Alex Ross Perry is a prodigiously talented writer/director who, having completely four feature films, already has an estimable body of work under his belt at just 31-years-old. Coming out of the microbudget independent American filmmaking scene, each of Perry’s movies has been more ambitious and complex than the last. Following 2013’s excellent Jason Schwartzman-starring Listen Up Philip, a lot of critics thought they had the young filmmaker pegged as a creator of highly literate, acerbic comedies but Perry surprised many when his latest, Queen of Earth, debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival in January. It’s old-school psychological art-horror that echoes Polanski’s Repulsion and Bergman’s Persona in its story of childhood friends (Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston) who find their relationship tested when they vacation together at a lakeside retreat. I recently spoke to Perry about the film by phone.
MGS: Queen of Earth is being described as a “left turn” for you. Was it born from a desire to do something different from what people might expect or are you not that self-conscious about it while you’re doing it?
ARP: I’m sure I would be if I felt the need to be for a minute but, basically, what we’re doing is just about how to keep the collaborators that I enjoy working with stimulated. And giving them something to do that, for me, as a fan of their work . . . I want to see these people whose work I think is the best do things that I haven’t seen them do before. So a lot of it kind of starts from there.
MGS: Robert Altman was a director I thought of while watching Queen of Earth. Not that it reminds me of anything he did specifically but there’s a sense that, when he was making all those great films in the 1970s, each film was his own highly personal and perversely revisionist take on a different genre. When I saw Queen of Earth I thought “This is an amazing psychological thriller. I could see this guy making a musical or a film noir or a western.” Would you ever be interested in making your version of, say, a western?
ARP: Ideally, I would eventually come up with an exciting and relevant and unique-to-me idea for every genre that I like. I’ve never even had a glimpse of an idea for something like that that was remotely personal to me or unique. Of course, at some point I would love to have that idea. We were talking about Robert Altman’s Images when we were making this movie as this great example of a bizarre left turn for a director that’s sort of derided at the time and that over the years grows in reputation to the point that it’s elevated alongside that other work. And, you know, of course the similarities really reveal themselves as the years pass and the filmography gets more and more rich. And then, you know, there was a Robert Altman series here in New York in December and January right when I was in the middle of editing this. That really is a director who you can’t talk about detached from the large group of repeating collaborators and the fact that each movie — including the myriad unsuccessful movies that he made that are clearly just from a point of exploring something different and getting all of his favorite actors together — he clearly had a lot of his favorite actors always ready to come and just do something for a few weeks and then seeing what they’ll go for. And most of the time it’s not very interesting and some of the time it’s very good and then once in a while it’s one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a pretty good thing to aspire to and he’s kind of the king of that — for Americans at least.
MGS: Elisabeth Moss is phenomenal in this. How much do you think the effectiveness of her performance is the result of the fact that you two had collaborated before?
ARP: If you asked her she would say a lot or almost entirely. She’s been making movies and acting in television since she was five or six-years-old but this was the first time that she’s made a second movie with the same director. Obviously she worked with a lot of repeat directors for various other projects. But this was the first ever theatrical film that was made with someone who she’s done that with before. And it was something she’d never done in terms of the performance and the character and the tone of the movie. And I think there’s just a lot of protection against embarrassment and failure on both of our parts. Which is what I feel having made four films with the same cinematographer (Sean Price Williams) and many other key crew members: she’s now welcomed into that kind of fraternity of, you know, just the whole thing about wanting to impress these people. Nobody wants to say “We made this one movie. It was great and we all were really happy and then we made another one and it just wasn’t there that time. So it was clearly a fluke and not a lifelong collaboration.” No one ever wants to feel that way. And she doesn’t want to be saying “We made a movie and then immediately we made another one and I didn’t deliver and then we never made a third one because you were wrong about how far outside of my own comfort zone I could go. I’m sorry that this one didn’t work out.” So it becomes this fun challenge of just wanting to impress and please and entertain these collaborators who you respect. And, you know, I would’ve felt very ridiculous asking a performer who I had less familiarity with to bear with me and explore some of the ideas that were in this movie. And I don’t know if that performer would’ve felt comfortable delivering that. She was very adamant that a lot of the things in this movie she just would’ve felt very embarrassed if she were doing them not only for a director who she hadn’t already had a successful collaboration with but in front of a cameraman and a crew that she didn’t already know by their first names and enjoy laughing with and going out to dinner with. We all sort of had that dynamic, which was really helpful.
MGS: In terms of having her go to places that are maybe more emotionally raw?
ARP: Yeah, and just freer. Emotionally raw is of course the nature of this film but mostly it’s just this sort of uninhibited sense of discovery and exploration that we were all able to bring together. That was definitely my idea in making the movie. I learned on Listen Up Philip what value these wonderful professional actors can bring and how many ideas they have about what they’re doing and it became very important to make sure that this film was structured in a way that there was breathing room for all of those moments to be brought in by the performers at all times.
MGS: Katherine Waterston is also really excellent. This is her first film since Inherent Vice so I feel like I have to ask: were you nervous at all about being the first person to direct her after Paul Thomas Anderson?
ARP: Well, no, I hadn’t seen the movie yet so I had no sense of what it would be like. I was excited and clearly it made me feel like there was a certain sense of unification of, you know, the kind of performer that you understand why it’s accessible to be so excited about them and to be so excited about what they’re doing. But, yeah, we wrapped about five days before the premiere of Inherent Vice at the New York Film Festival. So I went and saw it there after we had made this movie. I felt very excited then. It was kind of a joke that I was making so that everyone else felt a little bit comfortable. We were shooting the movie right before the New York Film Festival. Patrick Fugit was in Opening Night with Gone Girl and she was in the Centerpiece with Inherent Vice. The fact that we had these two actors on set who were going right from our movie to promoting Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson films that they were very well represented in and ultimately received very good reviews for — it was very funny that these two actors worked with these kind of titans. And then me and Lizzie made our own little movie. She has no movie with a titan. She has Listen Up Philip and then these other performers had their Fincher and PTA movies . . . I made a lot of jokes at my own expense about that. And, you know, it’s just all part of the process. The fun thing about that is that actors like that can go the distance and when Katherine goes and does the Sorkin Steve Jobs movie, there’s just a different amount of leeway with what you can do with the script on a movie like that than what we were able to offer. And that’s why I think a lot of actors enjoy coming to do movies like this. It’s not the only thing anybody wants to do but it’s a fun way to satisfy a different set of creative urges than would be satisfied on something like a Fincher or a Sorkin movie.
MGS: Because they have more freedom or they’re allowed to stretch a little bit more if they’re in a film like yours?
ARP: I think so. I mean, I’m sure if you’re a great actor you stretch in everything you feel passionate about. But it’s just less intense. It feels less like going to work, I would imagine, because we don’t have any sense of professional decorum. There’s really nowhere for anyone to go so everyone’s just kind of hanging out. The crew is only about a dozen people and we’re all just going to the same diner every night together and having a meal after we wrap. So that kind of low-stakes camaraderie does tend to inspire actors to get a little bit more liberated with some of their ideas — because this is a film where both actresses could say to me “Hey, I’ve got a really out-of-left-field idea of something to do in this scene. Do you want me to tell you it or do you just want to see it while we’re filming?” And that’s not a question you can ask on most movie sets. And my answer to that is always “Yeah, I’ll just see it, don’t tell me it.” And I think just being able to even be in a working environment where that question is not only welcome but encouraged is really a liberating place for actors to be in.
MGS: That’s really interesting. Can you think of an example on Queen of Earth where you were surprised in a good way during a take that ended up in the finished film?
ARP: Um, at this point it would be hard for me to remember exactly what we planned and what I was surprised by but . . . one moment in the script, it just says “Catherine is in bed zoning out and we sit with her for a minute.” And that’s probably all that was written. And we did it a few times with like a 50-second zoom, moving the whole time, getting tighter and tighter. And then it wasn’t even until the fourth or fifth time I watched the footage that I was like “She doesn’t blink in any of these takes.” We did this three times and that’s three times where she doesn’t blink for a minute. That was a pretty astonishing surprise. There’s a lot of stuff like that. The surprises are less in the footage because I was right there while we were filming but, working with Elisabeth before, I know there’s a lot of tiny modulations in her performance, that even if you’re in the room they don’t necessarily register because she’s acting for the camera. She’s giving little tidbits of performance to the camera that don’t even really register if you’re not as close to her as the lens is. And then discovering that in the footage and then making sure it’s well represented in the film is really the fun of working with her.
MGS: I’d like to ask you about the production design, which was my favorite aspect of the film. It’s hard to tell when the film is taking place because everything about the sets and the props and the clothing makes it seem like it could be taking place at any point between the 1970s and the present day. For example, the cordless phone has an obvious narrative function but it has an aesthetic function as well. What was your intention in creating this feeling of timelessness?
ARP: Well, a version of that is what we’ve done on every movie now. The cordless phone on this was kind of an improvement on the technology in Listen Up Philip where the phones are not even cordless. Having a giant, blocky cordless phone was our step into the modern age. But you’d be surprised about the mileage you can get from stripping all the modern stuff out of a room and replacing it with the sort of stuff that recalls whatever era you grew up in. Because it’s really not that complicated. It’s certainly easier than creating an accurate, up-to-date modern aesthetic. Unless you’re shooting in the Apple store. And then it sort of easily and efficiently conveys a sense of timelessness that, combined with a shooting style of shooting on film, really just gives people a lot to hold onto. This just comes from having made a handful of small movies where you’re very limited by what resources you actually have access to. So it’s easier to come into a house and get rid of the television and get rid of the internet router and get rid of the computer than it is to go in the other direction. And if you leave a television there, then it looks like nothing. It looks like a house. And if you get rid of it, then everyone who pays attention says what you just said. And now you’ve created a displaced sense of time that leaves people wondering during the movie a lot of the right questions, such as “Does it matter when this is taking place?” or, more accurately, “What am I supposed to be feeling about the fact that I don’t really know that?”
Queen of Earth opens in theaters and On Demand on August 26. Chicagoans can catch a preview at Elevated Films’ rooftop screening this Wednesday, August 12, after which Perry will participate in a Skype Q&A.