- ISSN 2039-800X
Trimestrale online di cultura cinematografica
Diretto e fondato da Luigi Abiusi
anno VIII | UZAK 28/29 | autunno 2017 / inverno 2018

Literature and cinema, stream of consciousness. An interview with Alex Ross Perry

Nicola Curzio

altIt is always possible to find clear literary references in your works. I am thinking in particular about authors such as Philip Roth, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon. How does literature influence your movies?

Entirely. That’s been very exciting, a sort of through line for me, in trying to figure out exact sort of films that I want to or am capable of making. You know, when I was in the film school, I was, like many other films students, you know, very arrogant, very obsessed with cinema, reading about film theory, thinking about all the ways to internalize film theory, craft a film where everything is a reference to some other films… and, you know, to sit there in film school and say “I’ve seen more movies than anyone else, I know more about movies, my movies will bleed cinema…”, but that’s a dead-end, it’s totally a dead-end, it’s going to lead to dead cinema that exists only under glass; and that’s of no interest to me.
When I started being really inspired by literature that felt to me like it was the thing I actually needed to start moving in that direction, that was gonna resolve in me creating my own sort of personal films that were very meaningful to me and very specifically coming to me from a place that can only come, you know, from my reaction to certain authors.

Even the way you describe situations and characters has something of a literary, with a number of quick jump cuts that frequently break the temporal continuity of the scene and accumulate details...

That’s I mean, you know, that’s the fun part of cinema. That’s where you can really use every tool at your disposal, which I really like doing. You know, I’m not saying that when I was inspired by literature, I wanted to make these very like, you know, “hushed-like-late 90’s-Miramax style adaptations of films”, you know, I wanted get in there, and this is why it’s fun for me to shoot on Super 16 or 16 mm and have very grainy films. You know, the way that me and Sean (Price Williams, ed), my cinematographer, like to work. There’s a lot of close-ups, which is, you know, very cinematic and very fun way to sort of bring you in and then just sort of let the editing be another device, that just calls attention to the fact that you’re very much watching a film. You know, when you have a shaky camera, just a few feet from an actor’s face, you’re never going to forget that there’s a crew filming this, you’re never going to get lost in a sort of sense of theatricality, you’re always going to know that there’s someone sort of moving through the room. And that’s sort of the fun final element for me: to be on set, find all that stuff.

altIn Listen Up Philip, doing on an extreme level what you already did in The Color Wheel, it seems to me that you use the close-ups to isolate your characters, in this case prisoners of their narcissism and of their ego. The picture is a closed universe. There are no links or possibilities for a real exchange with the external world. Do you agree with this interpretation? Why did you use so much close-ups in your movie?

Well, it was very intentional to keep the Philip character cinematically isolated. There’re not a lot of two shots of Philip and anybody, except for Philip and Ike, which is the only person he is not really isolated from. There’re only actually about four shots in the movie, where Philip and Ashley are in the frame together, which made it very hard to find stills of both Jason (Schwartzman, ed) and Elisabeth Moss together1, because it was a very specific and very planned idea to make sure that Philip is always sorta kept away from people. And when you see him, when you see the people that he’s talking to, they don’t necessarily even seen like they are in the same room, or there’s only about this far apart. That was just the way of sort of using the tricks of the camera to sort of make the audience see what the character is supposed to be feeling.

Even the locations, often indoors, feed this sense of closure…

Right, well, I mean that’s in my version of New York people don’t have too much space as they do elsewhere, they feel very crammed. Couples like Philip and Ashley coexist in these apartment that, you know, are smaller than any house or where anyone else lives anywhere in the world or country. So that sort of claustrophobia, this sort of anxiety that comes from it is very much what the film is meant to be conveying about that place.

In this sense also the dialogue, which seems to me has grown in importance in your scripts, it is not a means to communicate but a way to fuel the self-centeredness of your characters. Do you agree with that?

I mean, what’s important about dialogue in this film is that, you know, Philip and Ike are characters that relentlessly speak their mind. The dialogue is meant less to give you a sense of anything other than this guy says everything he’s thinking. So, in one sense you’re just sort of getting a stream of consciousness from him. But you know, he’s not like mumbling a stream of consciousness like Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye… You’re just getting what he thinks, like: “boy, I really don’t like any of these people”, so he’s saying “I really don’t like any of these people!”. And that’s sort of what the dialogue is meant to be used for in Philip’s case, which is, you know, a guy really without any filter. I mean, everything out of his mouth, is everything into his head.

altSpeaking again about literature… often your main characters are writers: it is Philip in Listen Up Philip, it was Colin in The Color Wheel and it should be Elliott in The Traditions2. And they are also characters who reveal themselves, sooner or later, deeply alone. Is it possible that writing is their way to escape from reality that they feel hostile? The writer, in a sense, is an author who through his works creates his own world, where maybe he can takes shelter…

What’s important about the profession of writing to me, and what I think I’ve learnt draws me to it as a way to define these characters, is that (the process of writing, ed) it is something is done in total isolation: I look at myself during the process of making a film, for however long I’m sitting at home by myself writing a script; then for a couple of weeks I’m around with, depending on the film, 6-10 people, in case of Listen Up Philip, 70 people, all day, everyday; and then you’re just back in a room again, editing. So that’s sort of part of the process, where you’re just sitting in a room by yourself, and it’s just you and the apparatus that you are working on. It’s very lonely. And it’s very interesting that an author or a novelist there is no part in the middle where you’re around 50 people. That’s only really true for novelists… I mean, if you’re a journalist you’re talking with other people, you’re travelling, you’re going to places, you’re forming questions, but if you’re a writer, who writes fiction, you’re just there, you are just sitting home. And that’s sort of loneliness is very interesting thing to me as a thing that defines characters, which is why I’m very drawn to films by Paul Schrader, which are all sort of expression of loneliness in a way or another.
His film Mishima, a film about a writer, is in some ways the ultimate expression of the loneliness that he’s very drawn to. I think that my characters are going to tend to be lonely, because that’s the sort of thing I have a lot of questions about. Even in Impolex, I said at that time I was feeling lonely, and it’s become interesting to me that writers can just be lonely because they work by themselves.

Even if your main characters are often hateful, grumpy and unpleasant, they almost always hide a basic insecurity, a human side that sets them apart from the other characters that surround them. This certainly applies to Colin and JR, but can also be extended to Philip and Zimmerman. While for the first two, however, there seems to be a possibility of salvation, the final of Listen Up Philip is darker, much less open to an optimistic reading.

I think it just depends on the story. I don’t necessarily know if I agree that that’s the ultimate final message that The Color Wheel ends on, but I think when Jonathan Franzen was doing the interviews when his book Freedom come out: people said “this book has a fairly sad ending”, and he replied “well, The corrections has a happy ending, so I wanted to do one that had the other”. So, the way I look at it, this is something I can do just to challenge myself and see if I can pull it off, just because it’s fun. It’s not fun to say “boy, I really should do something different that I don’t repeat myself”, but it's fun to say “I wonder if I can do this, and if I can do it with as much conviction, that comes naturally to me”. So, then, this bigger movie I’m trying to make next year3, my goal when I was writing it, I wonder if I can make something that actually builds to a relentlessly, hopeful and positive ending; and I’m really curious to see if that works out, because it is a challenge for me to sort of find that final moment in a way that feels honest to me. And it is a sort of thing I like to see when the credits come up, and to reference Paul Schrader again, in American Gigolo, Richard Gere is in jail, but he has his hand on the glass, that’s a very sad moment, because he’s falling so far from the beginning, where he’s riding down the highway in this beautiful car, looking great, now he’s in jail but it’s pretty bleak and it’s pretty hopeless, but there’s this sort of thing suggesting that he’s sort of having a sort of epiphany. And to me things can be as miserable, sad, small as possible, but if there’s some glimmer of… but maybe that’s all I really need.

altThe matter is rather different for the female characters in the film, especially Ashley, who seems to have the strength to react positively to a situation that oppresses her.

Sure, well that’s the difference in this film between the man and the woman. Ike and Philip in the film are exactly how you’re describing them, where someone would say: “Is there any hope?” but to me that’s not even a question for the way all three women: Ashley, Melanie, Yvette. You wouldn’t say: “Is there any hope for these women?”. It’s fairly clear that I think in my intention, all three of these women are onto a better thing. The men evolve not change, or perhaps things have got worse for them. The women, Ashley more so than any of the others, are really onto the next step for them, which are going to be much better places.

You were talking about New York few minutes ago… I think it’s possible to consider this city one among the protagonist of your last movie. Listen Up Philip begins and ends in its streets. But the photography and the lack of details and time references in the film, in some way, contribute to abstract from the city, raising it to a place of pure fiction (literary or cinematographic), so not necessarily corresponding to reality, but recognizable and, somehow, habitable by anyone. Is that what you were looking for?

Yes, I mean, the films that we’ve looked at to sorta draw references from were New York films, or what have you, not necessarily, but we have looked at a lot of New York films, you know, from the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. To me that’s collective imagination because I didn’t live through it, I only knew that world from films. So I wanted to create something that when we watch it now in 2014, feels familiar, because the version of New York that we put in the movie is designed from a very meticulous standpoint through all the pre-production, to look and feel like New York in the movies from the 80’s. It’s not meant to be ‘this is the way it is today’ nor is it meant to say: ‘this is a fantasy version of it where everything’s different like on a sitcom’. You know, this is the New York from Hannah and Her Sisters, this is the New York that’s in…

Some Cassavetes’s movies…

Well, let’s think of any of his movies that take place in New York, other than Faces… So maybe, it’s the only one... His movies are fairly… you know, he’s an LA guy ultimately, but Shadows is definitely “street-level New York”. Too Late Blues is also New York, I think, but I’m not sure.

altSpeaking about references… Yesterday, during the press conference, you and Sean Price Williams mentioned Woody Allen and in particular his Husbands and Wives. But watching your last film also came to my mind the cinema of Paul Mazursky…

I actually was not very familiar with (the cinema of, ed) Paul Mazursky. But recently, before he died, there was a retrospective of his films in Los Angeles when I happened to be visiting. He was there two of the night and I got to listening him speak. It was incredibly exciting and I had a lot of fun with it. It’s a shame that he passed just a few months later… Next Stop, Greenwich Village was very impressive to me, it was the sort of thing that I really like…

That’s exactly the movie I was thinking of. Visually, the New York portrayed in that movie, with its opaque and dusty colors, reminded me a lot yours.

That’s true, and, I mean, that depiction of New York, which was a movie in the 70’s on the 50’s, to me is like making my movie in 2014 essentially about 1994. That sort of way we draw the line for our references, that film clearly recreated for him a New York of the past, just by shooting in the right corners and by shooting in the right locations, I think it was very impressive to me, I really like that thing. We just sort of meticulously picked our locations and picked our props so that nothing in it looked really specific.

Jason Schwartzman owes much to Wes Anderson: he was the one who discovered and launched him. I noticed that the name of the texan director is also amongst the thanks of your last film. And there’s a scene that refers explicitly to his The Royal Tenenbaums... Did his idea of cinema influence yours in some ways? How?

He’s definitely one of my favorite filmmakers and has been for a very long time. Me sort of growing up as a teenager into a college students, his films were very important to me and my friends. I admired and respect everything about his craft. He’s incredibly talented and just always good, but I’ve never been inspired by his aesthetic, which is entirely his own. It’s so easy to copy it, many films copy it or try to copy it, you can’t copy it. I respect what he does too much to say “I wanna do this sorta symmetrical shots”. Stylistically I don’t think you could pick a movie that is less like anything he’s ever done in this film (Listen Up Philip, ed). Because, you know, there is not a single meticulous shot in this film. I mean, they are meticulous in the way we did them, but it’s just visually very different. But I find his sense of narrative to be very inspirational. The way that The Royal Tenenbaums tells its story, again with the use of a narrator, as I do in this film, is very impressive to me. The way that all of his films, like The Darjeeling Limited, are very very influentially dealing with darkness and sadness in movies that are sort of comedies, it’s very very inspirational to me. That the sort of thing that I really get moved by, when I see his movies, I see the way he sorta blends perfectly-written jokes with this very dark sense of sadness. Lot of people rip off what his movies look like, not a lot of people really are so in tune with what his movies feel like and what they have to say, and that’s something that’s much more important to me.

altYour first two films have a similar structure. In both, at the end, there is a crucial scene that invites a rereading of the entire film, and that allows an insight of it in a dramatic key. Both times you used a long take. Does this technique have a particular function in your cinema? What is it?

Sure, Godard talks about this in relationship with Contempt. Or he says, you know, a long take once it goes beyond a certain duration, calls attention to itself because, you know, a normal shot, 5, 10 seconds, that’s average, a shot that’s about a minute sounds like a pretty long, when you get up and there’re 3, 4, 5 minutes, now you say “wow, there’s a movie happening here!”. And in both of those instances, especially in The Color Wheel, there’s a camera movement in that long take. And everyone who watches says “up until that point, I was getting so wrapped up in it, that I forgot there was someone else in the room, but of course there is, there’s a cameraman, and a sound-guy…”. And the way Godard talks about excessively long takes, you know, which he does in Weekend, of course. You can’t help but remember the entire machination going into the filming of this scene, you know, that the scene can just go on until the roll of film runs out. And that’s the other important thing about of Impolex and The Color Wheel, is that they were both shot on film, so those takes in The Color Wheel is an entire roll of film. And that’s another important thing: to engage with the format we’re shooting on and to use that as a way to sort of put forth these ideas that there’s a small crew filming this for as long as possible. and what you are going to see was a digital movie, it could be 60 minutes, you know, like Russian Ark where we have, you know, 2 (hours) and 15 minutes shot or what have you. But this is a film, and we are just gonna shoot a roll of film. I cannot really put my finger on it, but it’s all of these things: it’s the way it engage with the craft, the filmmaking, the technicality of it and the format, the celluloid. Something that I would love to find the way to organically do in any film. There is no need in Listen Up Philip for a 9 minutes speech.

Locarno, August 13th, 2014.


1 Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss are the two main actors who play the characters of Philip and Ashley in the movie.

2 The Traditions is a TV series created by Alex Ross Perry in 2013 for HBO. It's now in post-production.

3 The filmmaker refers to Queen on Earth, movie currently in post-production.


American Gigolo (Paul Schrader 1980)

Contempt (Le Mépris) (Jean-Luc Godard 1963)

Faces (John Cassavetes 1968)

Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen 1986)

Husbands and Wives (Woody Allen 1992)

Impolex (Alex Ross Perry 2009)

Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry 2014)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (Paul Schrader 1985)

Next Stop, Greenwich Village (Paul Mazursky 1976)

Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg) (Aleksandr Sokurov 2002)

Shadows (John Cassavetes 1959)

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry 2011)

The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson 2007)

The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman 1973)

The Traditions (Alex Ross Perry 2013)

The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson 2001)

Too Late Blues (John Cassavetes 1961)

Weekend (Week-end) (Jean-Luc Godard 1967)

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