Brooklyn-based director Alex Ross Perry doesn’t put out the image of a softie. His absolutely amazing 2014 film, Listen Up Philip, stars Jason Schwartzman as a profoundly selfish and prickly asshole. Though the character is a novelist and not a filmmaker, it was hard not to imagine that he was some version of Perry’s id, as he rampages through Brooklyn (also Perry’s home), behaving terribly and learning that artistic success is based on personal disaster. Part of this boorishness is a brutal breakup with his girlfriend, played brilliantly by Elisabeth Moss. Her character can appear unsympathetic in the film, and at a Q&A I attended, a female audience member jokingly asked Perry how long he’d hated women. Not missing a beat, he replied, “Since you started asking this question.”
How surprising, then, that the director’s first-ever foray into crowdfunding is so pure-hearted and unselfish. Fluffy, the not-quite-ten-year-old cat that Perry shares with his partner, Anna Bak-Kvapil, (and who also played a pivotal role in Philip as Moss’ cat Gadzookey) was last year diagnosed with a tumor in his nose. He’s currently undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. As anyone who’s had a sick pet knows, even getting to this diagnosis was not cheap, nor is the treatment. Perry is seeking $11,000 to pay Fluffy’s vet bills for a life-saving six-month treatment he’s currently undergoing. As of this writing, he’s almost halfway there, with over $6,000 raised.
We spoke with Perry over the phone this week about cats, writing, and being a responsible (animal) parent.
The video on your GoFundMe page is jokey, but I’m guessing that this situation is very serious.
We didn’t want the video to be like one of those Sarah McLachlan commercials where it’s a bunch of sad, sick animals, and Please help save them. We just wanted the video to be something that is actually entertaining and amusing for three minutes, because that’s the spirit of my relationship with Fluffy. That’s not what he’s about.
What is he about?
I never had a pet before I had him. He’s just this positive, excitable, energetic, comedic presence in my life and on my desk all the time. I’m kind of a homebody, and I work at home, obviously, writing, and doing whatever. I’m around him all the time, and he brings this unique sense of absurdity into every time I see him.
One of my friends said something funny about his pet, that was a really intelligent way to put it: “I’ve walked into a room where he is probably 100,000 times, and each one of those times you experience a unique and entirely unfamiliar feeling of excitement.” That’s kind of what he’s about. Putting him in the movie and having people laugh at him for a minute, putting pictures of him on Instagram, it just kind of makes people say, look at this absurd, funny-looking animal. That’s what he’s about.
I find my cat very distracting while I write. Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I’m like I don’t know how to write this paragraph and I can’t think about it because you won’t stop hitting all the paper sticking out of the printer. Does that kind of thing happen to you?
Yeah, all the time. But that’s part of it. Sometimes you need that. There’s a Tumblr that shows pictures of writers with their cats. There’s great ones of Cocteau with his cat and stuff like that. It’s just clearly something that a certain type of person really enjoys.
We have two cats, and if they’re both going to come and sit on the desk, Fluffy will sit there and be as far away as possible, even while still being on the desk. The other cat, Smokey, will sit on top of the computer, and block everything, and make doing work actually impossible. So they kind of complement each other.
I don’t want to reveal how close-minded and gender-normative I am, but isn’t Fluffy a girl’s name?
I don’t know. No, I don’t think so. Also, I didn’t name him, and neither did Anna. When she adopted him, before we started dating, he had that name already.
I also did not name my cat. Most people would say you could rename a cat and it wouldn’t know, but I definitely didn’t feel that way about it.
I actually agree with you. Our other cat, Smokey, who we adopted, also came with that name. To me, there’s something sad about adopting an animal that comes to you with nothing but a name, and taking that name away.
As the video points out, Fluffy is an international film star who’s appeared everywhere from the New York Times to Fandor’s The Year In Cats. Did it become hard to live with a celebrity? Did you notice a change in him?
Well, he always thought of himself that way. The transition to that sort of validation was really just everything catching up with him. He’s always regarded himself as very important, deserving of special attention and treatment.
In describing Fluffy’s illness, you write that you were trying to be positive and hope that his it would go away. This is how I deal with all of my and my pet’s health problems. What was the tipping point that made you finally thought you had to do something?
He started getting sick with totally not-that-serious-seeming symptoms around the end of June or beginning of July. Just out of responsibility, we took him to the vet right away. We were just trying simple things like nose drops, and because we got onto it early, it was just logical and obvious to keep going. It became more and more a cause for concern as we went on. Everything we tried that seemed easy did nothing.
Eventually, it became a matter of going to specialists and having X-rays, EKGs, MRIs. Very quickly it was obvious that we were going to have to try other things to get him diagnosed properly.
He was getting really sick, to the point that his breathing was really impaired. He was struggling to eat, he couldn’t really move his head because of the blockage in his nose, and just every day, he was just kind of sitting under the sink in the bathroom making this horrible sound that sounded like heavy snoring. It was obvious that regular antibiotics for treating a runny nose were doing nothing at all. It was like, let’s just keep going and going.
It’s like, if we’re going to do an MRI, we have to do a test of his heart, because some animals aren’t strong enough to be put under an MRI. Then they shaved his belly and gave him a heart exam, and his heart is fine; that’s $1,000. Then we take him back for the MRI and that’s $2,500. It’s just, like, each step of the way was just hemorrhaging cash. And each step of the way was like, we can’t stop now. We’re that much closer to figuring out what is going on. And then, as soon as we figure out what’s going on, it’s like, what do we do? We have another whole decision to make. It was a pretty long, drawn-out circuitous process. I mean, you move quick, but once we decided he was more than normally sick, it was like four weeks of specialist appointments to find out what was actually wrong.
Was there ever a point where you considered not pursuing all the treatment you could?
You know, not really. He’s young, he’s not even 10. It’s not like we’re talking about a 16- or 17-year-old animal, and like, This is about as old as animals get. To me, he’s young and has a lot of life left in him. But, you know it’s a decision. And that decision would have been responsible, financially. To just say, look, we can’t do anything. That’s when I started to say, for better or worse, because of my films and everything I’ve been lucky enough to have, I’ve got a little bit of a soapbox. That’s all in place, and it should be exploited here, because it’s really the only option.
You’ve never done crowdfunding before, not even for your films. You wrote, “this is more important than that.” Can you tell me about that?
First of all, this isn’t an amount of money you can make a film for. Those are $20,000, $50,000 and I never felt that I had the relationships, friendly or anonymous, to successfully do. For a movie, you can kind of spread it around, spend a little now, a little when you finish the movie. But this is really just a lump sum that we need all at once.
This just seemed like a great way to do this. And GoFundMe is a really amazing interesting website, and getting ready to put this project on there–KickStarter is obviously very creatively driven, and GoFundMe is purely causes. A lot of animals, human illnesses, disaster relief. It’s really a great site. It’s really a great community, where people do browse around and get involved in things.
Did you have negative feeling about crowdfunding before this?
No, I just thought, no one’s going to help me with this. Why would they?
So, why would someone help out now?
Making a movie is a very selfish pursuit. Saving the life of a living thing is very selfish, too, but there’s something more altruistic about it. I’ve been so surprised by the response. I thought if, by the end of the first day, it got to $1,000, I would be very, very satisfied. Then it got to $1,000 by the end of the first hour. And it just kept going all day, which is really humbling and really meaningful and I have a lot of thank you emails to write. It’s just a pretty harmless and nice thing for people to do. It’s kind of nice that people will give to an animal most of them had ever met.