opposed to, ‘Here’s your script, say your lines, and thank you very much.’ That is part of what enabled us to get a such strong cast on the film.”
Taylor is joined by her producing partner Jamie Patricof, as well as producer Shivani Rawat, CEO of ShivHans Pictures and producer Monica Levinson, ShivHans president of production. For Patricof, Ross’ script hit close to home. “
The first time I read the script, I immediately fell in love with it,” he says. “As a father, I know that raising kids the right way, especially today, is one of the hardest things a person can do. Matt’s script challenged every convention of parenting I had. I was blown away by it.” “We first got the project in early 2014 and it was an instant go on our side,” adds Rawat.
“Seeing Matt Ross’s determination and all the work he had put into this film was inspiring. It was one of those scripts we couldn’t turn down.” The strength of the story draws on Ross’ own desire to be the best parent possible, Taylor says. “We all have our own values and our own moral barometer. Captain Fantastic pushes you to think about what kind of behavior, especially as a parent, you think is acceptable or not acceptable. Ben is on the far end of the spectrum with radical ideas about parenting, but he is asking himself the same questions we all do.”
The film will raise a lot of questions for the audience, who won’t always be on Ben’s side, adds the producer.
“Ultimately, it’s an extremely emotional and transformative journey for a very close-knit family that has chosen to live in an unusual way. I just hope it gets people talking. It’s very entertaining, which is the most important thing, and if it sparks conversation about these issues, we’ve done our job.”