It doesn’t take long for Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” to announce itself as a very different movie from the director’s previous effort, “Listen Up Philip.” In the first shot of “Queen,” Elisabeth Moss appears tearful and furious in an extreme closeup, establishing an unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere that never lets up. The movie follows her character, Catherine, coping with her famous father’s recent death and a nasty breakup. In attempt to take solace at the lake house owned by her close friend Virginia (Katherine Waterson), Catherine winds up haunted by memories of the past and increasingly alienated from the world around her.
While Moss delivers a notably freaky performance, “Queen of Earth” is an especially notable shift for Perry, whose “Listen Up Philip” was a loquacious comedy largely inspired by Philip Roth novels. The 2014 release, which starred Moss alongside Jason Schwartzman, marked Perry’s first project to gain bigger exposure, following the sleeper festival hit “The Color Wheel.”
But “Queen of Earth” is not your typical followup: It’s smaller, weirder and different in all kinds of other ways that ensure Perry will continue to update expectations of his work as the movie premieres this weekend at the Berlin International Film Festival. A few hours before heading to the airport, Perry spoke with Indiewire from his Brooklyn home this week.
This is obviously a big tonal shift from your previous movie. What motivated the change?
To me, getting ready to just gear up and do another project so quickly, the only thing about it that felt like it would be a challenge would be not doing the same thing or any version of the same thing — which was the connection between “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Philip,” since they’re of the same ilk. Trying to do that again one year later was not a challenge that appealed to me. So I had to think, “What’s going to make this an actual different experience with different rules of filmmaking?” I wanted to embrace the idea of getting the gang back together, which was an important idea as well — it was a crew of 10 and a cast of five. None of those people would have wanted to make a smaller movie with fewer resources if we were trying to do the same thing.
The movie deals with a lot of dark themes. Where did that focus come from?
When I was putting the thing together and talking to [“Queen” producer] Joe Swanberg during the spring, what was interesting to me were the questions about privacy and entitlement — both to your own isolation and the entitlement people exhibit in the world at large. When you start thinking about privacy, you start thinking about paranoia and gossip. These are all things I was just kind of fascinated by. They were personal questions to me that I was very engaged with and curious about. “Philip” was a movie about success at its core; this one is about privacy. It works with the isolated setting.
What else appealed to you about working on a smaller scale?
This was the only time I made a movie where I didn’t have some experience. I was toiling with trying to get something going. It started with a producer, Swanberg, saying, “I’d like to make movies that fit into this production model — and do you have anything?” The idea was, “Here’s a way to make something, do you have anything?” That gave a home to some ideas I had been thinking about in the wake of “Philip.” People don’t expect you to make a smaller movie than your previous one. That’s just not a way anyone is allowed to think in this world. But I had all these things I was thinking about and was affected by in the last year. Joe tried to encourage me to put these ideas into a much smaller setting rather than spending years of my life trying to make something bigger. He really gave me the confidence to make these ideas as small as they needed to be. So I was emboldened by the idea that we were making a little movie. It wasn’t a sprawling, dialogue-heavy script.
What sort of movies did you have in mind as came up with the story?
All this came together during a Fassbinder retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. I went to a double bill of “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” and “Martha.” I knew that was the kind of movie I wanted to make. From there, it became this fun little maze of what other kind of movies you can fold into this — you can take a very sad, emotional drama and find yourself talking about a cheap horror movie like “Carnival of Souls” and realizing it’s more connected to those other films than they seem.
The common thread here is these really interesting women stories — these unique, threatening and occasionally frightening stories about the troubles of broken women. That’s the driving force behind almost all of Fassbinder’s films. So immersing in a retrospective gives you time to marinate in this theme of women under extreme duress. But then you look at “Carnival of Souls,” or Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion,” and it takes the form of exaggerated gothic horror. Then you look at Robert Altman’s “Images,” which straddles both lines and becomes a fascinating text of its own. In his body of work, at the time of that film and now, that one sort of sticks out as this quasi-horror experiment. Then I was also thinking of Woody Allen’s “Interiors,” which is as quiet a drama as you can have. I wanted this movie to live in this cinematic world of broken women.
How did that inform the language of the movie? Much of the narrative is defined by eerie closeups, sound design and music. It’s much more textured approach than your other movies.
The funny thing about doing this movie with all these collaborators was finding out in advance what we could come up with. I was sure this time that this movie lives in the world of cinema, in the conventions of a certain type of genre of cinema. None of my other movies really do that as overtly. So we had the rules of these other movies to play with. The New York talkie comedy informed “Philip,” and it’s a tradition that has fewer syntactical rules of filmmaking. But here we were looking at stuff like vaguely distorted closeups and piercing music and sound design that feels dreadful and unpleasant — these are all conventions that have been perfected by many great movies. So we had to just let our own ideas run wild. That was the sweet spot for this movie.
You’ve always been open to improvisation and developing stories organically. How did that approach play out with this very different kind of project?
Having gone through this great experience working with professional actors on “Philip,” I knew that it would be a mistake not to come to set with space for them to breathe and find additional moments once they were in the groove. It was the plan all along to shoot this movie in sequence. We started on page one and went forward; by the time we got halfway through it, there would be experiences for the actors and characters we could build on. A scene on the page that seemed sad could become very angry on set; we had to build on that. So the movie by design was going to be spontaneous. Still, we had to be on a road to an exciting destination, which meant we couldn’t change everything. We had all these moments in mind, like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we broke the tension in this particular way?” But then it wouldn’t be consistent.
It’s been a year since “Philip” premiered at Sundance and you’ve already got another movie in the bag that’s headed to Berlin. How do you feel now about your career prospects?
It’s just a confidence booster, for better or worse. It’s made me realize that I can have the bigger thing going. There are not worlds of opportunities existing for independent films to be much bigger than “Philip,” which is not a big movie. You hear producers say there’s this huge gap in films between $10 million and $2 million. Trying to make a movie bigger than “Philip” would put us in this huge wasteland. We’re trying to do that now. I wrote a script that has to be that size. If Joe hadn’t made me confident to let my followup movie be a fraction of that budget, I would still be waiting for this other one to come together. Now I know that I just need a skeleton crew with a lot of collaborators to set aside two or three weeks.
This is your fourth movie. How much do you care about emerging perceptions of your work as a whole?
I only care because it’s something I care about with people whose bodies of work I enjoy. I like processing what they do as a fan of their cinema. It’s fun to connect the dots. So to go to the Altman retro at MOMA and revisit “Images” in the context of a couple of weeks where I also saw “Nashville,” “Brewster McCloud,” and so on — to put this one extreme horror movie in his work doesn’t alter his life work. It enhances it. Same thing with “Interiors.” Nobody thought it would be a logical followup to “Anne Hall.” So I’ve come out with this humorless movie, and it’s totally interesting and relevant to me. The perception that I hope for wouldn’t be that I’m the foremost chronicler of this kind of movie. I want the perception to be, “That guy works a lot, and he gets movies made.”
What about the sense of connectivity in terms of the characters you write? Your protagonists are all pretty self-involved, troubled individuals.
That’s just for me an analytical thing where I don’t know how deep my answer can get. It’s interesting for me to explore, whether it’s comedy or horror — a character going through a terrible time is, for whatever reason, where my stories take place. That was the key to getting the movie started when talking with the actors. It was being able to say, “This is not ‘Listen Up Philip,’ except that it deals with people in that kind of situation.” It takes on this hyper-cinematic reality instead of a jokey tone.
Any thoughts on commercial expectations or lack thereof?
Commercial expectations are always that the movie reaches every person who wants to see it. I’m very curious to see if that does happen. If it were up to me, I’d cut a trailer to this movie that features very exciting moments of strange, surreal imagery involving isolating terror. Or, you could show two women talking about their troubles and let the unraveling be a surprise. I hope both are possible. But for now, my hopes are already exceeded.