Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, his follow-up to last year’s searing Listen Up Philip, mostly unfurls as a two-hander, duelling performances from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston convey a corrosive friendship that escalates in animosity during a week-long stay at a lake house. The film played to raves at Berlin earlier this year and seems to be having a similar response here in Melbourne. Ahead of the film’s second screening, we spoke to Perry about the process of making the film, as well as a cavalcade of tangents about cinema and perception more broadly.
The first thing I want to ask about is the production turnaround for Queen of Earth, it seemed to be shorter than the gap between The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip.
Yeah, well, we shot it about a year after, but before Listen Up Philip came out in America, or anywhere. But you know, the timeline was kind of similar, the only thing that took less time was filming, but, you know, it takes the same amount of time to edit and do all of the other stuff.
It was a small crew too, this time around.
Yeah, it was a small crew of about 10 or 11, as opposed to 45, and it was 12 days of filming instead of 25.
Did you see this stripping back as a way to return to the process of The Color Wheel?
Yeah, well it was sort of combining everything that I had learned from making my first two movies, about how to make a movie with basically nothing, where everyone is doing six jobs, and combine that with what I had just learned, which was how to get famous people to come be in your movie and how to structure your production in a way that they don’t regret being there, that they have a really good time and that they are reminded of the creative freedom that they have during this process. I wanted to find a way to make a movie that balanced the kind of no-nonsense, very very small, all hands on, family feeling of my first couple of movies, with the status afforded with making a largeish film. So yeah, it was a neat process, to combine the two ways of working.
Well you must have done something right, with Elisabeth Moss also producing Queen of Earth.
She was very excited to be involved with something very early, you know, for an actor traditionally, including in Listen Up Philip, you get a script, you Skype with the director or talk to them in person and if they like you and you like them, you make the movie together. Then I sent it to her the same day I sent it to the only other two people who were working on it and she immediately said she wanted to become involved. So being involved that early, her participation just grew very organically throughout the process. She took a lot of those responsibilities very seriously by the time we were filming and, you know, suggested things that, on a larger production, would be considered sort of illegal if you had 50 people. But for the size of our crew it was fine. So she was able to kind of expedite things like mealtime and other things that wouldn’t fly with a huge crew, but when it was just ten people and the actress is the producer she can walk around to everybody and suggest a different way of eating lunch that makes our day about an hour-and-a-half shorter and everyone says “OK”, because she is kind of running the show in front of and behind the camera, so it was really nice.
That’s really interesting. Most of that ten-person crew had all worked on Listen Up Philip: same production designer, cinematographer, editor, composer.
The only difference was the two people in the camera department, who the DP had worked with before on other movies, so they weren’t new to him but I’d never met them. But everyone else was just a friend who was, you know, into the idea of making this.
It’s this kind of sprawling world of interconnected people, and as far as I can see your films are the nexus point. Sean Price Williams, Robert Greene, Keegan DeWitt, all have branched off into interesting projects on their own but have come back for your films every few years.
Yeah, well everyone is happy to do something if they have not been proven wrong for wanting to do it in the past. So, yeah, it’s a pretty beneficial system if everybody knows their input will be valued and that their own skills will be given a lot of breathing room.
It is interesting, though, that those same collaborators keep coming back but each film is quite different. I mean, Queen of Earth is something of a departure from Listen Up Philip. For starters, you have two women in the lead roles. It’s kind of like The Color Wheel in that sense, just two people verbally laying into one another for the entire film. On that, it’s really interesting to see the versatility on show, I mean, Sean Price Williams has two films at this very festival – yours and the Safdies’ Heaven Knows What, and they’re both so very different visually. Did you consciously approach the cinematography here in a different manner to that in Philip?
Well, he’s like the perfect intro to this question, because I said to him, “I think I’m gonna try to make a small movie very soon, before Philip comes out.” And he would say, “Well, what’s the point?” And I would say, “Well, it’s going to be completely different, nothing you and I do will be the same; mostly tripod and a lot of slow zooms,” and telling him stuff like that is the only way to get his interest. If I was to say, “We’re hopefully going to get the same look that we did on the other movie, but we’re not going to have as much time or as much equipment to get it,” then he would say, “I don’t want to do it,” because we can’t do that, it doesn’t sound fun. So, you know, so if you present this to your collaborators as a challenge, it’s like, “Yeah, we’re not going to have as much money or as much time, but what we’re going to do is so different that it doesn’t really matter.” That gets people really interested because they want to see if they can pull it off. For someone like that, who I’ve now worked with on everything I’ve ever done, you know, the process is just trying to one-up each other and trying to keep the whole production alive with our ideas, and challenging each other to go further and come up with better ideas, so that the whole thing benefits from that kind of competitive creative battle. So yeah, there’s never anything more specific than just, you know, “What haven’t we seen before?”, but then while we’re doing it we just talk about everything we’ve ever done but don’t really try to copy it. So yeah, it’s a fun process to have people you have a kind of history with, and the more I work the more people like that there are.
So are you all improvising on set?
Yeah, I mean, we never really plan anything out. Originally, because we didn’t really have the time or the need to, but for Philip we had three weeks of paid pre-production and we just sat in an office all the time and I guess we just sort of talked about stuff and then the planning would be very boring and when we got there you have a 14-hour day and everything’s already been discussed. That’s a long day of checking off of a list you made two weeks ago of all of the shots you want to get, and it’s a really short day if you’re just rushing to capture every new idea that comes into your mind that’s inspired by the performances and inspired by the set. So, for this, when we’re in one house for the whole time, by day three or four, everyone knows the house; they can start coming up with ideas so that by day four everything we have to say is, “Well, what haven’t we shot yet? We’ve done two scenes already in the living room, here’s the third scene in the living room, how can we do this differently than the other two?”, and that’s just a fun way to challenge ourselves, you know. You look at the scenes in the movie that have recurring locations, such as out on the deck by the easel, there are three scenes out there and, you know, it was just very important in advance – we said in advance “all three of these scenes have to be very different”, we never figured out how they would be different until we started doing them.
There’s one of the three that’s a really long take that keeps changing focus between each of their faces as they talk.
Well, in one of the scenes by the easel it’s just one take with a split diopter and then another scene is very traditionally covered, and then the third scene has more coverage than any other scene in the movie, we probably shot like hours worth of footage for a four-minute scene. So in that scene basically no shot is used twice, we knew they all had to be different but we just didn’t figure out how they would be different until we started doing them.
I think this is probably the first of your films where the immediate textual reference point is not a novel. It seems like Philip and Color Wheel were Roth, and I know Impolex was inspired by Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, so this time it seems like you’re preventing lazy critics from leading off with a literary aside in their reviews.
Yeah, well that was again in keeping with the idea on this film that everything that we wanted to do was different. That was my kind of challenge to myself, to not lead with that in my thoughts or what I wanted to do with this, and similar to saying to every other person, “Well this is how we’re going to do things differently,” and that was my challenge to myself, to not make a film that came from that but just came from movies.
I mean, the film’s trailer shows that too. Did you have much input into the creation of that?
Not really. It’s an interesting process. Last year, for Philip, I was very insistent that I be involved in every decision and the end result was that everybody was unhappy because of that and I didn’t get what I wanted and nobody else got what they wanted because I forced people to change more than they wanted to. So then this year I said, “I don’t really care, you people can do what you want and release the movie however you want. If you want to talk to me about whatever I’m here, but like I’m not going to be emailing you every day saying ‘I need to see a new cut of that trailer'”, and somehow being nice about this resulted in them being more open with me than I had been given last year. So, yeah, I just ended up having much more of an opinion. But the whole concept of that trailer came from the trailer company and I saw it and was like, “Is this seriously what you guys are OK with?” and the distributor was like, “Yeah, we think this is great,” and I was like, “Yeah, I do too, let me just rewrite the voiceover and let me hear who you’re thinking of using and I’ll give my opinion, but you don’t have to use the guy I like.” In being a lot kinder about this process everyone was a lot happier and these little promotional pieces became kind of an interesting collaboration rather than a miserable compromise.
Do you find that there’s a big difference in terms of success more broadly with your films at festivals and in general release? Weren’t there some distribution troubles with Philip?
I don’t think it really matters. A year ago I would have been very adamant that things like that are very important but, you know, I think that all of that stuff is circumstantial and it all changes with whatever is available at that time. I don’t really see it as a problem, I think it’s probably better if you want to have a longer, more stable career to have movies that, at the time of their premiere and release people seem to respond to more than to have films that are generally despised that make a lot of money. I think that one of those things, ten years later, will result in nobody remembering the movie, and one of those things will result in people saying, “Well, you know, I can’t believe that film wasn’t a huge hit, because everyone I know talked about it like it was a seminal part of that year, and I looked it up and it turns out that barely anyone saw it but just everyone who saw it talked about it a lot,” and I believe that that’s probably more important. I think if you look 20 years back at independent films from the ’90s, a lot of the ones that were probably pretty successful are completely forgotten about now and the ones that people really love did quite poorly.
That’s also tied up in influence as well, the next generation of filmmakers and those writing about film are vocal about it, latching onto financial ugly ducklings, that’s what will inspire this carrying on of these films.
Yeah, I think you have to decide what matters more, and I’m betting that one matters more than the other, but only time will tell.
Speaking of things that are generally despised, you wrote a piece in The Talkhouse about Aloha earlier this year, and you wrote about the “ironic appreciation” of movies that’s prevalent today. Why do you think film audiences are taking that route?
I don’t really know, I think it’s a cultural thing. I don’t know how much it translates internationally. I can only really speak to the feeling around the release of certain movies in my society, I assume it’s pretty much the same anywhere, at least in other English-speaking parts of the world. You know, it’s very mysterious to me just what excites people, because I think that there’s a certain kind of ironic appreciation of a certain type of dumb movie, but then a completely sincere disdain for another type of dumb movie. Like, I don’t see a lot of these films so I don’t know what other people see in them, but there does seem to be a genuine intellectual response to the Fast and the Furious movies and a complete intellectual scoffing at something like Transformers. To me, again having seen none of either one of those films except for the first of both franchises like ten or fifteen years ago, it’s unimaginable to me what the differences are in these intellectual reasonings, behind thinking that one of these things is like kind of fascinating and brilliant and one of them is so dumb that its success makes you mad and disappointed in the world of cinema.
I really don’t know what the deal is with that, and then right in the middle of it is something like Marvel movies, which I do enjoy, which kind of don’t really go either way; they don’t elicit the same sort of ire as something like a Transformers and they don’t inspire any sort of serious critical thought a la Fast and Furious for whatever reason. Yeah, I just think that people have to have opinions on things and, you know, it’s like pretty hip to pretend that there’s something intellectually stimulating about Fast and the Furious and like pretty silly to pretend like there’s something intellectually stimulating about superheroes, but then like, once people realise that there’s nobody standing up and putting forth… it’s like the Tony Scott thing. Tony Scott is now regarded as a super clever and subversive creator of bold and borderline experimental images, but ten years ago he was just thought of as a shitty director.
That’s film writing on the internet now, things like vulgar auteurism, an online writing movement where the aim is to find filmmakers who are oft-maligned and sort of champion them as their own.
Yeah, well, once people realise that there’s something that everybody hates that they kind of like, and they can think of a reason why they like it that sounds smart, then I think the tide will start to turn. Yeah, beyond that I don’t know really what it is people like. I mean, moreso than ever people really like having opinions about things and, you know, the fact that when a Fast and the Furious film comes out people write about it seriously and rank it is to me like, it might as well be in Clerks.1 Like how ridiculously nerdy that is, to be like taking that sort of nonsense seriously, but if it were in a Kevin Smith movie nobody would see it, or they would just laugh at it, because that’s not cool either. So yeah it’s just like this very bizarre instinct for people to need to have some borderline controversial opinion.
But yeah, earnestness in the case of Aloha just confuses me because that’s an earnestness that people reject, but then you look at these revolting twee Sundance movies, that are so earnest that the trailers are nauseating, but people don’t reject those on the same grounds because there’s like this illusion that those movies are made with elbow- rease and independent gumption and Aloha is made with like cynical studio money, so therefore one form of earnestness is worse than the other, and I agree – one form is worse than the other and it’s the independent one. Like the guy who’s trying to make a career for himself making crowd-pleasing crap when he is struggling to raise money the same as anybody. That’s more detestable than the guy who’s been making movies for like 30 years. So yeah, I don’t know, it’s like a weird cultural moment where what people like is very far away from what I understand.
Did you see Me and Earl and the Dying Girl?
No, the trailer was revolting. I saw the trailer twice in two days earlier this year and yeah, it was one of the most appallingly disgusting things I could ever imagine.
When you were describing that twee Sundance film I just assumed that’s the film you were talking about.2
Yeah I wouldn’t want to see it because then I would have to have an actual informed opinion on it.
There is that problem, though, because a film like that gets made and put out and is so manipulative and so ‘about cinema’ without actually conveying a love of cinema at all, just the idea of it, yet it wins the Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance. Didn’t do that well at the box office, though, despite a huge theatrical push.
It did kind of flop on its own terms theatrically, which is good. It proves that you can’t force that stuff down people’s throats, no matter how many awards it wins at Sundance but yeah it’s probably the worst thing for film culture to see people at an independent level that are so inoffensively down the middle.
It’s also happening in terms of the way people perceive festivals, turning away from Sundance and even Tribeca, in terms of what’s winning, what’s big there, because the stuff garnering raves at those festivals often just feel pre-produced, despite the fact it’s meant to be independently focused. There’s almost a formula to win those awards – young actors, coming of age, bright colours, good soundtrack.
Those movies only play in the competition section at Sundance. The other sections are actually pretty radical. I learned from being there and doing a lot of research and seeing stuff and talking to people – everybody, filmmakers, programmers, agents – everyday about what I should see, and it’s pretty cool stuff, it just doesn’t get the most press.
What was the best thing you saw at Sundance?
When I was there? I mean, objectively the best thing I probably saw was Boyhood, but that’s like not fair to put it in with the others. I don’t remember, it was almost two years ago, I’m sure at the time I could have answered this. I mostly saw my friends’ movies, so that was my memory.
One of the things I really like about your last two films, and something that I think is a perverse reason why people enjoy them so much, is that they’re about artifice, and how everyone is a fraud to some degree. Listen Up Philip, I felt, was a lot about affectation, taking on board someone else’s characteristics, particularly Ike and striving to be the ‘Great American Novelist’. In Queen of Earth I think there’s this shattering of the idea of a secluded, rich path to greatness. Is that something that you’re interested in? Do you walk down the street thinking to yourself that everyone is a fraud?
I mean, not so literally, but the kind of performance that people have to put on to convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing is interesting to me. I do kind of see a lot of that when I’m just walking around looking at people. I don’t have like a job or a set of responsibilities that allow me to be in like, an office, or anything, so when I’m out or at home, I see people, you know, looking at them and thinking about the way they’re dressed and thinking about the process they would have gone to to acquire these clothes, having to try them on and pay money for them and decide that this is the right thing to wear and then leave the house at 9 in the morning and sit in front of other people all day. It’s very interesting to me, the kind of performance that this is, that eventually I think for most people they don’t really think that they’re dressing up and going out every day, they really think that this is who they are and they think that this stuff defines them. That’s like basically what Fight Club is about, which was a huge movie for me when I was younger. But that sort of thing does really interest me and I have a hard time not thinking about that.
I think it definitely does come out in Queen of Earth, both Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Moss are playing people performing roles, and then having them have to fall back on their real identity when the facade is questioned. Both of them deliver incredible performances as well, especially Elisabeth Moss. There’s a scene, actually one of those outside at the easel, where she has this line – “it’s touch and go” – and that was insane, running the gamut of emotion and identity in a few seconds. How did you go about directing their performances?
I mean, I learned on Philip that the best thing to do for actors of that calibre, which in Philip everybody was and in this everybody was, is to just hang out with them a lot before and throughout the day of filming, just be there as they are working with the material and explain where it came from for me, and then when you’re filming, her especially, just get out of the way and see what materialises because it’s always, in our two movies together, totally surprising and never what I would have expected and always better than what I could have hoped. You know, that’s just the fun part of working with great actors now that I’m in a position to actually get to find actors than I’m a fan of and bring them on board is that you see the inside of their process and you understand that a great performance is just a series of decisions that they make on their own about every single line.
A bad job of directing would be to interfere and meddle with that, to force them into doing something that is not what they feel the best about and I think doing a good job of being the director is knowing where the boundaries are and just letting what comes naturally come from the kind of fun spirit of why we’re making these little movies, which isn’t for me to execute an exacting vision that I thought of alone, six months earlier, but it’s to kind of give all of these people who I think are talented the freedom to really take what I have given them and do whatever they want with it. Therefore, essentially, I’m doing nothing on set, because basically I’ve brought together all of these really talented people and they know that whatever they do is, generally, going to really excite me. I’m there to enjoy the fruits of my labour because my work is essentially done, I get to watch a great cinematographer do great work capturing great performances from great actors in a set that looks nice, you know, and I just get to enjoy myself. The work is basically over and then I’m just having fun and hanging out and watching all of this stuff come together.
I think that looseness carries across to the film as a whole. One of my favourite aspects of the film is that the tone is almost impossible to pigeonhole, it’s so bitterly funny and then suddenly very tense later in the film, you can’t entirely work out where the transitioned happened. I liked the way you put it when you spoke with Adam Cook at MUBI’s Notebook, you said that “Polanski movies are comedies, European pitch-black comedies” I think that sense of having two completely different tones concurrently is definitely here in Queen of Earth.
Yeah, when we we getting ready to make this I kept saying, “This movie has no jokes in it,” and I didn’t really think it did, except that we were laughing a lot when we were making it and talking about Polanski all the time. Then you see it with a crowd and you realise that stuff’s kind of there anyway, and, I don’t know, the tone can be different things, but I think it’s consistent enough that it doesn’t feel sloppy or unintentional, it’s all coming from the same place. If there’s humour in this movie it’s all kind of situational, as opposed to dialogue-driven or slapstick.
It’s almost as if people are laughing as a way to escape the crushing reality of what’s going on, this corrosive friendship.
Yeah, I mean those are the only laughs in a horror movie. I saw Blue Velvet in a theatre over the weekend, which I haven’t seen in a theatre in probably ten years, or at all perhaps, and there’s like a 25-minute sequence where Kyle MacLachlan first infiltrates Isabella Rossellini’s apartment and he’s hiding in the closet and she drags him out and he’s naked and then she puts him back in the closet and then Dennis Hopper’s there huffing the nitrous or whatever it is, and then he starts punching her in the head and it just goes on forever and then it just cuts to Kyle MacLachlan on the phone, and he’s talking to Laura Dern, and she asks, “How’d it go?” and he says, “It went OK,” and, you know, it’s just the funniest moment because you’ve just watched how incredibly terrifying and strange this whole thing is and he just says, “It went OK.” That’s not really a joke, but it comes as such a refreshing moment of absurdity, to hear that people really need to laugh at the end of that long sequence, and that’s the best kind of moment in a movie like that.
Something I also really liked is that you’ve put Queen of Earth in the same universe as Philip, like Virginia, Katherine Waterston’s character, almost exclusively reads Ike Zimmerman. That was a really funny thing, painting her as the kind of person who only reads Ike Zimmerman.
Well we didn’t have many resources on this, we just needed all of those books to fill up the shelves, because I just had them all and Katherine really liked them and said that it would mean a lot to her if she could be holding them in the movie, because they’re all just in the house anyway, and I said “sure”. So yeah, it was her idea.
That’s great, the sort of free-flowing creative stuff you were talking about before.
Yeah we just needed to fill up the space because most of the books that I own you can’t just put in them on the shelf because the spine is very recognisable, so we had to just kind of grab what we had and she said, “I really love these in the movie and it’s so cool to see them in person. Can I use one?”
It’s actually sometimes annoying in movies when you recognise the spines of books, like in Interstellar there’s a shot that pans across the bookshelf as the dust is falling on it and you can see One Hundred Years of Solitude, the cheapish new Picador edition of it just sitting there and it just drew my eye away from anything else.
That was probably intentional in that case, though.
Definitely the book but that edition? Pristine and new, just picked up from any bookstore? One of my writers has asked me to ask how Fluffy, your cat, is doing.
Oh cool, please tell them thank you. He’s doing well, his treatment was very successful. You know, this is exactly the time last year when he got really sick, and we started shooting Queen of Earth in the middle of September, and that’s when he got diagnosed with lymphoma and now, a year later, it’s like nothing ever happened, which was really surprising.
So yeah, it’s been nice. Also especially because I have a few writing jobs right now and I just spend all my time at home, spending time with the cats after two years of editing or shooting and travelling and now I’m just home all the time so I’m getting to really be there for them, so it’s great.
What are the writing projects? Are you writing other scripts for yourself?
Well I’m writing a Winnie the Pooh movie for Disney, and I spent some time a few months ago writing like what would be the next movie of this size that we can make and I’m writing a TV thing as well, so yeah, that’s just basically what I’ve been doing since April, is writing these three things, so I’m home all of the time.
Ok, great. That’s all I’ve got, thanks for talking with me.