Interview: Alex Ross Perry
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, Listen Up Philip will undoubtedly garner plenty of attention from critics and audiences for its distinctive, subdued humor and the pleasure it takes in expounding upon its characters, relishing their faults and shortcomings. The film is beautifully shot with saturated, muted dark colors, with suede jackets and retro fonts and book covers rounding out the stylized visuals. The characters are isolated in the fetishistic bubble of theirartistic milieu through their aesthetics and the rich, literary language of its narrator. Philip, a thirtysomething author, misanthrope, and narcissist, gloats over the eloquent verbal abuse he directs at the people around him, perceiving himself to be a larger-than-life personality while remaining completely oblivious to anything that doesn’t concern him directly.
Philip’s nasty antics are immensely amusing, but does the portrayal amount to a glorification of his behavior and egocentrism? FILM COMMENT discussed the question of romanticizing the author, and other aspects of the film, with the director at Locarno. Listen Up Philip screens Oct. 9 and 10 in the 52nd New York Film Festival.
To what extent do you relate to the characters of Listen Up Philip?
The three characters through whom the scenes play out—Philip, Ashley, and Ike—are all equally autobiographical in some way. Obviously, it’s easy to look at me and Philip and say he is an autobiographical character. But the three characters all have different aspects of my personality, each equally well-represented. It was interesting to take Philip, with his youthful sense of rage and entitlement; Ashley with her quiet dedication, doing her work and being as good as she can; and Ike, a dissatisfied, jaded idea of what it means to do well—all of which are things I was struggling with when I was writing the screenplay. When we were rehearsing, Elisabeth [Moss] and Jason [Schwartzman] asked a lot about what brought these two together. It was an important question—we are so clear about what is bringing them apart. Eventually, we realized something that was in the script all along: that the two of them are incredibly similar. We knew that Ike and Philip were similar, but Elisabeth realized that the script was just full of moments where Ashley acted as mean and miserable as her boyfriend. That is what made them such a perfect couple. We don’t get to see that. But we know that she has that in her. And I realized that was because these characters were created from the same place. And I hoped that by watching them play off one another I will learn how to balance these different sides of myself.
Philip is a bastard, but he’s also very funny to watch. Do you think that, for this reason, the audience might enjoy his narcissism and general meanness?
Exactly. David Foster Wallace talks about how he wants to do something complex and challenging from a literary standpoint, but he always focuses on it being entertaining—it’s supposed to be easy to read. This is important if you are trying to do something that is emotionally or aesthetically challenging. You can’t forget that people are going to have to enjoy watching it. As much as I love long, slow, arduous cinema, I’m obviously in the minority: when I go to see six-hour movies in New York, it’s not crowded. I want to make something that is more superficially enjoyable to anybody who just wants to sit down and watch a movie. It’s my responsibility to what I want to do, and so the character has to be entertaining. Jason is a really nice guy, and he is really funny, so he makes Philip what he needs to be, which is someone who you actually enjoy. If an intense, brooding actor like Sean Penn played Philip, he would be a monster, he would be horrifying. No one would enjoy watching the movie, and when he is being funny, you wouldn’t laugh. Having the character be someone who is gentle, funny, and entertaining in their brutality is also true to life. The people that I know are like that. Very mean and miserable people, but they are just so fun to be around, because they are so mean and miserable.
There is a moment when the audience stops laughing and becomes aware that maybe they shouldn’t like him that much.
I love that. In the commentary to Boogie Nights, P. T. Anderson talks about the part where William H. Macy shoots himself. Up to that point, you think the movie is really funny, and then all of the sudden, you are watching a different movie. I wanted to do that, and the structure of the film lends itself to that gear shift. At the end of my last film [The Color Wheel, 11], I wanted people to barely remember that the movie was funny. Which is not a comedy failure. I was just trying to sugarcoat a very bitter package so that you realize that although you may have thought you were getting into a comedy, and you may have consistently treated the first 20 minutes as comedy, by the end what you actually got was a pretty melancholy drama of these characters, one of whom happens to be fairly funny.
Do you think Philip is a misogynist or just a misanthrope in general?
I would definitely say he’s a misanthrope. I don’t think he’s a misogynist, because he loves women, and he says he loves women, and he clearly is obsessed with them.
But many misogynists say they love women.
That’s true. Well, I guess it’s true. But I think he really does love women. It was important to me and it was important while working with the actresses. The women in this film are all much stronger, much smarter, and much more capable than either Ike or Philip—they are two men in their thirties and sixties who are incapable of learning, growing, and changing. Each of the women in the film learns, grows, and changes in the span of her story. It’s really important to me that the film clearly be the story about two horrible men and their unsuccessful attempts to defeat these women, all of whom emerge triumphant in the end.
So why is every one of them somehow unable to leave? Ashley only manages to break up with Philip after he leaves her, Melanie stays with her father through the whole movie though she resents him, and Yvette is very attracted to Philip even though he makes her miserable.
Well, they do—Melanie just gets in her car and drives off. At the end, she just walks out of the situation. That is why we have the line where he has explained to her what he wants her to do, and she replies: “I can’t believe you think this is your decision to make.” I think this an important line. It’s one of the last spoken lines in the film—it was important to us to set it up right at the end—because Ike keeps thinking he’s making the decisions, but in fact, it’s never him. The women are making the decisions for both of them. To this day, we—me and Jason, on behalf of the film—know that this character thinks he’s in control. We want you to know that we both know that he’s not.
And the only reason I could give for that is that it’s just what I’ve seen in people I meet. I’m fascinated by their dynamics. I’ve seen charismatic, talented, but deeply cruel and miserable men having relationships with women, and I don’t understand why they are unable to leave them. When I see a couple like that, all I can think of is what their life is like when they get home. What could she possibly be getting out of this dynamic? It’s fascinating to me, so I wanted to set up three of those dynamics and ask that question over and over. I still don’t quite understand it, but I do connect with it a little bit more now, thanks to the actresses, who explained the ways that they related to what the characters were going through. I don’t think it’s great or cool—I think it’s sad, but I definitely think it’s real. And I think it happens a lot more than most people are aware of.
The trope of brilliant but antisocial artists is very common in film, but why does it only ever apply to men?
It’s funny you say that, because at one point I thought very briefly how it would really be interesting if all the genders in this movie were switched. The male novelists that I was inspired by, both in their work and in their personalities—raconteurs like Norman Mailer, or miserable drunken bastards like Richard Yates—that sort of character doesn’t really exist as a woman. There are no 65-year-old, hard-drinking, miserable, angry women. I thought that maybe it would be interesting to see a young woman come to an older female icon who would have to have been a trailblazer in her field. But I think the angry young man trope just exists in our collective consciousness because it exists in the world, and I think the reason the female version of it doesn’t exist is because it just doesn’t exist. I meet many male filmmakers and female filmmakers, and the women are very confident and happy with themselves. The men just seem so tormented and miserable. If I knew a lot of miserable women, maybe the film would have been pulled into that direction. But the only miserable women I know are miserable because they’re in shitty relationships with horrible guys. Otherwise, they’re all quite confident, and very, very talented.
Is it simply less acceptable for women to be drunk and horrible?
I mean, I would accept it. I just think it might strike people as peculiar. If you’re talking about an angry young man or an angry old man, it’s your version of something that does exist. If you’re talking about an angry young woman and an angry old woman, you are inventing. I don’t want to be the person who gets blamed for inventing a type of miserable, hateful old woman, something that spawns some sort of a conversation, or be in a situation where someone like Louis C.K. says: “What makes you feel like you can write women from this perspective?” I don’t want people asking: “What makes you think you have the authority to put this experience in her life?” The next movie that I’ll make—I’ve said that this is my “miserable men” movie—is my “miserable women” movie. It’s just a different kind of misery.
Do you think creativity is fetishized in our culture?
Definitely. That is why it was important to me to make sure that we never actually see Philip creating anything. You know, it seems very romantic—you see a movie like (500) Days of Summer, where the main character is an architect, drawing on the walls; he gets wrapped up in his passion. Whereas my personal experience of having written, directed, and finished three movies is just that it’s really boring. Obviously, filmmaking has this really fun component in the middle. But the experience of sitting down and writing is both boring and incredibly unsexy. And that’s why I didn’t want to do a movie about a guy who has writer’s block and who struggles. I wanted to do something that didn’t really focus on the process, because it’s something that people talk about or fetishize. But in fact, my process is just sitting at my desk, my feet up, staring out of the window, getting one paragraph at a time. There’s nothing cinematic about that.
Can a writer ever really go on holiday?
It’s an interesting idea—what do you make of the time when you’re not writing? If you’re a writer and you don’t do anything for six months, are you still working? If you go two years without making a movie, are you on holiday or are you still an active filmmaker? Because, if you’re not working, what are you doing? Well, in the case of filmmaking, you could be prevented from working by circumstances, but no writer will be prevented from working for two years. There is no way for them to say: “I’m ready to do another book, but I just can’t put my money together, find the time.” If you’re a writer, you can literally do exactly what you want to do, every single minute you have access to your brain or something to write down, and that’s what makes that a fascinating profession for me—as someone who doesn’t do it. With Philip, what is important is not that he’s a writer, but that he’s a lonely person. Writing is something you can only do by yourself. Writing and painting. Some things are done entirely in isolation.
Despite its being a kind of mantra for today’s worker, it’s actually a privilege to be able to mix pleasure and work—to do what you love.
I agree. It is a real luxury. I get really excited when I see people on the subway reading anything. I love watching people enjoying the fruits of the labors of people who do not work as hard as them. I love going to a multiplex and seeing Lucy or Planet of the Apes, surrounded by people who waited their whole week to come and luxuriate for two hours in this thing that the people who have a luxurious lifestyle have created. They spend money to come and watch something that a screenwriter could have written on vacation, they watch actresses who are rich and famous and only have to work 12 weeks a year. I love watching people come and support that. I really enjoy when something crosses over and, like I was saying earlier, just becomes entertaining, becomes something that can be enjoyed totally. No blue-collar worker on the subway would ever hold one of Ike’s books.
What would you say the biggest influences on your work have been?
It depends from film to film. In The Color Wheel, I became really obsessed with Philip Roth, whose influence is all over the film, and it’s all over Listen Up Philip as well, not just because he inspired it, but because now he’s just in me. I’ve internalized the lessons that I’ve learned from reading.
He is supposed to be unfilmable.
He definitely is unfilmable. His books are all internal and what makes them exciting isn’t the scenarios or the dialogue, it’s the flourishing language which you can’t really capture. What I've tried to do in these last two films is not filming him, but just internalizing what his work is about and putting it into practice. Richard Yates also really inspired the last two things I did. He is someone else who is unfilmable. The language in his books is just so perfect and so dense. Or maybe he is an influence just because he is so unflinchingly depressing. People can call it cynical and miserable writing, but to me, it is writing that embraces the fact that sometimes, things are just bad. It’s something I’m really inspired by. In cinema, I have a hundred heroes whose work is always there, but I’d never thought I’d be as inspired by a Woody Allen movie as I was with Husbands and Wives.
It’s my favorite.
It’s my favorite too. I couldn’t stop watching it or showing it to everybody who was working on my movie.
At the time, it was not so well received.
No, I think people were just ready to hate. But it was a hit, because people wanted to go see it. It made more money than a lot of his other films. I’ve always enjoyed his films, but I would have never thought that one of them would become the biggest influence on anything I ever did. It felt like a good one to be it, because even in his own body of work, he never really seems to have revisited anything like that. So I feel like being inspired by that is something of an anomaly.
You’ve had some criticism regarding the use of a narrator in Listen Up Philip, which is supposedly a mark of bad writing. Isn’t it funny that after decades of modernist, avant-garde, and experimental films challenging representative practices, there are still debates about whether something can or cannot be cinematic?
It’s pretty unbelievable that in 2014 it’s still an issue. I guess everybody heard it at some film school somewhere and it really made an impression on them because it sounds right. I challenge anybody to watch Barry Lyndon in a movie theater, on film, and say it’s not a cinematic film because of the narrator. It’s surely one of the most beautiful and most cinematically fully realized films anyone has ever seen. And it also has a narrator—which no one really complains about. I think that what we tried to do with the aggressively handheld, very present sense of camera is very cinematic, with the camera two feet away from an actor’s face, capturing the emotion. I would hope that just because there is a narrator it does not take away from how much cinema there is.