There's a good chance that you've yet to hear about Alex Ross Perry. After two small successes with "Impolex" and "The Color Wheel", the Brooklyn-based filmmaker has gone mostly unnoticed by the masses. However, Perry has brought his strongest feature to Sundance this year with "Listen Up Philip."
Imbued with unflinching realism, Perry's third film is a novelistic triptych about a egocentric writer who (foolishly) emotionally invests himself into another human being. While inspired by the works of Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen, Perry's relentlessly bleak and sardonic voice does not get lost in the mix.
Below is a truncated transcript of our conversation. What was supposed to be a 15 minute conversation turned into 45, touching on matters of cinephilia, cynicism, artistic betrayal and the death of film.
I always described the narrator as impartial and unbiased. And when I say that some people laugh because he says things that are judgmental. To me, he's not meant to be judgmental. When the narrator says, "Philip returned to his pitiful life at the college" he's not saying this guy has a pitiful life, he's saying this guy's life is pitiful. When the narrator says something I hope a viewer takes it as a fact. It's not my opinion that his life is pitiful. It's not the opinion of this character or narrator. It's an objective pitiful existence and that's why we call it pitiful. I just wanted to play with that device. When you're making movies at a certain level, you're given a little bit of freedom to have gimmicks. When you're making a movie for $30,000 with five of your friends you can make it in black and white. Unlike when you're making a movie with six figures with a bunch of famous people you can't make it in black and white.
Did you want to make it in black and white?
No, never. I did that already. ["The Color Wheel"]
But you did shoot this on film.
Yes. That was great.
And that's something you wanted to do.
Of course. It's not even that I want to do it, it's just that I wanted to shoot it on film as much as I wanted to make a movie. Those two are very analogous to me. Sean our cinematographer always says, "You don't choose to shoot on film. Movies are shot on film. You choose to shoot on video, that's a new thing. For 100 years movies have been shot on film. That's what movies are made on. Making a movie on video is a choice."
Do you ever see yourself going to digital?
We shot something on digital this time last year that no one has seen.
Did it not feel right?
Yeah, no, it was fine. The digital thing we shot was never meant to be seen in a movie theater. Film is sacred. And cinematic exhibition to me is sacred, and to turn my back on that is not something I can see myself doing. Because I love it. The fact of that matter is, universally people respond to it. It has not gone without saying that it looks different than the 90 other films in the festival because of the way we shot it. I think there are four films here that were shot on super 16 by close friends of mine.
Yes … "Happy Christmas", "Ping Pong Summer" and the Elle Fanning movie, which I didn't see. There's just something special about film and watching people respond, say "Well this is kind of exciting and something different." You still like film when you see it. It's just that some corporate overlord made the decision that you don't like this anymore. But when a bunch of people with nothing to lose show it to you, you're happy with it. I hope that that sends a message. It's a perfectly viable option.
I think for most filmmakers it's just a monetary issue.
It's really not that expensive. It's just harder. There's only one lab in New York that can process your film.
But when someone like Martin Scorsese begins to use digital it sends a message.
Yeah, it's weird. Maybe it is more complicated on a bigger level. Maybe when you're doing $100 million dollar movie it's difficult.
Influences. Not just for "Listen Up Philip", but for your whole career. When you watch this latest film you can see Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen ingrained into your work. Who particularly inspires you?
Well those guys, for example.
I've been told that you are—more than most people—a cinephile with an encyclopedic knowledge of film.
Well, I don't consider myself a cinephile. I consider that to be a bad thing. To me that is the act of watching films and literally filing them away in your brain in an academic way. Which is like taking beautiful animals and putting them under glass at a museum; which I'm not interested in. I don't know if people who are true cinephiles (who are only watching films in order to write dissertations in their head about themes in a director's career) ever feel as alive with the possibility of what moving images can mean to an audience. People like myself just watch films because they make me feel less lonely and they entertain me and they give me time to think about my life and they give me time to sit and come up with ideas.
I think there is a subtle distinction between, like the Jonathan Rosenbaum book "Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition." I say this as someone who goes to see a film 3 or 4 times a week in the theater if I can and one at home every day if I can't. We can pull out these references on set, and we can reference shots and films we love and that's very helpful. But referencing academic themes that I filed away from bodies of work I've studied is not going to matter when you're making a movie. What matters is your relationship with capturing images that are both logical (because you've seen them in a movie) and illogical (because you haven't seen them and you go for it anyway).
By the time you get on set, you have to know the movie you're making. Throughout six months of working on this film in pre-production all we could talk about when we get on set was "Husbands and Wives" and "We Won't Grow Old Together." For "Husbands and Wives" we thought about its visual syntax and its use of handheld, which is still revolutionary. And for "We Won't Grow Old Together" we looked at for its portrait of artistic misery and family relationships.
And you made your movie without it getting lost in emulation.
It's funny because I think it's very easy to make something that would be reminiscent of films made by heroes that we're talking about. But the people who have responded to this film don't say, "This is just like Noah Baumbach watered down." They compare it to people who I admire. To be put next to these heroic works is much harder than to say, "Wow, this is derivative." It shows that I'm aware of my influences and I respect them and I admire the tradition that I'm embarking upon. But at the same time I have all these other things that I'm attempting to try.
As silly as this may sound, how would you hope people respond to your movie?
I have no idea. It's out there now. To me it's such a honest, unflinching, and realistic portrait of the failures of the human condition.
Do you identify with Philip as an artist?
I split up my identification among Philip, Ike and Ashley. If anything I'm more like Ike, a 70-year-old man with a lifetime full of enemies and accomplishments. I just don't have the accomplishments yet. But I already have the lifetime worth of negativity at the age of 29.
The film is often relentlessly bleak. Does that all stem from inside of you, or are you inspired by something else?
Philip is inspired by myself and many people I know. I found that a lot of people who are really creative are very unpleasant. It's just because they are so consumed with doing the best thing they can that they end up with tunnel vision. Ultimately it's just sort of a conglomeration of what that behavior does to people. I wanted to put the worst of people up onto the screen because I think too many films waste my time by putting the best of people onto the screen and I don't care about that. Someone asked me at the Q&A, "Do you feel good about creating two characters that don't have a redeeming characteristic between them?"
I said, "Well you should ask whoever you credit with creating human beings how they feel about making an entire species without a single redeeming characteristic."
And what was the response?
Dead silence. Four hundred people staring at me. I really do feel that way. Maybe 20% of the people in the world have redeeming characteristics and to assume that 90% of film would be about those 20% is very silly. There are so many miserable people and so many people who make a mess of everything in their lives. To let people sit for 108 minutes with characters who are making mistakes and doing the wrong thing.
Sure, but the film is not some exercise in misery porn.
Yeah it's not like a Romanian movie where people are just slowly suffering and then dying. The most important thing in creating serious fiction via a novel or a film is that it has to be entertaining. To make something that connects with people who can't sit through something if it is completely devoid of entertainment value is a complicated balancing act. I knew I wanted to make something that was almost relentlessly negative and pessimistic and full of mistakes and misery. But the only way I want people to go through that is with jokes. Locals here need to be entertained. Their idea of moving images is predicated on enjoyment and you can't just give them two hours of misery without something else.
Was it you who called "Listen Up Philip" an audiobook?
When I introduced it at the premiere I said, "I hope the experience you have watching this is akin to reading a short novella." From the very beginning I wanted to do something that was quite epic in scope. And I don't mean epic as in people on the backs of dragons with flaming swords. Epic in the sense that it's an intimate character piece set over nine months
Where did you get the titles for the fictional books? Some examples: "Some People Are Decent" and "The Shrug (A Very Passive Novel)".
When Jason and I were rehearsing for three weeks we started knowing that we really wanted to figure out what kind of an author Ike was. We would spend six/seven hours together just talking and reading the script, and five times a day some phrase would be spoken and Schwartzman would go "Bad Eating" or "Too Much Everything", that's definitely an Ike book."
Ike is a very cynical person.
Yeah, like I said, I put a lot of myself into him.
Do you believe people can't be redeemed or that they can't change?
I would fall more on the side of saying people are pretty much who they are. I don't have the biggest sense of optimism to assume that someone who is Philip's age (30ish) or Ike's age (late 60s) is going to change.
When does someone pass the threshold?
Age four. Developmental stages. I really believe there's a difference between people who know who they are and know what they want to do, and people who don't. The important thing about Ike, Philip, Ashley and Yvette is that all four of these characters know exactly what they want to do with their lives and are doing it. As someone who was a freshman in high school and wanted to go to film school, I knew from that day on I would never change. I wanted to be an independent filmmaker. There's no changing that. That was my path. To unify the characters with a sense of personal conviction and commitment to being exactly who they want to be is important. Which is why so many people are depressed when the film ends.
Well if you ended the movie any differently—on an optimistic note—it wouldn't feel right.
I've looked out at people's faces during the Q&As. It does not look like their hearts have been touched. Some audience member—not a critic or a writer—put up on Twitter (in regards to the film) "It was excruciating and I couldn't wait for it to end." I read it and I thought this should be on the epitaph of humanity.
On a side note, what is the Josh character (played by Keith Poulson) supposed to represent? He calls himself self-deprecating and just sort of exists as this enigma.
There're two things that I think that subplot attempts to accomplish. One is my New York experiences and my New York movie needed to contain a hint of the very real and very common betrayal that peers do to each other.
And that has happened to you.
That is one of the things in the film where I will say is 100% autobiographical. Unfortunately the guy who did it didn't kill himself. But the least I can do is have him die in film. Rivalry, pettiness, jealously, one-upmanship is such a big part for young people who are all fighting for the same piece of the pie. To live in a world (which New York is to me) where people are so willing to step on someone who is just their equal to get somewhere else is so ugly.
Do you partake in that?
I'm always the victim of it. I would never do anything to harm anyone else. This is a very autobiographical subplot. I am Philip and I have been so bizarrely thrown under the bus by people for no reason other than that it's the only thing people can do to make themselves feel like a real person—to have the power to hurt other people. Josh represents that really ugly but relatable subculture of jealousy and pettiness that exists in any creative milieu.