The characters in Alex Ross Perry’s small, chatty movies may strike you as impossibly articulate—until you talk to their creator and discover his impromptu way with words is as deft as those he depicts on the page. What scan like deeply considered essays tumbled off this guy’s tongue when we met in a Park Slope coffee shop earlier this month to discuss the 32-year-old’s young career, which has included heaps of critical praise but a somewhat predictable apathy from general audiences for whom talk-based indies stopped being a potential draw not long after they became one in the ‘90s.
Perry is, naturally, aware of of his limited reach. He reminded me no fewer than three times during our 80-minute conversation that he is not a successful filmmaker. The literary Listen Up Phillip (2014) and his genre-esque depiction of a nervous breakdown Queen of Earth (2015) were cinema for cinephiles—but they were blunt in their furiousness and tension. His most recent movie, Golden Exits, which will close this year’s exemplary BAMCinemafest on Saturday, is even more subtle than those. It is, in his words, “not about anything.” Shot over the course of “three very pleasant weeks” last April in Brooklyn, it’s an ensemble featuring Chloë Sevigny, Mary-Louise Parker, Lily Rabe, Analeigh Tipton, Jason Schwartzman, and Adam Horowitz (whom you may know as the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock). The interconnected group’s cushy, upper-middle-class Brooklyn lives are slightly upended by the arrival of Naomi (Emily Browning) who travels from Australia to assist Horowitz’s archivist character. The film is an exploration of how identity is shaped externally. “The whole point of the movie is that repeatedly, every other character is making up their mind about who she is,” Perry told me.
I spoke with Perry—whose highest-profile project thus far is writing the script of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh update Christopher Robin—about Exits, the divisive nature of his movies, as well as his thoughts about diversity, and writing movies that feature women so prominently. His movies are overwhelmingly white, and I thought it was important to interrogate why. (I took to heart something director Shaka King once told me: “I really, really, really wish white people in the public eye were asked about race.”) An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: When you sat down to write this movie, what were your goals? Did you have characters already in mind?
ALEX ROSS PERRY: I wanted to do something about what it feels like to live and work in a neighborhood, as I do, at home, and just kind of come and go around here on my breaks for stuff like this [interview], which over the last two years of working consistently, I began to find much more inspiring and curious than I ever assumed that small of a lifestyle would feel. And then I started to think about someone who lives very much like that, and then of a character who enters into that ecosystem and upsets the balance. So then I sort of had Adam’s character and Emily’s character. And then everything came from that. And then I thought, “I want Chloë to be in this, she’s the wife of this guy. This makes perfect sense to me.” Each character just sort of said, “What else do we need to zig instead of zag from this part of the narrative?” It was very much in front of me just from the life I’ve been fortunate enough to live for the last couple of years.
At what point do you pull in inspiration from existing cinema?
We talked a lot about [Éric] Rohmer movies. That’s the literary ground zero for the script. It was very much on my mind. But then the thing to do is not look at those movies again because then you’re just ripping them off rather than thinking about them. His movies were of consequence to a lot of what I was thinking about. It became a very casual way to describe the ambitions of this particular project to actors. And then to people like the wardrobe designer. They’re all about a fixed period of time and people who are in a place that they don’t normally go to. It’s very simple, very modest storytelling but hopefully intricate and insightful in its own way.
What about Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives?
We looked at that frame by frame almost for Listen Up Phillip. There’s probably never been one movie that’s been more directly influential to one thing I’ve been working on. The cinematography is very much inspired from what that movie looks like. The color palate. The costumes. The feel. The editing. I haven’t gone back to it since that time. With every one of these movies, there ends up being a Woody Allen movie the DP comes in having watched before the shoot, and says, “This movie kind of reminds me of this one.” In this case, it was Another Woman.
Has anything associated with Woody Allen’s life—abuse allegations, the fact that the beginning of his relationship with Soon Yi coincided with the making/release of Husbands and Wives—colored your opinion of that film or do you separate the art from the artist entirely?
If I was cognizant at that time when I was seven years old, I’m sure it would have had a much greater effect on me. Instead I discovered the film much later. There’s no question about the breathtaking anxiety and horrible energy of that movie is irreplicable by anybody whose life isn’t falling apart. Life has a huge effect on the finished piece. In that case, it will be influential for generations to look at how incredibly strong of a feeling you have when watching that movie. It feels rotten in your stomach. It’s also aesthetically superlative. That movie just feels like a panic attack. He never did anything that felt that way before or after, so there’s no way it’s not connected. It doesn’t make me like the movie more or less, it just makes me think a lot. I can’t really change the aesthetics of how that film are, but I also know that you can’t make a movie that feels like that that is something that people are going to be talking about for the next 50 years.
A lot of people consider filmmaking just to be [the work] of a writer-director. So, yeah, sure there’s a terrible, terrible thing possibly happening that we don’t even know the details of during the making of Husbands and Wives. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the cinematographer of that film, Carlo Di Palma, is working at a level of visual language, visual storytelling that I’ve never seen in a movie before. This is a huge mistake people make in every conversation regarding cinema and everything right now, is to reduce the art of filmmaking to a writer-director.
When you make a movie, how much do you think about your audience and potential reach?
This one was made for pretty pure reasons. Some movies are conceived and shot on a Sundance timeline. This movie was made because we wanted to make it as a pure expression of what felt like an interesting way to make a very small movie. I’m not an idiot, I know movies like that don’t have a place in the world. That’s why nobody makes them anymore.
Is it idealism that fuels you? The drive to be an artist?
Yeah, it’s the belief that there’s a reason to do this. It’s the belief that there are a couple hundred or a couple thousand people who are likely to deeply connect with something and that I’m very fortunate to be in a position to have access to talent and financing. While I don’t have the access that necessarily creates $4 or $5 million ambitious films, I do have enough access that it would feel irresponsible and pointless to do nothing with it. If I can get in touch with Jason Schwartzman and Chloë Sevigny—if you have that, use it. Make something. And do something that if you had to ask permission for, you wouldn’t be given permission.
If someone said, “What’s the movie about? Pitch me.” I’d say, “It’s not about anything. It’s about seven people in Brooklyn, two families and this one other character and they sit around and they talk and no one tells the truth.” They’d say, “I don’t want to make that movie, what happens? What’s the thing? Where’s the affair?” I’d say, “None of that. None of that happens. There’s nothing.”
I was reading user reviews of your work on IMDb, and the extent to which you get under people’s skin is incredible.
That’s good. [In terms of what criticism I read], I’ll read Variety, I’ll read great writers. I am certainly not reading IMDb user reviews. Certainly, the movies they’re writing about, Listen Up Phillip and Queen of Earth, engage with aggressive, angry behavior in a way that just by depicting it, makes people feel victim to it. [Golden Exits] has none of that, it’s all under the surface, which was an experiment for me in seeing if a movie that I feel operates at the same emotional pitch as those movies but is dressed in different clothes, has the same effect, either good or bad on people. This is a movie with extreme dishonesty and emotional deception identical to those movies except none of it really plays out. I think part of it is the movies get under people’s skin because they’re meant to. They’re not meant to be watch it on Netflix and fold your laundry while you’re doing it kind of movie.
I also think the movies of me and my peers that tend to rub people the wrong way have a kind of I-can-do-this quality. It’s just annoying fundamentally for people to be like, “What makes this so special? Why did this movie play at Sundance and the New York Film Festival? This is just some dumb, angry movie with Jason Schwartzman. I’ve seen this before and I could make this movie, but I don’t have access to the money and these actors. This person does and I hate that.” That feels like where a lot of anger in this modern age comes from.
I wonder what you think of what Richard Brody said about Golden Exits: “Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that, if it weren’t for work, many men would have trouble getting sexually aroused. Golden Exits recognizes that much of this overlap is actually sexual harassment, a threat to women’s careers, livelihoods, and dignity, resulting from such undue encroachment.”
I’ll buy that. He’s a great writer and a huge supporter of me and my peers, and his insight into the movies is always his own viewpoint, very idiosyncratic. It’s never something the creators put any thought into.
You didn’t put any thought into that?
It’s not that I didn’t put any thought into that. It’s that the big conceit for [Naomi] in the movie was that I wanted her to have as much of an innocence and blank slate as possible. And the whole point of the movie is that repeatedly, every other character is making up their mind about who she is, which is a form of harassment, I think, yes. For Horowitz’s character to say, “You are this kind of person.” For Chloë to say, “She’s this kind of person.” For Mary-Louise to say, “You’re this kinda girl,” everyone’s telling her who she is when in fact she’s none of those things. That’s something I’m interested in general, not in a gender-specific way. I am interested in people deciding someone is one thing or another without knowing them very well.
How much do you think about diversity in terms of filmmaking?
I think about it all the time.
Of course. It’s fascinating. I think about it all the time because I read an article about it every couple of days. And I talk about it with friends. I don’t think I benefit from it, because I’m not very successful, but I certainly have lost out on jobs because I’ve been told they’re only hiring women, which is fine. I get hired for other things. I think about it a lot.
What about your characters? They’re almost entirely white.
Yeah, well, almost entirely women. I mean, the first part of that question is a very systemic answer the way actors are made available to independent filmmakers. That is a lot bigger than me. The way movies get financed and the availability of talent is a system. You can only play the game. You’re only in the casino, you’re not running the table and if you can break even when you leave the casino, then you’re doing okay. I can only meet with the actors that I’m offered to meet with. I can only work with the actors that want to meet and work with me. I say yes to every meeting I get offered. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to an actor.
Is that to say you’ve tried to cast a person of color?
I had one movie that didn’t get very far, this bigger movie I’ve been talking about that had a number of black men and women in it. It was set in the ‘60s and in the world of pop music there were a lot of what would have been true to the time stars of the era that I would have needed great black actors and actresses for. The movie never got close to being made, so I never got to the point of meeting with people.
This one idea that’s germinating is about a black mailman. Someday that will happen. I’ve got huge lists [of black actors I want to work with], but the thing is the industry gets so excited when there becomes an amazing and really talented actor of any form of diversity. Immediately they’re just swallowed up: “We can put this guy right in the pipeline.” And then it becomes harder for independent filmmakers to get to them because they’re suddenly the most in demand. I’ll give you an example of, no doubt, one of the greatest actors working today from the first minute I saw him and now everyone loves him: André Holland, who was in Moonlight. When I saw him on The Knick three years ago, it was like, “I gotta get to that guy.” Now someone like me is never going to be able to get a meeting with him because he’s too elevated. He’s so in demand right now that no one’s going to put him in front of a low-key filmmaker like me. He’s not going to make a million-dollar movie in Brooklyn for no money with a loser.
In a movie like [Golden Exits], it’s hard where you have Chloë and we need her sister, so you’re locked in a kind of casting just based on the people I know and want to work with. You’re absolutely right, but my version of that—not that this helps anything—is movies about women are another thing. It’s harder to do. Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth, and this movie are all very female heavy. Queen of Earth and this are actually women’s stories. If I can stay on the righteous side of that and continue to move forward, I’ll be very satisfied. It’s valid to be making movies starring and deeply about women for me. I think it’s helpful and very interesting. There’s no reason to make movies with men as the lead. There’s no good actors, essentially. The industry’s perception of men is in the trash for sure. The men that they want to put in movies and finance movies based on are garbage. The men that are great actors are worth no money in a financing sense. It’s much better to be making movies about women right now because there are so many talented women and they’re not being pulled in a thousand directions like the 10 talented men are.
What about unknowns?
My earlier movies are like that, and you can have a little bit of fun with that, but it’s tough. The system of talking about movies and actors in terms of value is very difficult to stomach, quite frankly. When I talk to actors about this and they learn they way they’re discussed in terms of their value, it’s sickening. An unknown it’s like forget it. The people packaging your movie aren’t going to let you get away with that unless, like, you are willing to die on your sword for it. But in the lead or the second or third role, it’s not going to happen if you’re making a movie for more than $100,000.
Are you expressing inner femininity when you write women? Is it like Prince, who clearly used his outlet to explore that very real side of himself? Or are you just a pragmatist who writes women because you write people?
It’s probably somewhere in the middle? There’s a sensitivity of my own that is more acceptably expressed through female characters. In Listen Up Phillip, people would ask, “Is the Phillip character based on you?” I’d say, “No, the Ashley character is based on me.” I’m a filmmaker, she’s a photographer, Phillip’s an angry mess, I’m a homebody. She has my cat. Obviously, this character is closer to what I am than his character. But you don’t see that because this character’s played by a blonde woman and Phillip is played by a guy wearing similar pants and jackets to me. In Queen of Earth, the men are just basically villainous. All of my curiosities and my feelings about what was inspiring that movie were expressed through the female characters. This movie is very much more so. You can do a lot with that that you can’t really do with men. It’s a responsibility, I feel, to represent both sides of storytelling as much as possible. In this movie, the two men are very weak and confused. The five women are, to one degree or another, very together and successful and competent. That says a lot about what I think about that divide.
People often call your characters unlikeable. Do you find them unlikeable?
No, I wouldn’t be able to spend a year writing and editing and talking about them if I did. There are unlikeable characters in the movies but they’re not central enough that it belongs to them. I just think they’re all going through a hard time. I personally don’t dislike people who are struggling. Some people seem to dislike people who are treading water or floundering in their own lives or relationships. I’m more drawn to the person who needs help than the person who is managing their entire life perfectly. A lot of these characters are running their lives in a poor way. That doesn’t make me dislike them, it just makes me curious about them.
Does Golden Exits have distribution?
Sort of. It’s very bad. There’s just no market or incentive to distribute a movie that is this unflashy. We can barely give the movie away. It’s not marketable in any obvious way, you can’t cut a trailer that makes it seem like it’s a funny comedy. Several of the primary characters are older women. It just has everything that nobody feels like you can make money off of. But it’ll come out someday. It’s just a disaster. The industry is worse than it’s ever been for distributing things that don’t fall into a box.
And yet you persist.
Yeah, well, I can’t do anything else. I wish this movie were primed to be seen by more people than I think it will be. But we didn’t really make it for that. If I wanted to do that, there would be scenes where everyone’s having affairs and it would deliver on all of the beats you’d expect after you watch the first 10 minutes. And I would give people exactly what they think the movie’s going to be and we would have sold it for millions of dollars and we’d be cutting a trailer right now that leans into all of that. None of these Éric Rohmer movies sold for millions of dollars either. Ultimately you’re judged against whatever the style at that time is. While I certainly hoped there would be more of an open market for this kind of low-key human drama primarily about women, the fact is there’s not and there’s basically nothing more valueless than this kind of movie. It’s not hooky, there’s no simple gimmick to it, nobody raps in it, so no one’s going to spend any money on it. But that’s fine. It’s a very small movie and it was very satisfying to make something in that style. I established relationships with a lot of talent I’m happy to call collaborators now. And I didn’t lose anybody’s money. Everyone’s going to break even on it.
It’s a weird time for all of this. It’s not going to get any better. So you can just keep doing what you do and try to be inspired by the people you work with, and elevate each project to the next level.