Writer-director Alex Ross Perry converses like he probably prefers to make his movies: deliberately, thoughtfully, meticulously working on the best achievable solutions. His films are expertly crafted as separate, unique worlds—stylized microcosms revolving on their own axes, and inhabited by contemporary individuals, so odd and engaging, struggling with binding social norms. Barely a year after the release of his well-received Listen Up, Philip comes his latest, Queen of Earth, whose effect hinges on its profound tonal shifts. The earlier film’s sobering perspective on the cynical and self-centered point of view of a budding novelist is replaced by a more aesthetically prismatic consideration of two female friends at a pained crossroads. Theirs is a psychological pas de deux of sorts, tracing back and forward in time to give a sense of how these women became friends and how their bond, because of the demons they individually face, comes to slowly unravel. At the Berlin International Film Festival this year, where Queen of Earth enjoyed its world premiere, Perry spoke with me about plying his trade on a small scale, his kinship to his characters and their feelings, and the influence of two titans of the medium, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, on his work.
In Listen Up Philip, you focused almost exclusively on the male perspective. Here the audience is locked into two female perspectives. How conscious was that change, and did that shift affect you personally in any way?
Listen Up Philip is a movie dealing with masculine problems, and I don’t think I would have bothered doing that again 12 months later. I have no new insights, questions, or curiosities about anything regarding any of the issues in that movie. The whole point of doing something again right away with almost entirely the same group of collaborators is just doing it completely differently. Our main question this time was: “What’s still interesting and similar enough that it feels comfortable, but asks a whole new set of questions?” Doing a woman’s film was a fun challenge, especially knowing that I had the support of Elisabeth Moss. After Listen Up Philip, where she was so important, but still remained a supporting part of the team, she just agreed to come on board and make a film where she’s at the center of it.
Do you feel as if you relate to Virginia or Catherine in any way?
A lot of what I was thinking about, was preoccupied by, and really curious about when the film was being written, formed a very grotesque, exaggerated sort of a “map” of what Catherine was going through. Much in the same way that Elisabeth’s character in Listen Up Philip is the one that I relate most closely to. In Queen of Earth, she’s the character that I shared most of my own problems with. Obviously they’re taken to the extreme, and dealing with them on screen helped me work through them in a way. Catherine’s desire to be left alone, her confusion and disgust at how many people are all of a sudden very curious about her privacy for no logical reason—that’s all very close to me as well. It’s something that I feel very strongly about. And I say that as an irrelevant, independent filmmaker who nobody should have any reason to care about. And yet, I find myself saying: “I just want to be left alone, I just want a little bit of privacy, so that I can make movies and promote them, do whatever I have to do and then just not be a part of the conversation anymore.” So, that desire to be solitary, and my lack of understanding about why people are trying to pry into my business, really was the very personal reason behind the making of this film in the first place.
You said once that it was your hope that Queen of Earth would be regarded as “a confounding, misunderstood follow-up a la Interiors.” That film wasn’t very favorably received at the time of its release. It wasn’t what the public expected from Woody Allen after Annie Hall. Is that a dynamic you were trying to capture between Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth?
I can only imagine what it was like for Allen to make Interiors right after Annie Hall. I’m almost sure most people, when they finally got a look at that movie, thought: “Gosh, what kind of a follow up is this?” We got an amazing, Oscar-winning, charming comedy with this beautiful aesthetic, and then we got this sterile, cold, sad drama with no warmth and no comedy in it. To me, that sort of shift is appealing—as a filmmaker and as a fan of certain directors. If my new film had resembled Listen Up Philip, either in its style or tone, it would have been compared unfavorably to it, because I couldn’t possibly have done more than that movie did. Anyway, I just had to do something different.
It seems that Allen’s earlier works aren’t the only inspirations behind Queen of Earth. You seem to be referencing the work of Roman Polanski too. It’s in the idea of peeking into someone else’s psyche, the process of becoming detached, the need to feel separated from other people.
Yes, absolutely, Polanski is always an inspiration for me. I mean, he’s probably the greatest living filmmaker. Going back to my second movie, The Color Wheel, my cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, and I would talk about him all the time, because he means a lot to both of us. So it was very exciting to finally make a movie that actually honors his spirit and the lessons he’s taught us about cinema. Sean and I tried our best to be in tune with Polanski’s style, such as knowing which lens to use. Sean knows which look is going to give our material that sort of distorted Polanski-esque style, and there are scenes in Queen of Earth that look like that. Also, before we started shooting, Elisabeth asked if there are any films worth watching. I, of course, mentioned Repulsion, which is an obvious touchstone. We didn’t really talk about it while shooting, but that was a good entry point for her and for all of us. Then Sean and I discussed Knife in the Water and Cul-de-Sac, ones that are really meaningful to true nerds. We sort of let everybody else talk about his films that are more famous, but we left these few just for us. Because we wanted to make a single-location movie that’s largely focused on the dynamic that’s fractured by the appearance of another person, it was impossible for us not to talk about Knife in the Water, Cul-de-Sac, Death and the Maiden, the real deep-cut Polanski studies that mean the world to us.
Queen of Earth seems somewhat experimental in form, and looking at it can seem like a completely new experience for someone who’s seen your previous work. Was it filmed in chronological order?
Yes, it was. In shaping a single-location movie you have to have a reason to put people in that one particular location. Generally, these reasons are finite. However, as I worked on the story, it became apparent that the movie needed to have some glimpses of what these women were like prior to the events presented in the movie. So we put in little moments from these girls’ pasts, and we shot them in the order in which they appear in the movie. They were shot all in one day. And then we did everything else. So, if it cuts from something to a flashback, we filmed those in that order. Our aim was mostly to give the actors a sense of momentum and to make those scenes feel like they’re part of a sequential narrative, even though they don’t take place in the chronological, historical order that they would. In that way, it’s not experimental, but it was an experiment in filmmaking. For me, it was going from a massive production of 50 people and shooting for five weeks to making this film with 10 people in one location. The way we structured the shoot was an experiment. We wanted to see if we could pull this off and actually unlearn a lot of the lessons that we had learnt about making a sort of big, professional independent film driven by known actors. What was clear to us was that we wanted to at least keep the whole “hell-let’s-just-go-to-a-house-and-make-a-movie-for-a-couple-of-weeks” vibe of Listen Up Philip.
You travel a lot with your movies, they premiere in international festivals like Berlin or Locarno, but then you come back to your hometown of choice, New York City. It seems that every New Yorker has to have his or her own narrative. Do you think that you already have one of your own?
I’ve lived in New York for about 12 years now. I think Listen Up Philip is a lot about crafting that kind of narrative and coming to terms with it. I’m situated there now, and everything is set up there for me to live comfortably and make the movies that I want to make the way I want to make them. Ideally, my New York narrative is still to be written, but on the other hand, I can’t imagine what else I have to do because I just sort of have it all just so.
Is it hard for you to take advice from other people about your work? Fellow filmmakers, producers, actors?
Not really, no. The only people I would be asking for advice are the people I truly respect and whose every word I would hang on to. That was what was so fun about making Queen of Earth with Joe Swanberg as a producer and as a fellow filmmaker who I’ve been a friend and a fan of for years. I think I mostly asked him for advice about the things to say to lawyers and the way we should structure the production so that we were able to make the film we were trying to make. You can learn everything by just listening. People ask if there’s anything personal in Listen Up Philip, if it’s autobiographical. And, you see, it can’t be, because Philip is a character who never takes advice from anybody. He’d never think that anyone has anything to contribute to his own life, whereas I’m constantly interested in having other people around, who I look up to. Even if they’re my friend and the same age as me, they can tell me something that I don’t know or help me see something differently. That extends to the collaborative process. I love learning things from people and figuring new ways of solving my own problems.
The last few months have been rather busy for you, with two premieres separated only by a short period of time. Is there a break in your future or are you eager to get back on the set?
To be honest, I don’t think I need a break. It’s not like I’m a surgeon or anything. I don’t sweat blood every day. Right now, it’s been fun to just be writing, and there are two things that I’m currently working on. Queen of Earth proved to me that if you have a few weeks to spare, 10 crew members, and five actors who are willing to just meet you in the middle, then you can just go and make a small movie. It’s not a committee process, and there aren’t 10 producers and five financiers on the set, so you can just take some very radical risks and do whatever you want. To me, there’s really no reason not to get the team back together as often as possible to do that.