Alex Ross Perry has been making movies for a decade now, even if his name only really registers with the festival crowd or dedicated indie connoisseurs. The filmmaker behind such critical darlings as Queen of Earth, Listen Up Phillip and The Color Wheel has a very distinctive taste and rarely shies away from nerve-wracking, challenging characters and with his latest, Her Smell, a daring punk-rock character study that circles Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), is his greatest and most difficult work yet. I spoke with Alex about team effort, Elisabeth Moss’ singular talent, inspiration from Axl Rose and Charles Manson, tight shooting schedules, building a breakdown, influence from 70s horror movies, and the universal experience of bands breaking up.
What is your attraction to caustic, misanthropic characters?
Alex Ross Perry: For me, on the page it’s where the most interesting and exciting drama is. It’s just easier for me to find 100 or 130 pages worth of story if you’re giving yourself the freedom to say the character is the most behaviorally extreme. Aaron Sorkin has this great line where he says he doesn’t write about good or bad, he writes about good or great. Which I think is a great example of the external forces that someone has to triumph over. It’s not something they have to overcome in their lives, it’s entirely in themselves. And I think once that’s how you’re writing, you can have the behavior be caustic, as you say, or extreme or challenging.
To me, the movie felt deeply influenced by 70s horror movies – just a general sense of uneasy in the soundscape and camerawork – can you talk about creating that terror.
ARP: All movies from Listen Up Phillip onward are playing with subjectivity, which is the cinematic language by which horror is essentially living or dying. Meaning that if the camera and what you’re hearing are creating the complete sense of identification between the audience and the character where you feel like you’re living in their reality, then you are on the edge of your seat. This is how horror works and it can’t be neutral. Filmmaking in good horror can’t be flat and make you imagine what’s going on. It has to put you right there and being such a genre fan, that’s just the way movies work for me. And this is everything from Hitchcock and DePalma onward and just classic filmmaking, so doing that with Listen Up Phillip was with a lot of handheld, which was anxiety-producing and claustrophobic camerawork, which helped to orient people’s brains to what the character was feeling. In this movie, that’s just the way my brain defaults in terms of what the camera says about the narrative in this moment and the character’s headspace.
I can imagine that there is a lot of difficulty that goes into creating and staging chaos, especially during Becky Something’s myriad freakouts, and that seems like a particular logistical challenge.
ARP: The movie was really complicated to make but it was not hard to make, if that makes any sense. There’s so much going on and so many logistic goals going on at any given moment, what with the staging, and the 6 or 7 or 8 or 9 characters in a scene, and the camerawork and choreographing all of that was incredibly complicated but it wasn’t heavy lifting because I had built the sets to my exact specifications, knowing exactly what needed to be done so everything was basically made for what it needed to be. We weren’t dealing with the hard things of a location that didn’t quite work for us, or being told we needed to leave, or losing light. By creating a claustrophobic soundstage filmmaking world, all we could focus on was getting it. And everything from building these sets, to setting the schedules (and we didn’t have proper lunch breaks and everyone just kind of took some time on their own), so once we were up we were up and running. Each act is proceeded by a full day of rehearsal with a script supervisor where we would totally map out what we were doing. All of that was just to set up so once we started rolling, everything was creating a big safety net for the performances because I knew they needed to be alive and exciting. And I couldn’t have the actors trying to go to those places if I was starting and stopping constantly and having them do one shot at a time or one line at a time. It had to be 6 or 7 minutes straight of acting every time we were doing something that necessitated that rather than getting individual coverage. It was just wind up and go.
So you would rehearse for a day and then shoot it over the course of a few days.
ARP: Just three days, yeah. Each act was three days of filming and filmed fully chronologically from the beginning to the end. So every three days, we would just do a third of the act, which is anywhere from 8 to 12 pages, and the next day we would just pick up wherever we left off. Which could be really rough for like an hour but then we’d snap back into it.
My wife – an old-school punk-rocker – felt like the inclusion of a Cock Sparrer cover song made Becky’s character super authentic because you are drawing from a legit punk underground. You also feature a Bryan Adams tune and a cut from Charlie Manson. Can you walk me through how wanted to create the musical headspace of Becky?
ARP: As you’re intuiting, on the one hand, each cue of a cover or existing piece of writing has to make sense within the narrative and the moment at that time and have to work for the scene and has to be the right mood and the right lyric. On the other hand, as you’re picking up on, every one of those is an opportunity not to show off the music I know and like but for me to imply to people who are in the know what Becky’s musical brain is like and what her influences are and what her record collection is like, what excites her and so on and so forth. It’s not just that she can pick up a guitar and riff a little bit on a Charles Manson album, it’s that historically the release of that album on CD in the 90s was quite an event and a lot of punks were really into that because he’s such an outsider, maniac character that people related to, and then you have the story of Axl Rose putting his cover at the end of ‘The Spaghetti Incident’ to the band’s complete dismay. Axl really liked that record and wore a Manson shirt a lot. So to me, if you know that, then you know that when Becky plays that song, there’s a lot of story there. It’s more than just a song that fits in that moment. She was probably very excited by something on that CD and thought that guy was a dangerous, thrilling icon to her. So each song is an opportunity to get a little extra backstory about her. But also, it’s just all in the tapestry of whatever she’s doing. It has to be clear that she has this brain filled with this assortment of music and some is cool and some is corny and familiar but she likes what she likes and she can riff on Cock Sparrer or Bryan Adams. She just likes music. Every one of those decisions was pretty belabored until I hit on what it was definitely going to be and then it never changed.
What was the process of writing the Something She songs? Are you a musician yourself and did you collaborate with any of the songwriting?
ARP: I don’t know the first thing about it. My collaboration starts and ends with hiring Alicia Bognanno and Anika Pyle who wrote the Akergirls song. Finding women who were great songwriters who exist within the world of inspiration from this movie and as I do with anyone who does a job that I don’t do (production, designer, wardrobe) and just thinking “My job is done because I’ve hired someone who’s great at their job. I know you know what you’re doing so I’m gonna get outta your way. Here’s ten things I need you to keep in mind for this and here’s what’s going on in the scene, here’s what I want it to feel like, here’s the vibe and the energy” but beyond that I have nothing more to say. I’m not a songwriter so I don’t feel like I can ever tell them what to do.
Elisabeth Moss is just so perfect in this role – as she is in just about everything – did you write the character with her in mind?
ARP: It was always designed to be the movie that we would make together after Queen of Earth, which was a movie that I wrote and then sent along to her hoping she would like it. This was much more, me saying upfront, “I’m going to write this movie and this character, will you do it?” Because I don’t think that this is a character that you can write hoping to find the right person to play it. I think you need to write knowing that this is just going to be delivered by the performer. And much like the rest of my crew (my DP, my editor, sound designer, composer) everything in this movie was written thinking I couldn’t dare try this if I didn’t know that they would knock it out of the park. And writing the character for her was no different.
Was there a particular scene that you shot with Elisabeth that surprised you in terms of how intense she was going to play this character?
ARP: It was all a surprise on the one hand because there was only the one rehearsal day before we filmed but we didn’t know anything about the character before we were doing it. So it was all a surprise literally but in another way, nothing was a surprise because it was all predestined to be the way it would be. As I was writing it, I felt like I already saw the performance as this thing that we would all be talking about later and for a long time. And then it was that. I knew it would go great and I was confident in that. Then the second when I started filming, I just felt that I was right.
There’s a long, storied history of rock stars pulling the Icarus maneuver and flying too close to the sun prior to their downfall. Was there particular stories of rock stars disintegrating that inspired Becky’s spiral out of control?
ARP: The character is by design such an original creation and as a figment of my imagination could never be a story of some other individual but the research I did was very much geared towards looking at the macro-narrative of bands. More than the micro-narratives of particular women. So the story of Guns ‘N’ Roses was very important as was the narrative of Jawbreaker, who were very different bands with very different audiences and very different careers but broke up around the same time for almost exactly the same reasons. What was more important than looking at this woman or that woman, was looking at these stories. Like Oasis and these huge personalities that make being in a band and being a musician very difficult. Those are the narratives that are universal once you read 5 or 10 of them.
For other reviews, interviews, and featured articles, be sure to: