Alex Ross Perry is an American writer/director who has made six films to date, including Listen Up Philip (2014), Queen of Earth (2016), and Golden Exits (2018). His latest film is Her Smell (2019), which depicts the lead singer of a fictional 90s rock band, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss) in five long scenes (they make up nearly the entirety of the film’s 134-minute runtime) which collectively depict multiple years of her up-and-down-and-then-perhaps-up-again career. We spoke last week via phone.
You recently published a piece about independent film distribution on The Talkhouse. I was thinking about that in relation to the fact that Her Smell is your first film since The Color Wheel that is not being released to VOD outlets on the same day it opens in theaters. Was this crafted for theatrical in a way that was different from your other films?
Not that I’m ever not crafting the movie with that as some sort of a hopeful eventuality… but I think there was a very conscious effort to up the ante on this one in terms of the scope and the feel of it. Starting with moving to 35mm, doing it in a widescreen aspect ratio, one decision or another, everything was about trying to make it as big and cinematic as possible. With the hope being that somehow in the content of the movie, the spectacle of it and the scale of it would reach people in a different way. The way to look at it is this: the last three movies, kind of by design, feel like art films. And this was always designed to feel like a pop movie. Not a mainstream movie—but not an art movie.
And I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying that Her Smell is “more cinematic” than those other films… frankly I’m not sure that I do think it’s “more cinematic” than some of those earlier films, if that phrase even has any meaning…
Oh, it is. You can say that.
…but I do think about the way the razor sharpness of 35mm is apparent when this film is seen on a big screen, the way that clarity allows us to see the focus of a given shot almost slithering from one point to another, a quality which is new to your work. There are similar techniques used with focus in Queen of Earth, maybe, but certainly the effect is quite different here.
Perhaps. I mean a lot of that, as with everything, is that Queen of Earth and Golden Exits are very small, very streamlined crews. And on this, with a really great camera team, a steadicam operator, a focus puller, we’re operating at a substantially higher and slicker level.
On that note, I’ve been thinking about this film within the context of “collaboration”, which is obvious, the movie’s about a band, that subject is surface, not subtext. And thinking about it in terms of how it reflects on your own collaborations with your film crew. I love a certain phrase said in dialogue at one point, “one big happy business family”, which seems as if it could just be describing the act of filmmaking.
In a way yeah.
You work with a team of oft-recurring collaborators. Along the lines we were speaking, was the very idea generated in part from a feeling that your crew was capable of something made on a grander scale?
I only felt that because—not that I was eternally looking for it—I finally had arrived at an idea that supported a scale like that. But also I’m always inspired by the people that I work with, because they make so many other things that I’m not involved with. So it’s both my desire to challenge myself in terms of scope and scale, but it’s also just seeing what people I work with are capable of when they do other films, music videos, commercials, anything. I see someone I work with break new ground on a bigger, more expensive project, then I think, now that they’ve learned it, I want to do that with them. I don’t want to learn it together, I want one of us to know it, so that the other one can benefit from that, and [laughs] I want it to be me who benefits from it.
Becky spells out a lot of phrases during the movie, one of them is good time, “g-o-o-d time”. It had me thinking about whether there was a relation between cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ experience on the film Good Time , which he also shot on 35mm, and your work together on Her Smell. In a general formal sense the films are extremely different, but there are a number of shared qualities, primarily the texture of neon lighting being constantly smeared by speedy camera movement.
Well I can’t say that anything in the script like that is as specific as what you’re citing…. But on Her Smell and Listen Up Philip, specifically, I was in a position where I was making a movie with a fair amount of crew from a recent movie that a friend of mine made where they kind of got to take a big leap. In the case of Listen Up Philip, there were a lot of people on the crew of that movie who had worked on Drinking Buddies (2013), which was kind of a comparable budget, but also a comparable leap for Joe Swanberg from his previous movie. And then on this, it was not just Sean but also Danny April, Sean’s gaffer, who worked on Good Time, and we also had the same steadicam operator, and the same script supervisor, and a lot of the same camera department. I always enjoy hearing how these other experiences have gone, and then getting to incorporate those experiences into what I’m doing. Because I don’t have the experience of making a movie like that, but 10 people around me do, so I feel like I might as well have had the experience.
Another topic you’ve mentioned that I wanted to ask about was music videos. I know you’ve directed two music videos for Aly & AJ, one was also shot by Sean Price Williams, the other was just released very recently. Did your experience working in that particular corner of the music industry in any way inform Her Smell?
Not really. I don’t really feel like I’m particularly good at music videos. It doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s not the thing I’ve been pointing at, or been striving towards, for a very long time. There are people whose brains are very wired for short-form image-based storytelling in a way that leads them to succeed in music videos and commercials, both of which I don’t necessarily personally understand the visual language of—because whenever I’ve done anything like that, my instincts take over and I end up trying to create an unnecessarily complicated narrative… All the music videos I’ve done have been for completely independent artists who have no label telling them what they can or can’t do which is probably the only reason they’re able to just raise their hands and hire me.
The best thing about projects like that is that you can use it as a kind of practice for something. You can try a shot, or color, or cutting pattern, and you can experiment. But I hadn’t really done one for awhile when we made Her Smell, so I don’t know if any of that was really in mind. And then when we shot the music videos for Her Smell, I was reminded of the fact that, yeah, I know a great one when I see it, but I don’t know how to create something that feels alive and exciting—on my own. When I do, I just have to rely on the artist to do 50% of the work, which is great for me, because it’s how I work anyway.
Central to the script of this film, and the film itself, is the effect of success and fame on a group of artists who’ve been working together for an extended period of time, depicted mostly through Becky’s ever-tenuous relationships with the various other musicians and crew working on her band. In a way Listen Up Philip explores similar ground. Is this a subject which comes up organically with the characters, or one that you find yourself returning to for other reasons, to work things out?
I don’t really know how or why I seem to return to it. Unlike [characters in] Listen Up Philip or anything else I’ve done, Becky is objectively quite famous. But I don’t really have anything to say about that, because I am not, nor do I have any relationship with living like that. And the movie is just not interested in the idea of celebrity, so to speak, there’s no scenes of Becky dealing with fans or photographers or autographs or paparazzi or anything, because I really don’t have anything to say about that, and I don’t find it to be particularly original or groundbreaking for a music movie in 2019 to deal with stuff like that.
Her celebrity, such as it is, for me, is just an opportunity to show that this is a character who’s kind of living a dual life. It’s not about famous or not famous, it’s about the fact that she has a public life which she’s very responsible for and a private life that suffers. I was writing both movies at the same time—I could say the same thing about Golden Exits. Even Queen of Earth to a lesser extent. These are all movies that are showing the way that people act privately, when that’s not the way that they should be acting privately. They’re living a double life. More than fame or cultural relevance, I think that’s what pops up for me when I’m doing my 2nd or 3rd drafts.
Being that this interview is for a Boston-area alt-weekly, it seems necessary for me to bring up the Sweet Potato [magazine] t-shirt that Becky wears throughout scene two. To keep things on the subject of collaboration, let me ask, specifically, about that shirt, and then also, generally, about your collaborations with costume designer Amanda Ford, which goes back to Listen Up Philip.
The Sweet Potato shirt was just an Amanda thrift-store find, or eBay find. I didn’t know where it came from and probably didn’t see it until I was presented with it as an option that Lizzie had approved. There was just a lot of desire to, as much as possible, in acts one, two, and four, let Becky wear blotchy t-shirts. Which felt very historically and narratively accurate… and obviously the music connection is printed on the back of the shirt. It raises this whole narrative question of where did she get this, how long has she had it, did it come from Dirtbag Danny [her ex-husband played by Dan Stevens], did it come from Howard [a label exec played by Eric Stoltz]—it suggests a story of her inheriting this shirt. And that’s just the ease of working with Amanda. Not only is it my fourth movie with her, but also through that it’s her third movie with Lizzie, so they have a pretty smooth conversational rapport at this point. And I trust her implicitly.
I don’t really micromanage any department head, but especially not people whose filmmaking experience far exceeds my own, and who have also proven themselves time and time again to be incredibly talented. The only thing I said on this movie, to her and to the hair and makeup department as well, is that on every other movie—not just my movies—there’s always one look that, when you see it, you think, maybe they should’ve done that one differently, that doesn’t really look exactly right. And I kept telling everybody that we can’t have that anywhere in this movie, because every single look in this movie is going to play for longer on screen than any look plays for in any other movie, unless it’s a movie that all takes place in one day and you get one look. There can be no margin for error, because if something isn’t astonishingly great, and I’m looking at it for 25 minutes, I’m going to be really sad. That’s setting a high bar, and maybe making people nervous, but that’s the only real direction I gave to the style department, to keep that in mind. And they were not afraid to push things as far as possible.
Beyond the prominence of the Sweet Potato shirt, there’s so much more to that look [of Becky in scene 2] that just completes Amanda’s narrative thinking about Becky. What she’s wearing with the rest of that outfit is purple sequined shorts, which plays into the fact that we see Becky wearing sequins quite a bit, on accessories and other pieces. Incorporating that into the sort of studio look [the scene takes place during a recording session], with the Sweet Potato shirt, is a great way to keep her style consistent throughout the movie. And the barefeet, braless quality of that same look is not something that I insisted upon, or came up with, but once Amanda and Lizzie emerged with that as a concept that they were both excited by, it made perfect sense to me that that is exactly where Becky is at, at that particular juncture.
I’m very interested in how much cross-departmental preparation is done between yourself, Williams, editor Robert Greene, and composer Keegan DeWitt. The sound design, the camera movement, and the editing rhythm in this film all operate in a very unified manner. Can you talk about how that works from the pre-production stage on?
There’s not as much cross-pollination as one might think. If anything it’s just that all these people are starting work on the movie drastically earlier than most people start on most other projects. So a composer like Keegan can be sent a cut of a movie that is locked, and has a temp score, and be told, this is what we want you to do. Or he can do what we do, which is he reads the script a year in advance, and has essentially 15 months or more from the time he first reads it, and has conversations with me, and is thinking about it, until he’s turning in his final delivery work. Therefore everybody gets a much more intricate and considered opportunity to do their job.
Robert, as an editor, is giving me script notes, and saying if you’re going to cover this this way, please make sure that you’re getting this as well, and we always end up not having this kind of shot of someone transitioning from one room to another, please make sure you’re getting that, because you always think it’s not necessary and then we always need it. The process begins earlier and goes deeper because of this repeat business that we’ve all gotten locked in on.
Yet another collaborator who for me seems central to your films is title designer Teddy Blanks, who for Her Smell has crafted a suite of fictional album covers, tour posters, and various other such objects. What’s your working process like with him, specifically in finding the aesthetic of all those materials?
It’s kind of the same answer as Keegan and Robert. Teddy’s a guy who probably has, pound for pound, more credits and different opportunities, year to year, than anybody else I’m involved with, because he can generally start and finish his work on a movie in a span of a couple weeks. He probably works on 30 movies and TV shows a year, which no one who’s ever on a set could ever possible accomplish. Sometimes he’s being sent a locked movie and told do the credits. But for me his collaboration is done in tandem with the building of the movie. If he’s going to do the credits for us that means he’s also creating the posters that hang in the dressing room and he’s designing the band’s logo because we need that on a banner and t-shirts…. I don’t even know what his job should be called, because it doesn’t exist on most other movies. He’s creating props and elements that normally you’d just have an intern or somebody doing, and not doing particularly well. But he’s doing that, and it lends a complete sense of consistent aesthetic design, from pre-production well into post-production. It’s not like we have these great credits with these great designs and then the logos in the movie look like garbage and all the posters look perfunctory. In the context of such a big, loud, chaotic movie, it might be hard for people to break down and think about how much of this stuff Teddy and I are doing, but I think it’s no more or less than you’d get in something like The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). It’s just being directed into a different kind of energy.
Thank you for indulging me as I ask questions that for the most part concern your collaborators…
Not at all, it’s just that, fortunately or unfortunately, it’s kind of all the same answer. It’s so nice for me that when I’m writing a script, a year before anyone sees it, I can just think, oh man, Danny April’s gonna light the hell out of that scene, and Sean’s gonna command the camera back here so excitingly, and Teddy’s going to make a giant 20-foot banner to go up here, and every one of these people is going to deliver. I think about that while I’m writing, which then makes me think, I can go really far on the page.
The same sound designer [Ryan M. Price] has also done every movie since Listen Up Philip, and every one of those movies until now was a 5-day sound mix. Golden Exits was probably the easiest of the sound mixes we’d done, because it’s dialogue-based and very quiet. When we were finishing it, Her Smell was already very much in the works, and I said, the next one we do is going to be the biggest most complicated thing we’ve done. Her Smell was a 12-day sound mix, and our last day was almost 16 hours. That was it for everybody, not just Ryan and the sound department, but everybody.
One last thing, fairly off topic. I previously interviewed you almost five years ago, for Listen Up Philip, and at that time we briefly discussed the state of The Traditions, an unaired project you shot for an online HBO platform. You expressed a desire not to get it released as it was, but to someday fashion that footage into something new instead. I feel like I’d be shirking my responsibilities if I didn’t ask you for an update on that.
That was a great idea, but I don’t know how I would go about even beginning to broach the subject of legally re-acquiring the footage. We had shot The Traditions in January 2013. And by the time I saw Boyhood (2014) a year and change later, I was thinking, oh, actually, the fact that none of that footage has seen the light of day is really interesting. Maybe the worst thing that happened can actually become the best thing. [Co-star] Kate [Lyn Sheil] and I can shoot 30 minutes of this like every 5 years and then see what happens. I was really excited by that idea. Similar to, I really liked Steve Jobs (2015), and I liked that it had three long scenes, and I thought it’d be really cool to do that but with five scenes. I was like, it was cool that Boyhood did this for 12 years, and it’d be cool to do that for even longer, and to make each one even further apart. I guess I could still do that. I could probably buy the footage back from HBO myself if somebody was willing to open up that conversation. But I don’t even really know how that would work. I still think it’s a good idea, but the filmmaking in that is so… unlike Linklater, I did not start this project at a point where I was already as good as I felt like I could be. So the filmmaking is probably pretty rough by the standards I now hold myself to. I guess that’s probably what I was thinking at the time, but unfortunately I probably stopped thinking about it shortly after we spoke.
Transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.