The under-the-radar breakout star of this year’s New York Film Festival isn’t an actor or film, but rather a director: 30-year-old Alex Ross Perry, whose third feature, Listen Up Philip, confirms his status as one of American cinema’s brightest new talents. Following up 2011’s critically hailed (if little seen) The Color Wheel, Perry’s latest is a caustic saga about a NYC novelist named Philip (Jason Schwartzman) and his relationship with both his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss) and an esteemed writer named Ike (Jonathan Pryce) who sees in Philip a kindred take-no-prisoners, stick-to-your-principles spirit. Alternately abrasive, arrogant, defiant, and judgmental, these three characters prove fiercely beholden to their artistic principles, regardless of the personal consequences.
On the eve of the film’s theatrical release, we sat down with Perry to discuss his early days working as a clerk at New York City’s famed Kim’s Video & Music store, the notion that his characters are unlikable, and the fantasy of living an artist’s life out in the country.
So how do you get from Kim’s to here?
To me, it’s very linear. I left Kim’s the last week of 2007—six years before sending a completed DCP (digital cinema package) of my third movie [Listen Up Philip] to Sundance. And in the middle, how I got there is just working. At no point was I ever waiting around for things to line up. I left Kim’s in order to make my first movie [Impolex]. I made it with a cinematographer [Sean Prince Williams], lead actress, and lead actor who I’d worked with at the store. That movie gave me enough of a footing, and encouragement, to immediately make a second movie [The Color Wheel]. That movie did enough that, two years later, and with these same collaborators, I was able to get a bigger movie going. To me, it’s just a very short, very simple timeline. I just kept making things, and if I didn’t have any resources, I made a movie for $25,000 with six of my friends. And when I had an opportunity to rally some resources, I got to make a film like this.
People just need to...realize that you’re not watching a movie in order to audition new friends. You’re watching a film to try to understand the struggles and complexities of fictional characters.
How do you react to the idea—espoused by some critics—that the characters in Listen Up Philip (and The Color Wheel) are “unlikable?” Do you think about such concerns during production?
It only comes up on a movie like this because of casting, which is discussed during pre-production. Which isn’t to say that Philip is unlikable. But it is to say, depending on who plays him, Philip could be very unlikable. Ideally, you want a Jason Schwartzman type who just is inherently likable. So that he can bring that character into the middle, and so that character will be what we need him to be.
To me, an unlikable character is not a complex, conflicted character who speaks his mind, and is not afraid to be outspoken. To me, an unlikable character is someone who’s earnest, complacent, doesn’t question the way things are, and just takes everything as it comes. The character in this film of the other author, who’s just like “Hey, I just do what I do”—that’s an unlikable character to me. That’s why he’s the butt of every joke in every scene that he’s discussed. Because that guy, who’s just lazy, and uncommitted to his work, and lackadaisical about his career— that’s an unlikable character. A guy who’s very serious and very focused and thinks a lot about what he does and why he does it and how to do it more—it doesn’t matter if he’s rude, or if he’s disruptive to people’s sense of stability— he’s likable.
I don’t want to compare my movie to any of these movies, but if you look at the AFI Top 100, from Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Psycho, Taxi Driver, Vertigo—no likable characters. These are just the greatest movies of all time. People just need to get over that, and realize that you’re not watching a movie in order to audition new friends. You’re watching a film to try to understand the struggles and complexities of fictional characters. The more complex the fictional character is, the better that film will be.
What’s engaging about him is that, though he’s rude, and not that nice to women, he knows who he is, for better or worse.
Right. That to me is a very likable quality. It doesn’t matter who you are, or if you’re someone I necessarily agree with. If you’re that serious about yourself, and you have that much clarity over who you are, then I respect that. I am surprised to find that when you put that character trait in the three main characters in a film, people’s response is to say, “These are unlikable people.” It’s like, no, they’re just set in their ways.
Were you modeling the characters after anyone in particular? Perhaps yourself, given that the film is about an up-and-coming artist working on the follow-up to a well-received initial work?
Philip, Ashley, and Ike all have equal parts of what I was going through when this movie was coming into existence. In Philip, there’s a lot of the youthful entitlement and insistence on forging ahead and making a name for yourself and just doing the best work that you can. That was all very much in me at the time that this film was being written and put together. On the other hand, what you see Ashley doing, which is actually just doing the work and becoming the relevant professional that she wants to be, and learning the skills necessary in order to grow her career—that’s very personal to me as well. And the side of that where she just wants to go to work, come home, sit around with her cat—that’s very personal. Then you have Ike, who’s this guy who, if he had his choice, he’d just sit in the country, not near the sounds and smells and distractions of the city, and just be by himself so that he can do work in complete isolation. That’s another thing that I’m very drawn to. So I think that those three characters all speak equally to a lot of what I was trying to ask myself at the time.
Aside from the fact that Philip and I lived in New York for the same amount of time (at the time I was writing the movie), and aside from the fact that he has one thing that does a little, and then a second thing that does a lot, those are about where the similarities end. Other than that, the only autobiographical things for me regarding Philip are just his general sense of dissatisfaction with the state of things and his total sense of bewilderment at the low standards most people hold themselves to. But Ashley and Ike have them as well. That’s a unilateral trait across all the characters in this movie.
What struck me is Ike’s line that New York has a “creative energy, but not a productive one.” Do you find that you need to get out of the city to thrive creatively?
It’s a very romantic idea. The funny thing is, whenever I leave—and I’ve only ever left for a week at a time—I can never actually get any work done anywhere else. I can only do work at my desk, in my house. I can’t even do work at the library down the street. Maybe if I went away to the country for six months, I’d get something done. But that’s the way people feel, and that line’s just sort of speaking to my fantasy. Everyone who wants to be creative in New York has a mutually shared fantasy that, if you can just get to the country house, then you’ll finally get some work done. And there’s a little bit of a joke in there, because neither of my first two movies were made in New York at all.
It’s hard to make really small movies in New York, where everyone is very complicated and it’s hard to get around. Whereas, if you’re going to make two very micro-budget features, just take everyone in a van, drive them out to Vermont, and make a movie there. So part of that line is a little bit of an acknowledgement of the fact that it took me until my third film to actually make anything in the city that I’ve lived in for over a decade.
Can you speak about your collaboration with your cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, which seems vital to your films’ energy, and rhythms?
For each movie—and we’ve done four now—I have the idea about what a movie’s going to be. And it’s good to be able to say to him, "Look, here’s my idea, just look at this one thing. Now I’m trusting you to know enough to take whatever I’m telling you, and to make you a creative partner here. I’m not just telling you what I want. I’m telling you what I’m thinking about, and you tell me what I can have."
So with Listen Up Philip, it’s a big movie with lots of famous people in it, but it’s still going to be shot on 16mm, we’re still going to make it our way, it’s going to be very handheld, but it’s not going to be sloppy handheld. It’s going to be Husbands and Wives handheld, where it looks sloppy but you’re going to have to be choreographed. You don’t get to improvise. When you’re filming, you have to work with people that say, "Hey, you know what I just thought of that might be fun?" And then, for them to come up with the final little turn of the screw of the idea to make everything perfectly tight, is just invaluable.
Have you had a mentor like Ike in your career? Or is he an amalgamation of many people and influences?
He’s something of a catchall. Ike is partly the directors who I admire who I meet at a film festival who’ve seen The Color Wheel and then tell me they want to email with me. There’s a little bit of me and Sean in Philip and Ike, in that Sean is six years older than me, and the way that I responded to his suggestions and his guidance when we were working at Kim’s. Philip and Ike’s relationship is very relatable, whether it’s someone who’s just a few years older than you who you work with as a partner, or someone who’s one of my favorite filmmakers, or just anybody.
The first meeting between Ike and Philip, Philip thinks he’s bigger than life, and he puts on a jacket to impress him. And then he gets there, and Ike is just some guy. I said to Jason [Schwartzman], "When I first went to meet you, I was like, 'Oh god, I can’t believe this actor who I like has read my script and has seen The Color Wheel.' And then by the end of the night, it’s like, 'Hey, we’re just people, we’re just guys.'" My hope was that the Ike-Philip dynamic would go beyond the cliché mentor-protégé relationship that you've seen in a lot of movies, and would get to that point that I find is much more relatable in real life, where the mentor-protégé dynamic immediately just becomes two people who are on the same page. Mentor-protégé dynamics in most fiction is predicated upon the idea that, by the end of the experience, both are changed because of the other. And that is not what happens to either one of these men.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.