Portrait of the Artist as an Abhorrent Young Man: Alex Ross Perry on Listen Up Philip

Alex Ross Perry is one of the most exciting names in American indie cinema. We chat to the 30-year-old writer-director about his latest film, Listen Up Philip, a caustic comedy centred on an obnoxious young novelist played by Jason Schwartzman

Feature by Patrick Gamble | 01 Jun 2015
  • Listen Up Philip

The title of Alex Ross Perry’s third feature, Listen Up Philip, a witty New York-set literary comedy, refers to the film’s tremendously narcissistic protagonist, Philip Friedman (played by Jason Schwartzman). However, director Alex Ross Perry also suggests the film’s moniker is a nod to the influence of American novelist Philip Roth. “We kind of gave Philip Roth to anyone looking for it,” says the 30-year old by phone. He's clear that Schwartzman’s character isn’t a stand-in for Roth, but the film could be perceived as a riff on the author’s 1979 novel The Ghost Writer, a story about a young writer who accepts an invitation to the rural home of an older, prize-winning novelist. The mentor figure in Listen Up Philip is Ike Zimmerman, played with tremendous hubris by Jonathan Pryce. Perhaps he could be a proxy for Roth? “There’s a lot of authors that orbit around the way a guy like Ike is,” Perry explains. “Another writer whose pull and sensibility influenced the movie is Richard Yates. I’m a huge fan of his. He was a notoriously hard-drinking tough guy.”

Philip occupies an extremely strange world, a timeless epoch where characters listen to vinyl and there isn’t a mobile phone in sight. Was this a statement about our growing reliance on technology, or a pining for a bygone era? “It’s just a nicer way to spend a couple of hours when you go into a movie theatre,” Perry suggests. “When you go watch a film you shut down your phone – it’s probably the only time during the day you’re not checking it – and you enter into a world where a lot of the distractions that exist in your life are not present in the film.” Listen Up Philip’s hypnotic jazz score and gorgeous 16mm cinematography feels like a paean for a lost time, a period Perry clearly yearns for. “I really regret not being alive during the time where authors like Ike were famous enough to be met on talk shows and dominate the cultural conversation.”

This sentiment is echoed by Philip in one scene when he wistfully evokes Zimmerman’s heyday as a time when “women were looser” and more likely to be impressed by writers. It’s a misogynistic reading of the era, but one that Perry agrees with in principle. “It’s really interesting that this wasn’t 50 years ago: it was close enough in my lifetime that a writer of fiction could be a bona fide celebrity. Now there are perhaps five writers who are that prominent, but in 1980 there were 50. I wanted Ike to be one of those writers, so I borrowed a lot from the East Coast writers of the time whose work really blows my mind.”

Listen Up Philip: Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss | image: Eureka! Entertainment

Listen Up Philip isn’t your average American indie comedy. It’s a pastel-shaded bildungsroman with numerous novelistic digressions, complete with narration from an off-screen storyteller (voiced by Eric Bogosian), a device that brings together the film’s literary pretentions with its cinematic aspirations. This type of omniscient narrator is a tool notoriously sneered at by cinema purists, something Perry vehemently disagrees with. “When you’re not using a device like that you have to rely on dialogue to piece together the intricacies of the relationships or backstories between the characters and I find that dialogue to be fairly tedious. Some people are always going to recite some information that they vaguely remember hearing in a film class 20 years ago, that there are devices that are better left on a page, but I don’t understand why those people take something they were told by a film professor who has never made a film so literally.”

It would be easy to assume that Philip’s story is an autobiographical one about a young upcoming artist struggling with his ambitious personality. The film doesn’t merely focus on the relationship between Philip and Ike, however. Perry also takes time to observe the women who surround his male characters, specifically Philip’s girlfriend, Ashley, played by Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss. “Philip’s a young man who’s roughly my own age and who wears clothes that I like,” says Perry, “but there’s a lot more about me in Ashley’s lifestyle and her relationship with her own career [as a photographer], and the seriousness with which she takes it, than there is with Phillip’s angry indifference to be a necessity of his lifestyle. The fun of the movie for me is that Ike, Phillip and Ashley represent different aspects of my personality. The whole point of the movie for me is taking a situation, splitting it into diametrically opposed perspectives, and then letting it play out. The characters argue with one another because that’s two sides of me arguing.”

Perry isn’t one to rest on his laurels. While Listen Up Philip has been held up in distribution purgatory in the UK, he’s already completed and screened his follow-up, Queen of Earth, a feminist exploration of jealousy that marks a tonal, if not entirely thematic, departure from the misanthropy of this film. So what prompted this remarkable shift in style? “Well, mostly it was how close together they were made, and an interest in not repeating myself,” he says. “Thematically the films have a great deal in common and they deal with the same types of people – it’s just told in a slightly different way. Queen of Earth is a women’s story instead of a story of how strong women prevail over weak, terrible men. That was just one of the fun ways we inverted what we’d done before.”

“The characters argue with one another because that’s two sides of me arguing” – Alex Ross Perry

The overriding theme in both films is society’s current relationship with entitlement, something Perry is keen to discuss. “It fascinates me. A lot of great fiction has been written about characters that struggle with that. In Philip you have a character that feels entitled to success and the trappings of success, and in Queen of Earth you have characters that feel entitled to privacy. Entitlement can take on any number of forms, but there’s something very interesting to me about someone who genuinely feels 100% in their soul that they deserve something. The point is watching them adjust to a world where either they get it, like in Philip, or they don’t, like in Queen of Earth.

On his first two films, Impolex and The Colour Wheel, Perry made effective use of non-professional actors. In these most recent pictures, however, he has proper film stars interpreting his characters. How's he found the transition? “I had no reason to assume I could get [professional actors] when I was putting Philip together. My previous films were all made with my friends, so it’s really great to have these well-known actors who have been on hundreds of movie sets be like ‘these guys are alright, these guys know what they’re doing.’ It was a real surprise to learn that these people are great collaborators, and take what they do very seriously, that was really exciting and humbling.”

While he's relished the opportunity to work with talented young actors like Schwartzman, Moss and Katherine Waterston (who stars with Moss in Queen of Earth), he seems most stirred by the prospects of the British audiences’ reaction to Jonathan Pryce’s performance. “I’m very excited about the film’s release in the UK,” he tells us. “I think people over there are going to understand and appreciate what Jonathan Pryce does in this film. For me it’s some of the most impressive acting I’ve ever seen and one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved with, so I’m thrilled for the film to have a kind of new life over there.”

We can only agree. Pryce's turn is acerbic, funny and deeply sad. A bit like the film, really.

Listen Up Philip is released 5 Jun by Eureka! Entertainment