Sometimes when director Alex Ross Perry speaks, you’re uncertain whether it’s Perry talking or a character from one of his films. After years of varying conversations, I’m starting to think the distinction is irrelevant. Perhaps it’s most fascinating when the art and the artist are inextricably linked, bound together not just by creation, but spirit.
Rest assured, Perry’s neurotic, self-flagellating ethos lives on in Golden Exits, his latest foray into what Don DeLillo called “around-the-house-and-in-the-yard” fiction. Most of the film unfolds inside brownstones and basements, where the entrance of Naomi, a confident, foreign college student played by Emily Browning, causes unrest for those around her. The finished product is something of an amalgamation of inspirations: Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, a little bit Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. It’s also just, you know, Alex Ross Perry.
When I spoke with the Brooklyn-based indie staple by telephone, we discussed the “social realism” in his cinema, his advice for anyone trying to make in 2018, and why his best work is still ahead of him.
VICE: The film nearly opens with the line, “People don’t ever make films about ordinary people who don’t really do anything.” And then you attempt to do just that.
Alex Ross Perry: I think of the line in Carol where they’re watching some movie on TV and one of the characters says something like, “I’m keeping track of all the times somebody says something that they don’t feel,” which obviously underscores what’s happening in that movie. I liked that line about “ordinary people” and thought it was a big risk to put a line like that in. But I just wanted to do that early enough so we can say to people, “This is the movie that you’re watching. This is the deal. Hopefully you’re OK with how it’s calling itself out, getting one step ahead of what you might already be thinking, letting you know that that’s over and done with, and now we can just move on and watch this.”
Do you think it worked?
I think it worked perfectly, and the fact that it appears in both praise and condemnation of the film lets me know that whether you like it or not, everybody seems to notice that line. What more can you hope for than to put lines in that for better or worse you know everybody’s going to notice.
In the larger context of your filmography, aren’t you often making movies about fairly ordinary people? I’m thinking about The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip in particular…
I guess that depends on what you think of as an extraordinary person. Do we have any firemen kicking down a burning door to save a child in any of these movies? Certainly not. No, that’s a more extraordinary person than anybody by most measures, but do I have a direct in to the mechanics of that person’s dramatic struggle? Well, not clearly enough that that movie gets written, although someday I think it should, by me. These movies all live in the realm of social realism, to reappropriate a dismissive term of Don Delillo describing a certain type of American fiction. He calls it “around-the-house-and-in-the-yard” fiction. He uses that to discuss something he doesn’t like, although I like books like that and I like movies like that and this is certainly an “around-the-house-and-in-the-yard” kind of movie.
And social realism was designed to be a pejorative term?
He’s using it to describe a certain lack of, I think, complexity in writing. This quote of his could be 25 years old. I don’t know where it’s from, I just love it and it made a huge impression on me. Queen of Earth isn’t necessarily around-the-house-and-in-the-yard, neither is The Color Wheel, but you know, Listen Up Philip and Golden Exits take place in a world that I think people recognize because a lot of them live in or in an approximate to a world not dissimilar to what these movies are showing.
When you were starting out with Impolex and then The Color Wheel, what’s something you wish you knew then that you know now about the act of making?
It’s so hard to say because I do feel like those are basically as good as they could have been considering they were being made by a 23- and a 25-year-old. In terms of the writing, which is the area where I feel I’ve learned the most lessons: don’t think that it’s good enough. Don’t stop writing because you’ve printed ten copies of the script and given it to ten people. Don’t think that there’s any reason to stop writing. I wish I could just go back and say like, “How much longer can I spend working on this script?” or “How much more can I ask myself about this?” It’s corny because it’s obvious screenwriting stuff, but it’s just, does this element make sense? Does anything in here logically build to something, even in a movie like Impolex that’s just devoid of logic? Just be more attentive to stuff because it’s fun making these sloppy, ramshackle movies when you’re young, and I stand by them and I’m glad that they were made the way they are, but I think it would be neat to make them from the perspective of the writer that I am or even just the visual tricks that we’ve learned to play with and execute.
Do you think the writing is getting stronger?
That would be the hope. It’s just spending time writing and not shooting a movie because you’re ready to shoot it, but shooting a movie because it’s ready to be shot. You’ll never think, God, enough with this, can we just get in there? You’ll always think, Thank God I’m still sitting here taking notes from actors in the movie, producers, myself.
Is there a point where you think it’s just too much rewriting—too much tinkering?
I used to think yes, and now experiences I’ve had and the way certain projects have played out, my answer is no. Not just because I think it’s fun to write and I like sitting at home and doing it and thinking and being alone with my thoughts in that way, and I don’t ever want that to end, but because it’s not how the pros do it. Nobody working at the top of the top says, “This thing is done, let’s lock it in and let’s just make it later.” Anybody at the top, anybody at a studio level or any of our all-time heroes, they’re perfectionists in their own way, whatever that means, and they’re tinkering as long as they can until somebody takes the material out of their hands. Getting to that point for myself feels like a lesson I want to learn, where it’s not that there’s some objective standard of excellence that I’m trying to reach, but I’m just letting myself say, you know, every single draft until the one that’s written five days before the shoot is a rough draft. Let’s just stick with that and see where that gets us.
Before we go, I wanted to know: Are you happy with where you are at today?
I can look myself in the mirror if that’s what you’re asking. It’s a relative term. Obviously that sort of happiness or satisfaction or lack thereof with your own career choices is entirely what Golden Exits is about, so it’s on my mind. Do I look at the films and think, I’ve done my best work? Absolutely not. There’s no doubt that I have not yet done what I’m fully capable of. But at the same time, I’m working at a level that’s very enviable and very supported by people that I’m deeply indebted to and have been able for several years now to make a living doing this. That makes me happy because that’s very rare and very unique and I’ve done it without compromising anything. My ideals, the kind of work I want to do, the kind of movies I want to make, how I want my own movies to feel. So, that makes me happy.
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