Alex Ross Perry Is Not an Asshole: The Director of ‘Listen Up, Philip’ on Roth, Pynchon, and New York

If you’ve seen the trailer for Alex Ross Perry’s Listen, Up Philip — or really any of his films, including Impolex and The Color Wheel — you may wonder aloud, to friends, if he’s an asshole. Many of his characters are miserable egoists — like the self-absorbed novelist Philip, played by Jason Schwartzman — and it would surprise no one to find a one-to-one correlation between the roles he writes and his own personality. This is not even to mention that Perry routinely cites the egographomaniacal Philip Roth as an inspiration. One might consider, too, that given the critical praise his new film has already received from critics like Richard Brody (at The New Yorker) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (at Mubi), Perry has all the more reason to be a prick.

After watching the film this week, though, I can tell you that it deserves the praise. Vishnevetsky in particular called it “perhaps the major work of the modern American low-budget indie scene.” I’d agree. It’s a deceptively complex yet elegant film, shot beautifully on Super 16mm, that just happens to also be about literary assholes and the havoc they wreak on the lives of others. It’s also hilarious.

But by most accounts, including Jason Schwartzman’s, Perry is not an asshole. Nor does he seem miserable. (He may be an egoist. You decide.) He is, in fact, very personable, eloquent, and direct. I learned this recently when I spoke to Perry about his new film.

As a fan of your earlier work, I was thrilled to find that Listen Up, Philip is more of an ensemble film. What was it like working with better-known actors — Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter — perhaps on a bigger scale?

Alex Ross Perry: Well, I worked with the same cinematographer [Sean Price Williams], and when we sat down to talk about the film, he very calmly said: “You’ve done this before, it’s just a bunch of people sitting around talking. There are no car chases, no green screens. This is the same thing, there’s nothing different about this.” He was absolutely right. I learned that actors with options get to choose, and they decided to do my movie because they wanted to. They had no bad attitude about how they were going to be treated. Once you get over that, you realize how totally game these actors are. They don’t feel like they need to be protected.

The film is beautifully written, from dialogue to voice-over. Did you write the script with these actors in mind?

I never would have thought that these actors would ever be in a film of mine. I never knew what the path was, except for making a film with my friends. So of course I was not writing the film thinking that I have a cast of this caliber. It just happened that the lead actors put their faith in me and the script.

The film is also complex. It shifts in perspective and time. It’s not a one-man show. Were these shifts written in advance? Or were they more a function of editing the film?

The structure, that stuff you’re picking up on, that’s all there. In the script. The jumping around in time. The jumping back for a second of a flashback. You know: retelling one thing in the film from another character’s perspective. That was a part of the script. And there really weren’t a lot editing decisions made that weren’t already part of the script. We never had a need to salvage the material or get crazy and creative. I think it’s a testament to the fact that everyone brought their own endgame to it.

There are obvious touchstones for the film, like the close-up work and energy of John Cassavetes. Do critics overstate this connection? Are there other influences on the film? To me — not to be reductive — it seemed like an American cousin of Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life.

When I was writing the movie, I probably hadn’t seen a Cassavetes film in two or three years. So even in the script stage that was not really a part of it. However, about a month before we shot the movie, there was a Cassavetes retrospective here at BAM, in Brooklyn, and I didn’t miss a single screening. But I had only seen about three or four of his films on 35mm in the theater. So this perspective was really great, to revisit a film a day of someone whose movies I loved. But I knew instinctually that there was something that I couldn’t connect with when I was a young, arrogant film student. So revisiting them in weeks and days leading up to filming made me feel competent enough to borrow ideas and get in touch with what he was doing. It is so bold how out of focus some of the shots in his films are.

The other stuff. I’ve mentioned some other influences. Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together. The Desplechin thing is important to talk about. I haven’t seen all of his films, but some of them are really exciting. I really like Esther Kahn. We started talking about him a little bit on set. (Sean and I have seen a lot of the same films.) But just like myself, Desplechin is really into Philip Roth. I think that’s what people are picking up on. I’m not directly inspired by his work, but I think people who are in touch with his work will watch my film.

ARPThe film feels like New York City even though it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Were you self-conscious about making a New York City film?

Well there are a million New York movies made every year, and to make my New York movie — the way I made it different — was to film it in Brooklyn. But we never went north of Clinton Hill and Bushwick and those terrible places. We were only in the city one day. And the visual style was meant to bring out the beauty I see in my part of town, and to bring out a quality that is not usually seen in that part of town. That was just sort of the way that it felt personally relevant to me.

Can you talk about the score a little bit? Especially for someone like me who knows nothing about jazz and is not an audiophile.

I’m not either!

Well, I loved the score. 

Thank you! The deal with the score is that the editor, Robert Greene, and I were starting to cut the movie, and the music that Robert picked was jazz, and we weren’t really sure it was working. And then Keegan DeWitt came to us with this jazz score. Then, when we showed it to the producers, they couldn’t even tell that we’d swapped out Miles Davis for Keegan. It basically came together without missing a beat. It had the same rhythm that we were looking for in the editing room.

This is a movie about miserable, unlikable, literary people. But I feel like Philip becomes more likable as the film progresses. Am I crazy? It’s definitely at odds with the voice-over narration. Did you mean for there to be tension between what we hear in the narration and what the actors do?

[Silence.]

And I could also see why you wouldn’t want to answer that question.

No! I think Philip is incredibly likable because he’s smart. He’s funny. He’s talented. He’s good at what he does, and he’s curious about the world he lives in. These are all the traits of a very likable man… to me. But, you know, he has bad manners. He’s not kind to people. He has a short temper. That doesn’t mean he’s not likable.

To me the idea of using the narrator, as in a book… you’d never read what is between the dialogue as anything other the complete truth, in a novel. We take him at his word. If what he says contradicts ever so slightly from what we’re seeing, then hopefully people won’t take it as a puzzle. Maybe they’ll just think that sometimes people aren’t saying what they’re thinking. I wanted to use that ambiguity a little bit.

Can we talk about the connection to Philip Roth? It didn’t really come across, to me, as an adaptation of his work. It seemed more “inspired by” Roth and other writers. Also, you’ve done similar things with the work of Thomas Pynchon, in Impolex.

Well, no matter what author puts a thought in my mind, if it’s Roth or Pynchon, it’s less to say, “What kind of world can I make out of this book?” and more to say, “If this were a parallel universe and you guys were writing scripts for a low-budget film, what would those scripts be like?” and to take the spirit of a body of work that I love. That’s a lot more fun for me than distilling the films into, “This movie means that [in the book], it needs this style, this syntax.” That’s just not an interesting way to make relevant or lively cinema. It’s entirely pastiche. Literature to me is much more vibrant than that.

You’ve been the recipient of some pretty stellar praise from strong film writers like Richard Brody and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky. Do you read a lot of film criticism? As a cinephile…

By the way, I do not consider myself a cinephile at all. To me that’s a term that means that your appreciation of cinema is linked to an academic styling system. It does not involve any sort of emotional connection to the movies you watch. That, to me, is a little bit of a slippery slope. It’s really not where my head is at when it comes to cinema anymore. But you know, of course if Ignatiy writes something respectful and beautiful about what I made, it’s great. And when he writes something beautiful about something I’ve never seen, well, that’s fun for me too.