With three features under his belt—Impolex, The Color Wheel, and Listen Up Philip—Alex Ross Perry returns this year to present us with his latest work of art: the often unnerving and always fascinating Queen of Earth. The film, starring Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, is an exploration into two women at a lake house retreat who begin to turn on each other. It just recently began a limited US theatrical run and is also available on VOD. With its upcoming stint at the Tower Theater Miami, I was given the chance to chat on the phone with the filmmaker about his latest project, how his influences came into play while making it, and a little about what’s coming up in his future.
Juan Barquin: So, much like the main character, Catherine, I just went through a break-up myself and the way I saw the film might be directly linked to that—because that intro especially hit close to home—but what made you want to make a film about social anxiety, among other things, by way of psychological horror?
Alex Ross Perry: Sounds like you got it spot on. It’s a very simple kind of story and we could have done it any number of ways. We could take the same script and same dialogue and turn it into just a fairly intense stage production if you wanted to, but what we set out to do with the whole idea was just heighten everything. Let’s make the production design very austere, and strange, and unwelcoming. Let’s make sure that the cinematography complements that and produces this sense of creeping dread and voyeurism. Let’s make sure that the music really kicks that up a notch and let’s make sure the editing is jarring enough that it creates the kind of feeling where nothing is as it should be. Let’s make sure that this story is pushed as far in that direction as we can.
And you really manage to find menace in the most mundane things, if that makes sense; like even in a salad of all things. Were you always planning on subverting expectations from the almost grindhouse-y ’70s trailer by keeping things grounded and simply amping up the tension rather than aiming for supernatural or psycho-killer like some of the films people have compared yours to?
No, I mean, all that stuff kind of just came on top of the story itself. It’s not the idea of making a movie and saying, “This is a genre film. It has to have some supernatural, some murders.” It’s more like I was saying a moment ago about taking a story that I want to tell and use what we have available to us to push it as far as we can. On a low budget movie, you don’t have that much available to you, of course, but you do what you can.
The fun of it, to me, with what you’re saying, is that the trailer kind of plays with the fact that all that stuff is kind of lurking around the edges. It’s not really foregrounded or there as you think it is. I mean, certainly the character thinks it is, but it’s not necessarily literally happening in the reality of this movie.
As horrendous as some of the things that Catherine experiences are, it’s really grounded in the reality of dealing with mental illness—depression, social anxiety, and self-loathing, during a crippling post break-up state of mind—in a way.
Yeah, there’s horror in all of that, if you want there to be. That’s what’s fun for me.
Yeah, I can imagine, not just myself but other people, going, “Ah, yeah, same,” at multiple situations Catherine goes through.
Yeah, it’s all just a very extreme reaction to situations, where in real life you never respond that extremely to it.
Of course. As adverse to people at parties I am, I wouldn’t freak out and imagine them all shoving their hands in my mouth – which is one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen on screen in a while. And it’s so reminiscent of Repulsion. But I’d love to hear more about what you brought in from all your inspirations, be it one image or just an overwhelming vibe; like that shot of Elisabeth Moss smiling at the end felt straight out of that bit in Images where Susannah York is driving and smiles at the camera, but you can also kind of feel Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in so much of it.
You know, for the sake of discussion let’s just talk about Images and use that as an example of the way all of the kind of films I was excited by come into play. It’ll serve as a kind of microcosm of the process in general.
So basically everyone who wants to make movies like this—a kind of psychological, woman-centric film—is going to talk about 3 Women.
Yeah, that makes sense.
I didn’t want that at all. I made it a point that I wasn’t going to mention it, and if someone else on set brought it up, I’d just say, “Sure, okay, whatever.” Then I was like “Well, nobody ever talks about this other movie Images and it seems more appropriate.” And I was watching it—not before the shoot but a while before—and I was just like, “You know, there’s something to this.”
So I go to Sean Williams, the cinematographer, and I say to forget about 3 Women. Let’s talk about Images. He says, “Yeah, y’know, it’s a beautiful film. Kind of bullshit and it doesn’t really add up. It’s a lot of nonsense and Altman’s as meandering as can be.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, I see all that, but it’s kind of neat and influential, a little bit maybe. Let’s just think about it.”
So then we’re just talking about it and little things in it. We’re not studying it, but I have it on my computer to make screengrabs of for anybody who’s curious. And I say to the composer, Keegan DeWitt, to look at the score of Images, which is almost two scores, a traditional one [by John Williams -ed.] and a soundscape [by Stomu Yamashta -ed.], and keep that in mind, take from it what you will.
And a couple of days later I pretty much gave my computer to Elisabeth Moss and I said, “Just scan through this movie because we’re talking about it a lot.” She didn’t watch the whole thing, but when she gave me back my computer, it was paused at like minute 50, so she was studying it enough to understand what the deal was with this movie. But we’re not stealing anything from this movie, except for me this one overhead shot looking down what I imagine in that film is a staircase, at Susannah York kind of just sitting on the ground. And because of the house that we ended up getting, we could do that overhead looking down shot as well.
So you know there’s just kind of ideas that drift in and out, like a sponge, from a film like that, but we’re not studying it to the point where we’re saying, “Did you watch this film? Because before you light this room, you should be looking at this other film.”
That makes sense. And I always wonder how much cinephilia effects filmmaking and vice versa. Like do you sit down and pick up a movie to watch things or do you just internal-Rolodex during actual production?
Yeah, I mean for me and Sean, it’s just internal-Rolodex. I mean, for ten years, we’ve probably seen, I don’t know, between 500 and 1000 movies together in the theater. So you know, for him and me, it’s just everything I can throw in, he’s seen, so when we’re in the middle of shooting and all of a sudden there’s a shot that I say, “Wow! This shot kinda looks like Carnival of Souls. In fact, this whole movie kind of reminds me of Carnival of Souls,” my number one most important creative partner on set is able to say, “Yeah, yeah, totally,” instead of just like, “Oh I’ve never seen that.” Because now we’re just riffing and everyone else has to catch up with it when we decide that the film is a really important influence even though Elisabeth hasn’t seen it, Katherine probably hasn’t seen it, but now we’re just talking about it a lot. So it really is the internal-Rolodex method.
And it must be really useful having a collaborator who has actually seen all these things with you. And I assume Robert Greene [the film’s editor] has probably seen just as many.
Yeah, that’s all part of it.
Actually, something I wanted to ask was in part related to Greene because he brought up a line in the film about Smeagol on Twitter and revealed that he wanted to cut it, and I was genuinely shocked because it’s amusing and thematically appropriate.
That’s what I thought.
It’s something her character would say and it eases in the audience with familiarity before hitting them with everything.
Yeah, that’s why you should sit there with an editor and not have the editor edit without you. But yeah, we’re talking about him getting all the references and we’re talking about movies and Sean didn’t get that reference either.
I could throw a hundred cult movies at Sean or Robert, but I mention a major character from one of the most well-known book and film trilogies of the 20th century and neither one of those guys knew it at all.
That’s genuinely still shocking to me, even after calling Robert a monster on Twitter.
Yeah, it’s not if you know them well. But that’s just kind of Sean in a nutshell. You can talk about obscure, foreign films, esoterica, for hours and if there’s ever a Japanese film about women in a house on an island in Japan, he’s seen it, but you mention a character from Lord of the Rings and he has absolutely no clue what you’re talking about.
That’s too amusing, but speaking of comedy, someone told me that you’d intended the film to be a comedy when you first wrote it and that seems totally wrong.
No, I wouldn’t say that’s accurate. My stated intention to all the collaborators who were coming from Listen Up Philip was that the whole idea was that this movie would have no jokes in it. I don’t wanna rely on that again.
Yeah, it doesn’t feel like you were aiming for comedy at all. And even the poster features a quote that calls it “acidly funny” and it’s kind of weird to me because any minor bits of humor come from sheer relief of overwhelming tension.
I mean, first of all I didn’t write or choose that quote, but I think that was kind of my ambition while making the movie all along. We’re talking about Polanski non-stop during the filming non-stop. Again, this is like a Sean thing. Elisabeth watched Repulsion because she’d never seen it. She obviously knew Rosemary’s Baby, but Sean and I are talking about Knife in the Water, Cul-De-Sac, you know, level-two Polanski.
And then I watched the movie at the premiere in Berlin and people are laughing a lot at these tension-relieving moments. And I thought: wait a minute, we talk about making a movie with no jokes, but Polanski movies are full of dark humor and it’s exactly what that quote says. Polanski movies are full of that “acidly funny,” unpleasant-feeling comedy. And it comes from this Eastern European sensibility that the comedy isn’t a joke, it’s just something absurdly bizarre and unpleasant happening to someone when you don’t expect it.
That’s when I realize that the influence of him on us is so comprehensive that we don’t need to analyze every aspect of his movies to inadvertently end up tipping our hat to every element of his movies. We just end up accidentally end up putting all these chuckle-tension-relieving moments in our movie just as he would have done. So if you watch the movie with an audience, you’ll see these moments where there is a huge burst of laughter, which as with any horror movie or thriller, it comes at a moment where the audience needs to breathe. They need to relieve that tension and it comes in the form of a laugh, which is nice.
Yeah it is, it’s always nice watching these kind of movies with audiences.
[And here comes the interruption signaling time for one more question]
Oh, shoot, so what’s it like making a less overtly literary film with Queen of Earth compared to Listen Up Philip and now going back to that atmosphere with both a Don DeLillo adaptation [The Names] and Winnie the Pooh, both of which I’m really excited for.
Um, yeah it’s all connected. You know, Queen of Earth was the first thing I’ve done where literature was really not there. The film, as we talked about, is really just about cinema and all the influences were film and images of movies as opposed to images and storytelling devices borrowed from fiction. So Pooh and The Names both kind of go in the opposite direction, but both of them are the kind of thing I’ve never done. I’ve never adapted anything so it goes without saying I’ve never grappled with collaborating with, like, a perfect book written by one of the greatest writers sitting right there on my desk.
And, y’know, Pooh is just… the joy of those books. It’s about the language and the wordplay and the joyful sense of absurdity and that is a very on-the-page conceit. It’s a challenging thing to try to turn into something that you watch. Various versions of it have always struggled with that over the years, so hopefully I’ll crack it.