The Art and Fun of Screenwriting with Alex Ross Perry

Dana Knight speaks with Alex Ross Perry about his writing process and his latest work Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry is an American film director, actor and screenwriter.  His works include  ImpolexThe Color Wheel, Listen Up, Phillip and most recently Queen of Earth that first screened at Berlinale 2015 and is having its North American premiere at BAMcinemafest June 17-28 in New York City. Dana Knight spoke with Perry in February 2015.

Dana Knight: Im going to start with the most striking feature of your films which for me is to be found in the writing. Both Listen Up, Phillip and Queen of Earth are dialogue-driven films, and dialogue is something most filmmakers shy away from, as if words are trivial or un-cinematic, they want to tell the story through visuals. But you manage to do both, your films are cinematic and also have this literary quality given by the intensity of the dialogue. You have a love for words and dialogue. How did this come about, are you coming from a theatre tradition?

Alex Ross Perry: I don’t know. I wish. I think it’s just that I love reading more than most people I know and probably more than most filmmakers. I have a few filmmaker friends whom I talk about literature with quite a bit but I don’t know how important it is to those people but it’s something that I really just enjoy. Most people would really like to go out and hang out and have fun and I would rather just sit at home reading. And I read a lot, it’s a form of storytelling that I really feel connected to. And I don’t understand it because it’s so mysterious how it comes to be. And it’s really fun for me to sit and write. Not that writing screenplays is the same as writing fiction but it’s a fun part of the process. And the fun is making films that are different but trying to find ways to bring a sort of rhythmic quality to them, be they a dialogue-driven comedy or something like Queen of Earth.

DK: But would you agree that there is generally a fear of words in cinema?

Perry: I guess so, yes, I would imagine that there could be.

DK: So were you ever advised against writing lots of dialogue?

Perry: I don’t know, who would have advised me…[?]

DK: You don’t take advice…

Perry: Yeah, it’s just that I don’t really have anybody in a position that I have to answer to because my movies are made very independently with just a group of friends and collaborators so it’s not like there’s a real system of 40 people looking at a script and giving notes on it before I will get to make the movie.  Which I think leads to things that feel different and idiosyncratic in a way that allows them to be responded to uniquely.

DK: What is your writing process like?

Perry: It’s pretty basic.

DK: Do you inhabit your characters?

Perry: I wouldn’t know how to answer that. That’s not really about the process, that’s more like a real interpretation question. Characters are very clear before I start. There is a movie that I’m going to try to make, perhaps this year, that I haven’t written a word of it yet but I first talked to the actress who is going to do it in October. I’ve been thinking about it all the time but I haven’t done anything except to think about it every day. But once I know who all of the other characters are and where it takes place, the rest of it is so clear. This movie or Listen Up Phillip can be written in three or four weeks but I’ve been thinking about it for six months by the time I actually do the first day of work. For me that’s fun, letting the whole idea to sort of exist so that when I sit down it’s never like “ I’ve got nothing today”. Because I’ve been thinking about it for six months, I’ve got a million things, I don’t know where they go yet but let’s get them on the page and I’ll figure it all out later. And in keeping with that I have a pretty short window of productivity, I can really only sit and do work from probably 11am to 4pm. I don’t know how people can do it for longer than that. After six months of thinking, it’s a good couple of hours with ample breaks and that’s it. Because if I want it longer, I might not have anything to start with tomorrow. That’s another fun thing, your stopping point is when you know exactly what the next thing is because if you finish and it’s like “That’s all I’ve got” then where do you start?

DK: You also seem to have an instinctive feel for structure, I suppose that also comes from reading a lot of literature. Youre not really following any of the rules of screenwriting. Or do you? Because if you do its very well disguised.  

Perry: No, I don’t know any of these rules. When I’m confronted with the process, “the way things are done”, I’m always amazed at how little I know about it. Even talking with the editor, where I say, “I think the first act of this movie is 7 minutes long.” And he’s like, “Yeah but traditionally that should be 25 minutes for a 90 minute movie.” And I’m like, “But what does that even mean?”

At the end of the seven minute mark in this film, you know everything that is going to happen in the rest of the movie, every element has been introduced. And he’s like, “That’s not how you define the first act!” And I don’t get that. To me, the same with Listen Up Phillip, the first act is the first 6 minutes, which is a sort of prelude. So that’s very interesting for me because I don’t really think about it.

DK: So your writing is instinctive.

Perry: It’s just whatever seems cool. It’s like “Hey, that’s going to be fun,” let’s break this movie up into days, so there’s seven chunks of the movie, all of which are sort of the same length. Why not?

DK: Another striking feature, especially with this film, you start very abruptly, youre there from the first moment. Is that something you like doing?

Alex Ross Perry
Alex Ross Perry

Perry: Yeah, why not? But I also love things that start totally nowhere. One of the most amazing beginnings in one of my favorite films is the beginning of Somewhere, which is a 4-minute shot in which occasionally a car passes through, driving in circles. And the camera never moves and the car enters and exits the frame. That’s incredible, a huge amount of time spent with nothing. Finding something like that would be kind of exciting. But to me, in these last two movies anyway, I think there’s a lot of front-loading, giving people a huge introduction to the entire personality and history and behavior of the main character in the first three minutes of the movie. And this comes from spending a couple of months thinking about an idea and then sitting down with it. I’m very excited because all I’ve been thinking about is whoever that character is. The first thing I want to do is put down who they are and that ends up being the first scene.

DK: How many rewrites do you do?

Perry: It depends. I think the draft we shot for Listen Up Phillip was the 8th draft. So there’s tinkering. But it’s not like each revision and rewriting of dialogue is enough to qualify for a new draft but I think we shot the 3rd or 4th draft of this movie (Queen of Earth) and I would say that the filming of it is the 5th draft and edit of it is the 6th draft. It’s like the Tarantino thing where he says that the script is the first draft and the movie is the final draft. That makes sense to me. I don’t really like tinkering but part of the fun of writing is getting rid of stuff. I wouldn’t even count them as drafts necessarily but the first version of this movie was basically a different movie about the same characters but with a bunch of other characters. Catherine and Virginia were part of a larger ensemble of people in this house.

DK: In a similar vein to Listen Up Phillip?

Perry: Not really, it was more like Woody Allen’s September. There’s a bunch of people in this house but the other characters just weren’t there. It was always part of my idea that there would be this other group of people there . But when I read it and showed it to people, I couldn’t say anything about the other characters that would justify why they were there.

DK: You didnt know who they were.

Perry: Yeah. And they disappeared so easily. So that doesn’t even count as the first draft. That was sort of a different thing, I don’t know how to qualify it but it’s very easy to just delete stuff.

DK: In terms of story world,  your film seemed very Sartrian to me. Sartre famously said that its enough to put three people in a room to get a hellish version of humanity. And you seem to really enjoy making the characters tear each other apart psychologically. For the audience also, there is pleasure to be had in that.

Perry: Yes I would agree with that. It’s something that I find interesting, it’s fun to watch. Generally any movie that does that will probably become a movie that I admire greatly.

DK: Another film I saw recently that does that brilliantly is Winters Sleep.

Perry: I haven’t seen it yet. Everyone said I would like it and it was talked about with Listen Up Phillip a little bit. […]

Knight: This is not something very often done in cinema, to see characters who pick on each other in such depth, tearing each other apart in front of your eyes.  

Perry: Yes and that’s fun for me. That’s the time of somebody’s life that I want to watch for an hour and a half. That’s the time that is compelling for me to be a witness to, it’s when people are at their worst. That’s when a lot of the good stuff happens. Watching a movie about people at their best, or just sort of being challenged, I really don’t know what that is. A lot of independent films put people in this sort of non-threatening little bump of upheaval and I just don’t know what I’m watching, I feel like I’m watching a commercial.

DK: How do you work with your actors and do they contribute to the dialogue?

Perry: Yes, ideally. That’s what I learnt on Listen Up Phillip, that was the first time I worked with professional actors and the first thing I learnt even in rehearsals, just with Jason for a few weeks, was that almost every instinct that these actors are going to have is worth following. Which is not to say that every instinct is going to make it into the movie and is better than any instinct I had in the script for all this time. But there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain from creating an atmosphere where they feel like they can just say, “Hey, how about this?”

It creates such a collaborative moment and if it’s great then you’ve just got something magical. There are moments in both these movies that I never could have come up with. I don’t know where they came from in the moment but they were there for the actors and now they are in the movie. And there are moments that we didn’t even edit, they disappeared from the footage. But the value of saying “yeah, let’s just see what happens”. I mean within reason, you only have so much time. But letting that be the way that everyone feels makes the appeal for actors in coming to do small movies really alluring. Because it’s not a way of working that a really talented actor gets on every project. Not that they want it on every project.

So it’s fine for them to mix up doing scripted television where the script is the script, or doing theatre. And then you come to a movie. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.  But no one says that on most jobs. So it gives them an incentive to come and collaborate on these small projects. Which I think makes small projects that are actor-driven very sustainable.

DK: How did you get to work with Elisabeth Moss?

Perry: We got her the normal way for Listen Up Phillip, through casting. I’d never met her but I was a big fan and our collaboration was really exciting and positive. And when I was writing this movie, I started thinking it would sure be fun to do this one with her. And because we’d already built that relationship where she trusted me and I knew what she was capable of. I was able to ask her for things in this movie that you couldn’t ask someone you’ve just met. And she was able to go places that she said she couldn’t do if she didn’t already have a trusting relationship with the person who would ask her to do them. So it’s the sort of thing that really just comes about from earning someone’s trust and then doing something different with it.

The New York Premiere of Queen of Earth will take place at BAMcinemaFEST 2015 on Monday, June 22nd.  Check out the Festival website for more details.

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Dana Knight is a former writer for The Independent.