Talking to Alex Ross Perry about Queen of Earth, and Other Higher Life Forms (That Is, Movies)
In each of Alex Ross Perry’s first three films, there is a needle-scratch moment when the film separates itself from its blinkered male protagonists in order to let the female co-lead speak her mind or live her life: Kate Lyn Sheil and Carlen Altman’s monologues in Impolex and The Color Wheel; and the entire middle movement of last year’s Listen Up Philip, which stays with Elisabeth Moss’s insightful performance as the title character’s estranged girlfriend.
With his latest, Queen of Earth , which opened theatrically on August 26, Perry reteams with Moss for a feature which this time lives fully inside her character’s experience. Here, though, rather than providing a sense of critical distance, the female psyche is in extremis, as Moss’s heartbroken Catherine retreats to the lake house of her longtime best friend (or best frenemy?), Virginia (Katherine Waterston). As Moss and Waterston access the full spectrum of their actorly registers, psychic trauma surfaces, dramatic tension rises, and covert and overt emotional warfare ensues, punctuated by jarring transitions and flashbacks, signs and portents, hallucinations and transference. Queen of Earth rings changes on the grand tradition of single-set female-centric psycho-thriller two-handers like Altman’s Images or Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.
A famously ravenous habitué of the NYC repertory cinema scene, Perry, who lives in Park Slope, spoke with us on the phone last month about the ambiguities of classicism and identification in John Ford—all while moving his car for alternate-side parking.
The first time Katherine Waterston’s character calls Elisabeth Moss’s character “Catherine,” I was briefly excited because I thought you were going to do the Images thing and name the characters after other actors. This sort of single-location personality-swap breakdown thing has a lot of very specific antecedents, but a film about madness, that treats madness in a cinematic way, has to be organic. Can you plan for something totally impulsive to happen? How do you allow the film to take singular, subjective shape as you’re planning and making it?
A big part of the impetus of this movie was knowing how much fun I had giving all the actors on Listen Up Philip enough freedom to take an idea that was written, either 100 percent or close to it, and run wild. And if you set up the environment where every actor’s ideas are going to be welcome and taken seriously, you’re going to end up with a lot of little bonus moments from the instincts of the performers. And the way into this was to shoot the movie in order, so that something happens on Tuesday, and on Wednesday when you’re doing the three scenes that follow it, you can refer to it; or at the very least the actors can internalize it as having happened—you don’t want anyone to have to say, “Oh man, I wish we had done this scene after the other scenes because that thing in it would be so good for me to have in mind right here,” and this is a movie where those kind of escalating stakes and mental conditions definitely required setting up that kind of working environment.
I’ve read other interviews where you’ve talked about letting Elisabeth Moss or cinematographer Sean Price Williams sort of… freestyle. Like you’re there to create this environment in which completely subconscious aspects of your movie can happen. The music is really interesting. There’s one shot in particular, a slow zoom in on Elisabeth Moss in the bedroom, with choral voices breaking in out of nowhere—I know very little about the art of scoring a film, but I imagine that I as a composer would have a hard time truly believing that I was “serving the story” or whatever it is that I’m supposed to do, if I did something that was that assertive and obtrusive. Do you have nudge people to go further?
Well, no—I was having this conversation recently with Keegan DeWitt, who did the music, about something else he had been working on, where he felt he was being given a very inexplicably strict set of requirements. And what I have done with him twice now, and is a fun way to approach anyone who’s brought in to do their own thing, is not just telling them you’re going to give them free rein, but legitimately giving it to them. It’s like the difference between someone who is saying to a composer or a cinematographer or an actor, in so many words, “If I could do this myself, I would, but I can’t, so I need you to do exactly what I’m saying,” versus, what I end up suggesting, which is, “I don’t know how you do what you do, I don’t claim to understand the craft that you are practicing, so, here’s what I’m thinking, and I look forward to being surprised when I hear what what I just said suggests to you.” I basically said to Keegan, here’s these five 1970s ghost movies that I like, here are these clips of them on YouTube and whatever, and that’s all I’m going to say to you. I wouldn’t be asking you to collaborate here if I didn’t think that your ideas were going to be basically exactly what I want, so here’s a limited set of references that you don’t have to stick to, I trust that you will pick up on things about these scores that I do not understand, because it’s not my job to, and you will come back with something that is both exactly what I’m talking about, and more rich and layered and informed than what I could possibly have thought of. And that’s exactly what he did.
All the main characters in this movie are, or seem to be, rich. Catherine’s dad is a famous (or infamous) sculptor; Virginia can stay in her family’s lake house and not work indefinitely; and Patrick Fugit’s neighbor character is literally named “Rich” (and looks like a Land’s End catalogue model and radiates happy, healthy hostility and entitlement). Aside from one funny, ominous moment where a stranger with a leaf blower reminds Catherine that she’s living in a bubble, the movie’s in that bubble too. Do you think of the characters as conspicuously privileged?
That was a big part of the fun of putting it together, just characters like that. Not saying it is always 100 percent intentional, but there’s something about that milieu I find interesting and curious and continue to explore one way or another, this East Coast narrative, and the East Coast world that these characters occupy, which is one where everybody knows people, not even somebody, everybody knows a bunch of people who have that kind of a house. I think there’s something interesting about that, and doing it in that setting is, again, you know, traditional for the genre. You look at Images, this is a large, expensive house—in order to have a house to get away to, you have to make sure the characters are in a certain social strata where that makes narrative sense.
And then that leads to knowing other things about them as well…
You don’t have to do a lot of heavy lifting if it’s immediately transmitted what kind of society these characters live in, and what kind of rules and privileges they are likely to be familiar with.
Although interestingly enough, this kind of house is also a really good place to shoot an indie movie inexpensively. Did the movie take shape in any unexpected ways once you got to the house?
You find one of these houses, you want to shoot at a time of year when people want to be on vacation in that house, you’re looking at spending a substantial amount of money if you want to get one of those giant, Images-type house. I’ve never had the experience of getting to pick what I want regardless of price; there’s always some sort of a give and take. Maybe it’s not ideal to do this in a house that doesn’t even have a second bedroom big enough for an actress, a cameraman, a boom, and me. But then you use it to your advantage, so you shoot into it from the hallway, which means that now we come up with these long zooms on Catherine in her bed because we can’t necessarily fit the camera into the bedroom. So these are just the dynamics when you’re making something where you don’t have unlimited control—because of the kinds of movies that I’ve made so far, generally that’s all we know how to do anyway. It would seem weird if we could find this massive sprawling palatial house where you can do everything you want, and there’s a million places to put lights; it’s much more familiar to us to be like, ah, well, we’re gonna make do with this, which I always think leads to very fun and interesting decision-making, where this house doesn’t even really have a second floor, but it has this kind of overhang of the living room, which you can build a bunch of neat shots around, which you wouldn’t get out of every house.
I read an interview you did with Little White Lies in the UK this spring, where you’re taLking about recreating the world that “looks like every house I lived in as a child but was too young to fully appreciate. Now I have to recreate it in order to appreciate it,” and, think that’s really interesting, this idea that the past looks like the past, and that implicitly, the present doesn’t look like anything at all (until it becomes the past). Are you hopeful that Queen of Earth will do the work of being “2015” for future viewers, who are either remembering their own lives or picturing ours?
Um, no—I don’t really know how else to conceive of putting these images together except to use the making of these films as an opportunity to create some kind of idealized false version of what I like. We go into this house, and of course, the first thing you have to do is to take the 30-inch flat-screen TV and roll it off into whatever room we’re not shooting in, and get rid of the wi-fi router and all that stuff—
Well, why, though?
I guess that stuff has a place, and of course every room I’ve ever used on vacation or in my own home has an element like that, but first order of business whenever you get to a set like this is you have to get rid of all of that stuff, in order to minimize the noise and the clutter. And the result—and this has proven true for me time and time again now, and also is compounded by shooting on film—is doing stuff like that ends up accomplishing a remarkable amount of the heavy lifting for you, in terms of convincing people what kind of tone and atmosphere this film is meant to have. It’s a shortcut when you’re making a movie with limited means, you get rid of all the modern technology that looks identical to everything that the audience has seen the entire day of theirs leading up to watching the film. And then you shoot on 16mm, and all of a sudden the movie is—I have not listed any real hard-to-accomplish decisions—all of a sudden the movie has this entire aesthetic feeling which is very unique and unfamiliar at this point in time.
I’d be curious to know a little bit more about the production design. As you say, you’re not just filming whatever was already in the house, you’re editing a world filled in a specific style. You’ve talked a little bit about what you took out—was there anything you brought in?
Yeah, little things, like lamps and tables, but it’s not the kind of movie where we can afford to swap out big things. Listen Up Philip, for example, there was a budget to swap out a refrigerator for an older, more 80s-looking refrigerator. So for this movie, it’s just not operating with that amount of resources, so again, you do what you can. So while I know that the couch which is in this house—the Production Designer would have loved to have gotten rid of it and replaced with a less unsightly couch. You don’t have that option on this movie, so then it’s about, well, what do we put on top of it to cover it up and make it look a bit nicer. And looking at other films, that are, again, from this history of things that we like, and just kind of taking little elements from there. So looking at The Ghost Writer and saying, there’s a lot of grays and silvers, and, like, gray pillows, so now we get some gray pillows in there, and they on some subconscious level hopefully convey this history that we’re trying to be a part of.♦