Alex Ross Perry on the Worst of Times


Writer-director Alex Ross Perry has a succinct way of describing the narrative link between his films: they depict their protagonists during the worst time of their lives. The NYU graduate’s 2011 film The Color Wheel was an acerbic comedy that saw a sister (Carlen Altman) and brother (Perry) become socially disenfranchised from their peers. Inspired by the writing of Philip Roth, The Color Wheel examined the ease with which people in their late 20s and early 30s give up on their ambitions—something the Pennsylvania native saw as a generational malady.

In Perry’s latest film, Listen Up Philip, Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, a promising New York novelist whose cantankerous personality and obstinate ways—he refuses to do publicity for his new book, Obidant—alienate him romantically and professionally. As Philip’s relationship with his photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), continues to strain, he forges a friendship with one of his literary heroes Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a onetime maverick whose best novels are years behind him. Through Ike, Philip gets the validation he desires—we see Philip scold and insult ex-girlfriends for not appreciating his creative pursuit—but his blindness to the sad state of Ike’s personal life might allow him to repeat the same mistakes.

Listen Up Philip, like the Spirit Awards-nominated The Color Wheel, is visually distinct and quick-witted, highlighted by numerous New York exteriors, interior close-ups on the actors, and frequent scenes that end with punchlines or sight gags. Thanks to the comedic instincts of Perry and Schwartzman, as well as Schwartzman’s innate charisma, Philip’s self-centered pontifications yield laughs rather than tedium. The film also continues the trend of Perry’s work taking cues from literature. His first feature, Impolex, was inspired by a section of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and William Gaddis’ The Recognitions gave Perry the idea of removing his title character from the middle portion of Listen Up Philip.

CHRIS TINKHAM: Listen Up Philip screened in Los Angeles a couple of months ago as part of Sundance’s Next Fest, and Bret Easton Ellis joined you and Jason onstage for a post-screening discussion. Can you talk about that experience and the significance of having Bret Easton Ellis there?

ALEX ROSS PERRY: As I was wryly aware of at the time, I made a movie about a guy who meets one of his heroes—Ike’s book is really important to Philip—and now I get to share the stage and have a conversation with an author who meant more to me than anybody, the first author that made me love literature and love fiction. When I discovered Bret’s book in high school, reading had been sapped of a lot of fun for me, as school is wont to do of anything. His novels were so alive and so incredibly exciting and made me rediscover my love of reading, and discover my love of serious adult fiction.

TINKHAM: American Psycho was the first one that got to you?

PERRY: It was American Psycho. I became interested in reading that when the movie was coming out, and I was reading articles about how controversial the book was, and it just sounded interesting to me. I was 15 when this happened, and I probably hadn’t read a book for fun in five years, just because reading was homework. I could not have been more affected by American Psycho. I started reading about the history of when it came out and the criticism that it received. I was so completely moved by it in every way, and by the end of that summer, I read Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, The Informers, and Glamorama.

TINKHAM: Jason Schwartzman said that he got a sense of confidence from you before he signed on for the film. Did you feel confident working with more well-known actors this time? Did that factor change how you’ve done things in the past?

PERRY: In preproduction, I felt very unconfident. I didn’t know how I was supposed to go face-to-face with actors who have delivered iconic performances and say to them, “I’m sorry, but what you’ve just done is not to my liking.” The only thing I thought they would say to that was, “Well, who the hell are you? Who are you to tell me? I’m a professional. I do this for a living. This is your third movie. You’ve been on four film sets in your life. I’ve been on four in the last year-and-a-half.” I was just very nervous that that’s how it would happen. Maybe that does happen with some people, but there’s not a single person in this movie that didn’t make me feel completely comfortable working with them. Before we shot, Jason was in New York for about three weeks, and every day we would sit and go over the script, and we would walk, and we would eat, and Elisabeth joined us for our final week of that. At the end of that week, I had spent hours and hours a day with both of them, just talking and laughing and getting to know one another. So, by the time day one rolled around, when I was directing two actors who are tremendously talented and well known for being diverse and great in movies and television, I felt like I was back making a movie with just my friends. Every actor that followed came into a set where that was the vibe. To Jason’s credit, he really led the charge on that. So, by the time we get to Jonathan Pryce, whom I was the most intimidated about giving direction to, because he’s a decades-long legend, I was completely confident with the movie we were making, and I was confident talking to actors in the exact way that I needed to get what I wanted.

TINKHAM: Your last film, The Color Wheel, was in black and white. What did you shoot on this time, and what were you aiming for with the colors and visual style?

PERRY: This is Super 16. My last film was regular 16 black and white. I still wanted to shoot on 16mm, which was very important to me and still is. I felt that would give us that outdated aesthetic, because it’s something that I really fetishize when I watch a filmed-on-location New York City movie from the ’80s, and I see this sort of brown-and-yellow, mud-and-mustard look to the clothes. I don’t see the ’80s as neon, headbands, and spandex shorts. I see it as brown tweed and bamboo interiors and burgundy couches. I wanted to create a film that lived in that color scheme. Bringing in this element of shooting on Super 16, which is incredibly outdated in 2013 and not the norm, was just one more element that made the entire fabric of the film feel like it was one with itself.   

TINKHAM: I feel like Philip would coexist well with some of the characters in Whit Stillman and Hal Hartley films. Are you a fan of their work?

PERRY: Yeah, a huge fan. Metropolitan‘s a fairly major film for me. [Stillman] was living in the world that I now fetishize, but he wanted to take another step back and do something that was as artificial at that time as Listen Up Philip is now. As a result, the film is timeless. What you’re referring to—that sort of ’90s, downbeat, lo-fi, American independent aesthetic—was really important to me, because I was aware of that stuff at the time it was happening, and I was able to watch these careers unfold as my interest in cinema was simultaneously expanding. Some of it, I’ve caught up on in my more recent viewing years, but I do feel very lucky to have been aware of what independent cinema was in the ’90s—making movies on 16 and premiering them at Sundance—and to have finally gotten that full experience, which I have been coveting in one way or another for half of my life.

TINKHAM: If people want to see Impolex, where can they find it?

PERRY: They can’t, really. It eventually will be an extra on a Color Wheel DVD that may be an American DVD or a British DVD, but for now, it’s going to have to remain a buried not-so treasure. I’d like it to be out there. In a perfect world, the Color Wheel DVD would have come out in November of 2012. Here we are two years later, and there’s no sign of it. If it were up to me, you’d be able to buy both of those movies on one disc for about $20. But, sometimes when you let other people get involved, best laid plans get waylaid and timelines get shifted by two years at the least, maybe more.

TINKHAM: What’s the status of The Traditions?

PERRY: There’s really nothing to say. It’s just one of those things that happens, the same as Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of The Corrections for HBO. These things just don’t get finished for one reason or another. There’s a change in heart, a change in where a company wants to allocate some of their funds, and projects get lost in the shuffle. It’s a good experience in corporate ownership of work. They can do whatever they want with it.

TINKHAM: I was just curious what the format was. Were they 30-minute episodes in a series?

PERRY: If you look on HBO GO, there’s a thing called Digital Comedies, and there’s a show called Garfunkel and Oates, a show called The Boring Life of Jacqueline that was made by Sebastián Silva. The episodes range from five to 10 minutes. They were doing these microbudget projects—micro to them, to me it was a decent amount of money—and those shows were a little bonus for people who want to live on HBO GO and watch something that’s not just Game of Thrones. They were in the process of making another batch of these programs when the entire initiative sort of went up in a whiff of smoke. I think I was going to be the first one released of wave two. It’s seven episodes, they’re all about 12 to 15 minutes. The whole thing’s about 85 minutes long. 

TINKHAM: You’ve already shot another feature?

PERRY: Yeah, we just wrapped.

TINKHAM: What can you say about this one?

PERRY: It’s called Queen of Earth. It stars Elisabeth again, and Katherine Waterston and Patrick Fugit, which was funny because the three main actors in the movie all had films at the New York Film Festival, and those movies were directed by David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and me. But, it’s similar to Listen Up Philip and The Color Wheel. In this case, it’s about two women who go on their annual vacation, to one of their family’s lake house, and it follows a bad time. I did some stuff in it that I’ve never done before, including playing with genre elements. After having created the incredibly huge, messy canvas of Listen Up Philip with 40 locations, 60 speaking parts, a crew of 50, I just wanted to try something radically different, which is a movie with five speaking parts, and a crew of 10, but in a way that doesn’t sacrifice what ends up on the screen, which is performances by great actors. I tried things with the script, performances, and with directing the camera that were very different for me. Listen Up Philip is 95 percent handheld. This movie is 75 percent tripod with incredibly slow zooms and a lot of camera tricks. It was fun to try something different that narratively felt very organic to the movies that I’ve made in the last few years but to approach that story from a different perspective. And to get to work with Elisabeth again on it was really nice, because all she and I wanted to do was not repeat anything we had done last year.