Vertical Entertainment / Bleecker Street
Alex Ross Perry has been bubbling under the surface as an indie filmmaker for many, many years, making films like The Color Wheel, Listen Up, Phillip and Queen of Earth, which found many fans on the film festival circuit.
Perry is involved with two films coming out in the next week, his fifth film as a director Golden Exits and Mark Pellington’s ensemble drama Nostalgia, which Perry wrote. Perry also wrote Disney’s upcoming Christopher Robin, an update on Winnie the Pooh starring Ewan McGregor as the older boy from A.A. Milne’s stories. It was also recently announced that Perry will reteam with Elisabeth Moss from The Handmaid’s Tale for a third time, writing and directing Her Smell.
Golden Exits stars Adam Horovitz (the former Ad Rock from the Beastie Boys) as archivist Nick who hires the beautiful young Naomi (Emily Browning) as his assistant to help with a job, much to the concern of his wife (Chloë Sevigny) and her sister (Mary-Louise Parker). As Naomi gets used to being in New York, she encounters others, including Jason Schwartzman’s sleazy Buddy.
Nostalgia is a more difficult film to describe. Directed by Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) from Perry’s script, it’s an ensemble drama about death and grief and belongings that’s far more poignant in its storytelling. It stars Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Ellen Burstyn, Catherine Keener and Bruce Dern as a number of people who interact while dealing with some of those subjects mentioned (as well as a few objects of unknown value).
The Tracking Board got on the phone with Perry for the extensive interview below, talking about all the projects above, but if nothing else, skip forward to the end where Perry offers some insights on being a writer/filmmaker.
Both your upcoming movies seem to be cut from the same cloth and have similar DNA, so were you working on them around the same time?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, yeah, they weren’t really at the same time and we were premiering Golden Exits at Sundance while Mark was shooting Nostalgia. They were very spaced out in a way, and it’s kind of arbitrary and ridiculous that they’re coming out so close together. They we written within a year of each other, and I suppose if stacked back to back would probably represent a bit of what was on my mind throughout the end of 2015 and into the middle and end of 2016, which would have been when I delivered the final draft to Mark. There was just an opportunity between the two to kind of examine a sort of dynamic that had not yet been there, both in my own impulses and the characters that we’re calling out to be in Golden Exits, and then through Mark’s ideas, he says, “Here’s an old lady. We want an actress in her seventies or eighties.” I’ve never had an idea of my own that lands with that kind of a character. This is my chance to write something for the kind of actress that Ellen Burstyn is to come in and be in a movie. For my own movies I’ve never seen that woman inside them. So it kind of gave me the opportunity, between the two, to have my cake and eat it as well.
Both movies feel like they could have been made by an older filmmaker, because they’re sentimental and somewhat nostalgic. Did you write both of them to direct at one point, or did you just write both of them and then pick one?
Nostalgia is Mark’s idea, and I think he has the “story by” credit, because he came to me with an idea and he said, “I’m a very sentimental guy. I have an idea that I’m afraid may be too sentimental, and I’d like a much more unsentimental writer than myself to approach this material so that my own instincts don’t get in that.” I thought that was a very interesting challenge, because Golden Exits, I would say is neither sentimental nor unsentimental. I think it’s fairly objective in a lot of ways, and he said, “These are my stories. These are the ideas. I know they’re sentimental. Can you write them in a way that is not treacly and not sappy, because I know you’re work and I think that exactly what you’re going to do.”
I think there are parts of Listen Up Phillip that feels like it’s the same writer but there’s generally less humor in Nostalgia, and I’m not sure it’s because Mark wanted to make something more dramatic compared to the movies you generally make.
Yeah, perhaps. I mean maybe there’s comedy in it; I don’t really know. I mean, I think he just ended up with some people and some situations that … he put Nick Offerman in a scene where he’s kind of frustrated with this very relatable situation with your grown-up mother. There’s an opportunity there for a little bit of a light moment amidst something that is much heavier than I think my own movie is.
Was Golden Exits something you’d been toying with for a while or did you just sit down after finishing Queen of Earth and that’s what you came up with ?
Well, there were elements of it that were kind of floating around. Typically just the idea of a young traveling woman in this tiny space with this guy, that idea was there for quite a while and I didn’t really know what the movie was connected to that idea except that, at some point, my friend who’s an archivist and who gave a lot of inspiration to the movie .. when he saw Listen Up, Phillip, he said, “The sequel to this movie needs to be Ike is dead, Krysten Ritter is an adult and she is making my life miserable.” Years later I came back to him and I said, “I know you were joking but I have these other two disconnected characters. I’ve got this Naomi and this Nick character, and somehow that little joke idea that you gave me after you saw a cut of Listen Up, Phillip, somehow that kind of become this movie.”
That was kind of where it came from, because I had this idea of being in a position where in order to work I am forced to see my ideas in terms of the practical ability to execute them, as we all are of course — I’m not unique in this regard. But [I was] just looking for another way to get out there and make something immediate. Something that I could make with the resources that I had and the supportive actors that I was able to talk to. Actors that I’d met with on other films that didn’t happen, or actors that I’d worked with before. Actors that I just wanted to work with and was able to very succinctly target.
It all came together, and I had met Emily Browning for this other larger movie that just was not happening. She was actually probably the last actress I met with for that movie, and by the time I met with her it was so clear that the timeline of that movie was not even remotely possible. There was no chance it could be happening, but at that meeting I was able to say to her, “Look, I have this other thing. It’s a little different. It’s a little smaller, but I’ve never really known who this character is. This traveler. This stranger, this young girl. This wide-eyed girl unto which all these characters can and do project their own thoughts and feelings. Let me finish writing this and send it to you right away, but we’re sitting here talking about a movie that your team has told you will be shooting in April should you want to do it. Well, that movies not happening but we can shoot this in April, if you want. I would love to have you because I know even just talking I think you could be this character that I’ve never really known who the character was.” And then six months later we were making the movie.
Did you have her singing in the opening in the script as well?
No, it was not in the script originally, so there’s no written proof it, but it’s just one of those things that … we did the scene fairly early in the shoot, where Nick comes over to her house, and what was in the script and actually was an idea of Emily’s after she read an early draft for it. She just said, “I think this girl has to sing some kind of a song with her own name it. I think that’s really annoying. I just caught myself doing it, and I hated myself, and I think this girl needs to do that.”
So I put that in there. Then once we did it, it was very nice. Obviously, she has a great singing voice, so then the thing became we’ve got to get one more little musical moment in this movie for her, and then … that idea to me is a kind of fun elusive little moment because it’s in the move. It starts the movie. Obviously of importance to me. I couldn’t really tell you where it came from or why, but it speaks to the fact that ideas sometimes once they’re in there, whether you can answer for them or not, you just can’t shake them. You can’t explain why. You can’t explain what the purpose is, but some ideas just will not go away until you put it on camera or put it on the script. That to me … until we shot her singing that song I would never stop thinking about it. Then we did it, and we just said I think that’s how we open here.
And it’s featured in the trailer, too, which I’ve seen a bunch since the Metrograph is showing it in front of every movie.
Oh, okay. Cool. Yeah. I’m glad to hear it’s been playing there. The last couple movies I’ve been in I’ve not seen [the trailer]. I’ve been dreading that I would have to sit there during it repeatedly.
My brother is an archivist, and he’s way nerdier than Adam Horovitz. Did you know Adam beforehand and know he wanted to do more acting? How did his casting come about?
Well, I’ve seen [Noah Baumbach’s] While We’re Young, and he’s just so good in the movie, and sort of the challenge is I’m already saying, “I had a meeting with Emily. I had met with Chloe. I had met with Ana Lee.” There’s so many parts of Golden Exits that came from the ashes of this other film that was just never getting any traction. Then once I realized I could call upon them, and Chloe was a very early part of Golden Exits — I basically started with her, Emily, and Jason. Then I’m saying, “Well, I’ve never written a guy that’s older than I am.” I mean Ike Zimmerman in Listen Up, Phillip is substantially older. I’d written a guy who is older, but not like an older guy. Jonathon Price, Ike Zimmerman in Listen Up, Phillip, he’s in like his mid 60’s. I think maybe he was like 65 or so when we shot it.
I’ve never just written a guy that’s like on the continuum of the characters I’ve written, but 20 years further down the line. I got very excited thinking in a whole new thing I can do now. We needed New York locals — we were not in a logistic or financial position to be flying anybody in to make this movie. When I saw his name on a list I thought … I mean my God, even just a meeting to even just get to spend an hour with this guy — a legend of my life, and my culture, and my generation, just every. Just to even get to meet this guy would be something that I never thought in my life would happen, forget about like “What if he makes the movie and I get to actually work with him?” I’ve never been more nervous.
I’ve sat there with a lot of people I really think are great, and people that mean a lot to me. I’ve never been more nervous, because if never sat down with someone who I was kind of asking them to cross the counter of what their vocation is, and also, he’s someone just so massively important and relevant. As soon as I sat down with him — and all we talked about was The Walking Dead – and I’m going … to me, I know he’s a normal guy, young kid, but I’m going to meet Ad Rock in a way. I mean, that’s nerve-racking no matter how you look at it.
Then we’re just sitting at Pan Quotidien, just talking about The Walking Dead, and I was just like, “This is a very surreal experience. My God what an opportunity of life it would be to get to collaborate with this guy.” Despite his repeated insistence that he’s not an actor, he just said, “I just did it because you asked me. People don’t ask me to do things I’ve never done before, and you were asking, and I thought that was very interesting, so I thought I should do what you were asking.”
That’s very cool and it’s a great role for him to play an older guy like that because most of us are so used to seeing him as a twenty-something performing with the Beastie Boys in those great early videos.
Sure, yeah. I mean he’s very much not the King Ad Rock anymore. He’s Adam — husband, father. relaxed guy, very satisfied with his life seemingly, and just a very normal guy who’s got his head on straight, and he’s got his priorities very emotionally in line with how to be a decent human being. He’s kind and friendly, and giving of his time and his effort. How many legends can you say that about?
You spoke earlier about that opening with Emily. As a filmmaker writing your own material, I presume you have a tightly-written script, so is there room on set when you’re directing to try different things and change things up?
I did mention that was not in the script, but other than that, just as a challenge to myself, never having done it, and based on an early comment from Chloë where she said, “I’m terrified of improv, and your movies always seem to have a lot of it.” I just decided to try and shoot this script as written. Just because I’d never done it, and she was right. If I wanted a certain kind of actor her, Mary-Louise, Lilly … theatrically-trained actresses, maybe the “Well, we’ll get there and fill in the gaps of this moment on the day,” maybe that mentality wasn’t right for this project. We did add this kind of opening bit, but largely it was as written, which was kind of a challenge for me and something that I just kind of put my faith in the actors.
You also worked with Jason Schwartzman again and had him playing another unflattering character, somewhat similar to the one he played in Philip. Did you write that character for him or did he just fit into what you wanted from the character after writing it?
Well, he was meant to be involved with this other movie that I was meeting a lot of actors on, so there was a role for him, and a part for him, and time for him to come and be in a movie. So I just said, “Look, this other thing we’ve been working on doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen, but we can make another thing at this time. Would you like to be in this? I’m going to write a character with you in mind.” He said, “Of course.”
I really like the use of music in the movie—it’s gentle and evocative, so how did you come up with how to use the music to set the tone?
Well, it’s Keegan Dewitt and this is our third movie together, our third movie in a row. Like a lot of things in this movie, we were kind of going back to Brooklyn in a way that we didn’t want to repeat anything from Listen Up, Phillip, which was a very brass heavy score, so I said, “We need to get through this whole movie with no brass. Let’s just do a different kind of thing. Let’s make a score where this is a very understated movie where a lot of what’s being spoken is kind of half of the story and what’s being unspoken is the story, so let’s make music that speaks volumes about what’s going on because these characters do not speak volumes.” That was really all I said to him, so what he came back with I was very amazed by, as always.
He scored two movies at Sundance this year, and I was blown away by both of them, not realizing who did the music until later. I hope you keep using him because I have a feeling he’ll be stolen away by other directors.
Yeah, no, I mean we’re very close at this point. I write with him in mind as much as everybody else.
And you’re doing a third film with Elisabeth Moss as well, Her Smell, which is based in the music world and she’ll play a punk rocker, so I guess he’ll be writing the tunes for her to perform?
Yeah, everybody who’s involved must stay involved is my hope, so I write for all the collaborators at this point. I write for our wardrobe designer. I write for the make=up designer and I write for Keegan as the composer and for Shawn Williams who’s the photographer and Robert Green the editor. At this time, these people are stuck in the orbit of me whether they like it or not.
It’s nice that you have all these actors “at your disposal” like Jonathan Pryce, who was great at the Brazil screening you hosted [also at the Metrograph].
It’s nice to stay friendly with them. On day one of Golden Exits … usually day one is a slow day where you run behind schedule, and we finished about two hours ahead of schedule. Everyone said, “That’s weird. Day One, how can that happen?” Everyone said, “It’s not day one, it’s like day 50. This is our third movie together.” Not a single person on this crew needs to learn how to talk to the person that they’re working with.
What’s your working relationship with Elisabeth like? Can you still go to her with something after she’s won Emmys and Golden Globes, and she’s interested in what you’re writing for her?
Well, we made two movies together, so it would have been weird if we just never made a third one. That’s been in the works for quite a while, I think a lot longer than people would probably expect, and a lot longer than I’ve ever nurtured a project. I kind of promised her a character three years ago, and it took me a long time for me to figure out what movie that character was in. Then when I did, and she read it, she just said, “What is the soonest we can make this movie?” If you can have that kind of relationship with anybody, which I have with Elisabeth and I have it with a dozen or more cast and crew members, much less have it with actors working at the top of their game, as she undoubtedly is right now. That’s your biggest asset as a filmmaker in any way.
It seems like your films have generally gotten bigger as they went along, although I guess you couldn’t get smaller than your first movie, but maybe it just comes from experience that they seem to be bigger. Is that leading to you maybe directing a studio movie down the line?
Well, that’s a very nice compliment. It’s not true at all. My movies, they all got bigger, until Listen Up, Phillip, and then they just got smaller. But, it’s very nice and very flattering that you would look at Queen of Earth and Golden Exits and think boy these movies just seem bigger and bigger. I mean Queen of Earth is a one location movie with basically four characters in it.
Well, you seem to have nicer location with each movie, how about that?
Yeah, I mean we got a whole college to ourselves for Listen Up, Phillip, but Golden Exits is a tiny little intimate character drama filled largely in my own neighborhood. Each one I think sort of takes an ambitious seat to why I’m writing it, and I think maybe, hopefully, you’re seeing that there’s an ambition behind making a sprawling seven-character Brooklyn-set melodrama, as opposed to, a movie that’s perhaps a little more focused and therefore feels smaller. It’s all just part of it. A lot of these have been done because I have the freedom, or at the same time as work I’ve done at larger … I mean I wrote a studio movie that comes out in six months through which I learned a lot. I could only really take the time off and have the financial security to make Golden Exits because of that.
I did want to ask about that Christopher Robin movie, because I saw your name credited. At first I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting” since I wouldn’t expect it, but then when I thought about the characters of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet and the others, they do seem similar to some of the characters you’ve had in your movies.
How did that come about? Did they approach you to pitch something or you had an idea…?
No, certainly not. The last thing in the world anybody would need to do would be to approach a guy like me for a pitch on that, but I was invited to pitch because … it’s a long story of why my agent knew that this was something that I should be alerted to, which is almost coming up on four years ago. For various reasons, he knew that this was something that he should flag, and that I should get on the phone about, and I just said, “Get me on the phone with whomever there. I’m going to blow their mind with how much this character means to me and how right I am for this.” That’s exactly what happened, and five months later I had the job. Two years later they were shooting and now the movie comes out in August, and I think and hope that it will make sense to people when they see it, maybe, why a guy like me would have been trusted with creating that story and developing it with producers for two years.
If you knew the way I live for real, with my cats, just kind of sitting around my house, maybe it would make a lot more sense.
Last question I want to ask is a slightly more esoteric one, but what got you interested in writing and making movies in the first place?
Yeah, I don’t know. How do you even remember when you decided to set off on a path that you knew you would never step off of? I never said, “Oh I must be a writer, because I am sort of by profession and according to my insurance, but I just wanted to make movies, and I wanted to write them and then make them. I just remember being in high school, making video projects with my friends. During the sort of planning of it I would just have to say to trust that when we’re doing this it’ll make sense, and then when we’re doing it I would say when it’s edited it’ll make sense. Then when it’s edited you would show it to them, and say “You see?” And they would go “Yeah, yeah, okay I see.”
So that was always kind of the dream of getting to that somehow. It’s just honestly become a very low, but very educational kind of descent into the actual intricacies and the lessons of what it means to write and to be a writer, to write a movie that I will be making myself in a couple of months with most of the cast already committed before they really see a script. To write a movie for a guy like Mark Pellington, who’s given me parameters on how this movie must be made. To write a movie knowing that it’s being handed in to a studio, to executives, to producers, to all these other people. There’s a lot of variables in it, and what I’ve found in the last couple of years is that I like pretty much all of it.
I didn’t know any of this ten years ago, but now I know it, and it’s kind of just caught up with me. Now, the time sitting here at the desk surrounded by the cats with the tea, just writing and looking out the window, that’s the happiest time that there is. Oddly now, just because it’s work, just because now I do it five days a week during normal working hours, it’s given me a lot, and sort of this year … you said you’ve seen Nostalgia?
Yeah, I’ve seen both movies.
Yeah, so you’ve seen Golden Exits, you’ve seem Nostalgia. You’ll see Christopher Robin. It’s weird that these things are all coming out in the span of just a few months, but they really represent the last three or more years of work. Her Smell will also be part of that. Not that it’s coming imminently, but it’s all part of the same window of time where I honed in on getting a lot of writing done, and then it all kind of crashed in this big wave, where I was very productive in 2016, did very little in 2017, and now in 2018 all the stuff is going to come out.
Golden Exits opens on Friday, Feb. 9 at the Metrograph in New York City, then expand to L.A. on other cities on Feb. 16. Nostalgia will open on Feb. 16 in select cities and then Christopher Robin is due out in August from Disney.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor