At just 33, writer-director Alex Ross Perry has fashioned beautiful and mysterious relationship dramas that hark back to the heydays of Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Ingmar Bergman, and Woody Allen. In his most recent film, Golden Exits, Perry evinces a newly subdued authority, following an intimate group of Brooklynites as they wrestle with the disappointments that come with middle age or, these days, within one’s early 20s. The film’s daring springs from its straightforwardness—from its willingness to allow characters to directly and eloquently voice their resentments and longings. Perry is not so readily given to critical psychoanalysis himself, however, as he implicitly feels that his films should speak for themselves, and he’s not afraid to challenge a muddled or sentimental question.
On the phone with Perry earlier in the week, as he was recovering from a cold, we spoke of his collaboration with a dream team that includes DP Sean Price Williams and editor Robert Greene, as well as working with Adam Horovitz, the former Beastie Boy once known as Ad-Rock, and his drive to make small, vulnerable movies in a climate riven with corporate-sanctioned blockbusters.
You’ve been promoting Golden Exits for a while now with various audiences. Has your own emotional response to the film shifted as you’ve revisited it?
I can’t say I’ve sat through Golden Exits in its entirety since Sundance, but that’s endemic to the fact that I’ve probably sat through the film 15 or 20 or 25 times from start to finish for various reasons leading up to that premiere. So when that screening came along it was a real relief. Though, at the time, there were also moments in the movie for me that felt really personal. These scenes are in the last few minutes: little lines or little things that people say about their feelings on finishing certain projects or certain phases in their lives.
I think of Sam’s moment with her sister, Jess, when she comes close to explaining the film’s title.
I would say that she comes close to, then succeeds in explaining it. Hopefully.
There’s a sense of escalation in Golden Exits from your prior films. A kind of confident looseness. Was there a conscious awareness of that on your part? A sense of striving for something more emotional?
Well, looser how?
In the film, it’s as if we’re intuitively following the characters, and that we aren’t tethered to a traditional narrative structure.
In terms of the making of the film, there’s a looseness in the production just because I’m in the comfort zone of making my third movie in just a few years with entirely the same crew. There was also a formal quality of rigidness that sort of started when Chloë Sevigny said, “I’m terrified of improv.” I said, “Well, let’s just do this one as written. That’s a smart point you’ve made, and I would like to challenge myself.” After that conversation, when I was talking to Mary-Louise Parker or Lily Rabe, who’re both accomplished in theater, I could now say, “Actually, this is going to be very physically about what’s on the page, which you are as good at as anybody could be, and then let’s find other moments within that.”
How did your conversations with Sean Price Williams and Robert Greene for this film compare to those of your prior collaborations?
It’s about doing something that, when I present it, sounds uniquely unfamiliar to any other thing we’ve done recently. So, starting with Sean, saying, “There’s not going to be a lot of improvised dialogue in this, so we should keep that under control,” and then also, “I would like to see if we can make it through a whole shoot without taking our camera off of a tripod. We’re very good at handheld, and we’ve had a lot of fun chasing performances with that as a choice. Let’s deny ourselves that, and see how we can chase things with a slow zoom or a very slow dolly shot.” And then the conversation with Robert becomes: “We covered a lot of these scenes in three-, four-, five-minute long takes, so if you’re going to use an edit, let’s make sure it matters. Let’s not edit because someone else is saying a line and we need to cut to them to look at their face while they say it. If we’re going to make that cut, let’s make sure that we’re cutting for a reason. And then, when we’re reshaping the movie, let’s find little trims and solutions to things, and more creative ways to shuffle the deck in editing.” That part of the process with Robert really does become the final draft of the script. We ask, “Should these two scenes have been flip-flopped? Should this scene cut out a little earlier or a little bit later?”
As someone who stands outside of the medium, it’s the editing decisions that sound most daunting. There seems to be an intimidating openness of possibility. Such as when you hear Steven Soderbergh talk about structure and what’s correspondingly gained or lost by a scene’s placement.
He’s certainly a hero. And, yeah, he tends to shuffle things and he even does it with other people’s movies. “What if 2001 was 55 minutes long or something?” Or whatever strange little project he does. It’s a fun way to think about things that liberates you from a linear way of narrative and sort of performative thinking. But, you know, Queen of Earth is none of that. The movie was written and then shot in order, so, in editing, any sort of moving around would somehow dement what the actresses were doing. With Golden Exits, we had to be similarly sensitive about the process. For various reasons, parts of the movie just worked better with revisions of the ideas that we went into the shoot with. Which is a very loose quality that you’re clearly picking up on.
Are the interiors of this film found or are they sets?
Both. Nick’s office is a build. That was my first ever experience with properly building a four-wall, ceiling set on a soundstage. And I wanted it to feel very small and cramped. We could’ve found a cramped office, but we wouldn’t be able to get any nice shots if it was actually that size. But if you build it—and most of those scenes are shot with a wall removed, or a hole cut in the wall that’s later hidden behind a poster or a book—then you have flexibility, and there’s over 20 pages of material in that location. This is my fifth movie, but we’re still getting by on a lot of favors, sadly, for better or worse. A lot of the other interiors are homes of friends of friends, with some attentive work done to them. Just because, you know, Mary-Louise’s home is a family home with a teenager living in it, so we have to make sure that no part of it looks like that in the film. But we neither bring in nor remove the piano that’s in her house.