A Conversation With Alex Ross Perry (QUEEN OF EARTH)
There’s a pretty common pattern in cinema right now—particularly of the low-budget variety—in which filmmakers have embraced the “one location” concept to its suffocatingly fullest. While that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, the examples of work that transcends its limited geographical means through imagination and superior filmmaking tactics are few and far between (as for this year, see: The Mend and Krisha). Add Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth to that shortlist. Though he’s working with movie stars like Elisabeth Moss (after their successful creative union in Listen Up Philip) and Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), with Queen of Earth, Perry’s vision has hightailed it even further to the uncompromising end of the spectrum. After world premiering in Berlin, Queen of Earth was picked up for distribution by IFC Films and is now making the theatrical rounds while simultaneously being available on VOD. Unfortunately, bowling and pitchers of beer wasn’t in the cards for our latest H2N conversation, but any conversation with Alex Ross Perry is guaranteed to deliver some memorable quotes.
Hammer to Nail: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty positive Listen Up Philip was a script that had been very much written and that’s what enabled you to attract such great actors and make it happen, while Queen of Earth came together much more quickly. Was this an idea you’d been sitting on for a long time, or was this whole project triggered by an opportunity that arose more unexpectedly?
Alex Ross Perry: You’re definitely right. The Philip script I had written during and after The Color Wheel‘s festival run, and then this script was basically written after [Joe] Swanberg said, “Hey, if I can get you x-amount of money do you wanna make a movie soon? The idea is that we could do it with these parameters.” And I was like, “Yeah, I do actually!” The other smart thing—I don’t know if it was smart because it seems lazy but I thought it was smart—was that I knew from working with a certain kind of actor on Philip that, you know, you can either hand people a script and force them to memorize it and then that’s that, which is a totally valid way to make most kinds of movies. Or you can hand them a script that’s a complete script but add, “Anything else you feel like we need here, we’ll just talk about it, we’ll find it.” I had so much fun doing that on Philip with all the actors that I made sure the script by design had breathing room for all of that stuff.
H2N: Did you actually write a full script or was this one more of a treatment?
ARP: I described it as “an over-writer’s version of an outline,” which was like 70 pages long but nothing about it seemed incomplete. You could shoot that script word for word and it would be like 75 minutes. It was a complete thing that anybody could read and it required no imagination to understand what it was going to be like. But then again, at the same time I just knew there was stuff that we would add. And also part of my big idea, which was easier in making a really small movie, was that I wanted to shoot the movie entirely in order, just because I figured it’s a fun thing to want to do, it’s just one location and a handful of people, so why not. And then I figured if we did that, we’d be finding these moments on day two that we’re gonna refer to on day four, so the whole thing could snowball rather than being shapeless and having to be hammered down in editing.
H2N: It makes sense. At that point, if you’re shooting sequentially you can know when you’ve already had the camera in a certain spot and do something else, like that great shot of her in bed upstairs while Kate’s in the kitchen downstairs. Did you write with this location in mind? If not, how much time did you have to wrap your brain around the location itself?
ARP: When we were putting it together, I was talking with Joe about it and he was about to make Digging For Fire, which is a bigger movie but is largely centered around this one house. He was like, “If you’re doing this movie that’s centered around this kind of a location, here’s the amount of money that is responsible to just say, ‘This location is the movie, so we make that look great.’” I was talking to the location manager who found us everything, and I was like, “We need this kind of a place, it could be anywhere, we could talk about Poconos or Long Island but let’s just try to keep it within these numbers,” and the movie just got smaller and smaller. The idea of getting a Hamptons house was clearly out of the question, so we ended up stepping down incrementally until it became something that was achievable, which was a modest place that is actually only two bedrooms and doesn’t really have a second floor.
At that point, I went there on a tech scout with DP and crew and whatnot, and we were kind of excited by the fact that the house wasn’t huge but it was entirely open in just this one area with this kind of theatrical staging. It was like the living room is the set with this one balcony up above it. So there was this kind of idea—and this was correct—by like day four we were just getting really bored with every inch of this place. By then we would just have to start getting creative and coming up with things to keep the idea of what we were doing relevant and alive. And you know, Sean [Price Williams, cinematographer] is the first person to say, “We did that shot already, six days ago, so let’s not do it again right now.” That shot you’re referring to was pretty late in the movie—65 or maybe even 70 minutes into it—and it was like that thing where you say, “I can’t believe we didn’t do this shot yet!”
H2N: What was the time span between locking down that location and shooting?
ARP: Well, we started September 15th and I think the house was confirmed-ish by early July. We were talking for a minute about shooting the movie at the end of July and into early August but we pushed it six weeks, and the house had to be pushed too, so it was all pretty much figured out by then.
H2N: Getting back to the actors and your allowing them the space to bring their own ideas to the table, that incredible 8-minutes-at-least one-take feels so perfectly orchestrated in the sense of Sean’s camera and the focus pulling, as a filmmaker I’m wondering how many attempts that took, because it does feel so perfect from start to finish.
ARP: There wasn’t much to do about it. It was just a scene with these two long monologues. I was telling the actresses, “By the way, this is gonna be one shot,” and then telling Sean this idea that was kind of a guiding principle through a lot of the movie initially, but we decided it would be best suited just using it in this one moment and making it really foregrounded, which was the idea that there would be parts where the focus of the camera is on whoever’s listening to who’s speaking instead of who’s talking. I don’t know where that idea came from but I was just explaining to him the ideas behind the ways in which these two women would be interacting and the parameters of their relationship. I was saying they don’t really listen to each other. We thought it would be fun to show that by when one of them is talking we’re just showing the other one, and we’re letting people see that she might not be paying 100% attention. So that seemed like the best scene to put that idea front and center.
That’s a great way to segue into the logistics of shooting on film, because on the first take we rolled out with like two sentences left in the whole thing, and it would’ve been great.
ARP: If we had gotten it we wouldn’t have done another. In terms of everything it was fine and everyone felt good about it—I had told Sean to feel it out with no real specificity. Then on the second take everyone was really nervous and they did it way too fast. It just had this very rushed quality that was no good. Then we did it a third time and it was perfect. We finished with like 20 feet left. But it’s interesting. To me, it’s very obvious to try to do stuff like that. Because on something where there are next to no resources, manipulation and things like that are essentially the only things that you can do. It’s like the only toy you really have. It’s weird and great to put stuff like that out there, and then you’re doing interviews and Q&As or whatever and there are actual conversations about shot length in an independent film. I read a bunch of interviews with people who make small movies and go to watch Q&As and the tools, the semiotics, the syntax of film is not often discussed on these movies but they don’t really need to be. So it’s fun to see that people actually do get engaged with that when you put that out there.
H2N: I watched the movie twice because I couldn’t wrap my brain around the ending. It’s not that I always need to have a clear explanation, and on a second viewing I think I was able to come up with something that scratched my itch, but I’m wondering if this reaction is something you were actively seeking or if you have a clear explanation in your head for those final sequences?
ARP: Yeah. Like, I said, we were shooting in order so that gave us a lot of time to talk through it, and because it was only a 12-day shoot we had this luxury where the schedule was kind of leisurely, so we actually tried a bunch of different things. Because what I was hoping for was a large and peculiar enough gamble that there was no guarantee it would actually work and I wanted to make sure that if it didn’t we had at least another way to edit stuff and have additional versions that were at least a little bit different. Just because you know how these things go. I was pretty clear on it, and it was a lot of fun to figure it out. Some of the alternate scenes we shot are kind of interesting; some of them would make things a lot more confusing and some of them would make things completely factually just neutral. In editing, we had this opportunity to create this moment at some other point in the movie that suggests at an early point, before you would start thinking about it, the kind of open parenthesis that closes by the end, that was a pretty late-in-the-game thing. It’s not to say that what Robert [Greene, editor] and I jokingly said that this clearly points to is definitely the only thing it should point to, but we thought if this additional moment occurs at this point in the movie and someone is watching it for a second or third time and they remember it when the movie ends, then they might have a different response to the last 30 or 40 minutes.
Stuff like that is just kind of fun. It’s certainly an attempt to make the actual narrative of the movie objective in a way that factually, of course, but emotionally and narratively is basically the opposite of what any Hollywood movie does and unfortunately what most independent movies also do, which is to say, “Here is exactly the thing, the story I’m telling you is just fact. There’s nothing for you to talk about and you don’t have to think about it, and when it’s over you don’t bring any of this out with you.” I love movies like that. What’s peculiar to me is why people bring that very flat storytelling sensibility to movies where you can do something like this. It’s part of the conversation I think and is something that people do tend to respond to. This should be the benefit of why you’re doing something on a smaller scale. Not that you don’t have any money, you don’t have any time. The benefit should be that you can do whatever you want and get reckless.
H2N: If your investors understand the scale of the project and your actors are on board, why would you take the easy way out? But we both watch a lot of low-budget independent movies and it sure seems like way more than less filmmakers opt for the safe way out.
ARP: It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot as I try to figure out what makes things work, and what the difference is between Mission Impossible and a movie made like this or by one of my friends. Under scrutiny, a lot of these things end up looking narratively not dissimilar and that’s disappointing to me, to see a lack of interest in pushing the writing a little bit left of center when you’re doing things like this. You know, worst case scenario, an independent movie makes the cinema of it and filmmaking land in the middle as well, which something like Mission Impossible wouldn’t do. Filmmaking like that or Mad Max is totally exciting and subjective and puts you right there next to the characters and you have a good time, and that’s what makes the very clean story not matter, because you’re having such a good time when you’re in these speeding cars and in the passenger seat with these cool guys. But then to do an independent movie, to take a flat story and not come up with its own look for each movie is where things get a little fuzzy for me. I’ll just continue to analyze this from the comfort of my home. [H2N laughs]
H2N: That’s a good way to bring up all this recent news about you with all these different bigger projects. I know you love movies of all shapes and sizes, so these articles aren’t a surprise to me or anyone who knows you. But it’s still an objectively big leap to Winnie The Pooh or some shit. How are you navigating that currently?
ARP: That’s another interesting thing that’s on my mind all the time, because the idea of creating this movie and the whole idea of what Swanberg was pitching me on as a producer, was post-Sundance—I was there, you were there, he was there, I believe we were the three movies shot on Super 16 that year —he asked me, “What’s next?” And I have this larger thing that we’ve been slowly trying to inch into fruition since then basically, since last March, and I was like, “It’s this big thing, here’s the scope of it,” and he said, “Great. That’s gonna take a really long time to happen.” Everyone we could think of was trying to make a movie of that size and it was taking forever. “What opposition do you have to making a movie that’s closer in its size and scope and production footprint to The Color Wheel than Listen Up Philip?” Because most people think that taking a step “backwards” is a mistake and reflects poorly on them and their career—if that’s how they think—and Joe’s philosophy is the worst thing for your career is to have no movie for four years while you’re trying to make a five-million dollar huge step forward, and then five years from now you make a movie that’s this size and it’s like, “Oh I guess that guy made a small movie after failing to make a bigger one.” The difference in that thinking is pretty interesting.
What’s so hopeful for me and what you’re discussing is keeping things open. While trying to make that movie I made this one and, true to his prediction—he was like, “If we make this little movie, this movie will be released and I guarantee you will be no closer to making that big movie than you are today,” and he was exactly right. That was last March and now it’s August and that is a completely accurate statement. But I have this other completely personal movie that I made and I can keep doing that. There’s nothing preventing me from continuing to unsuccessfully send emails or do whatever on that bigger movie, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind, because ten years from now if I’ve hopefully made ten movies total, or more, instead of five, it’ll be because of this and the idea that I got in my head from him, which is that balancing things is totally fine.
I have another small idea like this that would be another two-week, five actors, fairly achievable little thing that we can get going as soon as all the schedules line up, it’s really not that complicated to pull together. Then deal with the bigger thing. And then there’s the writing work, which, you know as well as anybody, you can’t make Queen of Earths as your career. It’s a hobby. Making this movie was really fun because there were eleven people I like hanging out with, and editing it was fun, and promoting it was fun, but if I made another small movie this year, it’s just not enough of a livelihood making tiny movies completely on your own. If you’re making big ones, yeah, that’s plenty of money, but as we were discussing, those take forever to happen—if they happen at all. So the value for me in finding this kind of balancing act is pretty neat to think of this movie and what it is and then have my day job of writing for Disney and really learning the rules of that.
— Michael Tully