My first encounter with the work of Alex Ross Perry came in the fall of 2009, at a small festival of extremely low-budget and experimental movies in Chicago. Some friends, long since moved away and lost touch with, had talked me to going into the sole screening of a feature with an odd title. If memory serves, it was the only one in the program to have been shot and projected on film. The movie turned out to be Perry’s debut, Impolex, and though I dread the thought of revisiting whatever it is that I wrote about it at the time, this Thomas Pynchon-inspired surrealist comedy about a narcoleptic World War II soldier who wanders a forest in search of a V-2 rocket left a substantial impression. To be honest, it was probably just as important back then that Perry seemed like one of us. That is, video store people, screening rats.
Over the decade that has passed since, Perry’s work has evolved in directions that the literary and cinematic quotations of that first, little-seen 16mm feature only hinted. The first creative breakthrough came with his follow-up feature, The Color Wheel (2011), a viciously funny black-and-white road movie about a brother and sister (Perry and co-writer Carlen Altman) who make no effort to conceal their contempt for one another, while other, more confused feelings boil under the surface; this was the film that first put Perry on a lot of critics’s radars. The ambitiously novelistic Listen Up Philip (2014), starring Jason Schwartzman as a hopelessly self-obsessed young writer, announced Perry’s entry into the indie mainstream. It was the first film to showcase what has since become a feature of his work—his gift for directing ensemble casts—and marked the beginning of an ongoing collaboration with the actress Elisabeth Moss.
His next two features would veer away from the comedic instincts of the early work; he went for Roman Polanski-influenced psychological horror with Queen of Earth (2015) and Bergman-by-way-of-Brooklyn domestic drama with Golden Exits (2017). But, like the protagonist of Impolex, Perry's characters have remained lost in the woods. They are narcissists, self-loathers, space cases, party crashers, mutual mood-killers, caught in unflattering and penetrating extended close-ups. And the titles of his movies have remained as confounding as ever.
His latest, Her Smell, seems to culminate Perry’s ambitions in terms of drama, character portraiture, and style. In my estimation, it’s one of his best films, and his most elastic and accomplished work as a director. A five-act Shakespearean tragedy of the 1990s post-grunge rock scene that, Her Smell follows the decline, downfall, and eventual attempted comeback of Becky Something (Moss), the abusively erratic frontwoman of the trio Something She, modulating from drug-and-booze-fueled backstage and green room claustrophobia to passages of disarming intimacy. The structure is conspicuously theatrical; each act plays out as one long scene in a single location, usually with at least one full-length song performance. The first three crash with flecked spittle, violently hurled invective, prophecies, witchcraft, grandiose entrances, even grander exits, and characters who have long ago learned not to depend on Becky emotionally, even as they’re still forced to depend on her to pay bills or fuel their own addictions.
Then comes the humiliating self-immolation and the eerie calm after—the stillness and reconciliations of the fourth act as a reversal of the first three’s anxious pacing movement, the final act retracing the steps of the opener backwards and in a (literal) new light, with soft tones replacing garish ones in the visual palette. Even in recovery, everything is tenuous. As much energy as one might expend trashing their life (and, as Her Smell points out over and over, the lives of others), it takes even more to pick up the pieces.
I spoke to Perry by phone the week Her Smell opened in theaters.
NOTEBOOK: I’ve always felt like structure is a strong point of your movies. I'm gonna be clever like my other colleagues and point out that Her Smell is pretty obviously a classical five-act tragedy. So, did you sit down with the intention of writing a tragedy, or did the idea of doing something about the grungy ‘90s rock world come first?
ALEX ROSS PERRY: I had the character for [Elisabeth Moss] in the summer of 2015. Then, in the summer of 2016, I had this sort of life-changing month where I saw a production of The Merchant Of Venice on stage at Lincoln Center and I saw Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet projected in 70mm, which I had never seen at all. I just became obsessed with studying the actual beat-by-beat mechanics of the structures of those plays. Because those—and other Shakespeare works, of course—are the foundations of all modern drama and, essentially, all modern writing. But there aren’t many things that actually take their structure.
The final piece of the puzzle is that I saw the Guns N’ Roses reunion tour within that month. And I was so fascinated by the arc of a band over a long time. In the middle of this, I had tried to make a movie set in the music business in the 60s and a TV pilot set in the ‘90s. And I feel like the ashes of those [projects] formed into the shape of this five-act tragedy. That was kind of the Big Bang.
NOTEBOOK: As a critic, I watch a scene and generally have a good idea of how something is made. “This is a master that they probably shot first. Okay, singles of the actors.” And so on. Watching the first three acts, I remember thinking, “How the hell do you direct something like this?” Because it’s basically three very long scenes, characters coming and going. Where does a take begin or end?
PERRY: Part of that is the theatrical, stagey conceit of the whole thing. In a movie, in almost any movie, you have this safety net. When a scene begins, it’s gonna be over in 3–5 minutes. Period. This is true of 95% of movies. And the only ones it’s not true for are deliberately slow movies. Which this does not announce itself as, because the first scene is a very traditional concert scene with cranes and extras and neon lights. So right away, it’s important to use that first handful of long sequences—and everything about them, the style, the execution, the acting, the camera, the writing—to just disarm people so that there’s no clear sense of how it’s being done, when the scene is going to end, or what the exact purpose is.
It was pretty simple once we pieced it together. We didn’t shoot on the first day of the shoot. The first day, a Monday, was just rehearsal. I had this idea that each of the acts would be preceded by a full day of rehearsal, then we would just shoot the act in three long days, no stopping or starting, not doing shot/reverse-shot, just locking in on these long, performative master shots, which get close or wide as needed. But essentially, the entire filming was designed to keep the energy as alive as possible. The only act we didn’t have a rehearsal day for was act four. But that was filmed last, and it doesn’t have any physical blocking or choreography that changes. We thought it would be fine to risk without a rehearsal.
NOTEBOOK: The preparation was something I wanted to ask you about. Because it’s a large cast, it’s a talky film. Obviously, you have a long working relationship with Elisabeth Moss…
PERRY: You look at what’s in front of the camera and the amount of bodies in a room—seven, eight, nine, ten performers in a small dressing room. The chaos is very much alive, but it has to be precise and controlled or else you’re never gonna get anything done. It’s this weird sort of thing about capturing chaos. You have to know what you want. You just have to plan. It’s really complicated but it’s not hard. It’s like doing math. It’s complicated, but if you just sit down and do it, you get the result.
As a frame of reference, every other one of my movies has a long scene in it that’s like a long, chaotic party scene. And the way we always do those is you figure it out, talk about it so everyone knows what they’re doing. You do it six or seven times. The first couple of takes have no energy, and the last couple have tons of energy. By that point, the camera knows where to go, everyone knows who’s talking when, everyone knows who moves where, and then you just have a bunch of great options from the last few takes. And I always wanted to make a whole movie that was just that.
NOTEBOOK: In respect to the other movies—a lot of them focus on characters who are difficult to be around, they are in a downward spiral that they’re not fully aware of. I’m thinking of someone like the title character in Listen Up Philip. What does the narrator say at the end? “He would forever remain a mystery…”
PERRY: “…even to himself.” I can’t believe I remember that. I haven’t watched that movie for five years.
NOTEBOOK: That line’s stuck with me. A major difference here is that Becky does eventually move forward in a way that Philip or the protagonist of Queen of Earth doesn’t.
PERRY: Perhaps. We talked about that during the shooting—this notion that comes up that I’m always, for whatever reason, making movies about very miserable people.
NOTEBOOK: Well, yeah.
PERRY: My big idea for most of this movie was that Becky is the least miserable character in the movie. She’s having the best time, she’s the happiest, she thinks she’s on top of world and that she’s great and everybody loves her. Really, she’s riding high for quite a while, which the audience is a few steps ahead of. Even when she’s at what we think of as rock bottom in act three, she’s still high on herself.
NOTEBOOK: I like that she doesn’t come full circle. The addiction lingers as a specter, sure. But her belief in… what’s her guru’s name? Ya-ema. I find the fact that her unshakeable belief in alternate realities and past lives carries over into acts four and five to be really interesting.
PERRY: It’s very important that there’s a line in act four in which she refers back to Ya-ema as though he was and is still considered helpful. Because if you have a character that doesn’t believe in anything, then there’s not really any understanding of what they could seem to care about And especially if you’re going to pivot into some sense of sobriety and acceptance, you have to set up very early that Becky does believe in some sense of a higher power. Her beliefs are very ambiguous and they don’t really make sense to the viewer or her friends, but she believes in them, and that’s very important.
NOTEBOOK: Was there an actual belief structure that you thought up for the rituals?
PERRY: Honestly, it made sense to me on the page because of a little bit of research I had done about this guru that Axl Rose came back from the desert with, this tiny Asian lady that the rest of the band had a very peculiar relationship with. [Note: Perry is referring to the Guns N’ Roses frontman’s former psychic advisor, Sharon “Yoda” Maynard; some of beliefs voiced by Becky Something in Her Smell—including her belief in having been a Native American in a past life—echo statements reportedly made by Rose.] The actor who plays Ya-Ema, Eka [Darville], he’s from Australia, but he’s been all over the world. He’s travelled places I’ve never been. And a lot of my interest in casting him came from how much he could contribute and create something that exceeds what I—on my own, from Wikipedia—could make. He’s been in places, met people. He was able to take that character and create something. So all credit is due to him.
NOTEBOOK: The timeline is a little ambiguous, but I noticed a calendar in the fourth act that says that it’s 1997. Was there ever a point where you were considering setting Her Smell in the present? Obviously, bands like Something She don’t get this big anymore…
PERRY: That’s the exactly it. The movie needs stakes. There needs to be some sense of dramatic, real-world stakes to the rise and fall of a band like this. It never occurred to me not to set it in the ‘90s, but the deeper I got, the more I realized how much it needed to be set then. Not just because it’s a fun era and that’s where the music I care the most about comes from. To have a movie that opens with a celebration of being on the cover of a magazine and to understand in 45 seconds that this really means something, that it’s a huge accomplishment that’s going to change the profile and trajectory of this band. Or to be receiving a platinum record. Those stakes are very rooted in a time and place. So, in order to give the movie the dramatic tension that it needs, you are locked into a time when being on the cover of a magazine or selling one million records or recording a new album really meant something.
NOTEBOOK: Doesn’t it have something to do with space, too? I feel like in a completely contemporary version of this story, a lot of these arguments would happen via text.
PERRY: As someone who’s never had the instinct to write a scene where someone is on a computer or using a cellphone, nothing makes more sense that this. But this is the first time I’ve ever gone so far as to put a year and a month on a calendar. It’s the first time I’ve ever bothered to be that specific. This is, again, just the benefit of having a huge team of great people who I love and trust to come and execute their portion of the movie. For hair and make-up and wardrobe, it really matters if we’re talking about ’96 or ’98. The difference that they need to consider within that two-year span on these kinds of women is something that everyone really needed an answer for, instead of my other movies, where I could just say, “It’s kind of like the ‘80s, but it’s also kind of like the present.” They needed to say, if we’re doing 1998 now, then we have the freedom to do a hairstyle that looks like this. That was all for the better.
NOTEBOOK: To ask you a boring technical question…
PERRY: No such thing!
NOTEBOOK: [laughs] This is ‘scope, it looks like it’s mostly 35mm in 2-perf…
PERRY: Yeah, it’s 2-perf 35mm, but the concert scenes are all 4-perf anamorphic, full-on Verhoeven style. [Note: 2-perf, also known as Techniscope, uses spherical lenses with a modified camera to create a widescreen image with a 2.39 aspect ratio; in an anamorphic format, special lenses squeeze the image into a regular-sized film frame.]
NOTEBOOK: It looked like you had to some streak filters in act three, or maybe you were changing it up to anamorphic…
PERRY: Both. Because I knew that it was going to be a lens-flare-heavy movie and I knew that when we shooting the concert scenes we were going to be switching to true anamorphic, the only solution for the scenes that were being shot 2-perf flat was to put on a filter that would stretch out the light.
NOTEBOOK: The 2.39 aspect ratio is a good way to get two, three actors in a frame without getting the tops of people’s heads. You can stay very close to the face.
PERRY: It was always conceived that way. This was just following that North Star of Verhoeven as far as possible.
NOTEBOOK: And you got a lot of Steadicam in there.
PERRY: Big time. Which I’d also never done before. So the use of those in acts one and five—that’s just a tool I felt ready to figure out. Knowing that we were going to have these rooms built all kind of small, that frame was always the correct way to picture it for me. Because none of these spaces are particularly deep, you don’t ten people stacked deep in them all the time. Having the width from one side to the other was always more important. It was always thought of as this grand, 2.39 35mm image.
NOTEBOOK: I know with Queen Of Earth, you had Polanski in mind. But now you're brought up Verhoeven two times…
PERRY: What it is that we kind of hit on with Sean [Price Williams, the cinematographer]—because I’d been talking about Verhoeven for months—was that he is such a considerate craftsman and such a deliberate filmmaker. The highest possible bar you could set for yourself. And when we sat down and watch Showgirls and Basic Instinct, kind of on fast-forward or on mute, just scrolling through, doubling back on shots, we realized that what it is about him—which some of us have known for years and some of us have taken longer to catch up to—is that you would never call anything Verhoeven’s done subtle. Nobody ever would. But when you study it, when you’re really sitting and thinking about it, you realize there’s no subtlety, but everything he does is incredibly nuanced and intelligent and specific, which is how those movies work. The amount of nuance that is laced through, despite the completely lack of subtlety, is the thing that makes him such a master filmmaker.
Now, people don’t always pick up on nuance—especially when it’s buried under total fireworks camera movement and delirious acting and lighting. And here’s the example that we really got excited by. Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone interrogation scene, right? Probably one of the most famous scenes of the entire decade of the ‘90s in terms of what Hollywood movies were doing. Most people could identity a parody of that scene even if they haven’t seen the movie. And then, 25 minutes later, when Michael Douglas is being interrogated, he’s in the hot seat, and the shot sequence and the patterns and every single way that the scene is blocked and constructed and edited is identical to the earlier scene. And you’re seeing these camera moves and these rack focuses and these moments where someone leans into focus to ask a question for the second time in like half an hour.
And it creates this nuanced effect. You understand that tables are turned. But you look at the lighting of this so-called police station, and it looks like an aquarium or a restaurant. It’s supposedly an interrogation room, but there’s a row of blue lights that are shooting up from the floor and the entire room is lit seemingly through a grid or a spider’s web above that you never really see. It’s the most unsubtle lighting. Nothing about it makes sense. It’s not remotely adhering to any sort of reality that anyone has ever experienced in a police station. So there’s no subtlety in the filmmaking or the lighting, but there’s nuance in the construction.
NOTEBOOK: I was rewatching some scenes from RoboCop just the other day, and he's got such an eye for composition.
PERRY: That kind of dance that he’s doing in all of his movies is amazing, if you look past the pyrotechnics. This is why some people dismiss Verhoeven movies as empty and vulgar, but if you really study them, you just think, “This is sophisticated filmmaking, the likes of which very few people are even capable of doing.” He’s a maestro. There are pyrotechnics in [Elisabeth Moss’s] performance, for sure, and we’re doing 30 minutes of Steadicam and crazy-color lighting. But we’re also repeating shots constantly, we’re repeating lines of dialogue, repeating camera moves. Verhoeven has no interest in subtlety at all. The nuance is a very fun distinction to figure out. I don’t think Her Smell is particularly subtle in most ways. That was the goal we set for ourselves.