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Interview: Alex Ross Perry On ‘Queen of Earth,’ Misanthropy And Elisabeth Moss’ Heartbeat

Interview: Alex Ross Perry On 'Queen of Earth,' Misanthropy And Elisabeth Moss' Heartbeat

While it’s always a delight to see a filmmaker arrive in from nowhere, it’s possibly even more exciting to watch one evolve, and to get the long view sense of the kind of career they want to have. Alex Ross Perry stepped up to the plate in a major way with last year’s “Listen Up Philip,” — graduating from the more rough-and-ready impulses of 2011’s “The Color Wheel,” — and has proven with “Queen of Earth” (Rod’s A-review here, heartily co-signed by yours truly) to be just such a filmmaker. Because while you might think that “Queen of Earth,” in being shot by the same DP (Sean Price Williams) who gave ‘Philip’ it’s distinctively grainy, close-up feel, and starring ‘Philip’ actress Elisabeth Moss, would have a great deal in common with its immediate predecessor, in fact what’s most remarkable is how much of a different register it occupies.

Teaming Moss with “Inherent Vice” breakout Katherine Waterston, who is also terrific, “Queen of Earth” is a high-strung portrait of a female friendship predicated on hypocrisy and power playing, hothoused during one week at a lake house where the pair have come to relax and help Moss’s ‘Catherine’ recover from a devastating breakup. It is unashamedly histrionic and hormonal, and so splashily unafraid to go for broke within its claustrophobic confines, that it is certainly not for everyone. But it is also unlike anything else out there, and unlike anything Perry has done before. We got to meet Perry at the Berlin International Film Festival where the film was very well received critically, although audience opinions were cleaved in two.

For some reason, the interview took place in a narrow hallway beside a photocopier.

Well, isn’t this delightful!
This is actually really worthwhile because of the absurdity of it and because of how much duress it seems to be causing… [people are passing back and forth trying to find us chairs and also because it’s, you know, a hallway]

I’m used to people squeezing past me though because I went to the “Queen of Earth” screening last night, and while there was vehement love for the film there were also a few walkouts.

Oh really? No one walked out of the screening that I actually sat through, maybe because I introduced it and they knew I was there… I mean look, we’ve all got places to be! Normally I would say someone left to go to another movie thinking they might enjoy that better, but that screening was like 10:15 on a Sunday, right? So by the time they walked out they were just going home. Which is valid too… if it’s that late, like 11pm on a Sunday and you’re not enjoying yourself, just… go home.

It was an interesting kind of walkout though, people were not just sloping out apologetically. They were snorting and fidgeting and like, angry. I wondered if that might give you pleasure, like, you’re getting a reaction.

Maybe. If I’d gotten to see it, it might have been kind of interesting. Funny because I don’t really think of this as a movie that has it in to provoke that kind of reaction. It’s not like incessantly nagging in a way that defies what people would expect it to be. Like, if someone goes to see “Listen Up Philip” and thinks this is going to be like a fun little Jason Schwartzman comedy, by the time there’s been 50 minutes where nothing funny happens, they’re like “this is not what I came here for” — well, that’s a betrayal, of what a misleading trailer led them to think they were seeing.

But if you’re gonna see a movie like this, I mean, this is exactly like this movie was described, I don’t know what that betrayal could be that would lead them to be like, “I am not on this wavelength at all.” This is a drama that turns into a thriller and that’s what it is…

And with that opening shot, the close up on Moss’s tear-streaked face, you certainly announce your intentions.

I hope so. You can’t please everybody. It was also the screening, of all the ones I’ve been to, where there was the most number of well-wishers hanging on afterwards to say something nice. We got both types there I guess, but it’s stuff like that that prevents me from ever winning audience awards. I can top critics polls, but certainly at festivals half the audience says 5 and the other half says 1, where what I need to do is make a movie that doesn’t get anybody thinking “this is the worst!” And I haven’t quite figured that out yet.

So after ‘Philip’ which is pretty scathing about male ego, and this which is pretty scathing about female ego, are you a fully-fledged misanthrope?
Thomas Pynchon says, “‘Recluse’ is what people say when they mean ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.'” “Misanthrope” is what people say when what they mean is like, “I just don’t see easy solutions to most human dramas.” It’s not that I don’t believe that they exist or that I don’t believe that people can find a sense of relief. I just fully don’t believe that it can happen in the span of time that most films are capable of covering. Like “Boyhood” could have a real sense of positive relief because it takes place over enough time that I would buy it. I think that’s enough time for people to really solve their problems. But this movie takes place over the space of a week.

So with a wider lens your characters might find relief in the end?

Sure. It’s not misanthropic to say that problems can’t be solved in seven days. But when I put that out there people tend to be very disturbed by it. The notion that someone who was like in the throes of depression at the end of ninety minutes and seven days of the character’s life every thing should be fine? I just don’t buy that. I believe that after seven months, or seven years maybe, she’ll be okay. And if I made that movie, people would be wow, that’s a really upbeat happy ending… but [the week in this film] is not that.

So what do you see is the function of zeroing in on the dark part? Catharsis?

That’s just where the questions I have always end up being. The curiosity that I have that would make me want to spend two years involved with something, sort of all ends up being about whatever that most challenging time is. And when people are at their worst, they’re at their worst.

When someone’s at their lowest point, they’re not worried about being proper and being dignified and being heroes, they’re just worried about getting through the day. And if that strikes people as challenging and misanthropic, that’s totally fine. For me the stories are better when they’re about people who are really struggling and it’s nothing to do with disliking them because I have deep empathy and curiosity about everything the characters are going through. But it is not a good time for them. And if you can love someone when they’re at their worst…

Sure, I guess when people are at their worst they’re also the most themselves and the truest.

That’s my theory, and that’s what the movie puts forward. You know how they say it’s hard to live with a depressed person, because it’s hard to keep loving somebody who’s going through a horrible time? When characters are doing that it’s pretty hard to find that connection but to me that’s really interesting seeing if the movie can pull it off. Like one of my favorite films of the decade “Somewhere” — that’s a movie about a guy going through the the worst time and that makes me care about him so much.

There is something about people being nakedly horrible that is much more sympathetic perhaps than them being falsely “nice.”

Yeah! The character that Patrick Fugit plays is exactly what you are talking about. He always has this sort of fallback of “Hey, I’m just hanging out,” but in fact what he is doing is being so aggressively obnoxious and shitty at all times but with this sort of doofus smile even though his intentions are purely selfish. So that character is always sort of a function of the main character — characters like that appear briefly in “Listen Up Philip” as well, the people who show up with a smile on their face but clearly don’t care about anyone but themselves and have the worst of intentions. That to me is a truly complicated unlikable person that I could not spend ninety minutes, or two years of my life with.

They also catalyze the worst instinct in all around them.

That’s right, they bring out a lot of aggression. As happens in both movies.

So this is really a film that stars Elisabeth Moss’ face, and I think that’s perfect because after I saw that scene in “Listen Up Philip” when you hold on her face, I thought, well if I had Moss in a movie, I’d just look at her face the whole time.

Actually, people’s response to that moment was very encouraging because we had already just shot this movie and I was like, “Great! Because we have got ninety minutes of that coming your way very soon!” There’s no elaboration necessary — that moment is why she’s great as an actress and that’s the essence of her skills. And that made me understand what I could give her on this movie, and also what I didn’t need to give her. What it would have been a mistake to impose on her.

So you learned a great deal from one film to the next?

Doing that movie [‘Philip’] was my first time working with professional actors and having her and Jason taught me more about what acting really is than I’d ever known. It let me know that during this movie I don’t need to give her a bible of every gesture and every line, I can give her a script, that’s a complete script but contains about 70% of what the movie needs.

So this time, there were holes all over the script but I knew Elisabeth could fill them in, not even as a discussion, just like “whatever your instincts are in some of these moments it will satisfy me.” So it’s just about having a trusting relationship with a repeat collaborator. To know what they’re capable of, but also to have them do things and you’re like “Oh! I never would have known that that was coming.”

It’s such a full-throttle role, did you never feel you had to pull her back?

I don’t think so. I mean again, if that happened that would imply we were out of step in what we were both working towards and I don’t think there was ever a time where I was like, whatever instinct you’re following is too much. It was always just right. Either just what I pictured or completely a surprise. But for me, it was just about making sure that the entire set and every actor had the freedom to say what they thought was best in every moment. Some scenes really grew because we shot the movie chronologically, so some things evolve as a result of knowing what comes before. And some stuff comes about as a total surprise.
Surprises and maybe happy accidents?

Theres a 2 1/2 minute shot towards the end where she’s sitting at a kitchen table and she delivers this really long speech and I just hold on her. And it’s a long speech, she didn’t change a word and then when we were editing it, because a mic is always clipped onto the underside of her lapel, we noticed that her heartbeat was audible. Not just audible but that some aspect of her alchemical performance (that I don’t understand what acting means if this is what it means) throughout this speech, which we did three times maybe, her heart rate gets faster during it and then as soon as she stops talking it immediately slows down.

So we made sure to preserve that in the mix — that is not some sound effect, and I was like, that’s part of her performance. Because this is not reciting some lines. This is some full-body performance where like her blood is actually boiling right now. I was like, how do you slow your heart rate? It was instant. Instant. I mean I go for a bike ride or something it’ll take an hour for my heart to slow down.

I understand you were heavily influenced by Fassbinder, and I could really see that — incidentally there’s a really good documentary about him showing here…
Yes, I know, It’s one of the many, many movies I’m not seeing here. But yeah, he spent most of his career chronicling the struggles of women undone by the things they yearned for and created one of the most iconic bodies of work basically exploring that theme in most of his movies. Not every single one, obviously, but that was a very recurrent theme. And it’s handled with more elegance and sensitivity than any other filmmaker perhaps, and certainly any other male filmmaker. So it’s just inspirational.

In New York there was a two-part Fassbinder retrospective last year. Part one was in May when I was writing the movie, and the double feature of “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” and “Martha,” which are both single-location movies about women trapped in a sort of conflict who have their own games of power. But the movie was already written, and then during that double feature I just thought for those four hours “This is the kind of movie I want to make!” A movie that feels like you’re trapped, but you don’t feel it, the characters feel it, and you just feel the combativeness.

What was also apparent about his influence, which we were all just blown away by at first: he made so many movies in such a short space of time. But you know if you watch 7 of them in a week you realize it’s not crazy he made so many, they’re all the same people. If every movie was cast from scratch with different collaborators, that would be crazy but it’s not that at all; it’s a company of collaborators. That makes sense, and anyone like that, any of those prolific people, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, same thing.

So doing a movie like this, a smaller movie, quickly would not be possible if I had to explain from scratch to new people — a new cinematographer, new editor, new composer, new actress, new costume designer — I couldn’t have made this movie. So another inspiration was just Fassbinder’s working methods: if you stick to the plan and can call upon this same group of people to come and do something different, then no problem. And you watch his movies back to back and it’s: let’s make this one black and white; lets make this one in one location; lets make this one science fiction; let’s make this one comedy.

So you hope to continue working with these collaborators?

I hope to. He is as much inspiration for that as anything. I don’t want to have to start from scratch with any of these things. And then the challenge is, well how different can the movie be? If I just wanted to make another sort of claustrophobic thriller, Elisabeth would be like “I’m not going to do that, why would I want to do that?”

I wanted to ask you about taste. I have kind of a grudge against “tasteful” these days, and I did not find your film at all “tasteful,” which I mean as a massive compliment…
I don’t have highbrow illusions about what I’m doing. I like movies. I’m talking about the holy nature of performance and ‘Petra Von Kant’ but what we’re talking about on set is “Let’s Scare Jessica To Death” and “Carnival of Souls.” That’s by most standards low cinema, but to me it’s like the highest form of art. Movies that can satisfy as a 16mm genre film designed to make a quick buck and scare people, and I watch it like 40 years later and the craft is just so sophisticated. Everyone knows the craft in Fassbinder is sophisticated but the craft in a movie like that? It seems a little bit harder for people to make that argument, but for me its so obvious.

It’s the thing that makes movies and cinema two different things. And this is really the first time I got to make a movie that… it’s just a movie. This isn’t some sprawling dialogue-driven thing. It does not live in the real world. You don’t know these people. They don’t live next door to you. These people live in the movies.

“Queen of Earth” is awaiting a U.S. distribution deal. We’ll keep you posted.

Browse through all our coverage of the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival by clicking here.

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