When Perry speaks of his own success, he’s not boasting. And when he laments that “Her Smell” has yet to light the world on fire, he’s not complaining. He talks about his personal fortunes like he’s telling you the time. Few people have such a startlingly clear sense of their place in the world, and that trait makes Perry self-aware in a way that’s easy to mistake for apathy or arrogance.
“Alex knows his own faults to such a degree that he becomes almost proud of them, sometimes in a very annoying way,” Greene said. “But he’s maybe even more observant about other people’s darkness. …Everyone is full of shit, but Alex is obsessed with exploring how.” It’s an obsession that forces Perry to be so acutely focused on his own self-understanding that he’s denied the opportunity to betray it.
In her review of “Listen Up Philip,” The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis called the film “a serious work about the struggle to follow your muse and be fully alive in a world shared with other people.” What Perry knows about that struggle, what Philip never figured out, and what Becky Something is forced to learn the hard way, is that following your muse while being fully alive requires you to share the world with other people, and not just live all over them.
In that light, “Her Smell” isn’t just a movie about the fall and rise of a corrupted rock star who discovers that she depends on her bandmates as much as they depend on her, it’s also a funhouse mirror reflection of how Perry believes movies should be made. Or, better yet, how he needs to make them.
“For Becky,” Perry said, “it’s like ‘I’ve been through hell and back and now I’m still here because of all of you.’ For me, it’s more like ‘everything in life is going nicely, but I still couldn’t do any of this without my cast and crew.” (In the days leading up to the film’s release, he posted lengthy Instagram tributes to many of the collaborators who made “Her Smell” possible.) Alex Ross Perry might be the name that people remember, but seeing the writer-director surrounded by all of his confederates small army onstage in Toronto reaffirmed the feeling that an auteur is often like the lead singer of a band, in that they come to symbolize a roving group of artists and technicians who share a mutual dependence on each other.
Moss is a major star who loves getting muddy in these trenches. She played a supporting role in “Listen Up Philip” before appearing in virtually every frame of the micro-budget “Queen of Earth,” and produced “Her Smell,” in addition to delivering the film’s unmoored lead performance. Even now, three films into their collaboration, she’s still struck by the extent to which Perry empowers his collaborators, and is empowered by them in return. “He has a willingness to let actors try things,” she said via email, “and confidence in them to be making the right choices for their characters. He very much has an attitude of ‘I’m sure you’ve thought about it and done the work you needed to do. That kind of trust makes you give a better performance.”
Other cast members echoed that sentiment. “Alex cultivates and encourages and nourishes you with confidence,” said Agyness Deyn, who plays Becky Something’s bandmate and best friend Marielle Hell. Deyn remembered one day of the shoot when she and Price were alone in a bathroom and left to white-knuckle their way through Marielle’s most vulnerable moment. Perry didn’t know what was going to happen in there, and neither did she. “I loved that freedom of emotionally expressing someone’s insides,” she said. “It was like vomiting the nugget of a scene.”
The most talented actors and craftspeople love working for Perry, and the former happily do so for scale. However, when a studio recently tried to hire Perry for a relatively high-profile gig, Perry said the offer required that he ditch most of his usual team, including Greene and Williams. Things broke down pretty fast. “It was astonishing to me that I would have conversations with people who wanted to hire me to direct a movie, and then three months down the line would be like ‘We don’t want Sean to shoot it, and we don’t want Robert to edit it,’” he said. “Well, then you don’t want me to make it.” More than that: “It would be very dishonest of me to turn to my collaborators and be like ‘Thank you for helping me get to this point, but I’m going to go make a Marvel movie now and you can all go fuck yourselves.’”
Perry can get away with saying that because he has a safety net: scripting movies for other people. “I don’t want to debase myself making something bad because I can sit at home and make a living as a writer,” he said. Last year alone, he penned Mark Pellington’s “Nostalgia,” Disney’s “Christopher Robin,” and a handful of other projects that either didn’t get made or are still in progress. There are worse ways to pay the rent.
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