After last year’s Listen Up Philip (‘Listen Up Philip’: one of the year’s most fascinating and funny character studies — a film review), who would have thought writer/director Alex Ross Perry would — just a year later — produce such a startling, tonally different work like the entrancing drama Queen of Earth. Elisabeth Moss once again returns to work with Perry after having such a great moment in his last movie. This time, however, instead of a character who works through her issues with a lover (the titular Philip played by Jason Schwartzman), she plays a woman who succumbs to a sudden sense of profound insecurity. Her character, Catherine, is dealing with two significant losses: the death of her father and a break-up with her boyfriend. She heads off to a lakeside house her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) has invited her to for a week of recovery. With those two relationships ended, the film focuses on the dynamic between these two women who know each other too well for their own good. Let the projection and anxiety commence.
Though Listen Up Philip was driven with a comic tone so keenly established by the film’s outset, Perry has shifted gears at an almost startling level. There is nothing funny in Queen of Earth, notes the 31-year-old filmmaker, speaking via phone from New York City. He says it was a conscious decision inspired by Woody Allen. “That’s why I was so excited about Interiors, which he made right after Annie Hall. I was thinking about how I could follow up Listen Up Philip because it was such a huge, sprawling complete movie, and I look at Interiors and I thought, ‘Well, that’s how you follow up a huge movie that really connects with people and changes the way that people look at your work is make this small miserable chamber piece with no humor and nothing that anyone likes about your last movie, and you just kinda get that going and you just try with something different.'”
The only thing that isn’t different about this film and Listen Up Philip is returning actress Elizabeth Moss. Perry considers her a friend and says having her sign on involved a simple text message asking if she would like to play the role. “She perceived it as a challenging character, the likes of which she’d never done before, and she was really excited about that, to do something different,” he says. “She’d never really done anything quite so genre suggestive, and she just saw it as a really great character, and I knew if I was lucky enough to get her, then most of the hard work would be done, and no matter what, this film would have a powerful central performance that would carry most of the movie, and that’s the most important thing for a movie, especially a movie like this. It’s just two people sitting around in one location. I knew we needed someone of her acting caliber, and I hoped it would be her, and I was very lucky that she thought that way as well.”
Another, less obvious, carry over is Perry’s regular soundtrack composer Keegan DeWitt, whose abstract, moody music is also a big departure from the jazzy score of Philip. It’s restless, avant-garde quality featuring flutes and bells recalls Ligeti and plays a prominent role in giving the film an obtuse sense of disquiet. Perry says, Keegan came late into the process, after Perry had already begun editing early scenes to a temp score. “He had to look at that and conform his creation around the pre-existing rhythm of the edit,” notes Perry, “which is certainly not usually how that thing is done, but I’m such a fan of his work, and I was so blown away with what he was able to do.”
In fact, DeWitt worked so quick, his music caught up with the production, and it even had an influence on Perry, to an extent. “I mean, he read the script as early as everybody else,” continues Perry, “and then he’s looking at the dailies, and he’s seeing footage by day four or five of the shoot, and he’s making music while we’re shooting the movie, and then he’s sending us his music while we’re shooting, and we’re listening to some of the music on set. Then on day one of editing, basically the final music is just in there, and the movie takes its shape, takes its form around the essentially finished score, and that makes the music a much more complete part of the finished film.” (You can listen to the entire soundtrack on Spotify)
As for the success of Listen Up Philip, which brought the indie filmmaker wider acclaim and notoriety — at least among cinephiles — he said it never tainted his independent ethos, despite riding a wave of buzz from Sundance to Los Angeles. “There certainly were no offers to do anything,” he reveals. “I was in Los Angeles for three weeks after Sundance with [producer] Joe Swanberg trying to find any offer for Listen Up Philip, which people really liked, and that whole time all he and I did was talk about making this movie. Now, here I am a year later, not a single offer and not a single meeting I had out there turned into anything at that time, except for all the time he and I spent dreaming of this movie, and now here we are talking about it, and it’s been released already. So that stuff is pretty elusive, especially when you’re alone with a strong enough perspective and viewpoint that it can’t just be squeezed into any random box, and yeah, it changed a lot in terms of the audiences that’s going to be interested in what the next project is, which is the best gift of all. I’d rather have that than being hired to direct some script that I don’t really sort of care about.”
Even though Listen Up Philip garnered him a new audience, Perry feels no urge to pander to them. Some may be startled by his shift in tone, but that does not bother the filmmaker. Asked how he felt about audiences who might be disappointed by the change he responded, “I hope so. That was my dream. That was what happened with Interiors from Woody Allen, and that’s what I wanted to really happen here. People are really into it, so I don’t know. I’m sure there are people that are disappointed, but it’s not like Listen Up Philip made $20 million or was nominated for Oscars or anything. Still relatively few people saw it, so I think the pool of people that can be disappointed is quite shallow, as well.”
Perry and I spoke much more in The Miami New Times, a publication I freelance for, about the themes of his films, questions he grapples with in his stories, influences and his filmmaking techniques, which embrace actual film. Jump through the newspaper’s art and culture blog logo below to read that article:
Queen of Earth opens in our South Florida area exclusively at Tower Theater this Friday, Sept. 4. It’s playing only at a few other theaters in the U.S. To see if it’s in your city, check this link. IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this interview. They also provided all images here, except the portrait of Perry. That came from imdb.com.