I interviewed the Indie auteur Alex Ross Perry around the release of his last film Listen Up Philip. I sent him some questions about the film, his upcoming projects and film piracy. This is what transpired…
With Listen Up Philip you made a film about extremely misanthropic people; did you feel any pressure by the financiers to tone it down?
I was in a very fortunate position on this film where the financing was coming from a company, Faliro House, that is supportive of idiosyncratic and personal cinema. They would never ask for changes to be made in order to increase a film’s commercial viability, the only thing they would ever want changed is for the objective improvement of the film. It’s an incredible forward way of thinking that puts great cinema first with the belief that success, financial and otherwise, will follow. Naturally, they are not an American company.
Your new film is about creative people trying to cope with stress and relationships. Were there any personal experiences that brought you to this topic?
Yes, many but very few things in the film happen literally as they happen to me. Mostly it explores a lot of the questions I had during the tiring festival run of my prior film, The Color Wheel, and the way I noticed that the better the film did, the more time I spent traveling, away from people I wanted to be spending time with.
Structurally, Listen Up Philip is interesting, because each of the main characters is the “star” of an individual section that is a sort of film within the film. What gave you the idea for that structure?
During the aforementioned festival run, I was reading a book by William Gaddis called The Recognitions. I came to the novel because of an essay Jonathan Franzen wrote about it, called Mister Difficult in his book How To Be Alone. The Recognitions is from the fifties but is about an artistically minded subset of New York society and I found it as relevant and alive in 2011 as it would have been a half century earlier. And it plays with a similar structural conceit, namely that the main character vanishes for a vast majority of the narrative and the novel looks at the impact this has on his wife and other characters around him.
Jason Schwartzman is of course mostly known for his work with Wes Anderson who has such a unique style. I think Schwartsman really shows his range in the film, what kind of direction did you give him?
It was less any specific note of direction and more the result of the three weeks prior to the shoot where Jason and I met every day and just sat and talked and read every scene over and over, walked around New York, and used that time to just get him into the world of the film. Once that sort of comfort zone was in place, every thing that happened on set felt precise and just right because it was the result of decisions that had been discussed endlessly, when we had all the time we needed.
My favourite film is Brazil so anytime I see Jonathan Pryce I instantly think of Brazil, do feel any pressure working with such a screen veteran?
Hugely, massive pressure. It was incredibly intimidating for exactly that reason. Jonathan would be forgiven for not suffering fools, and here he is, having worked on hundreds of sets, plays, everything… coming to work with a director who has never worked with professional actors before. I was afraid he would just say how he is going to do it, do it, and that’s that. And immediately, he read the vibe of what we were doing and I realised that, no different than any other actor, he came to play by our rules. He was there because he wanted to make my kind of movie, and he’s an adventurous actor who just loves acting, so he wouldn’t be going to do a small indie movie unless it appealed to him creatively.
Your next film, Queen of Earth, is coming out soon. What can you tell filmgoers about what they can expect from it?
Well the idea was to make it one hundred percent different in every way we could. So since it is the same cinematographer, Sean Williams, and same costume designer, same editor, same composer and also starring Elisabeth Moss, we all could very easily say and agree to not repeat anything we did on Listen Up Philip. Everything from the colour pallet to the rhythm of editing was fun to experiment with something new, because otherwise we would be repeating something we did just one year earlier which is not a fun exercise for anybody. I am excited for people to see it, I think it goes well with Listen Up Philip and Elisabeth is incredible in it, again. I guess that’s the one thing we didn’t change between the movies, the quality of her performance.
All of your films have been shot on film, do ever feel any pressure to shoot digitally?
No, not pressure externally if that’s what you mean, like from producers. Nor is there pressure from anywhere else. At this point, having made four films, film is something I get to say is implied when I start talking about something. I have earned the right to not have to have it be a conversation, people know it is important to me and Sean and they have to be on board for justifying the additional process to themselves, or else they probably won’t see eye to eye with us on a single other decision.
Your first film, Impolex, was loosely based on Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Did you like Inherent Vice, and do you think there is any future in Pynchon film adaptations in the future?
I enjoyed Inherent Vice, though it is my least favourite of his novels and I think some of my issues with it come across in the film. But the second time I saw it, I was quite impressed and think Paul Thomas Anderson pulled of something incredible delicate and challenging in converting that flow, that pulse to cinema. I imagine nobody other than an iconoclast like him could have the audacity or the means to convince others to make a Pynchon adaptation, and since it was not terrible successful I would assume nobody else is trying to get in on it. Had it made a ton of money, everybody would be trying. But I assume Pynchon would not allow anything so crass.
What films have you seen recently, old or new, that you’ve liked and why?
I quite liked Jauja. It’s one of those films that seems like anybody could do it, just long static shots of a beautiful location, but there’s a specificity to it that clearly sets it above. Hard To Be A God is an unfathomable masterpiece that I had to see twice just to understand the power of the images I was witnessing. I also recently got to see a 35mm print of a very interesting film called Sugar Cookies, a sort of seventies New York lesbian riff on Vertigo. I also really liked The Avengers.
What is it like to work with the group of people you have worked with for some time in an “ensemble” way? What are the advantages (and are there any disadvantages)?
There are no disadvantages. If you look at the filmographies of all my heroes in cinema, all the most prolific and thus creatively adventurous, because if you are making a movie a year or more, you are emboldened to take risks, worked with a large collective group of repeat collaborators who just simply get what the cinema is meant to be. Fassbinder is a perfect example of this, where you see his company just having fun and evolving and fearlessly trying new things. He didn’t make four movies a year by himself, you need a huge support network to do that
What are your thoughts on the impact of film piracy, if any, on independent filmmaking?
I don’t participate in it but it democratises access in a way that is probably valuable. I’d feel more sympathetic if I didn’t see a link between the decline of video stores, a special and sacred thing to me that has been forced out, and the rise in the online accessibility of films. And great video stores often had bootleg VHS tapes and those were the most prized, rare items in the store! So this is just another version of something that has benefitted film fans for a long time, it just happens to be, like everything else in modern society, much more vast and widespread of problem to control. But a video store would never have a videocamera bootleg of a new release. I don’t know, it’s a huge issue that doesn’t really affect me at this time.
What other factors do you see as currently limiting or strengthening the ability of directors to make high-quality independent features at present?
When I look at the work of my friends who I admire, I see no limiting factors creatively. Some friends struggle to secure financing but that exists at a high level and they have already made several great films. But the system that is in place in America that supports ‘small’ films is quite poor, and also rather out of touch. And not open to adventurous, bold, risk taking cinema. This ties into your first question. The place most money comes from, they would want a movie like Listen Up Philip to be toned down, to be made shorter and less rough around the edges. How can you make a film Jauja if you are an American who cannot rely on state funding for the cultural export that is your movie? You just do it with zero resources with your friends. There’s no system in place to nurture or support films like that.
It has recently been announced that you are doing an adaptation of Don De Lillo’s The Names. What ideas do you have for this, and when do you expect it to be in theatres?
I don’t even know when Queen of Earth will be in theatres and the film has been finished for three months, so I don’t know how to answer that. But I am starting work in earnest on it soon. Inherent Vice will be a valuable reference for me on The Names, because it preserves exactly what makes the prose of a legendary and unadaptable author special while clearly embracing what a god level filmmaker wants to do with his own cinema. So I will be keeping that adaptation in mind quite a bit, but really, my idea is to honour the work of Don DeLillo, introduce it to as many people as possible, and just get to collaborate, not literally, but in a way because the novel itself is sort of my co-writer, with somebody whose writing means a lot to me.
I’ve seen that you are also attached to writing a new live-action Winnie-the-Pooh film. I have to ask—how did Disney decide to come to someone best known for independent films with adult themes?
I have loved Pooh Bear my entire life and while there isn’t much in my film to suggest me as being qualified for such a project, talking to them they could feel and embrace my passion for the themes of the original books. I think if people look at the Ashley and Gadzookey the Cat scenes in Listen Up Philip, they will see a glimmer of what I am talking about.
Some of your films have been labelled as “mumblecore,” but obviously that label has become a catch-all dismissive phrase for any film about young creative middle-class white people. Do you feel this label has any validity at all anymore?
Historically, maybe. Everything needs to be categorised as something, this again is a video store thing. A phantom, theoretical video store would have had a mumblecore section in like 2010 or something, if it still existed, but hopefully what would have happened is that now all the directors whose work would have been in it would have their own sections.