Back in January 2002, a fledgling filmmaker went to a taping of a Phantom Planet music video and got his picture taken with the drummer afterward. Eleven years later, the two would meet again over dinner to discuss a script. The writer was Alex Ross Perry, the drummer was Jason Schartzman, and the script—170 pages long!—was for the film that would become Listen Up Philip. A critic’s darling on this year’s festival circuit, Perry’s latest received raves out of Sundance, Locarno, and the New York Film Festival, where our own Steve Macfarlane described it as “a film you laugh at while you’re watching it, sometimes riotously, sometimes in horror, but its overwhelming melancholy will seep in the more time you spend thinking about it.” Intimately shot in 16mm, Listen Up Philip follows a young, misanthropic writer (Schwartzman) blotching his way through recent success, relationships, and the eternal struggle for the great American novel. We got to sit down with Schwartzman to discuss what drew him to the role, delivering such acidic one-liners as “I think this will be good for us. But especially for me,” and the status of that rumored Bored to Death movie.
What drew you to the role of Philip?
I loved the story, or the world of the movie when I read the script. First of all, most scripts are like 110 pages long, this one was 170 pages, so it already was distinct. I took it out of the package and thought, “Who the hell would…170…what the hell’s going on here?” I read it and it was so well-written. It was written for the pleasure of reading, and you could tell that. Most scripts are blueprints for someone to make a movie, so they don’t have to be very beautifully written. But this was more of a book. And like a book, I kept picking it up and putting it down throughout the whole day because the character was saying things that were so unbelievable to me. I’m used to seeing people like this, but not every sentence, pedal to the metal. I was taken aback by it. And then I watched The Color Wheel, which I really loved, and I sort of thought, “I didn’t know Alex [Ross Perry] was interested in me being in the movie.” I didn’t know it was an offer to be in the movie. I thought I was one of many people he would be considering. So we met and I had to decide if we could work together. For me, it’s very important that I work with the director, and that they help me when I’m working. I ask questions and I need someone to be like, “Yes, no, try it, or whatever.” Some actors, they come with a big idea, and they can figure it out on their own. They have a “let me show you what I’ve worked on”-type thing, whereas my attitude is “let’s work on this together.”
With Philip, did you have any specific inspirations? Did Alex tell you anything/anyone to draw on specifically?
We watched this movie by Maurice Pialat, We Won’t Grow Old Together, and it’s a real brutal depiction of a couple fighting, and artists, and it jumps ahead in time too. You don’t know whether it’s the next morning or three weeks later. This movie also watches people go at each other. And the book Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates was a must-read. It’s a beautifully and sadly written portrait of love kind of dying that also spends time with the guy and the girl separately. And we listened to loads of stuff like Jonathan Franzen books on tape. We were immersing ourselves. Alex is a much more avid reader than I am. I’m much more of a music listener. So it was fun trying to play catch up on some of these books. I don’t know if I know any people like Philip, who’s the kind of person who, if a bunch of people were going out to see a movie, they’d be like, “Should we invite him?” Meaning that, if he comes, he can really throw off a night.
You’re lucky that you don’t know anyone like that.
Well, I know people who could throw off a night, but I don’t know many people who would be so directly mean or at least speak their minds, so directly. Most of the people I know are passive aggressive, which works.
There are so many lines from your character in this film that pack a punch, like the one to his girlfriend that’s something along the lines of “That will be good for us, but great for me and that’s more important.”
Oh, “I think this will be good for us. But especially for me.”
Yeah! How did you approach that harsh of a line?
Because he believes it. It’s not like a movie where the guy is sometimes not nice and sometimes he’s great, which is more traditional. This movie just starts and this guy just goes and goes and goes. I think you just have to hope that people will get it because it’s not going to stop. It’s relentless. But I think that it’s funny maybe because it’s so rare that you hear someone go so far into that zone. I think he believes it. His character is just driven. And I think he’s upset.
Should we take him at his word versus thinking of him as a more depressing character with a lot of bravado?
All of that. I think he was a guy who at a young age was like, “I’m going to be a writer. I’m going to move to New York. I’m probably going to be miserable. I’m going to write great things.” I think he’s always been unapologetic. It’s a very specific kind of person who would accept their mentor’s invitation to stay at their house. I don’t think I could do that. Like no.
Especially that sort of mentor [Ike Zimmerman, an intimidating, Philip Roth-like figure].
I would decline that one because I would figure that it would be so scary. But he says “Yes, and can I stay longer.” This is a guy who always wanted this. He’s had some success with his first novel and right now he’s just mishandling that success. Not treating the people around him correctly. But I think you can definitely take him for face value. He says what he means, definitely.
With the other actors, how much time were you in rehearsal? Did you stay to the letter in terms of the script?
I came to New York one month before shooting, and that was just to be with Alex every day. We would read the script every day. We made out all of these note cards for every scene and we laid them out on the ground.
That’s very Nabokov.
Why is it Nabokov?
He used to write out his stuff on notecards [including the first manuscript of Lolita].
I didn’t know that about Nabokov. Well, because this character is dropping in and out of everybody’s lives, we had the whole story on the floor, or on this giant table, on notecards and every character was in a different color ink. And then whenever the one character would drop out, like when Philip would drop out, we would write what he was doing even though it was off-camera. So I’d have a kind of idea, and most of the time it was like “Sitting at desk, writing.” Sorry what was the original question again?
About the rehearsal process with the other actors…
So I was there for a month with Alex and then Lizzie, Elisabeth [Moss], came 10 days before and she’s just different, I guess. I’m a slow learner, and she’s a fast learner. She had all of these fucking awesome ideas. She’s like, “I’m going to play Ashley kind of like Philip.” We talked about our relationship. I knew her a little bit, so it was great. We never rehearsed, like, “Let’s do the scene.” But we would read the lines kind of, and talk about it. Alex did a lot of re-tinkering. We’d be like, “How about this line…” and he’d send an email that night, “How about this…here’s a new version of the scene.” Contouring it a little bit. But that was sort of the most prep we had. We shot it in chunks. Like with Elisabeth, done. Then she left. Then Jonathan Pryce, shoot all of his scenes, then he leaves.
Sort of like different acts.
Exactly. Or like levels of a video game or something. When Jonathan came, he came the night before shooting, so I only met him the day before. Our first scene together is us together sort of eating. And what you’re seeing is probably very much like what would be happening if I was having lunch with Jonathan Pryce—listening to what he’s saying, very intimidated. We shot it in somewhat chronological order, so by the end, there’s this thing that you admire someone and really that day they’re just a person and you feel comfortable around them, but also still nervous. That’s what sort of transpires. It was the same with Josephine [de la Baume] and all of the other actors. There wasn’t that kind of prep time, but we would talk about the scenes like before and Alex is really cool about changing anything, but for the most part, it was very well-conceived, and because it was such a big script, it was like a symphony or something, as opposed to a pop song. If you started to change things, you’d have to account for so many other things. There’s so much reference to things. If you cave one thing out, you could undermine the whole section of the movie without knowing.
In the press notes from Sundance, there are sample blurbs from the different author-characters in the film. Is it true that you wrote the ones for Philip?
Yeah. Every night we would, well not every night, but some long days while talking with Alex I would sit there and write a little paragraph and send it to Alex, “Here’s a little Philip scene.” We just did it for fun.
Would you ever think of writing a book?
I’d love to write something. Right now I’m working on this TV show, Mozart in the Jungle. I’ve written lots of the script, so it’s fun the more you do it. I don’t know, there are enough good books. I don’t think I have anything to add.
How’s the rumored Bored to Death movie going?
Jonathan [Ames]’s working on it. He’s working on a different show right now, one that he’s doing with Seth MacFarlane. But he’s writing the Bored to Death script too. Hopefully one day it will happen. We all want to do it.
You keep playing writers. Jonathan Ames, Philip…
I know! It’s too many writers, I’ve got to get out of this.