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Jason Schwartzman and Alex Ross Perry on creating a fake writer’s world

Alex Ross Perry is one of most interesting and vital new voices to hit the American film scene in some time. Perry made his debut in 2009 with Impolex, an absurdist comedy loosely inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. However, it was his second feature, 2011’s The Color Wheel, that first attracted attention to his work. Produced on a shoestring budget and shot on grainy black-and-white 16mm, the movie starred Perry and cowriter Carlen Altman as Colin and J.R., a couple of obnoxious, bickering siblings who go on a short road trip to pick up a box of J.R.’s belongings from the home of her ex-boyfriend. Freewheeling and darkly funny, the movie became an unlikely underdog favorite on the film-fest circuit and something of a critical cause célèbre.

Perry’s ambitious third feature, Listen Up Philip, marks his entry into the American indie mainstream. In his best role since Rushmore, Jason Schwartzman stars as the title character, a narcissistic young writer whose relationship with his photographer girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), begins to fall apart after he publishes his second novel to modest acclaim and befriends his literary idol, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Superbly acted and sharply observant, it’s one of the best movies of the year, an expansive, complicated, and very funny portrayal of creative egoism and self-destruction.

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When The A.V. Club spoke to Perry and Schwartzman, the former had just finished shooting his fourth feature, the thriller Queen Of Earth, which stars Moss and Katherine Waterston and is expected to premiere next year.

The A.V. Club: How was Queen Of Earth?

Alex Ross Perry: It went really well. We’ll talk nerd stuff, but it’s got split diopters and 60-second zooms. It’s definitely needlessly experimental.

Jason Schwartzman: When do you start editing?

ARP: We’ve been editing. I haven’t edited yet, but Robert [Greene] has been editing for about a week and a half now. I start with him full time tomorrow.

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JS: Will you watch all of it? Every angle?

ARP: As you know, we only do, like, one angle. We only shot for 12 days. There’s only so much footage. I’m excited for you to be able to see it. It’ll be the most unwanted follow-up departure. All we were talking about was, “After Annie Hall, what do you make? You disappoint everyone with Interiors.” No humor in it whatsoever. Not a single moment of lightheartedness. I think that’s basically what we made.

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AVC: You’re really selling it.

ARP: It’s exactly what I want to watch. It’s the furthest thing I could have made from this. What am I going to do, make the same movie two years in a row? Hand-held, people talking… I wanted to do something totally different. This film we made has five straight minutes of no dialogue, people picking up bones off the ground and looking at them.

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AVC: Well, with Listen Up Philip, you’re clearly trying to translate a particular literary sensibility into film.

ARP: Coming from film school, you were taught the only way to approach making a film is, “It’s this movie meets that movie.” That became a dead end for me very quickly after graduating. The only thing that felt alive or relevant to find inspiration in was reading books. If you say, “It’s like this author’s work,” it can take you six months to read every book by them or longer. It could take you six months to read two books by them, depending on who the author is. That has become a much more relevant North Star for me when it comes time to start up a new project.

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AVC: Did you do some reading prep for The Color Wheel?

ARP: [I reread] what I had been reading when I was writing it. On this movie last year, when I first talked to Jason, in our weeks leading up to the movie, he got this book called Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates that I was interested in reading because that traces a very unhappy relationship, and it has sections of the book that follow the husband and the wife, but not at the same time. It’s his section, then the next couple years of their life are her section. When I told him to read that, Jason told me to read Light Years by James Salter. By the time we were rehearsing, Jason was listening to a lot of Jonathan Franzen, reading his essays and memoir, reading How To Be Alone or The Discomfort Zone. We gave each other ideas, because it was important for Jason to understand what kind of author Philip is and what authors he likes.

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AVC: That’s interesting, because we never actually find out in the film. The only things we ever see are the titles of his books.

ARP: I think the obvious and kind of stereotypical indie movie about a writer would probably get pretty deep into that. To me, that was of no interest except to know that this guy is a writer. He has an entire creative lifestyle that relies on nobody else, and therefore he has no language for dealing with other human beings.

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JS: I think it was fun to experiment with the idea that you do see him writing at times, at the computer, and making scribbles and stuff. He’s not going into writer’s block. He just wrote a book, and he’s gathering ideas for the next thing.

ARP: There’s one important line in there where he says, “I’m filling up notebooks, but it’s nothing but worthless garbage.” That means that, probably every three days, he’s got a Moleskine that’s just packed with stuff, but none of it is exciting.

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AVC: Did the two of you decide what kind of writer he was going to be?

JS: I’d asked Alex early on, “What kind of writer do you think he is?” He said, “I’ll put it this way: When I got out of film school and everyone made their first movie, it was about them living in New York and their story, but mine wasn’t. And I think Philip—his first book probably wasn’t about a guy growing up and struggling in the city and having that type of story. It was probably—”

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ARP: We said it had numbers in it.

JS: It probably had numbers and diagrams in it. The kind of—very kind of complicated and intricate guy who’s not writing something overtly personal.

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AVC: Do you think the work is something for him to hide behind? For both Philip and Ike, success, productivity, and creativity are a good way to hide or to ignore personal shortcomings. You can always turn to working on the book.

ARP: Ashley is the same way. She totally disappears into her work and really hides behind it. And she manages to balance all the work she has to do and her burgeoning career and her own life in a very successful way that Philip does not do.

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AVC: It would seem like he’s doomed in some way, but you know he isn’t because of the narrator. My understanding was that you read the narration on set.

ARP: Generally, for any given scene, we would need to read it for timing. We needed to figure out how long we needed to get the shots for. Then, for some stuff, it was very necessary to read it out loud for performance’s sake. Each movie can have one good gimmick. This movie’s gimmick is that it has a narrator. On a totally fundamental level, it was a way of getting into scenes without having characters stop to explain to the audience what their relationship is to each other. In the very first scene, the narrator says, “Philip is meeting his ex-girlfriend, Mona, whom he dated throughout a portion of college.” I don’t want to hear Philip and Mona explain that to each other, so that the audience knows who the hell this girl is. It would be an insufferable first 30 seconds of dialogue. Giving it straight away to the audience allows the dialogue to be so much more organic to the way that people would actually be speaking.

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AVC: What’s that like for an actor? Especially with the narration being read on-set. Does that take you out of the reality, or does that put you further into it?

JS: I loved it, because I think it was nice to sit there and have these scenes unfold. I’m looking at Elisabeth [Moss] in the scene, but Alex is reading it and sort of telling you what’s going on. It’s like a silent movie, where the director’s kind of walking you through it. In some movies, you can tell when there’s a voice-over that it was tacked on later to help explain things that weren’t clear. But this was like another character, so that character should be speaking out loud in a way. We’re all acting together. It’s not taking me out of anything because it is the thing.

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AVC: Does it make you feel like you’re part of a narrative? For a lot of actors, the thing they most want to do is get lost in a particular character and not really think about where anything goes.

JS: The way Sean [Price Williams, the cinematographer] shot the movie and Alex and Sean designed it, it already had the feeling of being very immersive. We could walk in any direction, 360. The actors were free to roam around. So it already felt that way. It didn’t take me out of it and, probably in a weird way, it helped, because maybe Philip is the kind of guy who has a narrator in his head.

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ARP: Philip has basically created this life for himself in the image of the life that he always wanted. He created this life. He said, “I want to live in the city, I want to be a writer, I want to be miserable, I want to have no friends, I want to be mean to people, and I want to create brilliant work.”

JS: It’s his dream, probably, that other people can hear his narration, not just him. “There’s got to be a way that other people can hear what I’m hearing.”

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AVC: You moved to New York, I’m assuming, around the same time the character’s supposed to have moved?

ARP: Well, in the beginning of the movie, it says Philip had been living in the city about 10 years and that’s about how long I’ve been living in the city. There are two other things in the movie that are factually accurate about me. Everything else is not. It was all part of my feelings about closing in on a decade of having lived here. To be in New York and to try to be a creative person informed this movie in many ways, some, I think, fairly obvious—some, I think, would be much less obvious and perhaps surprising to people if I were to go into detail about them. Which I won’t.

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AVC: I wanted to backtrack to something Jason mentioned about Sean Price Williams’ camera work. I want to know a little bit more about your relationship with him because the film you did before this, The Color Wheel, you actually starred in, which means that you had to trust your director of photography at all times because you couldn’t be on the other side of the camera. How do you guys work?

ARP: You already said the correct word, which is just to “trust” what’s happening. Listen Up Philip is the third movie we’ve made together, but it was the first one we had a monitor on, which I never looked at once. [All of Perry’s features have been shot on film. —ed.] It was the first opportunity that I ever had to see what he was getting, but I realized, because it was our third collaboration, I had absolutely no need, ever, to have a second of doubt where I had to actually see what he was getting. At this point, our relationship is one of such impossibly comfortable shorthand. By the time we’re on-set, the idea of the images that we need for this movie and the idea of what I want is so unspoken that I could leave for an hour if the acting was worked out to my satisfaction, and every image he would get in my absence would be exactly what I want, just because that’s how we operate.

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JS: No human beings really see everything exactly the same way. A cinematographer can completely misinterpret what the script is, just not get it—not in a bad way, just misinterpret it. But Alex and Sean truly do have this way where they don’t have to say anything.

ARP: Sean is, whether he would admit it or not, is a visual poet of sorts. We’ll block a scene with actors, and I’ll bring them in and say, “Here’s where the actors are going to go.” And he’ll say, “All right, if you want to make a movie with people standing in dark corners, then I guess there’s nothing I can do to make it look good.” Then it looks great. This was also the first time we ever really had any infrastructure behind it, and I think that really became something quite valuable for us. Like Jason was saying, we’re able to take the two main interior sets—which are Philip and Ashley’s apartment and Ike’s house—and essentially light them both like a television studio, so that there’s enough light in there, but they’re all kind of invisible, which meant that the actors could go anywhere in either interior without having to worry about it.

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JS: Like a play.

ARP: We actually put, like, 20 lights on the ceiling so that the entire apartment was ready to be filmed. When you turn them all on, Jason and Elisabeth can stand in the kitchen and they can sit on the couch and they can stand in the hallway and, wherever they are, we’re good to film them. And that gave the movie the hand-held energy that this one really needed to have.

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AVC: Do you guys do a lot of rehearsal before you start rolling?

ARP: For three weeks before we shot the movie, Jason and I went through the script about every day. And then, for the one week, before the shoot, Elisabeth joined us. Never once in that entire time did I hear either of them read the lines. At no point was a scene ever rehearsed in front of me. They would run the lines wherever they were, and then we would say, “All right, let’s get everyone out here, let’s block the scene,” and then that would be the first time I’d hear it.

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AVC: There’s so much that happens that has been placed within the narration. The relationship between Ashley and Philip is already kind of deteriorated to a certain point. Were the discussions laying a groundwork for that?

JS: All of it, all that stuff. It was the ultimate luxury to have Alex’s time. He was in the middle of all this preproduction. But spending these days together, these three weeks, we wrote out all the scenes on these notecards, we laid them down, we talked about the movie and whatever mood we were in that day. “What does this seem like to you?” “I was having a thought last night about this, maybe this could be in there?” “Let’s watch a movie today.” I think it’s just being together. It’s invaluable.

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AVC: What movies did you guys watch?

ARP: We watched—I wanted Jason to see We Won’t Grow Old Together, a film that I’m very fond of that’s a pretty unflinchingly brutal depiction of artistic torment set against the backdrop of a failing relationship that I felt was pretty relevant for this movie. Jason, at some point in our rehearsal, was like, “Have you seen Carnal Knowledge?” And I said, no, I hadn’t, and then two days later, we sat down and watched it.

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JS: So good.

ARP: Other than that, we were mostly looking at bits of things. We watched most of Husbands And Wives together after he made me watch the whole thing. One day we’d be watching it, and the next day, we’d be listening to Jonathan Franzen’s audiobook. The next day, we’d be walking around, trying to walk the way Philip walks. Creating the entire comfort zone for everything to exist in was more valuable than saying, “Let me hear this scene again.” I’ve learned, having made two movies kind of close together, that I lose interest in things. On the fifth take of something, I’m tired of hearing it. I’m second-guessing myself. So not hearing a scene be performed by the actors until the first time you’re filming it, for me, is the only way I can maintain any sort of perspective for how excited I am to be doing this.

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AVC: Did you find yourself rewriting? Or thinking of how you’re going to direct?

ARP: The time with them involved a lot of rewriting because ideas would come up—ideas or questions. The biggest example I could think of is, there’s one character who kind of disappears early in the movie, and Jason asked, “What happened to that character?” It took us 12 days of reading the script every day to even ask this question. And yet, as soon as we added that scene, it felt so natural, and now it’s one of my favorite moments in the entire film.

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AVC: You’re talking about comfort zones and the way characters move, but what about where they live?

ARP: This is my third film, but it’s the first time I’ve had resources. And it resulted in creating spaces that looked like we just found them. Ike’s house was empty. It was an empty house. And they put everything in there. You put that space out there for the camera and lighting team, and then they work their magic with it, then you bring the actors in there and they actually feel like they’re in a place that feels real. There’s real memories there—they’ve put doctored pictures of Jonathan and Krysten Ritter up around the house. Books are on the shelf. It feels like the space that the guy lives in. And that’s really the benefit of making something with an actual army behind you.

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AVC: Speaking of Ike, I happen to be really fond of Pryce’s performance in the film. Where did Ike come from for you?

ARP: One of the early things we talked about, I was just like, asking Jason, “Who are people like this, that you have this kind of relationship with?” Everyone’s got them. Everyone has Ikes. That became kind of a catchall term. Sean works with Albert Maysles and has worked with him for 10 years. Sean’s like, “Yeah, Al’s been a real Ike for me for a long time.” It’s a catchall name now for us for a sort of person who you look up to, then you get close to and you realize that they’re just a human being and they have the same problems as anybody, but that doesn’t affect the way you respect them. Which is kind of how we all felt about Jonathan. We were all super intimidated by him, and he just came in and turns out he’s just a guy who likes to make people laugh. He’s goofy and vulgar.

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JS: The first thing we shot with Jonathan was that scene where we’re having lunch and it felt pretty natural. The dynamic was pretty much there. It was us sitting there going, “Wow, Jonathan Pryce.”

ARP: That’s just an interesting dynamic to me. Everybody has them. Philip and Ike’s dynamic isn’t that different from my and Jason’s dynamic. When we first met, I was so nervous, and by the end of our first dinner, I was like, all right, we’re on the same page. You just step into that dynamic with someone where you already are prepared to be respectful of them because you already like what they do and what they do has been important in some way. Six hours later, that’s gone, and you’re totally relating as humans now.

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AVC: Ashley is kind of the other protagonist in the film. She takes it over for a long time, because there’s a large portion of the film where Jason is offscreen.

JS: We talked about the timing of the movie and over how much time takes place and what was probably happening and keeping these storylines going and talking about them. With respect to the scenes with Ashley, we shot all of Elisabeth’s scenes and then she was gone. All of Ike’s scenes, then he left. We did it in levels. We’d shoot in one day all these different scenes with Elisabeth and different emotions, but I don’t know how it was able to feel—I think it’s just, the writing was great and Elisabeth was supernatural. But I mean meganatural. And also supernatural.

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ARP: On the board of all of the cards that you made of every scene, the scenes you weren’t in had a different color. Philip’s scenes were black, and every card that had a scene you weren’t in was red. Even before you came to New York, when you were reading the script at home, you’d say, “Where is Philip for this entire summer? What exactly is he doing?” And the answer is, “He’s not doing anything. He’s sitting at Ike’s house, filling up notebooks with worthless garbage.”

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