Interview: Queen of Earth Writer-Director Alex Ross Perry

On his new "Women's Picture" starring Elizabeth and Katherine Waterston.
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One of the best performances last year (and ridiculously overlooked during awards season) was from Elisabeth Moss in the dark comedy Listen Up Philip. Co-starring Jason Schwartzman and Jonathan Pryce, Moss played the jilted ex of a megalomaniac writer who comes out ahead thanks to the love of a cat named Gadzookey. The film was directed by Gadzookey’s owner (real name is Fluffy) Alex Ross Perry, who has followed up Listen Up Philip with the psychological thriller Queen of Earth. Putting Moss through yet another break up, this time she doesn’t handle things as well, falling down deeper and deeper into her paranoia and delusions.

Moss, a great actor for years, gives undoubtedly one of the best performances of the year as Catherine, with excellence support by Katherine Waterston (as best friend Virginia) and Patrick Fugit (as Virginia’s hate-able boyfriend Rich) who both give some of their best performances to date in this tangled film. Ross, who is currently writing Winnie-the-Pooh for Disney spoke about working with Moss for a second time, the DNA of classic “women’s pictures,” and finally getting cache in the industry.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): Personally, one of the absolute favorite performances from an actress last year was Elisabeth’s in Listen Up Philip, so I was delighted to see that you two made another movie together. How did your collaboration come about for this film?

Alex Ross Perry: I didn’t set out to write the part for her. I didn’t start writing the movie and picture her. But by the time I’d finished, that was just where my head was. And part of that was certainly because I was still so involved with Listen Up Philip while writing it. The day I finished the script I knew, this is where I’m at. And my producer, Joe Swanberg, said “hey, if you’ve worked with her before, you should work with her again. You have the right to tell her you wrote a script and you want her to read it. This is what you’ve earned because of Listen Up Philip. People were kind to that film, it had a nice reception, and she’s proud of her work in it. You’ve earned that cache, use it for good to make the movie exactly the way you want.”

TMS: When you gave her the script, did you ask her to just read it and consider both roles, or did you think of her only for the role of Catherine?

Perry: No, it was definitely that specific role. Because she is the one I was picturing. Halfway through writing it I basically saw her in that role. I was picturing her face and that blonde hair. Actually, I think her blonde hair was gone by the time we started filming.

TMS: With this and Listen Up Philip, you seem to be playing with the medium and texture of films. Listen Up Philip didn’t just feel like a movie from the 60s or 70s based on a Philip Roth novel, it felt and sounded literally like watching a novel come to life. This movie certainly has some Bergman influences, but there is also something almost trashy and oversaturation in the way it looks, which made me think of something I would have watched on VHS in the 80s or early 90s. What is it about playing with the medium in such extreme ways that interest you?

Perry: Well, I don’t think I’m parodying those films, but in a dream world I could definitely see Queen of Earth in a big box VHS case. There are certainly influences of those low-budget American genre films you’re talking about. But the fact is, when you’re making a low-budget film, you have a lot of tools available, but not that many and certainly not as many as studio films. So you have to ask you’re self “which ones should I use or do I need.” It’s a question a lot of indie filmmakers don’t ask as much as they could, and therefore, a lot of these movies end of looking very similar and kind of flat. But for me, I asked myself from the beginning, “What do we have to work with?” So as with all my films, we shot on 16mm film, which creates an instant feeling. There is an overall aesthetic feeling to every frame of this movie which was done for us when we made that decision. You don’t have to do much, when you have something that does so much already. And the question is then, how do you focus the audience’s attention. With Listen Up Philip, which is about an aspiring novelist and the claustrophobia of living in New York City, you film it in handheld and put everything right in the audience’s face. And if the movie is successful, the movie conveys a sense of exactly what I want the audience to be feeling. And my goal for this film was the same. I want to create this very austere, open world with slow zooms. If you use those tools correctly, you know why you are using them, and know they are servicing the tone, you can manipulate an audience as much as a movie like Mad Max did earlier this year. Audiences can have the same visual and auditory experience watching a micro-budget film as much as they have when watching a $150M car chase spectacular, so long as you know how you want to manipulate an audience. And you can’t really do anything else on a movie like this. Cameras and actors are really all you have to make an impression.

TMS: We’ve seen a lot of directors who have had indie success move into studio films recently, like Godzilla and Jurassic World and Fantastic Four. But when filmmakers make that move, they lose some of the freedom independent film allows. Does studio filmmaking interest you or do you enjoy the freedom of a movie like this?

Perry: Well, I’m writing Winnie the Pooh for Disney, so I’m getting my toes wet in the studio world. I’m just writing it, no one has asked me to direct it. And I don’t think anyone is looking at Queen of Earth and thinking “this guy knows how to make a $100M movie.” But someone did look at the quality of writing on Listen Up Philip and think “this guy is a good enough writer to write for Eeyore and Piglet.” So I’m getting into it a little bit. One of my friends, David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) just finished directing Pete’s Dragon for Disney and he comes from the indie world too. So I’m proximal to that process right now through him.

TMS: To go into production on something like Queen of Earth so soon after Listen Up Philip, without the development process or studio notes, do you think the freedom low budgets helps you creatively?

Perry: Oh definitely. Queen of Earth we went into production even faster and with a much smaller crew than on Listen Up Philip. W\e had an independent sized crew, but it was still 45 people. On Queen of Earth, we had a crew of just 11 people. Almost everyone who worked on the movie is basically on the poster. So Queen of Earth is probably closer to my earlier $25,000 movie than Listen Up Philip, in terms of scale. And the fun of working on that scale is the freedom you have to be a bit more radical. And because I sent it to Elisabeth early and she liked it, I knew I would have actors committed because of a desire to do something different, rather than the huge machinery that comes with big budgets, that have permissions and releases to sign. It was about getting about a dozen of my friends together, who I think are uniquely talented, and saying “let’s go have some fun and make this weird little movie. And in doing that, you’ll let me work through whatever issues I might have. Hopefully we’ll have some fun exploring what this movie is about, and afterwards, let’s go to the diner or bowling.”

TMS: Did you know Katherine or Patrick before casting them?

Perry: I didn’t know either. Patrick lives in LA, but I’m just a fan of his, I’ve liked him since Almost Famous. But then I saw him again in We Bought a Zoo a few years ago and thought, this guy’s great. What a cool actor he’s grown up to be. I want to work with him.” So I emailed his agent out of the blue, and wrote “we’re making this small movie over a couple weeks and I want Patrick for this role.” We Skyped the next day and he took the role the day after. And Katherine was kind of the same. I thought, who is cool, who is interesting, who would be fun to go on this journey with?” And now that I’ve earned the cache to email agents out of the blue and say “I like your client, can I talk to them about a role.”

TMS: Is that how you and Elisabeth connected on the first film?

Perry: Yeah, but that was much more traditional. I didn’t send them request, but one of my producers did because they’d produced Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. So they took the step of contacting Elisabeth’s agent. They used their cache to get Jason and Elizabeth. Every time you reach out to an actor like that, and the movie is received well and not a disaster, you can do it again.

TMS: The movie is getting a lot of comparisons to things like Bergman and DePalma or Altman’s Three Women, just in terms of the story and the relationships of the two women. Did you have movies you were drawing from directly or did you try to avoid direct references while making the movie?

Perry: All my other films have been piloted by literature and fiction, so this was kind of my big attempt to make a movie inspired directly by cinema. The other films are as well, but not to this degree. The writing of those other films weren’t about films, they were about beautiful fiction I was obsessed with. And the writing of this movie was about films I loved. And a lot of them. My video store background is a total democratic approach. So something like Bergman is in the DNA of this movie, but we never talked about his films. But his DNA is in all the films we did talk about. For the size of this movie, you can’t say to a cinematograph, hey, make this look like Bergman. Because we had a crew of two and five lights. But we can make it look like a 16mm 70s ghost movie, which was trying to rip Bergman off anyway. So we can just look at those movies. Things like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, the Connecticut lake house movie about a woman who thinks she’s being haunted by ghosts. And that was a huge influence. Or the 80s VHS stuff you mentioned, which is where I’m coming from. Or something like Robert Altman’s Images. Highbrow, low cinema, I’m pretty democratic when it comes to influences. I was talking about Interiors on this film, which is a Bergman movie in the sense that that was all Woody Allen was inspired by. But we were talking about Interiors and never mentioned Bergman. The layers of cinema is very interesting and goes back decades. And all my heroes obsessed over Bergman, and I like his films, but what was important to me were these films from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Because that is when I was raised and I want my influences to be from my lifetime.

TMS: Would the movie have worked as well if you had looked at a friendship of two men?

Perry: Probably not. I wouldn’t want to watch that movie. I don’t want to watch the emotions on display in this film, coming from a man. Listen Up Philip is kind of a look at a friendship of two men with Ike and Philip, but they don’t have the emotional reactions of Virginia or Catherine. And the tradition of these types of films are historically called women’s pictures. That’s the genre it fits into, be it psychological thriller or a classy drama. From Interiors to Carnival of Souls, they are a woman’s story. And the psychotic woman’s break down is a tradition of those films. The psychotic man’s breakdown becomes violent and could become something more like Psycho. That’s not what I’m making. The breakdown of a man becomes murderous, the breakdown of a woman becomes very internal and manifests into some really great cinema. And that is what I was interested in doing here?

TMS: The scenes of Catherine and Virginia together feel very intimate. Was it every difficult to write scenes like that between two women?

Perry: No, because I feel like I’m really just writing people. The characters were a bit more fleshed out because they were being performed by two brilliant actresses, and what might have read differently on the page suddenly felt more natural when they said it. But if you were unable to write for men and women or wrote them differently, that would be extremely sexist I think. I was expressing some of my feelings through Elisabeth’s character, so those were my words coming out of her mouth, but I just twisted them around to make them her problems and hopefully relatable to everyone.

TMS: You never go into detail regarding the medical or psychological illness Catherine is suffering from or provide a diagnosis. Did you make the decision before writing it that you wouldn’t have that in the film? That you wouldn’t explain what is happening or frame her behavior around psychological realism?

Perry: I wanted her character to be open to interpretation because it meant that the narrative of this film and final meaning of the film was totally objective. I didn’t want to be judgmental, but if you as the viewer know what it is and why it’s happening, they no longer have a two way relationship with the film. And I don’t get as excited about movies which tell you the meaning. Leaving it up to you allows the audience to have the conversations afterwards. The lesser way of doing this film would be to tell them what is or just happened. That’s why people don’t like the last scene in Psycho. People say that is the worse scene Hitchcock ever directed because it’s like, what’s the point? What is the point of having a psychologist come in and explain everything, when you’ve just been curious about what makes a person do these things? Explaining it just takes away from the audience’s experience with the film. And I’m happy to stay on the other side of that line.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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