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Interview: Alex Ross Perry on Making Golden Exits

The filmmaker discusses shooting and editing his film, and working with Adam Horovitz.

Interview: Alex Ross Perry on Making Golden Exits
Photo: Don Stahl

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.

Nick’s office was the set that inspired my question. It vividly communicates the writer/reader’s comfort in being surrounded by stuff.

My friend Michael Chaikin, who is an archivist and an inspiration on the movie, sent us a picture of his office and came to the set and gave it a once over. Every place he worked at looked exactly like that: cramped and dramatically full of decades’ worth of ephemera. Our art director and set decorator had a great time getting in there and filling up Scott Kuzio’s set.

Speaking of Nick, what led to Adam Horovitz in this role?

I really liked his performance in While We’re Young. With every attempt to utilize what resources I have from project to project—which is the crew we’ve already talked about, or a friendship with Jason Schwartzman that makes including him in my movies much easier than I suppose it is for other people—there’s also this desire to create blank spaces so that I can fill them up with something new. And Nick belongs to a demographic—an age of a guy, a kind of a guy, and therefore a kind of character—that I’d never searched for. There’s never been a guy of that age and stature in any of my movies, so the idea of casting a little bit of a net and seeing who was out there for a role like that was exciting. As soon as I saw Adam’s name as a New York local, which we were needing for logistic reasons, I said, “Oh God. I mean, yeah, just even a meeting with that guy would be a once in a lifetime thing.” Also Chloë’s already involved at that point so the question is “Who’s married to Chloë?” I sat down and I’m like “Yeah, this guy is married to Chloë, he is in that office, he is going to be perfect in this movie, and I hope he agrees with me.”

It’s a testament to Adam’s performance and his skills as an actor. You know, he claims he’s not an actor. You don’t need me to say this, but he’s the coolest guy. He’s one of the all-time, top-10 coolest people of my entire lifetime to ever become a part of the popular culture. And he has never not been anything other than cool and important and interesting, and we’re making him play a guy who’s a little bit of a loser and a fuddy-duddy. To watch Adam show up, cool as hell, and within an hour be sitting in that chair with his little snap glasses and just have changed from Adam to Nick…he’s doing deep, incredible character work here, there’s nothing he can’t do.

It’s like Nick is slipping in and out of a shell.

Yeah, his idea.

You and I are similar ages, and so, with Adam, there’s obviously always going to be a Beastie Boys association for us.

One hundred percent, yeah.

And Chloë was this chic symbol of New York, and so in this film you have two of our icons as a disappointed couple. The casting makes a statement about one generation yielding its power to another.

Well, time comes for all of us.

I saw Golden Exits for the first time at the Los Cabos Film Festival last fall.

Oh, cool.

As a contrast against most of what mainstream cinema offers, it was nice to see those huge, Bergman-y close-ups on the big screen. In the blockbuster desert, it was the film equivalent of drinking spring water.

The question is: What can you do with the resources you have that you’re committed to? And, for me, it’s to make these tiny little intimate movies. A lot of movies that I see and that I love—repertory movies and movies that have stood the test of time—this is how they function. And they certainly last a lot longer and mean a lot more to me and to others than something that offers much more immediate, in-your-face pleasures. I’m not going to say something quite as extreme as “I think it’s my responsibility to make these movies.” But, as long as it’s an option, I feel like it’s something that I must keep doing.

It’s nice to simply see people hang out in a movie. You don’t get that in many blockbusters.

Yes.

One of my favorite scenes in your filmography is that sequence in Listen Up Philip when Ike is drunk and he calls Philip down to his house to entertain those women. It’s such a wonderful, emotionally evocative scene in which you’re allowed to cruise on the energy of these characters.

That’s the best movie I’ve ever done, in that one scene.

Reminded me of Cassavetes’s Faces in miniature.

If we’re lucky.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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