It was only 10 months ago when I first spoke with Alex Ross Perry, the ever-ascending writer-director whose then-current feature, Listen Up Philip, had been making waves and earning praise, even coming off a spot at the 52nd New York Film Festival. At the end of that interview we briefly touched upon his recently shot fourth outing, Queen of Earth, about which he said this: “There are always interesting stories to tell about women who are suffering, and I think this film inches towards that more than anything else. But, you know, this one sort of grew out of personal ideas and cinema in-tandem with whatever I was reading at the time.”
Reviews for Queen have been just as good as, if not better than, anything he’s ever done, but Perry seemed no different from the clear-headed, humble filmmaker I talked to last time. This is also in spite of the fact that our conversation was held a day before New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, as good a film venue as any, were to begin a retrospective of his work. (As a result, what you’re reading might be the only current interview containing any real discussion of the Pynchon-inspired debut, Impolex.) From there, we got into the personal angst that helped birth Queen of Earth, the pleasures of being consumed by work, the benefits of shooting in chronological order, and even discussed my theory of a Listen Up Philip Cinematic Universe.
As of this recording, tomorrow will begin the Museum of the Moving Image’s retrospective of your work. You must be honored by the distinction, but I wonder if it’s odd to have this sort of career overview four films in — if it even feels sort of alien.
Yeah, it’s funny. To me, I was just like, “Great. That sounds like a cool thing; I’m really glad that gets to happen. I love that place.” People say, “That’s crazy. You must really feel like you’re at this different point in your life and your career.” Which leads me to say, “Everyone’s so excited about it; maybe I should’ve thought about it more.” But, you know, it’s also because a couple of festivals this year did exactly the same thing, so I’ve been to a few places with it. So maybe it’s just a little bit less shocking.
Because to me, it’s like, “Wow, that’s really cool — all my movies get to play at this theater that I love.” It’s even cooler when I get to look at the New York weekend-repertory listing, as I do all the time for the last twelve years, and see my own movies on there. To me, that’s more impressive than the fact that you can do it in a short period of time. They’re playing in New York repertory, which is my favorite thing in the world. So I approach it more as a fan: “Wow, it’s really cool that the Museum of the Moving Image is playing Lawrence of Arabia on 70mm and Impolex.”
Has it been a while since you’ve seen Impolex?
I watched it in the theater, in March, at the first one of these retrospectives that I went to earlier this year in Spain. That was March of 2015, when I last watched it. Last time I was at a festival it was playing was in the summer of 2012 — so it had been, like, two-and-a-half years since I watched it. I guess that’s not that long, but, for some people, once it’s done it’s done and you don’t want to watch it again. But I kind of wanted to watch it again because I was really bored and lonely at this festival. I didn’t really have anything to do, and Impolex is not very long, so it was either wander around after my intro for 65 minutes, or sit in the back and look at it again. So I ended up just watching the whole thing.
Has your relationship with it changed much? I like Impolex, but I do think you have — and I think you will take this as a compliment — certainly grown as a filmmaker in the time since.
Well, I hope so. I mean, it’s just very funny to watch. It’s clearly incomplete in almost any way the cinema should be complete, but, watching it, I was reminded of how much fun it was to make and how much I can’t believe that this is the movie I had all these people helped me come and make, and I can’t believe anybody saw it; it just seems like a lot of fun. But the thing I felt at the time, of all the movies to compare it to — and what I still feel now, with three others — is that we got it pretty close to the hole on that movie, my hopes for what it could be, what it could look like, and what it could feel like lined up pretty much with the way the movie ended up being. At the time, I felt really excited about that, knowing now how hard it is to get that… not this feeling of “Oh, this movie’s great,” like some perfect movie, but of, “This is as close to what I wanted to do as what I could’ve possibly accomplished at this point in time.” But, yeah, I felt that way watching it right now, but it was exactly what I was talking about making six months before we made it.
In the press notes for its premiere at BAMcinemaFest, you said Queen of Earth emerged from asking questions about “privacy and the distrust of others.” I’d like to know how those questions even first came up, then how you channeled them into this psychological thriller.
Yeah, I mean, it wasn’t a very extreme set of feelings. I mean, the idea of doing the movie is that it, like all the movies, would’ve been a more extreme version of all the stuff I’m currently thinking about. But really it was just… January 10 of 2013 we shot this little project that never got finished for HBO. We shot until February, I was editing it until June, Listen Up Philip pre-production started in July, and we shot it in September through October, then edited every day until the first week of December, and then we were in post-production of all of December, and then we went to Sundance in January. So by the time Listen Up Philip was in the rear-view mirror, I was just really beat. All I wanted to do after Sundance was just kind of sit at home. It was February; it was freezing. I just really wanted to be left alone after a long time of doing a lot: making a movie and being around people every day for months and months, which isn’t my natural instinct, then going to the premiere and being around people constantly.
What I really was interested in was just being left alone, and, of course, at this time, there was this kind of lifestyle set up where I had to go and do stuff. I had to meet with people or talk about a movie, which was very interesting to me, but talking with Joe Swanberg, the producer of the film, we were starting to think about ideas that we could conceivably pull off, and he was basically in the exact same position, having just been at Sundance with Happy Christmas. We’re talking about how annoying it is when people get invasive with our privacy and say things like, “When’s the movie coming out?” Or “When’s the local premiere?” Or “What are you working on now?”
It’s just, like, very innocuous questions that people ask you in this kind of cocktail-party context — it’s just small talk — but we were both saying we find that kind of stuff oddly invasive, how much we want to answer, “Well, I don’t know. I’m so tired. I don’t want to talk about it.” So we were saying how funny it is that independent filmmaking, which is probably the least-important thing in the world, sparks real-world conditions. We felt like there was this kind of push and pull where, even as guys who do something that’s pretty irrelevant, our privacy, in certain contexts, was something people wanted to pry right open and dig into. It was all kind of coming out of that.
Another Swanberg influence was shooting it on this small-scale format, eventually finishing production over twelve days. I’m interested in the fact that you got to shoot in chronological order, which is not at all a common practice. Is this something you’d previously had a desire to do?
Yeah, I mean, I never really thought about it, just because there’s always some logistic reason that you can’t do it. Even on Impolex: that would’ve been a perfect movie to shoot in order, except some of the other people in it weren’t there the whole time, nor were they ever going to be. So, even on that, when we’re a crew of six on a one-week shoot, those people are around for a day or two, but you can’t really make that happen. But, yeah, for some reason, the idea of pressing down all the variables in order to make this thing as small as straight-laced as possible, it was like, “Well, I don’t really want to have an AD or AD department,” which is generally three people making a schedule, hanging around, or keeping up to the schedule.
Our other producer, Adam Piotrowicz, said, “How are you going to get around that?” I said, “We need to shoot it in order so we don’t really have a schedule; we can just keep turning the page and shooting, and that will be that.” We were like, “That’s really smart, because now we don’t really have a choice. That’s really simple. What we have to do is plan the actors’ schedules around that.” It was partially a pretty practical decision, and we thought, “This is a really cool thing to do.” It’s really hard to pull off, unless you work in a soundstage where you control all of the elements, all of the lights. So I wanted the shape of the movie to grow organically, because the script is pretty comprehensive, but I like all the actors coming in and pledging all their ideas, and I knew from Listen Up Philip that that’s a really fun way to work, and that they really enjoy it, because if it doesn’t end up in the movie, there’s the process of making sure that the environment is welcome to that.
It makes sure everybody has a better time, and I knew that, if we were doing this… the movie takes place over a very contained period of time — it’s a week. So if something happens between Katherine and Elisabeth on day one in the story, then, in the next morning, when we’re filming day two of the story, they can refer to it. Even if they don’t have to refer to it, they can just have it in their minds, and, as actors, they found that really valuable. As soon as I started mentioning that to actors, they got really excited about that. So, I mean, it’s really difficult. Even on a small thing like this, there are plenty of reasons not to do it. Anybody who is more professional would’ve said, “We just can’t possibly justify doing this,” but we really stuck to it. It was a lot of fun.
This next question is kind of odd, so bear with me here. Katherine Waterston’s character reads Madness & Women, one of Ike Zimmerman’s books in Listen Up Philip. Last year, you did this feature with Slate about the film’s book covers, and you say that the book was in some sense inspired by the existence of Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness, “a feminist study of women and mental health.” In this feature you also said that “inverting it might be a perfect Ike book, perhaps his biggest hit. Maybe Ike even named the novel after Chesler’s popular book.” So was there some conscious idea where, reading a book about female psychology, it could have an effect on her and the way she treats her emotionally fragile friend? Did you have this in mind?
Yeah, that’s good. That shows you’re responsive to the movie — the movie for all that it is and all that we put into it and all that it means to me. It truly was enough of a blank canvas in the inherent nature of what this film is that you — and hopefully, anybody — could be going the distance with those kind of personal reactions to it, bringing in what you know about another movie I made that someone who hasn’t seen that movie, or has seen the movie and hasn’t read that article, just wouldn’t have that reaction to things. To me, the best kind of movie is this kind of objectively open road, where there are signposts all over it but it’s not a one-way street with a lot of specific things that say “now you must turn here; now you’re turning down the sad street; now you’re turning down the happy street.” What you’re saying is proof that people really can go deep with their own feelings — if you give them the opportunity to. I, as a viewer, appreciate that; I think most people do. They don’t get it very often.
Yeah, what you’re saying kind of proves the philosophy behind this movie, and there’s hopefully many more movies that I’ll be making about similar ideas, but, basically, at the same time, you’re giving that a lot more credit. Basically, we just had books because we needed to fill up the house with stuff. We have them and I like them, and Katherine had seen Listen Up Philip before we made the movie — but, of course, she didn’t get to experience any of it, as Elisabeth did and everyone making this movie did.
She said, “Oh, man, you have these books here. They’re so beautiful. I would love to be holding one of these — just, like, reading it in the scene.” I was like, “Well, it’s kind of silly, but if it’s important to you, then yeah, sure, go for it.” We were just like, “Well, this is obviously the one you should be reading,” because, yeah, basically for the reason you just said: somebody who’s seen Listen Up Philip will go, “Oh, it’s that thing.” Someone who hasn’t will be watching this movie and say, “Oh. Someone in this movie about this woman going crazy is reading a book called Madness & Women; that makes perfect sense.” So even just the smallest object, like that, can have a totally different set of responses built in for anyone who’s watching it — if they even notice it.
I rarely come up with “fan theories” about things, so it’s good to hear that my rare entry into that area isn’t a total bust.
I mean, yeah. It’s not exactly Room 237, but it is something that people can make of it what they will.
You recently said you’re writing a new TV project. You had The Traditions, which was developed at HBO for a while, and I’m curious: between this new project and that, what excites you about the format to ensure you keep returning to it?
What excites me about it? I don’t know… that you actually get paid to do it, as opposed to independent film? And that it’s a sustainable thing that is just good to do, in a different way. I really don’t know. I mean, the thing that I’m doing now couldn’t really be a movie. I mean, it could, but, if you made it, it’d either be incredibly compromised or just it wouldn’t be very good. Because the idea that I like is, potentially, you can do — I mean, not that this is where our head is at; I’m still developing this pilot part of it — but, looking ahead, in the best case scenario, you can do a lot of digressions, a lot of tangents to whatever the main story is or seems to be. I think that’s kind of exciting. That’s why I watch television: you can do stuff we were just talking about, where you just have an endlessly recurring world that you’re building with the same characters spread out.
I watch a little bit of television, but not as much as most people, certainly, and I don’t really know the rules of it — certainly modern television. I don’t really watch any modern, half-hour shows. I don’t really know “the game” as well, so what I like about it most, as in anything I’m working on, is that it’s like doing anything but I’m basically being paid to work — like I’m getting a PhD or something. It’s very weird for me. I mean, Listen Up Philip is a 140-page script. It’s weird for me that, like, I turn in a 35-page script and I’m told, “We still need to get this down a little bit.” It’s like, “Well, this is pretty short, as far as things go,” but playing the rules, where this thing has to happen, is very interesting to me. It helps me understand why I like the things I like and what makes the things that are great great.
Between this, Winnie the Pooh, and an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s The Names, is your life absolutely consumed by work? Are you as busy as ever?
Well, like I said, if you look at 2013, which was production, post-production, pre-production, production, post-production for an entire year, technically I’m doing more things now — but everything you just listed I just do at home. This is the way it’s been for me for several months now, so I guess, theoretically, there are more things I have to leave my mind open to, but “busy” is a relative term when all I kind of do is settle into my desk at the same time every day, sit there, and think until I feel like making dinner. I get up and sort of wander away, but, in this sense, the writing lifestyle has really been agreeing with me. If I could continue to have three things to write at any given time, any excuse to kind of sit at home and make my own schedule, that would be ideal. So it’s a totally different kind of living than the living of “making stuff,” and it works really nice. But after shooting three things in, you know, eighteen months or so, doing this still feels like being on vacation, and I’ve been doing it basically this whole year.
I’m just glad you’re working.
Cool; thanks. Again, like, that’s the thing: if you have fans, the fact that I’m doing all this stuff… the busier I am and the more stuff you take on, the more likely it is I can make a tiny, idiosyncratic movie like Queen of Earth at some point, sooner rather than later. Because the minuscule and totally token sum I paid myself to make that movie will just be my year-end bonus instead of this money that I desperately need.
Queen of Earth will enter a limited theatrical release and hit iTunes on Wednesday, August 26.