Isolation, writer's block, and break-ups on the road to success.
Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, Listen Up Philip, follows the young New York writer Philip (Jason Schwartzman) over the course of a period during which he publishes his second novel, chooses to reject all promotional efforts, leaves his live-in girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), and, most significantly, befriends the ornery master of prose, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Perry has remained faithful to celluloid and the sharp dialogue and occasionally scathing portrayal of human relations seen in his previous film The Color Wheel, but made good use of the step up to a sizable indie budget by expanding the scope of his narrative, devising a relatively complex structure, and creating a visually rich experience whose patina remains long after the film is over.
Listen Up Philip captures a self-imposed isolation that is very specific to New York. Perhaps this proximity to the familiar explains why I found the film profoundly demoralizing, despite all the comedy in Philip’s mule-headed pursuit of honesty. I was eager to talk to Alex about his characters and their loneliness, and get a sense of whether or not the title is an injunction to tread carefully with your one life. We had fifteen minutes to toss ideas around a few days before Listen Up Philip screened at the 52nd New York Film Festival.
Nicholas Elliott What do you think about Philip?
Alex Ross Perry I think he’s great. I think he’s the exact kind of guy I want to see when I go see a movie, a guy who makes me say, "Wow, I’m really interested in this guy’s problems and this guy’s life and the way that he has constructed his environment is incredibly fascinating to me and therefore I’m perfectly happy to watch this movie for however long it asks me too." That would be my response, but I guess I’m biased.
NE But thinking of him as a person in the real world, do you feel sad for him?
ARP No, he’s the exact kind of guy I’d probably be really good friends with, because he’s funny, he’s good at what he does, he knows what he wants, and he’s serious about his chosen vocation. That’s the exact kind of person I’m drawn to. Whether or not the person who has all those things is also a decent human being is, to me, less relevant than whether or not I’m talking to someone who has a good sense of who he is, knows who he wants to be, and is committed to whatever it is that he’s chosen to do.
NE Yet the voiceover and the dialogue keep returning to his loneliness, and everyone’s loneliness. At the end of the film, the voiceover very quickly kind of ushers him on his way, saying that he’s going to live a life of loneliness and isolation, but will succeed financially and artistically. Is the fact that he succeeds in his art more important to you than how he succeeds emotionally?
ARP It’s not important either way. Ultimately, dissecting the ending is interpretational, but what was important to me was that, as a character, his sense of self is complete. I think people can have that and I either am proof of that, or I have friends who are proof of that—that you can have a complete sense of self and a complete sense of accomplishment even if you are, as the narrator says, slightly lonely. I think that that’s totally believable. I think that if you view yourself as a failure and you’re surrounded by friends and well-wishers, then you’re probably a lost cause. If you view yourself as a success in the terms that you’ve set out for yourself, and you have nobody, you’re probably going to be a little bit happier than the person who really is miserable about where they’ve ended up in life, even though they have tons of friends.
NE The first time I saw the movie I found it incredibly sad. I found this insistence on loneliness to achieve success very surprising. I’m surprised that you have such a positive take on Philip because while the film is genuinely funny, it’s also deeply melancholy, both in the way it looks and feels.
ARP It’s not that I’m positive about him, it’s just that I am encouraging of him and forgiving of him despite what happens in the narrative. Paul Schrader talks about this trope from the Bresson films—which he obviously studied so closely and loves—and he says he put it in Taxi Driver and in American Gigolo: what he calls “the man in his room.” Philip is that kind of guy to me, which puts him in the tradition of the Paul Schrader movies that I’m really inspired by, which comes from the Bresson movies that he was inspired by. There’s something monastic and admirable about the man in his room who has nothing, but has found something there for himself. There’s the fun version of it in American Gigolo and the crazy version of it in Taxi Driver. But I think Schrader really understands that, and it’s a concept that I’m personally really attracted to, and I think both Philip and Ike are excellent examples of what he calls “the man in the room,” because really what they have is this space they’ve created. What they do with it is up to them. I’m forgiving of the fact that what they do with it is probably going to be something that they could live with. Whether or not it’s something that is the be-all-end-all is neither here nor there, but it’s something that I think both of them have chosen and are not dissatisfied with in the big picture.
NE So how do you conceive of the voiceover? Is the voiceover simply an omniscient narrator? It clearly states that—I don’t remember the exact words, but I came away with the sense that in the end the voiceover is basically saying, Philip is going to be lonely his whole life. It sounds kind of miserable.
ARP Well, first of all, it’s narration. It’s definitely not a voiceover. If it were a voiceover, it would have to be Philip speaking it.
NE Point taken.
ARP The script says “Narrator.” My feeling is it’s a device that is there in cinema, and it’s a way to tell twice as much story sometimes. In any difference of opinion with actors on set, when Jason would say, “What do I feel? Is what I’m saying true or is he kind of lying?” I would say, “Whatever the narrator says is true. Whatever anyone else says could be them just sort of putting on appearances for other people.” Because he is all-knowing, and the idea of using a narrator is that he always has all the information, as he would in a novel.
If you read a novel that is told in the first person, like Clockwork Orange, you would have room to say, "Is any of this real?" Or American Psycho, was the narrator for real or what was happening? When you read anything else that’s in the third person, you never ask that question, you never say, "The narrator just said that this character feels alone, I wonder if that’s true?" It’s the way books are written, and I wanted to make a film that, by using a narrator, eradicated huge chunks of ambiguity in some way, while creating a whole other side of ambiguity, because now if the narrator’s saying, “Ike has not felt this way in some time and now he’s very alone,” that’s a fact. Then, at the same time, when you see Ike in the next scene talking to his friend, and you know that Ike has been feeling very alone, and that he’s acting a certain way, that makes his behavior towards other characters slightly more ambiguous. Without that narration. you would just think, Yeah, he’s fine. He’s having a good time. When you say, "This is a character who’s very alone," and then you see him acting in a way that’s not that miserable, it creates ambiguity. I wanted the narrator to set that up for people.
NE It also allows you to leave out huge chunks of narration. The two romantic relationships Philip is engaged in during the film—with Elizabeth Moss’s character, Ashley, and with Joséphine de la Baume’s character, Yvette,—are basically shown at their end. We don’t really see them develop. Why did you choose to show things as they’re coming to a crisis?
ARP Well, that’s the good stuff. I mean dramatically, that’s the fun part. It’s like Ike and his daughter Melanie’s relationship: we see it come to one of many endings that I imagine those two characters have had in their lives, and will continue to have. That’s the good stuff. And yet, despite that, I do feel like most of this movie takes place in roughly the first third of a clichéd version of this story. We talk about how these things end: in most movies, you’d see a character who is about to become very successful break up with his girlfriend in the first ten minutes. Now she’s never seen again, and now you see his rise and fall. But to me, everything takes place in that very beginning. Once they part ways—it’s not that you never see her again, it’s that she’s—we see her, we see exactly the fallout of what he’s done to her, which is the benefit you get of having the ending instead of the beginning of the story. Because unless you’re making Sorcerer, you don’t want to spend twenty minutes with characters before they meet each other. If you’re going to do that, you do it like Friedkin did in that movie, and it’s perfect. In a movie like this, that’d be very strange—to spend twenty minutes with Ike before he meets Philip. It’s more interesting to see what happens after they meet.
NE You’ve said that an early inspiration for this film was William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions because you liked the idea of starting with one character and taking off with another, which happens when the film leaves Philip to follow Ashley for a while. But it also reminded me of Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life … Or How I Got Into an Argument, where we suddenly go off with Emmanuelle Devos’s character Esther for a while. I see a lot of similarities between your film and Desplechin’s ’90s work. Was that a reference?
ARP We talked about Desplechin a few times when we were shooting. There’s one shot in the movie of Jonathan Pryce; it’s on a tripod and he’s looking right at the camera. We were doing it, and we said, “Yeah, this kind of feels like a Desplechin moment.” For some reason, it just feels like the sort of thing he would do—to have one static shot of a character looking right at the camera in an otherwise entirely handheld movie.
I’ve also read that he’s a big Philip Roth fan, which is really present in his movies. So I think that the similarities are probably just that he and I both really like the same things and run with them in our own directions.
NE Other than the formal aspect, were there other things about The Recognitions that led you to this movie?
ARP It just felt very topical and relevant. It’s from ‘55, and I read it in 2011, and it felt completely relevant and alive. Its depiction of this artistic milieu in New York City and the way that people treated this one guy during a tumultuous period in his professional and creative life—reading that fifty years after it was published felt so, so relevant to me, and so instructional, and so not at all different from the way I was experiencing things all these years later.
In addition to being very moved by and emotionally involved with the novel, I just found it to be incredibly inventive structurally in a clearly groundbreaking way that inspired many novels that I love. It struck me as the exact sort of thing that seemed like a totally worthy formal experiment instead of what would generally be an experiment in a novel.
NE Gaddis also has a very cutting approach to some of his characters. He’s a satirist, among other things. Do you consider yourself to be equally biting in the way that you depict people?
ARP I don’t know. How can anyone answer the question? "Do you consider yourself …" I don’t know.
NE Well, do you consider your films to be that way?
ARP That’s the same question. I have no idea. In that novel, there are these characters who are sympathetic: there’s an art-forger and his wife, and then there’s a dealer. Then there are these other phonies that surround his wife’s social world when he’s gone. Those characters—similar to what I do with side characters—are really there to be made fun of and to be made an example of. So in this film you have another novelist who Philip has a brief situation with in the beginning of the film. That to me is the sort of one-note, evil, phony, bozo that is all over The Recognitions. There’s a girl who wants to get close to Philip, because she picks up that he’s successful, and she thinks that that makes him interesting, and she thinks that being with him would make her interesting. Those sort of characters—there isn’t enough to build a whole movie around them, but if you have someone who’s sort of rich enough to sustain an entire narrative and his narrative is comprised of these characters coming in and out of the woodwork—that’s something that I see in Gaddis’s work. I would say I did perhaps intentionally populate this film and Color Wheel with a lot of these one-dimensional, villainous, characters who pop up to be a nuisance to the main characters.
NE I was interested to hear you talk about the “man in his room,” because I noticed when I rewatched the film the other day that we don’t see much of a man in a room writing, which is what these men’s pursuit is. But the last time we see Ike, he’s sitting at his typewriter, and he’s writing again. To me, that’s nearly the film’s happy ending.
ARP As close as we get, I think. This is not a movie about the perils of writer’s block and the difficulty of following up a big success. At one point, Philip tells Ike, “I’m filling up notebooks, but it’s nothing but worthless garbage.” He’s not stuck. He’s got a million ideas. He just doesn’t know which one is going to be the best one to take up the next two years of his life.
You could do a writer’s-block movie. Wonder Boys is a movie I really like, and that’s a good writer’s-block movie. Michael Douglas’s character has writer’s block—or the equivalent of that, where he’s writing too much and it’s just nothing, and he can’t focus the ideas. This movie is not about, “Where do ideas come from?” It’s about how do you focus the energy that sometimes is necessary for you to create the work and sometimes is necessary for you to actually be a human being. Ike doesn’t have writer’s block either, he’s just lazy and angry. He says, “I should be doing better work,” but there’s no indication that he’s stuck. You don’t see page twenty and it’s just blank. He just doesn’t know—this goes back to both characters have impossibly high standards. They both just need to feel 100% confident that what they’re doing is the best. They could be working and working and working and working, but if something isn’t 100 percent the best, then neither one of those guys would ever waste their time with it.
NE You create a very specific world in Listen Up Philip: it has an autumnal feel. There are no cell phones or laptops, but there are some dazzling images, especially the shot of Elizabeth Moss sitting still at a fashion shoot, with these sparkles of light behind her. What was your visual approach to the film?
ARP I know you know Sean Williams, who shot the movie, fairly well. Being able to work with someone who I’ve worked with a number of times, and also, for our first time ever, having a real infrastructure behind us, we were really restricted by nothing. We could do anything that we could think of because of the resources that we finally had. So, part of that was saying, “We’re going to make a brown movie, the way Husbands and Wives is brown, or the way Another Woman is brown, or the way that The Squid and the Whale is brown.” We were able to create an entire palette—from the props to the wardrobe to the lighting to the color correct,—a consistent aesthetic that is in every shot, every scene in the movie, even though the movie was partially shot when it was fairly nice out and the section with the Ashley character is largely set in summer. By the end, you do feel autumnal, because the majority of the film takes place in autumn, and even the stuff in the summer—there’s no blue in the movie until the end. We kept the blue out. Even the summer stuff, it had to be kind of yellow, golden, so it was kind of like mud and mustard.
This is just a way to put people in a world because, for me, when I go see a film, that’s probably the only two hours of the day that my phone is off, the only two hours that I’m not checking my email every ten minutes. What’s the point of going to the theater and turning off your phone if the first thing you’re going to see is somebody checking their email? When I’m creating an entire environment for a film, and we’re in pre-production for a month, and we’re shooting for five weeks, and then I’m editing it for two months—whenever I’m living in the world of this movie, which I did from July through December of last year, I would like it to be a world that I enjoy more than my own. I want to live in this world. Every time I watch the movie, it’s two more hours that I get to turn off my phone and just live in a world where no one’s checking email, no one’s texting one another, and that’s just part of the immersive experience that I hope people are sitting in the theater watching this have, that all these things will combine to make them feel that this is actually not just some cheap, fly-on-the-wall depiction of life in New York but is actually a completely artificial parallel universe that is worth being in.
Listen Up Philip is in wide release in the US on October 17.
Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is Contributing Editor for Film at BOMB.