Alex Ross Perry
Interview by David Grillo
Portrait by Rick DeMint / Portroids
“Ideally, I’ve always said that the dream
would be to have a movie
—Alex Ross Perry in each section of the video store.” — Alex Ross Perry
Alex Ross Perry
New York-based filmmaker whose latest feature film, “Listen Up Philip” premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. His films, including “Impolex” (2009) and “The Color Wheel” (2009), have all been made with director of photography Sean Price Williams, and are often influenced by contemporary literature.
The title of Alex Ross Perry’s 2009 film, which takes the audience on the journey of an American WWII solider trying to find the last two undetonated German rockets after the war. The mission was known as “Operation Paperclip”.
THE COLOR WHEEL
Alex Ross Perry’s first major feature that explores the road trip relationship of two siblings (JR and Colin) at wit’s end. Perry plays Colin (the younger brother) in the film.
Writer, actor, and director Alex Ross Perry got his start in New York’s legendary video store, Kim’s Video, when he was a student at NYU. His first feature film, “Impolex,” premiered at the CineVegas Film Festival in 2009 and won the award for Best Foreign Film and Best Foreign Actor at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in Australia. “The Color Wheel,” his second feature film, also won critical praise. But with “Listen Up Phillip,” Perry steps onto a bigger stage, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, winning at the Locarno Film Festival, and getting theatrical distribution in all the major cities.
David Grillo: It’s been a very big year for you. You won the Silver Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, and only a year ago “The Color Wheel” was critically praised as “a big film disguised as a small one.” What has this experience been like with “Listen Up Phillip” blowing up this year?
Alex Ross Perry: You know it’s interesting because “Color Wheel” was a movie that had a very long drawn out life from the time it premiered at a festival to the time I was at the Independent Spirit Awards. It was two years total, whereas “Listen Up Phillip” came out in theaters just a year and a week from the day after we wrapped filming. Just that difference and being on a trajectory where things move quickly is very nice.
DG: What’s also really nice, I’d imagine, is that you’ve worked with the same people with both films.
ARP: Yeah and that’s the best part of making any film. That’s the thing about making a “bigger” film like “Listen Up Phillip” and feeling comfortable with it; I’m working with the same cinematographer and five or six of the actors are my friends. I was making a “big” movie with great actors I’d never worked with before, but everyone else was a close friend of mine. It put it right in my comfort zone.
SEAN PRICE WILLIAMS
American cinematographer known for his work in three of Perry’s films – “Listen Up Phillip,” “The Color Wheel” and “Impolex” – as well as the indie hits “Fake It So Real,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” and “Yeast and Frownland.”
DG: I’m a big fan of Sean Price Williams. What was it like working with him early on in your career and would you say this the most ambitious visual film you’ve made together so far?
ARP: Well, this is the only film that we’ve made where we’ve had enough resources both within our own means and also from having other departments like a production design team and a costume design team so that we could actually create and execute an entire aesthetic. The movie looks a certain way and has this aesthetic, which is mostly the cinematography, but having all these other talented departments doing excellent work makes the entire movie look much bigger and different than the other movies we’ve made together. It’s really a credit to everyone else’s contributions.
DG: I’m also a fan of your performance in “The Color Wheel” was that something out of necessity or will you do it again?
ARP: No, it was out of necessity. I couldn’t imagine who at that time would ever want to be in a movie for me or even help me make a movie, so I had to do as many things as possible and I really didn’t like it. I think every minute of “Listen Up Phillip” is alive with good directing of actors and good camera and that’s only because I was able to just sit back and comfortably put all this work in the hands of others. If I let that be my only job and both the images and the performances are Sean’s responsibility and the responsibility of a great actor, then I’m free to really do work that I am proud of.
An American actress and producer and native of Los Angeles best known for her award winning performance in the AMC series “Mad Men.”
An American actor and Los Angeles native best known for his critically acclaimed work in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” (1998). He has also starred in other Wes Anderson (writer and director) films, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009), “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007) and “Moonrise Kingdom.” In addition to his film work, he has appeared in a number of TV shows and starred in HBO’s “Bored To Death” comedy series (2009-2011). He is also the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola.
A native of Wales, Pryce is a prolific actor critically known for his performance in Terry Gilliam’s film, “Brazil” (1985). More recently he has worked on both “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003) and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (2006).
“I think both The Color Wheel
and Listen Up Phillip are
dramatic movies that have funny
characters in them or happen to
have jokes, which is different
to making an outright comedy.”
— Alex Ross Perry
DG: What was it like working with actors like Jonathan Pryce, Elizabeth Moss and Jason Schwartzman? The performances are all great and special, given how uncompromising the characters are and how much of the film relies on the characters’ interior dialogue. What did the actors bring to the table and to the characters?
ARP: Well, that’s the thing about working with actors whose work I like and respect. I realize why they’re great and why having people like this is better than doing it yourself, because they have their own ideas and they have a million of those ideas. So with Jonathan, Jason and Elizabeth, I was able to sit back and give them the script and what they bring to the scene and what they come up with is so different than what’s on the page and yet it’s exactly what I want. That’s because they’re incredible at what they do. This is just another example of how “Listen Up Phillip” was the film where I got to learn how much can happen when you trust people who are great at what they do to take what you tell them the rest of the way.
DG: Right, it must be a real step forward from “The Color Wheel” as besides its limited resources you had to take a lot of risks making that film. Your films seem to set audiences up for an ironic comedy, but then gives them something really straight. It’s almost a classical approach to comedy like we haven’t seen in a while. Is this a risk when making a comedy these days?
ARP: You know, it’s interesting that you see them as comedy, because I think both “The Color Wheel” and “Listen Up Phillip” are dramatic movies that have funny characters in them or happen to have jokes, which is different to making an outright comedy. I wanted to do a movie that’s a drama with humor in it so I can give people a dramatic and enriching emotional experience, without it being a long arduous sad experience. It’s lubricated with some comedy.
DG: Do you see yourself making a wide variety of films after this one?
ARP: Ideally, I’ve always said that the dream would be to have a movie in each section of the video store.
DG: How do you find this range when you’re writing a film and later directing the actors? There are literary references and interesting narrative choices; there is always a lot going on in your films. How do you keep it all together?
ARP: I don’t really know. If there’s a tone then it’s probably what comes the most natural to me and when it’s there it feels real. It’s the way I would like to tell any given story. But you know the movie I just did has much less comedy and light heartedness than anything else I’ve ever done.
DG: How did you get the actor’s performances to really mold with what you’re doing with the film and all these ups and downs?
ARP: This is reliant upon knowing that the actors get it and the actors are going to be there for you and they are going to be there for the movie in the best way possible. And when you have Jason, Elizabeth and Jonathan Pryce you know that they all get it, they’re all making the same movie that you see in your head and that’s why the performances to me ended up where they did for “Listen Up Phillip.”
DG: Let’s get into the structure of your films. In “Listen Up Phillip” what was the desired impact of extending the narrative to Ashley in the middle of the film? Did you want to turn the table on Phillip at that point of the movie so we can understand why she leaves him or is this in relation to the literary undercurrent of the film?
ARP: I just didn’t know about the whole movie sustaining the course of his actions. What was interesting to me was doing a film in a way that allowed us to examine the affects of Phillip’s behavior on other people.
DG: How do you use novels to inform your work?
ARP: I find that if I’m looking for a narrative solution to storytelling it’s a lot easier and always more rewarding for me to look at fiction for inspiration rather than just looking at a film. When I watch five films that do the same thing I’m just looking at the way five other films solved the problem, but with a novel I’m looking at the way the problem is solved in writing. I could look at a film, but it won’t tell me how the problem was solved in writing. The problem I’m looking for may have been solved in editing or it might have been solved on set, so watching a movie to find answers and find inspiration for writing your script doesn’t really make sense. You’re not looking at the script too, you’re looking at actual writing and holding a book in my hand is a much more inspirational experience.
DG: Now this is contrary to what you hear at film schools everywhere. I’ve never heard that before, but it makes sense.
ARP: Yeah in film school it’s this movie meets that movie and to me that’s great, I love watching two movies and talking about them, but if I’m sitting at a desk and I’m looking for solutions then I need to look at writing. When I’m editing maybe then it’s time to look at a movie. You can’t look at a book for a solution on how to edit a montage.
“If I’m looking for a narrative
solution to storytelling it’s a lot
easier and always more rewarding for
me to look at fiction for inspiration
rather than looking at a film.”
— Alex Ross Perry
DG: There is a sense of nostalgia when it comes to your films. Where does this sense of nostalgia come from? Where do you draw your inspiration from in the past?
ARP: I think the things I like are probably older and might be suggestive of nostalgia. I guess this is literally what nostalgia is, but it’s just things I grew up liking. I grew up appreciating an 80s aesthetic, because I was born in 84. I make a movie that has an aesthetic that is reflective of the world I grew up in and the world I loved, then I guess it is nostalgia, but it’s not like I sit around saying “man I wish it was the 80s.” To me, if I have the opportunity on a film to create an entire world with a whole team of people then I want them all to create something special and interesting and to me that special feeling is something very much unfamiliar to the modern world, but familiar to how I grew up.
DG: What was it like creating the fictional worlds for the writers in “Listen Up Phillip”? It seems like you got a kick out of it.
ARP: Well it’s just fun and again this goes back to what we were talking about earlier about having a team. When you’re doing everything yourself and it is very low budget you need to find a work around for everything, but when you have a full team a fictional world can exist. We have an entire art department to make Ike’s home an entirely lived in and real world and then we have a props guy who can make all these little objects that create a sense of reality so that you feel that the characters actually live in a real place and that these characters existed before the movie started and they continue to exist.
DG: Well before you go, let’s talk about this new project.
ARP: I just wanted to try something different and the movie is narratively familiar to me because, much like everything I’ve done, it is about people going through a very hard and very miserable time in their lives. Yet I’ve tried to do it in a different way. It’s not really a comedy. That lubrication of giving people something a little light-hearted and entertaining to make the drama go down smoother, wasn’t there this time and that was a fun challenge. We relied so heavily on handheld cameras to create an energy and an aesthetic for “Listen Up Phillip” that I wanted to go in the opposite direction so the film is very locked down, a lot of slow zooms and long static shots. It’s part of the fun of trying something new because I can. I feel confident enough now to try something and see what happens, rather than being afraid to branch out, because now I know all these great collaborators. Everyone around me is great at what they do and that gives me a little bit more freedom to get a little bit more experimental.