“Everything about getting this movie made quickly, and without a lot of complications, was a way to not do what we had just done.” That’s director, Alex Ross Perry (pictured above, left), talking about Queen Of Earth, his latest lo-fi feature, which stars Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston, and Elisabeth Moss, who appeared in Perry’s last feature, Listen Up Philip. Queen Of Earth sees the two actors play friends, Ginny and Catherine, who share a lake house one summer after the latter (Moss) breaks up with her boyfriend. Trapped together, they begin to realise how separate they’ve become and, as Catherine’s mental health deteriorates, the gulf between them widens. The film’s dark central theme came from a period when Perry was on some down time from Philip. “I was tired,” he says. “2013 had been a very busy year, and for the first time in 14 months, I had nothing to do. I found myself thinking a lot about the drive and desire for privacy. And it seemed interesting to have a film where the character was experiencing something much more dramatic than I was, but it was also a way to explore the questions that I had about how entitled I suddenly found myself thinking I was, and wanting to be just left alone.”
The final product is a stark contrast to Listen Up Philip, not just in topic, but also in the way that it was produced. Whilst Perry’s previous film encompasses several locations and characters, Queen Of Earth is ostensibly a two-hander restricted to the confines of a summer home. Describing the filmmaking process as “fun” – it’s a word that he’ll return to a lot – Perry was attracted to the idea of having everyone “come to one fixed situation and letting them do their thing.”
As with all his films, Perry’s long-time collaborator, Sean Williams, is on-board for cinematography duties. Having met ten years previously, working in a video store, it’s a partnership that has worked well for Perry, and boils down to a shared passion for cinema. It’s this synchronicity that fuels the director’s approach to filmmaking. “We have long talks about the kind of things that are interesting to us,” Perry says. “We’ll go see some movie and we can’t stop talking about it! Because we’re both well viewed, we can throw other things out there. We don’t have to Google it. It’s just, ‘Hey, remember that thing’ and then we run with it.”
Queen Of Earth examines an already fractured friendship disintegrating even further. In order to capture a natural and organic progression to the relationship, Perry took the unorthodox approach of filming chronologically. “It’s a rare thing to do,” says the director. “Anybody with any sense of responsible film experience would explain all of the reasons why even in one house, it would be hard to do that! It just didn’t seem right to be asking the actresses to perform the conclusion of the film on Day 5.”
Describing it as “forgiving, and simple, and a very generous way to work”, Perry does admit that even in a smaller production like his, there are lots of logistical nightmares. However, he quickly adds, “The only reason to do it is because it’s fun and the actors like to do it.” Perry’s approach to filmmaking is clearly a collaborative one. Aside from his partnership with his cinematographer, the director is keen for his cast to feed into the creative process. “This film was designed to have a lot of actor input,” he says. “In writing the script, there was stuff that I knew would be worked out whilst we were doing it.” Case in point: a dramatic party sequence in the centre of the film was originally written to describe what was happening inside the head of Catherine, rather than a literal description of events. “Elisabeth had to explain what she needed from the room to deliver what was on the page which was a monologue,” Perry says about the process, “so she could get what she needed to get where she had to go.”
Those familiar with Alex Ross Perry’s previous work will know that his characters are often not perfect. They’re flawed and, in the case of Listen Up Philip, they’re responding to a sense of entrapment by outside forces. Does Perry ever feel like writing characters that are more emotionally balanced? “The movie is only worth making if it’s definitely – if not the hardest time – then one of the hardest times for this character,” the director responds. “That moment is when people are at their worst, and they’re struggling through a period that they’re not prepared for. That’s where the movie has to be. Otherwise, there is no movie.”
They’re words to bear in mind considering that Perry is presently writing the Winnie The Pooh live action adaptation on behalf of Disney. Keeping his cards fairly close to his chest, the director is humbled by the opportunity. “I’m lucky to have this job,” he says. “I’m really not treating it like work. I’m pretty astonished to find myself in this position.” In fact, if there’s one thing to take away from our meeting with Alex Ross Perry, it’s that he genuinely seems to love what he does, and as we wrap up, we had to point it out. “Well, on Queen Of Earth, I wasn’t getting paid or anything. So I might as well be enjoying myself,” he laughs. “I might as well be spending a few weeks with my favourite people! And on jobs like writing for Disney, I am getting paid, and I’m having a lot of fun. If I wasn’t, then I might as well get a regular job.
Queen Of Earth screens for free on April 30 (tomorrow!!!) at The Museum Of Contemporary Art in Sydney. For all information, head to The MCA.