Interview: Alex Ross Perry

Alex Ross Perry hasn’t written the great American novel, but the 30 year old filmmaker certainly has more than enough ability to sympathize with those who have achieved such lofty heights in their career. For his third feature film, Listen Up Philip (opening Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox), the literate, astute, and honest Perry has decided to take a look at the nature of youthful success and hubris without passing judgment on a main character that some people could dismiss as unlikable.

Jason Schwartzman stars as Philip Friedman, a still fairly young writer whose debut work garnered him considerable acclaim. Just prior to the release of his hotly anticipated sophomore effort, Philip’s life begins to fall apart, both by way of his own honesty a series of sometimes poor decisions. His girlfriend (Elisabeth Moss) gets sick of his shit and leaves him for admittedly less problematic housecat. He pushes more people away that he feels didn’t believe in his abilities, in the process aligning himself with established older author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who gets him a teaching job. In turn, he spends a lot of time at Ike’s vacation home in hopes of recharging, learning from his new mentor, and generally being a terrible teacher while shirking press duties for his book and anything else he deems to be beneath him.

There’s a rich amount of honesty in Perry’s work that carries over from his previous efforts Impolex and The Color Wheel that gets expanded upon here. It’s a film not only about the fickle natures of success and professional self-worth, but also about the perception of attitudes and how people process the truth. It’s a delicate and insightful piece of work that’s as dense as the books one would expect his main character to produce.

We chatted with Perry over the phone last week about the subversion of genre clichés, how some viewers have found his main character unlikable, and a scene in the film that’s his current career highlight.

Dork Shelf: One of the things I find most interesting thing about the film is that it speaks to kind of a modern plight that writers face today, which is the ability to differentiate between what they think feels realistic and what they think feels like a cliché that they shouldn’t be writing about or talking about. Everyone has become hyper-aware of thinking whether or not something is clichéd or not. It can sometimes lead not to writer’s block, but to a crippling sense of self doubt. So when you create a film like this about writers that are cognizant of cliché and in touch with their own lives, what do YOU see as a cliché and how do you decide to have moments in the film where these characters describe their own lives in clichéd terms and have other characters call them out for it?

Alex Ross PerryAlex Ross Perry: I think part of what’s so fun about getting on top of the film over the last couple of weeks and talking about it and listening to people’s responses to it is basically realizing that we’ve taken every single one of the clichés of the “New York movie,” the “young author movie,” the “newly successful person” movie, the “protégée and mentor” movie, all into one movie, and anything that I had seen in one of those movies a hundred times before got thrown out. Almost all of the dynamics to me play out like every time you see this kind of movie, but subverted.

This is a movie about authors that in no way, shape, or form focuses on the craft of writing because no one suffers writer’s block and no one is struggling. These are two guys who can always sit down and produce pages, it’s just not up to their high standards. You always see these movies where people have writer’s block or you’ll see a movie where someone will like clockwork sit down and always write ten pages a day, but real life isn’t ever that perfect. That’s just more interesting to me.

Every time you see a film about a mentor and his new, young protégée, those kinds of stories often end with each of them changing each other by the end of the story. And in this film neither character is changed at all. Part of the thing that’s great about having clichés to play with is that in an independent film about a successful writer is that everyone is already anticipating something they’ve already seen. I think that was fun and sort of my goal to do none of that properly and to do it all in the most radically incorrect way that I could come up with.

DS: I like that we never actually see Philip’s writing. We get a sense through learning about Philip and the people that he gravitates towards what his writing might sound like, but did you ever envision Philip as having a distinct authorial voice or did that matter?

ARP: I mean, to me it sort of doesn’t matter. The important thing is just knowing that he’s really good at it. I’d rather tell somebody that this guy is a really good writer and have the only proof of that to offer is that another respected author says he’s good, and then that guy has to be made into someone who would know that sort of thing and make him an authority. Because if you show the writing, then everyone is going to immediately want to say, “Oh, well, that’s not that good. I don’t understand what everyone talking about. I don’t see what the fuss is about.” That just complicates the story, when you can just leave it at, “He says he’s good and everyone around him knows he’s good.” I’m just not going to give you any information that’s going to conflict with that to make that idea work.

DS: In terms of how the film is structured, the choice of having a narrator come in to chime in at particular points is interesting. Did you have an idea to have the narrator always be a part of the story or did you have the idea for the characters first?

ARP: When I was editing my last film, there was just this general frustration that I had with what you could and couldn’t get away with without including a bunch of boring, expository dialogue, so that comes a bit from that. I said that I would love to avoid that for my next film, and the use of a narrator was something that I generally thought would be exciting to have. The idea of having a third person narrator to deliver that was something I was always excited by. When the film sort of became about writers and this was sort of shaping up to take place in this milieu, it felt very appropriate that I would be using a narrator before I knew what the film would end up being.

DS: When I read reviews and interviews that have been done for the film already, people seem very quick to call Philip an asshole, or a shithead, or some other vaguely diplomatic way of putting it, but when I look at the character there’s something genuine about the character. He really is treating other people the way he wants to be treated. He doesn’t seem to be fucking with people just to get a rise out of them. Do you find it interesting to see where people come down on their opinions of Philip as a character?

ARP: Well, I’m never really surprised by people thinking those things because I know pretty well that at this point in the human devolution of society that no one is really able to look at a challenging, complex, slightly broken down, and sometimes mean spirited character and give that person the benefit of the doubt. We’re at the point now where that character is just going to be termed “unlikable” without anyone giving the consideration to figure out if there’s anything about him that’s inherently unlikable, which would be to ask if he’s lazy, stupid, unkind to animals, you know, things that are actually bad qualities for any human being and then compare that to a character like Philip who is just actually really honest.

I think we’re at a point right now where the person who is unpleasantly honest is – for most people, but not me – an unlikable person. If someone is unpleasantly honest to me, I’m probably more inclined to like them. If someone is passive aggressive and duplicitous or sneaky, then that’s a person that I don’t like. Those people can do all of those things with a smile on their face and most other people will never realize how unlikable those kinds of people truly are.

Listen Up Philip

DS: A lot of the time people are quick to label Philip as “miserable,” and I don’t think that’s the case for the entire movie. Early on at least, he’s getting everything that he wants out of life. He’s clearly not depressed and he’s very in tune with who he is as a person.

ARP: Right, and that to me is why I don’t consider him unlikable. To me, and unlikable person is out of touch with who they are as a human being, and a likable person to me is someone who has figured out who they are and what makes them run. Anyone who’s aware of themselves enough to add up the equation of who they are is someone I will at the very least respect, and usually when I respect someone I end up liking them. Yeah, sure, he’s miserable, but who isn’t? Yeah, sure, he’s difficult, challenging, and sometimes insulting, but so what? Does that mean that this guy can’t have friends? He doesn’t have any friends, so maybe that is why, but I think there’s something valuable in creating someone like that. Showing characters that don’t see complexity as being necessary for characters will always take things for granted and always believe everything at face value. People who accept that never ask questions about what makes someone like that tick. If he’s mean or he insults somebody or makes a rude remark, then most people would be done with him, but that’s not me.

I wouldn’t spend two years of my life writing, making, and talking about this movie if this wasn’t a character that I genuinely felt really strongly about. It had to be strong enough for me to want to spend two years living in that zone. And you know, I never think I really fully cracked the code with him to what made him so explicit in those regards. I think if I did, it would feel like I would be watching the fifth film ever made about that kind of character.

DS: I think the best subversion of any sort of genre convention in the film would be the scene in the film where Ike calls Philip over late one night to essentially act as a wingman to help him pick up women. It’s a great play on the moment where the protégée realizes that his mentor really might be a particularly despicable guy who has all those bad qualities we talked about earlier. It shows how Philip’s mentality could eventually turn him into someone that was duplicitous and who would use others for his own gain, which Philip never does. The film seems to almost hinge on that one scene. It could have been the scene in a clichéd film where Philip realizes that he needs to change his ways in a drastic way, but really he just learns one really important lesson on how not to be a total asshole.

ARP: Well, I’m glad that responded to that scene so favourably because that scene is my favourite scene in anything I have ever done. I could watch that scene a thousand times, and if anyone ever showed up to the editing room to catch a glimpse of the film, we would always show them that scene. I’ve seriously seen that scene in excess of 50 times now, not even including when I was watching full cuts of the movie. It’s just firing on all cylinders.

This goes back into what we were saying earlier. To be a cliché we would need for Philip to learn something and for Ike to change his ways, and that’s just ridiculous because Ike is the kind of person who hasn’t changed his ways since he first started getting successful 45 years ago, so why would he change them in four months just because he meets some young kid? I don’t believe in that at all. To me that feels like a totally fake cinematic device.

So I made sure that they didn’t change and that I just let Ike’s behaviour unravel on its own and speak for itself. A scene like that where you let Philip and the audience know where this guy’s at, you have to make it known that this guy isn’t so cool, but that he’s got the same miserable problems as anybody That’s fun to me to consider and play with.

A scene like that is fun to talk about because that’s really where the whole process of making the film became really collaborative. Originally I had this kind of scene take place where Ike takes Philip out to a restaurant. Then people started saying, “Well, why do you have to get a restaurant? It could be anywhere. Can he just bring two women to his house?” And I said, “Sure! He can bring people to his house instead.” So first the setting of the scene changed, and I just kept chipping away at everything in the scene that didn’t belong until there was basically nothing left, then I let Jonathan Pryce just entirely improvise what the rhythm of the evening would be like.

All we knew ahead of time was that at one point in the scene, Philip would have to end up in the study and they would have to have this dialogue exchange where he says “You fucked up. I could have closed that transaction by now twice when I was your age. Get back in there.” We only needed them to say that and for later we needed to have Philip end up at the piano. That’s it. We just wanted to see what happens.

Right before we shot the film, I had actually seen a John Cassavetes retrospective, and I saw every film that played, and that’s a fun guy to puzzle over because any idiot with a camera and no script can say they’re being inspired by him. So watching that scene – which I feel does belong within that same cinematic universe as his films in terms of how it explores the characters – there’s one thing that you learn that you can’t bluff your way through if you’re trying to be inspired by his work: you really do need the greatest acting possible. Everyone in his films brings that level of craftsmanship to their performances.

What Jonathan did with that scene, I had never seen anything like it. I remember sitting in the room with him, watching him fill it up with cigar smoke and horrible energy by telling these terribly bad, bawdy jokes. I was just in awe. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. It was the most unbelievable performance I had ever had the pleasure of seeing in person. And most importantly, it translates into the camera. Everything lined up perfectly for that, but he was really our ringleader. The scene wouldn’t exist without him. He really tapped into something that changes the film around it.

DS: There’s also something interesting to be said for the limits of Philip and Ike’s successes and their level of education. They’re intelligent and successful, so they seem like the antithesis of the old chestnit “those who can’t, teach.” And yet, both end up as teachers. Was that a joke that you were consciously playing with?

ARP: Yeah, and again, that’s just another fun little cliché to play with. Philip goes to teach at the great expense of his personal life and his burgeoning professional career. He goes to teach instead of promoting his new book, which is something that people don’t want him to do. That’s what ruins his personal relationship and his professional standing. It probably affects his sale. That’s a version of these events that I hadn’t seen done quite this way. Usually, a depressed author who can’t get anything going ends up teaching. Instead this is someone who chooses teaching because all they want to do is escape from all their problems. That and he does a really terrible job at it,

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