Elisabeth Moss only had a supporting turn in “Listen Up Philip,” last year’s dark comedy about a writer (Jason Schwartzman) who dumps his girlfriend (Moss) as he achieves some success. But it didn’t take long for she and filmmaker Alex Ross Perry to reunite and with a bigger role. In “Queen of Earth,” Moss plays Catherine who, reeling from both a break-up and the suicide of her father, heads off for some R&R with a friend (Katherine Waterston) at a summer home. There she gets worse. It was a passion project for both Perry and Moss, who also served as a producer — her first such gig.
This is a movie about dysfunction, but it’s made by people who seem to work together well and trust each other, in part due to working together in the past. In addition to you two working together again, you’re also reuniting with cinematographer Sean Price Williams and editor Robert Greene. How does that trust help facilitate on something that is, for you, a new type of film?
Alex Ross Perry: I’m happy to focus the conversation on how this movie came to be and what it meant to make it. This is a movie that couldn’t exist, practically, without trust. To me, that’s how you make work that pushes yourself further, and the end result is everyone’s going to the next step together, just because there’s no pressure and there’s no judgment. That’s a great way to look at how a movie like this gets made the way it is.
Elisabeth Moss: What was cool for me was being involved from the very beginning, which has never happened before, and having a say in some stuff. I had a voice that was heard and listened to. It was the first time I ever watched the first cut of something, and the first time I gave notes. I was like, “They’re not going to listen to anything, it’s probably stupid.” [Laughs] But they took two of the notes, right?
Perry: Two of the three!
Moss: And that made me feel really good. People always say, “It was such a collaboration.” But that’s sometimes bulls—. This was a real collaboration. It felt like we were making something we both wanted to make and we both wanted to see.
“Listen Up Philip” was very dialogue-driven, whereas “Queen of Earth” is filled with lots of silences and moments defined by body language and how the actors react in close-ups. The screenplay seems like it was filled with gaps to be plugged in by the actors — unless that’s me just being wrong.
Perry: No, that’s very accurate. That came from writing the script very quickly. What I learned on “Listen Up Philip” is actors — good actors, which is to say ones that I like, which I realize I like because they are good — actors will want to come and do this. During the time we spend together when the scene is being built, there’s a lot of talking and “walk me through where this line comes from.” All the input on that movie from the actors was so important in shaping the details of what went on top of a very detailed script. What I can count on is leaving those gaps and filling them in together. I can count on that so I can make a 70-page script and assume it will actually be 90 minutes long. The script was not an outline but it was my version of an outline, by someone who compulsively overwrites. There’s an outline for a scene but the outline is 4 ½ pages, and the scene is three minutes. All the discussions we would have on set make it more than it could be if I just made it up on my own and forced people to memorize it.
Moss: There would be a paragraph that was almost like a little part of a novel, and it would be lovely to read. It would be what she was feeling or what was happening in the scene and what was happening in her head. And then I would go, “OK, I get this. So how do we show that?” I would need to show what he wrote and he would step in as the director and help me to show that. It was truly a step-by-step collaboration in that way.
Perry: There’s one scene in the movie that is a 55-second zoom on her in bed with music swelling. As written it was a few lines, just me saying what’s going on here. Her decision as an actor — which I didn’t even realize until we were editing the movie — was throughout the entire 55-second zoom, which we shot twice, she didn’t blink. She was taking what’s on the page and internalizing it and performing that in an intuitive way.
Moss: I didn’t even mean to do the not blinking thing. It just happened. My acting didn’t require blinkage. [Laughs]
Perry: It didn’t say to blink in the script —
Moss: It didn’t say not to blink!
Perry: It’s about putting the moments in the script and having that be something she takes and runs with in her own way. Or having a cinematographer find a way to design this zoom that moves past certain objects, and the focus is on him doing what he does. It’s all just taking something that is written, about moments of rejection and eternal sadness, and everyone does their own thing. I want everyone to have some ideas once we get there.
The way this is shot is very different from “Listen Up Philip” too. That was all handheld whereas “Queen of Earth” is filled with shots on tripods. However, you don’t storyboard, so Williams is often going in there and finding these very precise images on the spot.
Perry: Part of the challenge for me in putting this whole thing together with a different set of ideas but with the same collaborators was how do we make everything fun for us? With “Listen Up Philip” it was, “How do we make this handheld movie feel alive and precise in the sloppiness of it?” So this was like, “Let’s do most of the movie on tripods with zooms, and let’s even go one step further and do split diopters. [Ed. Shots where the focus is split between one thing in the foreground and one in the often times distant background, used a lot by Brian De Palma.] That stuff we would talk about in advance. It’s partially a challenge to yourself, to see if you can do something different while at the same time having confidence in everyone that they can make something different, even if the only person you think can’t do it is you.
Elisabeth, how did the way this was shot affect your acting? Are you an actor who thinks a lot about where the camera is?
Moss: I appreciate it in the sense that I do like to visualize what it’s going to look like. I do have an appreciation of cinema, so I like to know what kind of film I’m fitting into. On “Listen Up Philip” Alex would talk about leaving the camera on an actor who’s not talking while the other actors walk in and out of the room. It was always about moving. This was easier in a way, because I tend to be a very still actor. I tend not to like to move much. [Laughs]
Perry: Your suggestion is often, “What if I did this scene under the blanket?”
Moss: [Laughs] Either that or my suggestion is, “What if I’m sitting down?” Sitting in scenes is very important to me. I could even like to lay down a lot of the time. But I fit in a little bit better with Alex and Sean’s way of shooting this film, which is in a very specific way. It’s a little more my style of acting. I like to be very still.
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