Scenes From a Friendship: A Conversation with Alex Ross Perry

Adam Cook interviews Alex Ross Perry about his fourth film, _Queen of Earth_.
Adam Cook

Very clearly of the independent American cinema of the moment, and the New York scene in particular, Alex Ross Perry has nevertheless distinguished himself from his contemporaries with three singularly biting comedies—and now has set himself further apart with his latest: Queen of Earth, an intense dramatic departure. Viewers of Impolex, The Color Wheel, and most recently Listen Up Philip will recognize certain trademarks, among them a cast of entitled characters who treat each other horribly, as well as Sean Price Williams's stunning Super 16 cinematography, which here captures the damaged mental state of the film's protagonist with a blend of grainy pastel blues and greys contrasted with the earthly colors that make up the terrain surrounding its lake house setting. Taking cues from Polanski, Bergman, Fassbinder, and Kubrick, Perry imbues the film with an unsettlingly violent tone, made all the more discomforting in its restraint (this bubbling violence never manifests physically, but charges the film with psychological tension)—meanwhile, Keegan DeWitt's brilliantly disquieting score intensifies matters.

Elisabeth Moss stars as Catherine, an unstable depressive recently dumped by her boyfriend. Virginia (Katherine Waterston) offers her close friend a chance to recover in exile in her family's lake house. Taking place over a week, they constantly find themselves at each other's throats, as Catherine loses her grip more with each passing day. Crosscut with flashbacks to their previous summer together, the film examines the shifting power dynamics of their friendship, and studies the way they use each other (one amazing long take consisting of back-and-forth close-ups as both characters exchange monologues is the film's lynchpin).

I sat down with Perry in Berlin, where Queen of Earth premiered last month, to talk about the different aspects and challenges of this surprising new film.

NOTEBOOK: It’s obvious to point out this is a departure from your previous three films. The two principle characters are female, it takes place in one isolated setting, it’s a drama—though I admit there are still a couple of laughs. 

ALEX ROSS PERRY: We were talking a lot about Roman Polanski when we were making the movie. Polanski movies are comedies, European pitch-black comedies, though most people don’t see them that way. If you watch them in a theatre people are laughing. That element is part of the genes of movies like this.

NOTEBOOK: What led you to this project? Was it just naturally the next idea that came along or were you consciously moving into new territory.

PERRY: I wasn’t saying the next thing I did had to be different until Joe Swanberg was like, “you should make another movie right now, is there anything you can do that’s small? Don’t wait three years to make a movie that’s bigger than Philip. In three years you may not have made the bigger movie and you’ll be desperate to make another movie that’s two weeks in one location because you’ll be rusty.” I was like, “yeah there’s some stuff but it’s getting bigger”, and he said, “don’t make it bigger, scale it down,” and that enabled the movie to get moving. As for what to make, it would not have been appealing to anybody to make a movie with less money and less resources that was similar to Philip only 12 months after shooting it.

NOTEBOOK: The spontaneity had a lot to do with it. 

PERRY: It made it seem like the obvious thing to do was just go in another direction. So if I were to say to a cinematographer or composer or Elisabeth, “I want to make another movie together, it’s going to be set in Brooklyn, it’s got a lot of dialogue and jokes, but we’re not going to have any of the resources we had on Listen Up Philip, we’re not going to have location budget,” they would say “this sounds like a horrible experience.” Also, for my own challenge, with those perimeters I couldn’t top what I did on that movie under any circumstances right now because I have no more experience or curiosity about anything that movie’s about. There’s nothing else in that world that I have right now. Telling the collaborators, "let’s just do this thing right now, it’s going to be really different," gets them on board. For me, it’s about making it a challenge. I can’t just say I’m making a smaller movie, it’ll be the same—it has to be a different kind of movie. The placement of the camera is different, the patience of certain shots in shooting and editing, the rhythms of the scenes won't rely on jokes.

NOTEBOOK: It’s more synchronized with how the characters are feeling, especially Elisabeth’s character; it’s synonymous with her state of mind. It’s claustrophobic; you stay tight in on faces—although there’s typically not a lot of staging in your work, where which characters are in relation to others: always emotional relations over spatial relations. 

PERRY: Yeah, I don’t have a lot of patience for that stuff. The spatial stuff is partly determined by making low budget movies where you’re on locations without options and that informs what’s interesting. You have to let whatever you’re working with inform it. Let’s just try this and see if we can make it work.

NOTEBOOK: The idea of the two women, close friends whose relationship is deteriorating, one of whom is severely depressive: Is this an idea you had in a different form kicking around? 

PERRY: That’s just what was coming and after Philip I thought it would be great to make a woman’s movie, where they’re front and center and it’s their issues we’re dealing with, while the men are just incidental doofuses who just hang around the margins and have nothing to do other than antagonize the women. On Philip, I didn’t want the women to act as functionaries for the men’s journey but in this film that is what the men are. In talking about Philip for so long I started realizing things about it, and wondered if I could make a movie that doesn’t deal with any of these issues of being a young man—and how great would it be to make a movie where the first question I’m asked isn’t: “Is the main character based on you?” Weirdly, Elisabeth’s character more so than Phiplip is closer. My emotions at the time more directly influenced her character than anything during the writing of Philip. I just learned to disguise it better.

NOTEBOOK: How did you arrive at the structural choice of having it be one week with title cards for each day dividing the film into chapters? It’s very different but it made me think of Scenes From a Marriage, it’s another chronicle of arguments.

PERRY: Yeah, it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do when you’re backing into things and you’re thinking one location, a retreat, and when you’re thinking of a retreat you’re thinking of something finite. It’s just interesting, it sets restrictions, and it has this fun element that I thought was great. In July I saw prints of both Barry Lyndon and 2001 and they both do the same kind of trick where the passage of time is made very clear with some title cards, but within it it’s very reckless and ambiguous. In 2001, people are sitting in an office and it cuts and it’s clearly a year later but there’s no indication. So doing a movie where it’s Monday, and it’s morning, and then it just fades out and it’s dark out. Where did that time go?

NOTEBOOK: Right, there’s an ellipsis, just on a smaller scale.

PERRY: So when things start getting pretty weird in the movie and Elisabeth is just sitting in bed around sunset, like 7pm, and then it just cuts to the next day, what happened the rest of the night? Having it set as a day let’s you play with the formal structure that you backed yourself into. The next thing to do would be to have hours, which would be crazy, but I like the idea that maybe she just sat there the rest of the night, or maybe something happened—

NOTEBOOK: —Or maybe something happened that we don’t see. I found the film to be unpredictable, and every time it got to a new day I was curious to find out what would happen that day, where’s her head at now? Is she going to go crazy, get better? The film has a consistent mood but I was always reevaluating where it, and she, were going. There’s a moment with a knife that comes to mind, where things could have played out differently. It’s unsettling because of that.

PERRY: When you set that up in terms of formal expectations, you know or assume how long there’s going to be. Not when you show the first one, you think it might be two days, but after the second one you assume there’s going to be a week. It sets up expectations that are very easy to play with.

NOTEBOOK: If we saw everything she did, there’d be far less mystery. Let’s talk about Sean Price Williams’ cinematography. I think this may be your and his best looking movie. Can you talk about your aesthetic direction for the movie but also Sean’s involvement and how that collaboration works?

PERRY: Again, we had just made an entirely handheld movie where we made sure that every piece of furniture and all the lighting was going brown and saturated, so when I was like let’s do another movie, he was like, “why? What’s the point?” And I said it’s going to be all on tripods with slow zooms and it’ll be really blue and cold. Let’s just use gimmicks like there are two shots I’m thinking of: one where the camera’s downstairs, and it tilts upstairs and another that’s upstairs where Elisabeth walks in and it tilts as she comes up. There’s not a single shot like that in Listen Up Philip, and putting it in this sterile blue-grey, unpleasantness of the house, it was like, "let’s try it, we’ve never done that before."

NOTEBOOK: There’s an amazing long take that pans from Waterston to Moss (in conversation) and back again several times, racking focus—was that in the script or is that something you figure out in the space with the actors?

PERRY: Their monologues were in the script, and that it would be one shot. We both happened to be staying in a resort in Greece over the summer thanks to our Greek producer. And for the first time ever, Sean and I sat in the piazza three nights in a row eating sorbet and drinking beers and going through the script and having those conversations about planning out the shots. We’d never done that before, we usually wing it once we’re there. We weren’t doing it because we needed to but because we thought it was funny that the only time we’d ever done it was at 3am sitting by the sea in Greece by ourselves. In that discussion we came up with that shot and the influence on the film at the time was Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, the idea of posing women together in enclosed spaces and letting discussions play out. For some reason somewhere in the process I was like, "this movie should have a lot of coverage of people listening." We should play with the idea of people of people reacting; not speaking, and that one take seemed like the perfect place to do that—and it’s early enough in the film that when we focus on listening after that point it harkens back to that shot and idea.

NOTEBOOK: And on set there’s a balance between following a blueprint and being free?

PERRY: On set, the actors ran through it for Sean, and I was like, “when she gets to this point, that’s kinda the time to move.” I wasn’t specific down to the word, I let Sean feel it out, which is how we also did Philip where the movements are blocked and choreographed but there’s room to improvise along with the actors. This time, though, it was on a tripod and with zooms rather than physically moving around. He brings ideas that I don’t feel I need to interfere with, there’s a lot of trust.

NOTEBOOK: How annoying would it be if I asked about the title?

PERRY: I seem to have made another movie where that gets brought up. I chose it for two reasons: I wanted to clearly show the elements, water, wind, dirt, slow zooms on the lake, tilts up to the trees, to play with stuff like that. On the other hand, for a film that’s largely about entitlement, where Elisabeth’s character is at one point referred to as “your majesty,” in a very condescending way… There’s something interesting about characters who think of themselves in a certain entitled way and the film’s screaming bookmark of a title should set up some sense of regency, and the way some people demand privacy while living in public. When she says "I just want to be left alone," and then Patrick’s character says, “no you want to make a spectacle of yourself,” that’s like the Royals being like, "what about our privacy?" That stuff is just interesting to me and that was the way the whole movie was came together around privacy and isolation.

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