Not the Typical New York Movie: Talking with Alex Ross Perry about Listen Up Philip

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It was well over a year ago that I first spoke with Alex Ross Perry about his film Listen Up Philip. I had reached out to Perry about a profile for Brooklyn Magazine because of how much I (and everyone else on staff who had seen them) had liked his previous films: Impolex and The Color Wheel. Perry spoke back then about his affinity for capturing those moments in life that are “deeply sickening but also unavoidable,” and about how Philip would be another exploration about those moments, as well as a look at what it means to become successful in New York.

Perry told us back then that Philip would be his first real “New York movie” and that unlike most directors’ New York films, his wouldn’t be “all kinds of romantic and magical and fun and creative and funny.” Rather, Perry explained that his New York movie would be ” for someone who’s not from here, who came here for school like me and got thrown into everything I’ve been a part of here, I haven’t seen the movie that’s, like, it sucks here. A lot.” Perry continued, “Everyone you meet in every field you’re in, at least in creative endeavors and probably others that I don’t know about, is super competitive and super petty and every good thing you make happen for yourself comes with negativity and bad feelings from everyone else. And I’m not saying that to be negative and I’m not saying that to be funny I’m saying that because it’s genuinely true.”

A few months after speaking with Perry, we visited the DUMBO set of Philip (and even have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in the film; that’s me walking down Jay Street, hair frizzed out in a humidity-induced halo behind Jason Schwartzman’s head), and were able to see a little bit of what Perry had meant when he first spoke to us about the film. But it wasn’t until we saw the film at a screening last month that we could fully appreciate how well Perry had captured that particular real-life angst—perhaps specific to New York’s creative world and perhaps just specific to all thinking, striving people—and translated it into a work of art.

And so we were particularly excited to meet with Perry so that we could talk about the film. Here’s what we spoke about at the Double Windsor over whiskey (for me) and water (for him). First, though, I made extra sure my phone was recording our conversation.

Ahh… I always double check this. I’m terrified of not recording an interview properly. It happened once, but luckily I was taking notes at the time.
I did this interview for an hour at Sundance and the guy wasn’t recording. I mention that as an anecdote but also I mention it to make people feel like… just to understand that it was so annoying to me. It was my 6th interview in a row. I was so tired at that point and I just felt like, what a fucking waste of time.

Yeah, I’m terrified, I think, of wasting anyone’s time. So, Listen Up Philip! To start off, I’ve been thinking a lot about the demise of the relationship between Philip and his girlfriend Ashley. What was it about showing the deterioration of a long-term relationship that was appealing to you?
In terms of focusing on a period for two people that generally is contained to the first act of most narratives, it just seemed like a different way to do it, because in a lot of narratives, if they’re dealing with one person’s sky-rocketing success within a relationship, usually that’s the point and then 20 minutes into the movie is when they break up with their significant other and that’s where their life changes as a successful person. But to me doing an entire movie that lives within that first part of the story, where the transition from who the person has been up till that point to who they are going to be moving forward is something that I think is much more interesting than what they do when they reach the point of success and their life has changed. So to do that in a New York context, where somebody’s in a situation where they live together because living together is a reasonably priced option when you’re in a long-term relationship here, it’s like, what really happens to the minor details of their lives when the dynamic changes and all of a sudden things change? It’s not like a rags to riches story, but just like step one on the path to success. And I think that point is to me the actual end of the story, because I don’t really care what someone does once they’re already wealthy and successful and have moved on from the challenging period in their lives. I wanted to show the moment they are transitioning from being the guy who sits around in his apartment all day long and has been working on stuff with no returns for several years and how that guy gets to be the guy who has enough acclaim that he can sort of do whatever he wants. That tiny part of life is the part I feel like I don’t see very often.

Right, this period of change is usually glossed over in favor of what comes next. It’s interesting, though, because it’s not just Philip who is becoming successful. Ashley is also doing really well in her career, and she’s even had opportunities that she forewent, in order to take care of her personal relationships. Do you think that’s a gendered reaction to balancing career and personal life?
Well, I would just assume—and I put this in the characters—that the woman in that relationship deals with it much better. Ashley seemed to already have gotten to a point where she’s very busy and she’s working a lot and she has no shortage of opportunities to be working and seems to have found a way to work without destroying her life, which is what I’ve seen happen when some people start doing really well. And then the way Philip deals with it is the way I’ve seen other people handle it, which is not so well. I haven’t really seen people find a happy medium. It’s always either like, “Yeah, I just work all the time now and that’s my life;” or people are like, “Yeah, my entire life fell apart because I’m very busy all of a sudden.” I don’t really know what I have to say about it, other than isn’t it interesting how easy it seems for her to be able to balance her work and her life, albeit in a way that sort of makes her increasingly detached from her relationship.

So you don’t think of it as necessarily a gender-specific thing, but more that she seems to accept the sacrifices that might be required professionally, whereas Philip doesn’t? And also that by the time she embraces her work fully, her personal life is already falling apart?
I don’t know that I would say that it’s specific, but I would say that if the roles were reversed and he was a guy who’s really busy who’s running around and she’s just sort of sitting around at home and alone, that’s essentially the dynamic in Lost in Translation between Scarlett Johannson and Giovanni Ribisi, and I feel like that dynamic has more of a precedent, and there’s a lot of other examples where it’s like a guy who’s busy and his career’s taking off and the result of that is his significant other is just sitting at home and she’s sad and lonely and depressed. So doing it in the reverse is both something I hadn’t seen so much and also more in keeping with what I feel like happens today. I would see women in that position a lot more than I would have been led to expect based on what I’d seen in TV and movies. In fact in modern life it’s perfectly ordinary and even more common for me to see people in relationships where what happens between Philip and Ashley is more the dynamic at hand. Or at least that dynamic is more unremarkable.

Another thing about Philip and Ashley as a couple, is that a lot of people are going to say Philip is unlikable (both in the context of the relationship, but also in general), and that Ashley is likable (both in the context of the relationship, but also in general). How do you feel about classifications like that?
It would never occur to me to reduce fictional characters to something so basic as that, because not only is it besides the point, but I don’t really understand the mentality in someone who would let that be the deciding factor in how much they connect to what the characters are going through or whether or not they enjoy the movie. If you look at the top ten greatest films of all time—by anyone’s definition—and you look at Citizen Kane or The Godfather or Taxi Driver, there are no likable characters in any of these movies. But what makes the movies great is the compelling nature that the incredibly flawed and challenging characters exhibit. So I don’t know when that (likability) became a standard by which people lived or died in their enjoyment of movies. No one ever said Taxi Driver wasn’t a good movie because they don’t like the characters in it.

Do you think the whole likability thing has to do with knowing more about actors and even directors behind-the-scenes lives? Or what do you think shifted the focus onto likability?
I don’t really know. I think it’s a newfound sensitivity that people have, a kind of post-90s political correctness and a desire to be creating a world for ourselves where nobody is called a loser and every child is treated equally and nobody is the best or the worst. And it has been this kind of well-documented and widespread phenomenon in the last generation that basically has white-washed out any sense of nastiness or unpleasantness and has replaced it with a totally simplistic worldview. I think that people’s shift toward feeling that way about movies has coincided with a general dumbing down of what people are willing to consume. Like there’s nothing likable about Seinfeld, but it was hugely successful and those characters would be so at home in my movie with their selfishness and their cruel mockery of people around them.

Exactly. And, really, who doesn’t sometimes like people who are cruel? Sometimes that’s what even makes them likable, or at least attractive.
I see that in some of the creative types that I know. In my last couple of years of making movies and being around certain types of people, it’s just become very apparent to me that there’s a certain type of guy who can be really not polite, not kind, and not likable in a traditional sense, but for me and other people—people he dates or people he works with—none of that matters, because he has charisma and talent and is fun to be around. And there’s a lot of guys like this in the film world—and in any world, I’m sure—so why even grapple with whether or not this is realistic or believable? Maybe you wouldn’t like some of my friends, but guess what? They all have lives and relationships and they’re none the worse for it. They’re just shitty people. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like them, it just means I don’t aspire to be just like them. And I don’t see why there’s this distinction all of a sudden, where you can’t see a character who’s incredibly misguided and self-destructive and you can’t just say, “Wow, I feel bad for this guy,” instead of “I can’t like this movie because I don’t like this guy.” I don’t know why this change happened but I feel like so long as people are still making stuff that comes down on one side of this, it’ll be ok.

Besides the relationship between Philip and Ashley is the one between Philip and his sort of mentor Ike. Is Ike based on anyone specifically?
There’s a certain type of character who I’m talking about when I’m describing the type of guy who get away with this kind of behavior, and it’s a certain kind of guy who I’ve been close to in the last few years. And there’s something about the way in which I was starting to meet these people, and the way I saw them conducting their personal business, that left me so shocked that someone could be this age and be this type of person and still be getting away with the way they were interacting with others. And I became really fascinated with the way that a person like that might be acting when they’re really alone. And the other part of that Philip and Ike relationship is autobiographically rooted, which was based on the experience of going to festivals and meeting filmmakers who I respected and who started treating me like an equal and like a peer. And the question became how do I come back from that? When you come home and have just experienced that feeling of being personally elevated in your own life, how do you treat the people that haven’t changed? And how dangerous can that be if you’re going to suddenly start telling yourself that you’re a better person now because this other guy said that, which is a thing that I never personally have been a victim of, but I’ve seen it happen. And it would be easy to fall into, but doing that would take you to where the characters are in the movie, which is not where I want to end up.

What was the reason you chose writing as Philip and Ike’s profession?
It became clear to us when we were rehearsing the movie, and then when we were shooting it, that Philip and Ike are the same person, just separated by several decades of mistakes. The only reason I had for making the two male characters writers is because it’s relevant that the characters exist in a solitary world where your ability to be successful has no bearing on how you’re treating other people—nothing matters except for your talent and your interactions with other people are as close to zero as they can be. Guys like Ike and Philip can’t do that [interact with others], but they don’t need to, because they can work in isolation and they can exist in a bubble. But a character like Ashley [a photographer] has to work around other people. By choosing that they would both be writers it was about figuring out what would be a logical way to express that these guys can both be successful despite not being able to be around other people.

So I have to ask, especially because of allusions to past experiences: just how autobiographical is this film?
Of the three main characters, there’s an equal attempt to represent all of myself. Starting with Ashley, who is someone who is not perhaps predisposed to be around other people but has taught herself to do so for the sake of being able to do what she likes to be doing. Her dedication and willingness to be a person who can go to work and get to do what she wants and deals with idiots, that’s a very personal sort of character—as is the spirit of an older curmudgeon whose main desire is to sit at home in quiet by himself, just like working in a vacuum and not having to suffer fools, which is a big part of what I’d love to be doing. The only thing I can add to that is the youthful sense of entitlement which Philip has, which separates him from Ike who no longer has that, which is a quality I was having a lot of questions about and struggling with once I started doing well enough that I could say that I had done enough where I could ostensibly be called a filmmaker.

And now you’re not just “ostensibly called a filmmaker.” The film had a great reception at Sundance and is premiering at the New York Film Festival. How does that feel?
Showing at the New York Film Festival is the biggest thing for me. I live here and I’ve gone to it every year that I’ve lived here. It’s so small. Sundance is huge and it’s fun, but huge. At the New York Film Festival, there’s only like 25 films in the main section. It’s a real turning point, where in a way the movie turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. My movie’s about a guy who befriends his hero and is treated like an equal and now here I am showing a few days after Paul Thomas Anderson at basically the only festival in America where it makes sense for him [Anderson] to show a movie. So to be in that league, it’s pretty insane. It’s a good sign of respect for a New York movie to be highlighted in the New York Film Festival. And it’s just crazy to me; it means more to be than anything’s ever meant.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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