An interview setting as isolated and exotic as Mexico’s Los Cabos Film Festival often means you’re sitting down with talent in more comfortable, candid moods. Perched on a terrace overlooking the Pacific, I chatted with a relaxed Alex Ross Perry, joined by his trusted celluloid DP Sean Price Williams. The budding November festival and industry hangout gave the filmmaker the retrospective Spotlight treatment.
Perry knows it takes thick skin to break into Hollywood when you’re a young New York indie far flung from the world of the studios. But how did his edgy indie oeuvre — Pynchon ode “Impolex” (2009), sibling road movie “The Color Wheel” (2011), scabrous literary comedy “Listen Up Philip” (2014) and this year’s darkly funny Polanski throwback “Queen of Earth,” which made its Mexican premiere at Los Cabos 2015 — land him a for-hire screenwriting gig at Disney?
In April, it was announced that Disney, in its race to repurpose evergreen properties for the here and now, tapped Perry to pen the live-action feature adaptation of “Winnie the Pooh.” Perry’s version will focus on Christopher Robin as adult who comes back to A.A. Milne’s bear and the Hundred Acre Wood. No director has officially been set yet.
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“I have a very clever agent who’s very good at connecting the dots between the people he works with,” said Perry, “and companies he think might be interested in someone who’s not a Hollywood screenwriter-for-hire but a filmmaker with a weird voice that they might want to look at.” His agent also reps David Lowery, the Sundance turned Disney discovery who’s in post on “Pete’s Dragon.”
Why do studios chase mavericks like Perry? Because they’re talented, cheap and easy to control. But not so for Perry, for whom “Pooh” is both passion writing project and a way of leveraging support for the movies he wants to make in the future. “There’s no way for me to make the movies I like to direct in the Los Angeles system,” he said. “But writing jobs are fun for me to chase right now because I can do them at home with my cats.”
Perry thinks there’s a “disconnect” between the NY and LA filmmaking worlds, and Sean Price Williams (who’s shot all of Perry’s films as well as the recent Independent Spirit-nominated “Heaven Knows What,” and Cuban-shot “Sin Alas”) agrees: “It’s like Hollywood’s not allowed to acknowledge the New York indie scene. But we still play by the rules.”
Below, check out my full interview with Perry, who’s also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel “The Names.”
Where are you with “Winnie the Pooh” right now?
I’ve been doing it all year. I’m in it right now. The closer people are to me and know what my life is really like, the less surprising it is, the more people know how often I will not do anything other than stay at home with my cat and live with little funny creatures, so it’s a pretty autobiographical movie at this point.
Is it more geared toward adults?
The one headline on Disney’s mind is to take Pooh out of preschool. For the last 20 years, there have only been versions of the character aimed at children five and under. They’re obviously making a lot of movies like “Cinderella” or “Maleficent” that take these properties and make them movies that can appeal to enough people, and to people who don’t feel insulted while watching them, to make $200 million. It’s a pretty lively initiative at the company right now.
How were you approached by Disney? Were you surprised to suddenly find yourself, a NY independent filmmaker, in board rooms meeting with executives in LA?
They didn’t come to me. And it wasn’t sudden, either. “Color Wheel” was at festivals in 2011 and was released in 2012, which was when I first attempted to go to LA for a week at a time, and with a manager. That was the beginning of me trying to force myself onto the industry that was clearly very indifferent to what American independent filmmakers had to offer. Officially being given the Disney job in the Spring of 2015 certainly doesn’t feel sudden to me. It’s been a long three years getting to where there are actual jobs on the table. It’s a slow crawl into the industry via support and managers and agents. There’s really no interesting answer here other than that I have a very clever agent who’s very good at connecting the dots between people he works with and companies he think might be interested in someone who’s not a Hollywood screenwriter for hire but a filmmaker with a weird voice that they might want to look at. From the minute I said, “Yes, I want to talk to someone about ‘Winnie the Pooh,’” I knew there’s no one who loves these characters more than me or who grew up with these characters meaning more to them, and I was right.
What’s the advantage of making movies in NY?
In 2012, I was in LA, Id sit in meetings with people who’d seen “Color Wheel” and had read “Listen Up Philip” and I was at that point trying to find the partners who’d make it a reality; and I had a good idea of what we needed to make that movie. Companies in LA say they’re looking at movies in the $5 to $10 million range. We could’ve made “Listen Up Philip” for that, but that’s totally unnecessary. I said, “Or you could sign me to a five-movie deal and I’ll make five movies for $1 million a piece. They didn’t understand how “Philip” needed to get made — then, of course, it was made right in New York in an office on Bowery and Houston.