'Captain Fantastic': Forming a Narrative for the Imaginative Independent Feature

"As soon as I read the script, I said, this is the best script I’ve ever read,” says editor Joseph Krings.
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In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, the rugged, unconventional Ben Cash (played by Viggo Mortensen) raises his six children to be resilient and self-sufficient, with an unconventional education that ranges from Esperanto studies to mountain climbing. When a tragedy forces the family to leave their self-hewn paradise and return to the outside world, Ben’s ideas of what it means to be a parent are challenged and he must confront the price his children are paying for his dream.

This drama/comedy was written and directed by Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms), lensed by cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, AFC (Rust and Bone, A Prophet), and edited by Joseph Krings (28 Hotel Rooms). It also stars Frank Langella, George MacKay, Ann Dowd, Steve Zahn and a host of talented child actors.

Krings recently spoke about his experiences editing Captain Fantastic, his sixth feature after a long career in commercials. He started cutting spots at the Refinery in New York City. He knew he wanted to cross over to features, so while he continued to freelance in the commercial world, he networked with his clients and friends. That led to a job in 2008 cutting a trailer for Momma’s Man, directed by Azazel Jacobs, edited by Darrin Navarro and produced by Alex Orlovsky and Hunter Gray. The trailer ended up being used theatrically, and Krings soon began editing commercials and other projects for Orlovsky and Gray.

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In a self-sufficient, handcrafted compound, Ben teaches his six children the skills they need to survive in the deep forest, and provides them with a rigorous physical and intellectual education. Photo by Erik Simkins/Bleecker Street.

When the Momma’s Man team’s next film project arose—Terri with John C. Reilly—Krings asked if he could help during production for the chance to see how dailies and the editorial process worked. “It was a trial by fire,” Krings recalls. “I’d never done anything long form before.” His break came when Lynette Howell Taylor, a producer on that film, executive produced a very small, very low budget movie, 28 Hotel Rooms—Matt Ross’ first feature film. Because the film had such a low budget, Howell was willing to hire a first-timer.

“I was hungry,” says Krings. “I wanted to do whatever it took to do film work.” The two worked together at Ross’ Venice Beach space and hit it off. It was an easy segue for Ross to bring Krings on for his next feature, Captain Fantastic. (Krings has also cut eight documentary and narrative films, including Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon and The Mend.)

Krings says he was involved with Captain Fantastic from very early on. “As soon as I read the script, I said, this is the best script I’ve ever read,” Krings adds. Originally Ross thought he would shoot the movie in a more structured fashion than the handheld 28 Hotel Rooms, “but it was going to be six kids and short days, so we went back to handheld,” says Krings. “It’s easier to capture moments without so many setups, and I think it was the right decision for the movie.”

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Joseph Krings, Matt Ross and Leland the deer in the Venice edit loft.

The far-ranging action of Captain Fantastic spans approximately 1,500 miles, from the rain-soaked forests of the Pacific Northwest to the high desert of Albuquerque and the winding highways in between. Filming began in and around Seattle and traveled throughout the state of Washington before moving to New Mexico. (Locations in Washington and New Mexico stood in for all the spots on the film’s road trip.)

Cinematographer Fontaine shot with the ARRI Alexa, using two cameras to cover those “moments” with the six young actors. Krings was involved with dailies, albeit remotely. Santa Monica post house Local Hero handled the dailies process, and that company’s supervising colorist, Leandro Marini, provided on-set color correction. “Local Hero processed every day’s materials, packaged it for Avid and sent it to me digitally via Aspera every night,” says Krings. “I could download it, look at it and alert them to any problems before they began production the next day.”

An early supporter of Apple Final Cut Pro, Krings hadn’t worked on Avid in quite some time when he approached Captain Fantastic. “But it went really smoothly,” he says. “We rented space from Harbor Pictures in New York City, and they set us up with the software and [Avid] ISIS shared storage.”

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From left, Shree Crooks as Zaja, Charlie Shotwell as Nai, George MacKay as Bo, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, Samantha Isler as Kielyr and Annalise Basso as Vespyr. Photo by Wilson Webb/Bleecker Street.

For postproduction, Ross and Krings returned to the Venice, Calif., house to edit. “Because we were both away from our families and editing in his place, we lived the film,” says Krings. “It was both good and bad. We never had any separation from the film, so you can get a little stuck in it. But you also have no distractions. We lived the movie until we figured it out.” To get a break, the two would walk on the beach or down Abbot Kinney Boulevard, the hip shopping district in Venice. Krings says he also had fun helping Ross run lines for the TV show Silicon Valley, on which Ross plays the villainous entrepreneur Gavin Belson.

As could be expected, the shooting ratio for Captain Fantastic was high, says Krings, although he and his assistants haven’t calculated the exact proportion. But, balancing that out, the edit team had a longer-than-typical period of time to edit. “They started production in July 2014,” Krings says. “And we started working together later that year. Then we were done around April, but because of festival schedules, we had a little extra time, which we did over the summer of 2015.”

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Photo by Erik Simkins/Bleecker Street.

Having more time than usual to complete the edit was a positive experience. “We got a lot of feedback from producers and had a chance to do research screenings,” says Krings. “Because we knew what we were going for festival-wise, there was no big push to go out into the theaters. That’s what the editing process is about: taking time to play with things until you find the right solution. It’s relatively cheap compared with the rest of the production, so it pays to take your time.”

For a movie with its share of lighthearted moments, Captain Fantastic also has numerous dark scenes, especially in the Cash family’s forest home, which is lit by lanterns and firelight. “There was never a scene where I was worried it was too dark to see,” says Krings. “I could see that in the way dailies were lit. In fact, I loved the scenes lit by fire. There’s nothing more beautiful than firelight. It has that great amber hue that can’t be replicated. Stéphane [Fontaine] is really good, so there was never a moment where I couldn’t get what I needed.”

There are scenes in the film in which Ben has dreams or visions of his departed wife. “Those scenes were also very dark,” says Krings. “But we saw enough of the faces, and there was a lot of subtle emotion on both Ben’s and Leslie’s faces. Even though it was dark, I had no problem with it.”

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Actor Charlie Shotwell and director Matt Ross discuss a scene on the set of Captain Fantastic. Photo by Wilson Webb/Bleecker Street.

The biggest challenge of editing Captain Fantastic was the abundance of good material, says Krings. “It was a somewhat long script and our assembly came in at over three and a half hours. There were sequences that we loved that had to come out of the movie, but the movie can only be so long, especially this genre. It’s not an historic epic—it’s a family comedy/drama. We really wanted to get it around two hours.”

One way to do that was to trim the road trip portion of the movie in half. “We wanted to be as efficient as possible,” says Krings. “After that, we played with taking footage out of the portion in New Mexico. It was finding the right formula—the balance between comedy and emotion. Sometimes it was too heavy, and we had to put in the laughs. Then we’d think it was too frivolous and add more drama.”

Captain Fantastic premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and has so far won its director four awards: Un Certain Regard at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, Directors to Watch at the 2016 Palm Springs International Film Festival, Golden Space Needle Award for Best Film at the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival, and second place Audience Award for best narrative feature at the 2016 Nantucket Film Festival. It opened in theaters on July 8.