31 year old Alex Ross Perry is in an enviable position for a young filmmaker. After just four films, two of which not many audiences have seen outside of hardcore cineastes, the director has been minted by the critical intelligentsia of cinema. His most recent films, “Listen Up Philip” and “Queen Of Earth” have made world premieres at Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival respectively and recently, the Museum Of The Moving Image feted his four-film long career with a retrospective of all his works in 35mm — that’s got to be some kind of age and oeuvre record.
Precocious, smart and quick-witted, all signs point to Perry earning this distinction thus far. He’s one of the most exciting young American filmmakers and his work has drawn favorable comparisons to Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, Roman Polanski, Robert Altman and more. All the while, making his films on an either low, or micro-budgeted basis. And perhaps what separates Perry from his low-budgeted peers in the mumblecore genre — many of whom took much more than two to three films to find their voice — is the filmmaker’s literate, often poison-penned, tongue and a level of craft that many of his colleagues don’t possess.
Perry has also stuck out with a sharp point of view. Where mumblecore filmmakers often improvise with loose ideas, Perry’s pointed, sophisticated scripts recall the acidic observations of Philip Roth or Whit Stillman. Perry likes to center his movies on mean, ugly and mean-spirited characters at their worst, but it makes for terrific conflict and humor if you’re willing to look past some nasty people (and you absolutely should). Perry’s latest is “Queen Of Earth” and it is kind of a Roman Polanski meets Ingmar Bergman style chamber-styled psychodrama. Starring Elisabeth Moss and “Inherent Vice” star Katherine Waterston, “Queen Of Earth” is a fascinating examination of the intersection where friendship, class, resentment, depression and madness meet. We recently spoke to Perry about “Queen Of Earth,” his career thus far, and much more.
Yeah, I was pretty surprised. The same company was hired by the distributor of “Listen Up Philip” to do a cool ’70s style trailer for that in the style of a Paul Mazursky drama. They were shot down and told to make a more middle-brow trailer that just tries to make this movie look like a doofy comedy. The guy who cut the trailer told me, “I was nervous. It was, like, once bitten, twice shy.” I didn’t want to get excited about making an actually cool, artistic trailer and be told no again.
[IFC Films basically said], “You know, all you can do with something like this, is get people to pay any attention to it.” We’re not spending the money that bigger movies have, to get it in front of people. You use what you can have. Their perspective, and I thought this was pretty cool, was, “Let’s just make sure that this is positioned as something that’s just different,” so that the response to the materials isn’t, “Oh, that’s one of those things.”
You’ve got to do something to rise above all the noise.
There is the assumption that generally people don’t and won’t care about independent movies. Why bother? Just make the trailer, get it out there. Everything is fighting to make an impression. People say “all we have is comic book movies.” And there’s fifty times more independent films, and the only thing that’s going to make people turn off is if they say, “I’ve seen that before.” Comic book movies have to make sure that their trailers promise something that’s different about this one. Independent film should do the same. I mean otherwise, people are just going to disengage as soon as they get the impression that this is familiar.
I know on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast you recently vented your frustration that after glowing reviews at Sundance, it was hard to find a distributor for “Listen Up Philip” and mainstream appeal was low. How’s the experience so far?
It’s less frustration now. That was my first experience learning to adjust my dreams and expectations for how much an independent film can get out there. It’s not like there’s anything that could have been done differently — short of a million dollar campaign — that would have made a difference. I was disappointed, but also just disenfranchised — to finally be face to face with the reality of what it is to get things out there, and to learn that the last thing that makes anybody interested is whether or not something is of good quality or not.
It was a bummer to spend a really long time, a whole year, hoping that the quality of something and the press and critical stamp of quality [would] translate into dollars. But I’m much more calm about it now.
I assume, but I’m not 100% sure that you wrote this for Elisabeth after working with her in “Listen Up Philip”?
I just started writing it to write it, but half way into writing the script, it got to the point where the character as an abstract ceases to exist and you have to start picturing a performance. I mean the first thing I pictured was her. Just because I was so close to ‘Philip,’ and it was just so easy for me to picture that.
There’s sort of the sense that you just scratched the surface of her abilities in ‘Philip.’ She’s so good, but we only spend so much time with her.
Right. I was just very confident because of the risk in ‘Philip’ — the response to her performance and the film was so validating. It really made me realize that the film would have failed without her level of performance, and I owe the success to ‘Philip’ working to her and then to Jonathan Pryce later in the film. That made me know beyond doubt what level a performer this is and I could throw something out there that she’s never done before.
The point of view shift in ‘Philip’ — the film is almost like three chapters for three characters — is one of my favorite things about it. Did you know it was going to be so challenging for some audiences?
I wasn’t like I thought, “Oh, this is bold.” I was just thinking this is interesting to me. You don’t see this very often. You see it in a lot of books and the ones I was inspired by. I though, “I wonder why I don’t see that in movies.” That kind of simple mantra has become this bizarre guiding principle.
Good creative words to live by.
When we’re on set, me and cinematographer Sean Price Williams, and then when editing with Robert Greene, when one of us can point at something and say, “You know. I haven’t really seen that,” then that’s a plus. We are people who love and consume a ton of cinema, and if any of us can be stumped it’s like, “Whoa, what’s something recently that’s done that?” If you can’t think of anything, it must be a great idea. You just have to take that risk, and I think if you commit to it 100%, and you’re bolstered by incredible performances, and great music, and all the stuff works, then the risk of failure is much smaller.
There’s some interesting fluidity of POV in “Queen Of Earth.” It’s ostensibly Elisabeth Moss’ character’s story about a descent into madness, but it’s also both Katherine Waterston’s story; they have equal stake and backstory.
Ideally both points of view are equally represented. If I’m telling you everything that’s happening to [Moss’ character] is correct, and everything that [Waterston’s character is] going through is wrong, then that’s just like a western, where there’s the good guy and the bad guy. That’s totally subjective storytelling. What’s more interesting to me is just a more objective narrative, where the decision’s about who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s crazy and who’s not is in the audience’s hands. Even as a a writer, my perspective as the writer is so neutral. There’s no judgement. Both women are right, and both women are wrong in their own ways, as people tend to be.
I assume you have aspirations to do something bigger scale?
Sure, but [producer] Joe Swanberg‘s pitch to me was, “Look. You’ve just made ‘Listen Up Philip.’ You have two choices. You can make a bigger movie, everyone we know does that. It takes forever.” There’s a huge step up, similar to the step between something like “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip.” I was lucky to make that step in just two years.
Then there’s the step between the kind of small, independent movie, like ‘Philip,’ and the bigger period pieces that I want to make. If I had decided that the only thing I want to do after ‘Listen Up Philip’ is make a movie that was another large leap forward, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking. I’d have no movie right now. Joe said, “I guarantee you, by the time this movie comes out you will not be any closer to making this big movie than you are right now.” And he’s right.
There’s a real ceiling over that kind of independent writer-director driven movie, through which basically nobody is moving right now. As long as I can feel comfortable with things about this size, I can stay busy. Hopefully bigger movie will come someday. This is my fourth movie. I hope that I make that kind of movie when its my tenth and my fifteenth, instead of my fifth film. I could look back 15 years from now and be, “Making ‘Queen of Earth’ is why I’ve made 15 movies instead of five.”
I’m curious what your take was on the announcement that you were writing “Winnie the Pooh.” There were reactionary responses like, “Oh no, what’s next? Is Paul Thomas Anderson going to write ‘Pinocchio’? Will Dave Lowry make a Disney movie?” All those are happening of course.
I understand where that comes from. It’s preferable to have people be, “That’s funny and interesting,” rather than, like, “What a disaster. What a stupid horrible idea.” We’re also talking about a very small pool of people with very, very strong opinions. Disney announces what they announce, and the combination of the fact that this is second to Mickey, they’re most well-know characters of that ilk, and that it’s “This independent director who has, like, worked as a personality and who, like, this small culture of people who actually care about real cinema are aware of.” That just kind of made two and two equal five on that story, which was … totally just funny.
Also, at this point I’ve been working on it for five months, so I had come to terms with how bizarre it was long before. I didn’t tell anybody that I was working on it. Not even close collaborators like Sean.
I’m just curious what’s those big movie ideas of yours are.
We’re trying to make like a ’60s movie. I understand how difficult that is, so that hasn’t happened. I’d also like to do a movie where I can go home to my apartment at the end of the day. Find a way to make a tiny movie on the streets of New York without all the trucks and stuff you do with “Listen Up Philip.”
You’re still doing an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s “The Names,” right?
Yeah. That’s a bigger scale. It’s about an American ex-patriot and mostly in Greece, and in Tunisia, and India.
Hopefully I can enter into the phase of my career when I’m doing these European movies. One of my other smaller movie idea is another European thing that could easily happen the way “Queen of Earth” happened. The pulse of the DeLillo book: there are things marginalized in the narrative. Intentionally, because of the kind of writer that he is. A traditional development process would incorrectly think you should foreground that, in order to make it a more exciting film. Of course, what I want to do is just service the book.
Your films get knocked sometimes because of their “unlikable” characters. But in talking to you, it sounds like the impulse to chase those characters is part of your mantra of doing things we don’t often see on screen?
I think so. I’ve still not been able to articulate what it is that I find attractive about someone who is ostensibly unlikeable. It’s just that the trauma of it speaks to where I want the movies to be. It’s just always about people at their worst. Not that they’re the worst person. It’s just the part of their lives that I want to find them in is the point at which they are really at an ebb.
Characters at their worst is good drama too.
Yeah. I mean that’s just was interesting to me, and I don’t just want the people at their worst. My belief is that they’re generally fairly irredeemable for whatever that period is. In “Queen Of Earth” the span of the movie is about a week. In “Listen Up Philip” it’s nine months. When someone’s really hurting, and they’re really doing everything they can to really just push away everyone who’s trying to help them. That’s just a phase.
We’re not making a 70-year life story of someone who behaves like that all the time. But the darker moment is where the fun story is for me. It’s not that they’re bad people. I just like it being about a really bad time in someone’s life. Because that’s just interesting for me. It would be interesting experiment to try to see if I could make a movie that’s just about the best time of someone’s life.
That’ll be your own version of bucking your convention one day.
Yeah, we’ll see. Even my ability to kind of tap into that was my part of my discussion with Disney on “Winnie The Pooh.” That’s what appeals to them about telling a certain kind of story. The point of drama is often a really hard time. [‘Pooh’] is about getting over that. Now when I’m making my own movies. I like to stop just short of where the catharsis comes from, but it’s been fun to learn about how to actually go the extra mile and include the catharsis in the process of the film, and work through it narratively.
“Queen Of Earth” is now playing in limited relesae in New York. It opens next week in L.A. and it’s currently available on all VOD outlets including iTunes. Below, hear Keegan DeWitt’s full score for the film.