65th Berlinale Interview: Alex Ross Perry (Writer/Director – ‘Queen of Earth’)

Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) has entered a particularly dark period in her life: her father, a famous artist whose affairs she managed, has recently died, and on the heels of his death she’s dumped by her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley). Looking to recuperate, Catherine heads out to her best friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) lake house for some much needed relaxation. However, once Catherine arrives relaxation proves impossible to find, as she is overcome with memories of time spent at the same house with James the year before. As Catherine reaches out to Virginia with attempts at connection, Virginia begins spending increasing amounts of time with a local love interest, Rich (Patrick Fugit), and fissures in the relationship between the two women begin to appear, sending Catherine into a downward spiral of delusion and madness. A bracing, eerie look at the deep bonds of friendship and the horrific effects of such bonds being frayed, ‘Queen of Earth‘ is a thrilling examination of a deeply complex relationship between two miserable women.

We spoke with ‘Queen of Earth‘ Writer/Director Alex Ross Perry at the 65th Berlinale, where the film screens as part of the Forum section, about shooting on film stock, the dynamics of the cast, non-linear editing and much more.  Be sure to catch ‘Queen of Earth‘ in Berlin, Germany at its final festival screening on Sunday, January 15, 2015.

Find more information on ‘Queen of Earth’ at the 65th BerlinaleHERE

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What was the first aspect of this screenplay that came to your mind? Was it a particular location, theme, character…?
I wanted to make a movie about privacy and entitlement. From there, the idea of a woman who, for some reason it was important, sits at an easel and goes to an isolated place emerged. It became clear this could be a great opportunity to finally make one of those kinds of movies.

How did you come across the cabin location where the entirety of the film takes place?
It’s my dad’s cousin’s house. We were able to get it at a friendly favor rate. This was a way for me to go back, from making one very big movie where whenever I would write a location someone would have to find it. With this, we took what we could get. It was based on what was possible and not what was ideal.

Similar to ‘Listen Up Philip’, ‘Queen of Earth’ is shot on Super 16mm film; what was the approach behind this?
There is no idea behind shooting on [Super] 16mm I can really articulate. It is just my format of choice. I don’t have much of an intellectual justification for it; it’s just what I like. All of of my movies have been shot on film so I have nothing to compare it to. I am not some radical, evangelical preacher who is going to tell everyone how superior film stock is. If someone doesn’t like it then whatever, this is not how I feel.

In coming from a film that was entirely handheld, saturated, and warm, here I wanted to make something blue and cold. It was the exact opposite of what we just did. This was the first thing I said and the last thing I said when we were color correcting two weeks ago.

Did you shoot on an ArriCam 216 or something like that?
I’ve shot everything on an Aton.

So, there was no conscious desire to give the film a “retro” feel? I ask because, as the movie is tense, in the woods, and grainy, it almost seems like it could veer into, like, ‘I Spit on Your Grave’ territory.
It is that kind of film! For me, as someone growing up in the 90’s, watching a certain type of film on VHS was everything about cinema. So, that affected my preference for filmmaking; everything from what we shoot on to the way the set is designed. It is retro but it is what my entire filmmaking life has looked like. I’m not trying to make a slick [David] Fincher ultra modern story about isolation and detachment where the crispness of the digital image is perfect. This is a soft, fuzzy film that recalls a lot of movies, all of which were shot on film.

Did you write the script with the intention of utilizing a non-linear approach to the editing?
Yeah, the script was written exactly as it appeared on screen. The editorial approach was along the lines of a skipping record, which I thought about while we were filming. It is similar to ‘Easy Rider’ in the sense that [‘Queen of the Earth’] also has the 1, 2, 1, 2 pattern. I’ve never seen it in anything else, so maybe this was the device to tell everyone we are at another platform of temporal space.

What was your Directing approach to the dialogue-heavy nature of the film? As Elisabeth Moss was in your last film, perhaps you can speak a little about Katherine Waterston, and her abilities…
For me, what I learned on ‘Listen Up Philip’ about working with professional actors is that they are incredible at what they do, so the worst mistake that could be made is to not give them as much freedom as you can. They have ideas and impulses that are interesting and worth following. Not every project has so much elasticity that an actor with an idea can ask if something they had thought of could be tried. For me, letting them do that is the most necessary way of exploration. Usually, it is interesting and if it’s not, worst-case scenario, you cut it out of the movie and everyone still remembers the vibe on the set was one of giving, openness and collaboration.

As I was very trusting of Elisabeth, whenever we were talking about someone else to be in the movie, her input was more than welcome. The dynamic of the other character was very important to Elisabeth, as she had to feel she could go all the way with whoever was her partner.

Katherine came up, as actors do, where you don’t know them and really excited both of us. There was a sense of mystery about her as a person and as a face, which would give the film exactly what we needed. Their physical contrast was so appealing to play with as well. It all became very exciting. When I saw Katherine in ‘Inherent Vice’ I had already known she was an amazing actress but now I knew she was also a movie star. That is the best of both worlds. I made innumerable, obnoxious jokes as we were filming before the New York Film Festival, where both ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘Inherent Vice’ were premiering. As Patrick [Fugit] is in ‘Gone Girl’ I was making jokes at my own expense constantly about the quality of filmmakers these actors have worked with and they are making this little movie with me.

Finally, what are your impressions on the Berlinale thus far?
It is my first time and I have only seen one other film so far. Everyone has heard of Berlinale so it is quite incredible to be on the ground and feel the excitement. My favorite type of film festival to travel to are the ones in a real city. I’ve played two films at Locarno and, in terms of the quality of cinema, it is unbelievable; every movie is incredible, but there is little else to do there. If you are at that festival you are only watching movies.

– Interview conducted, edited & transcribed (on location) by Steve Rickinson

Alex_Ross_Perry_HeadshotAbout the Filmmaker
Alex Ross Perry was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania in 1984. He attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and worked at Kim’s Video in Manhattan. He is the director of the films Impolex, The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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