In just its few short years as part of the festival’s program, The NEXT section has become the place where many of the freshest, boldest new voices appear at Sundance. That is certainly true with Alex Ross Perry and his film “Listen Up Philip,” which examines with sharp, literary insight and a blunt power love, ambition, the meaning of success and the ripple effects of bad behavior.
The story revolves around Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), who is just having his second novel published. His selfish behavior has finally become too much for his girlfriend, Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), and they break up. Philip reaches out to Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), an older, established writer he idolizes and who has recently befriended him, and goes to stay with him. The cast also features Jess Weixler, Krysten Ritter, Keith Poulson, Josephine de la Baume and Dree Hemingway.
The film is Perry’s third, after “Impolex” and the Spirit Award-nominated “The Color Wheel,” but it is his first to play at Sundance. Shooting on Super-16 film with cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the film has an anxious, sometimes slightly woozy feel to it as Philip spins out of control, a catalog of poor responses.
Perry, Schwartzman and Moss sat for a video interview this week at the L.A. Times’ studio on Main Street. Perry explained that rather than any sort of auto-biography, the film chronicles events, ideas and arguments he wishes to avoid.
“I put all the scenarios in the film in hopes that they would never actually happen to me,” said Perry. “I felt that if I lived them this way and spent two years with them, then I could avoid actually having that one argument with somebody. And I’ve found it to be cathartic. But unfortunately now I feel like they’re all going to happen.”
The film shifts away from Philip at times, spending time focused on Ashley or Ike, giving the film a structure more akin to a novel than many films. It also features a narration, read by Eric Bogosian, which adds to the film’s literary feel.
While shooting some of the scenes over which the narration would be heard, Perry would read it aloud on set, which allowed the actors to both get the timing right and also know exactly what to express.
“It was interesting because there are scenes that, as they are written, our characters would stare at each other for a long time, knowing there would be narration over it,” said Schwartzman. “And the narration in fact has a lot to do with what’s going on in our bodies, and Alex would read that narration on set and it was very helpful.”
“It was like an inner monologue and then you didn’t have to talk, someone else was talking and you’d just stand there and emote,” said Moss. “It was like a silent film in a way.”
“Emote control, we’d call it,” joked Schwartzman.
Perry noted how despite all of Philip’s bad decisions and bad behavior, he still wanted the audience to feel for him, although he draws a distinction between pity and sympathy.
“The last 10 minutes of the movie are when it’s time to lay all the cards on the table and see if anybody can see through him and forgive the preceding 90 minutes of misery that you’ve seen him cause people,” said Perry. “If the ending works, by the last scene people are just thinking, ‘I feel bad for that guy. He is not good at being a human being.’”
Schwartzman added, “I think you could also say, 'I don’t feel bad for him, but, wow, that guy has got it all wrong.'”
“I wanted it very clearly to be these are the worst times in all of these people’s lives,” said Perry. “Twenty years from now all of these people would say, ‘You know, probably the worst time in my life was this one period.’ And when the movie ends the worst period of their lives ends.”
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