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Alex Ross Perry: Toxic Friendships, Depressive Dieting, and Queen of Earth

Also, the symbiotic relationships of European high art and American low art

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Alex Ross Perry has established a reputation as something of an arthouse wunderkind. At a very wise 31, Perry has already directed four full-length independent features, with last year’s Listen Up Philip garnering major praise at Sundance and grabbing the attention of his now-producer Joe Swanberg.

His latest, Queen of Earth, takes a step back from the idiosyncratic, Philip Roth-y navel-gazing of darkly funny, unsympathetic protagonists and shifts focus to the deteriorating friendship between two wounded women, played by Elizabeth Moss and Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston.

Even for those who may have found his prior film’s purposefully unsympathetic characters divisive, Perry’s approach in Queen of Earth is immaculate and chilling. Between Sean Price William’s grainy, ethereal cinematography, Keegan DeWitt’s droning, oppressive score, and the staggering central performances, Queen may well make converts of those not yet taken in with Perry’s abrasive style.

Speaking to Perry, he’s exactly the kind of precise, dry presence you’d expect from someone who’d cast Jason Schwartzman as his doppelganger. Verbose but patient, and incredibly responsive to insights both old and new about his films, Perry strikes you as a man with a very specific directorial manifesto and the wisdom to know what he wants to do with it. Not bad for someone just entering his 30s.

queen of earth Alex Ross Perry: Toxic Friendships, Depressive Dieting, and Queen of Earth

Unlike your first three films, which are much more overtly comedic (if darkly so), this film veers pretty courageously towards horror/psychological drama territory. How did this project get started? What was the germ of the idea?

Meeting with Joe Swanberg after seeing Listen Up Philip, he pitched that [saying], “We’re going to make another movie, it’ll be like Listen Up Philip, and we’re going to try to aim for the same aesthetic and scope, but we’re going to have less money and fewer days,” isn’t going to inspire anybody to want to help me. Whereas the claim that we’re going to try to do something of a 180, because I felt confident enough with all of the collaborators and knew they could handle anything I could throw at them, was appealing to me. To get to watch these people do what they usually do, that was appealing for me also to try to challenge myself.

You’ve said before that all your films “depict their protagonists during the worst time of their lives,” and that’s certainly true in Queen of Earth. This time, however, it’s from a much more specifically female perspective, tracking this sort of toxic friendship over the course of seven days. What did you want to explore in this relationship that’s different than the mentor/mentee or significant other relationships in your previous works?

My sort of take on it is that there are a lot of similarities [between these relationships], and I’d never really done anything prior to this about any character that has friends. [Queen of Earth] is obviously a movie that foregrounds a relationship that is a friendship, but The Color Wheel, which is my second movie, is about siblings, and it’s very clear in the movie that neither of those characters have any friends, really. And Listen Up Philip, you know, Philip has no friends – it’s a really important part of the story that no one really talks about, but it’s really obvious when you watch the movie.

So I’d never really done anything about what friendships are – in The Color Wheel, the whole idea of that movie is that these are relationships that you’re stuck with whether you like it or not, and Listen Up Philip, it’s about relationships with people that you’re dating in the case of Philip and Ashley, and the father-daughter dynamic in the second half of the film. Doing something about friends was just something I’d never really done before, to just do my usual thing that I find interesting and propulsive for drama, but frame it as a kind of relationship I’d never really had the opportunity to examine.

This is the second film you’ve worked on with Elizabeth Moss. She’s absolutely riveting from start to finish, and one of the strongest choices in the film was to never really shy away from her face. In a way, the audience almost starts to feel bad for invading Catherine’s personal space and privacy, which was a central facet of the film. Could you speak to that?

Yeah, what you’re describing is (based on your response) a successful attempt to subject the audience to an experience that is very similar to what the characters are feeling. That sense of startling invasion of privacy or cutting to reveal that someone else is in the room, using tricks of the cinema, the camera, the editing, what have you, to identify what you’re seeing exactly what the character is experiencing. So if that’s how that plays, then that means my theory that you don’t need $100 million to make a movie that makes you feel you’re in the passenger’s seat for the protagonist’s journey is correct, because you can just be clever about that stuff.

I think a lot of my ideas on how to do that for this film came from the influence of low-budget genre filmmaking, where you look at those traditions of cinema and finding these solutions based on their limited resources, or lack of time (which is, of course, something we were fighting against on this).

Speaking of those films, a lot has been made in interviews of the Roman Polanski influences on Queen of Earth, right down to the Rosemary’s Baby font and copyright notice in the title card – which was a nice touch. Were there other specific influences or filmmakers you were drawing from? I kind of got a Peter Weir, Picnic at Hanging Rock vibe as well.

Yeah, that is interesting. Picnic at Hanging Rock is something I haven’t really talked about, but I have really good memories of it. It’s also kind of a mysterious home where the hows and whys of where reality begins and ends are being called into question in the very neutral gaze of the story. Where it doesn’t say what’s right and what’s wrong. So yeah, perhaps subconsciously some of that’s there, but I think you picking up on that, again, just kind of proves that as much as this film is inspired by any one or two or 10 movies, it really just exists in a larger sense, in the tradition of a certain kind of cinema that’s very female-driven.

Despite the fact that my fiancée has a poster of it hanging up across from our bed, I had not yet thought about the discussion of this movie being like Picnic at Hanging Rock. It could be anything from the Polanski that you already mentioned to a lot of the Fassbinder films we were talking about, specifically Martha and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – which are both single-location films about women under emotional attack by outside forces. He does the same thing I was trying to do here, which is take a very mundane and simple stories and heightening them absurdly with the tools of cinema, make the framing very unnatural and give the performances something that moves them so far away from something like Listen Up Philip, which strives for naturalism at every turn.

In terms of the high-art, European influences, there’s that, but I’m also talking about mostly low cinema in American genre horror that was inspired by these European films, movies like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. But you know, with Wes Craven passing yesterday, a lot of people are talking about how Last House on the Left is a remake of a Bergman movie. You know, seeing this kind of beautiful, very high-art European film and turning it into a bit of a nasty, American grindy genre piece. That’s the tradition I’m referring to when I talk about the lineage that leads to a small movie like this existing at the end of a long line of all these wonderful kinds of film.

One element that struck me was the use of food as a visual and narrative motif: Catherine’s increased use of chips as a neurotic habit, Patrick Fugit’s edamame, that salad that just sits there in Catherine’s room taunting her. How conscious a decision was that in making that part of the narrative fabric, using food in this way?

Well, you know, food is kinda gross, when you think about it, and when you use it in a movie like that. In my freshman year Hitchcock class, there was a whole section where the professor illuminated this connection in his films between food and sex and death – those things always kind of coexist. I think they talked about the sandwiches Norman makes in Psycho, and the fact that he’s always kind of nibbling on things, and the presence of food in the context of disquietude or circumstances makes the food itself feel very perverse. There’s a lot of food in Polanski; Rosemary’s Baby has the chocolate mousse that the neighbors are making, and they all talk about how disgusting it is, and there’s that decaying rabbit in Repulsion.

queen of earth salad Alex Ross Perry: Toxic Friendships, Depressive Dieting, and Queen of Earth

On top of that, when you go away to a vacation house for a week, you just end up eating a lot. You’re always just sitting around, so it’d just kind of be logical that there’d be a lot of snacking. At the same time, it was an opportunity to make things feel grotesque and also to use it as a contrast, where you have Ginny exercising and eating salad. Then we had Catherine very specifically just eating boxes of crackers and having a glass of soda after she brushes her teeth and eating a lot of potato chips. We did that in Listen Up Philip as well, where we decided (though it’s not necessarily in the movie) with Jason that someone who’s unhappy or doesn’t feel well or who might be suffering from depression almost certainly has a really poor diet. I do believe that personally, so I think having Catherine eating a lot of gross junk food helps explain why she feels so horrible all the time.

And it’s made even more disquieting by a later shot in the film when Ginny comes in to see the room completely clean of plates and wrappers.

Yeah.

Patrick Fugit’s character was particularly interesting. In a film with that friendship dynamic we discussed earlier, the passive-aggressive snipes and tension between Catherine and Ginny, keeping resentment deep under the surface, Fugit’s more overt posturing is almost refreshing. How was that for the film’s dynamic?

I just wanted there to be something resembling an antagonist. There has to be someone in the movie who’s just truly without redeeming qualities, and I don’t think either of the women are. I think they’re both very challenging characters and pretty deep and complex. But I don’t take a position where I say, “Catherine is a horrible mess, and she’s without pity, and Virginia is cruel to her friends.” I like both those women a lot, but I always like there to be some kind of character [like Fugit’s] in the film. And it’s always a man – with Bob Byington’s professor character in The Color Wheel or, to some extent, Jason’s and Jonathan Pryce’s characters in Listen Up Philip – who serves as this sneering jerk who puts down the women.

It’s fun for me, because men tend to be much worse and more passive in a horrible way than women. So yeah, having a guy like that who comes in and, outside of [Catherine’s] fear and paranoia, is acting perfectly normal, but it’s a normalcy that puts the Catherine character off and really makes her think he’s up to something. Which is just a fun way to undercut what’s happening and takes you outside of these two women’s heads for a moment.

What’s next on the table for you as a director? Do you plan to keep branching out like this and trying new genres and dynamics? Wanna keep it small-scale, or do you have bigger stories you want to tell?

I think what’s fun about this movie is that it kind of emboldened me to keep pushing my goal to make a movie that fits into every genre that I love enough to want to put my own spin on it. Also, making this movie has enabled me to feel confident that not every movie has to be this huge step forward. If I can go for two weeks with five actors and find an end to different kinds of movies that I want to make, there’s no reason I couldn’t be doing one of them a year. I’m glad for the process of making this movie so quickly, because I have proven now that it’s quite achievable, and perhaps it’s easier to take risks when the footprint of the whole thing is smaller. So yeah, who knows?

I have a big movie I wanna make that could happen and a small movie that’s more or less going to happen when the seasons are right for me to shoot it. I think making this small movie is going to end up being the reason why, 10 years from now, I will have made 12 movies instead of six.

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