Elisabeth Moss and Alex Ross Perry listen up to some common notes
Elisabeth Moss, she of Peggy Olson fame on “Mad Men,” was circulating last month in the airy living room of a country house. Coffee-table books and discarded beer bottles were scattered throughout the space. She stopped to joke with several young people hanging out in the room, including a hipster-thin man standing nearby.
“I couldn’t imagine anything that seems less like making a movie right now,” commented Moss’ conversation partner Alex Ross Perry, to no one in particular, a moment later.
Moss worked on one of the most acclaimed television shows in an era of acclaimed television shows. Until last year, Perry was a Brooklyn twentysomething who had made a couple of indie movies, largely with his friends.
Yet the pair have formed an unlikely partnership, shooting two films together and making plans for more. They share a dynamic of actor-director and muse-creator — but with a collective, collaborative spin, a Keaton and Allen for the Millennial generation.
The first of their efforts, the literary black comedy “Listen Up Philip,” is set to hit theaters. It’s about a misanthropic young writer (Jason Schwartzman as Philip) and his long-suffering (but equally misanthropic) photographer girlfriend Ashley (Moss). (Sample dialogue — Ashley: “You don’t seem to be struggling.” Philip: “I am. Just not in ways that you’d notice.”)
Early in the story, Philip, burning bridges all around him with his cutting lines, decides to retreat to the country home of a famous writer, causing tension with the photographer paramour he leaves behind.
With its scabrous wit and id-indulging dialogue, the movie offers a fresh perspective even in the twisted precincts of indie film; the characters have gone so far off the likability scale you both shudder and can’t wait to see what they’ll say next. When the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, critics gushed.
Moss and Perry are very different personalities — she bubbly and social, he serious-minded with a touch of the neurotic. Yet they have bonded over a similar worldview, a kind of willingness to see and call out the harsh things people do to one another. They poured it into “Philip” and the film they were shooting last month, a psychological drama titled “Queen of Earth,” in the Putnam County town of Carmel.
“Some people are just more content to see the world in a perfectly conflict-free way,” Perry said in a joint interview with Moss in Manhattan shortly after they finished shooting. “And I don’t see things that way. It’s not like I’m walking around starting fights with people. But I also don’t refuse to acknowledge there is negativity and ugliness and brutality in an artistic society these days, or anywhere.
“This film take place ostensibly in the publishing world but it could be Hollywood or anywhere else — there’s a spirit of competitive anger sometimes, and my perspective is how difficult and unpleasant that can be, instead of this sunnier ‘Isn’t it nice we’re all on this journey?’”
Added Moss: “Ya. And, ‘Isn’t it great we all just love each other?’ I think Alex and I just connected with that.”
The two met in a traditional moviemaking way. After her reps sent her a script for “Philip” — she was looking for more feature projects as “Mad Men” was winding down, while he was taking a step up after his previous and microscopic “Impolex” and “The Color Wheel” — she signed on. Moss showed up at a rehearsal in New York to find Perry and Schwartzman sitting at a long table with dozens of story index cards before them. She realized she was in for a very different filmmaking experience.
The three of them then hashed out lines (“There’s something fun about saying things you would never say in real life, and yet it doesn’t hurt anyone,” Schwartzman said in an interview) — a process Moss and Perry would go on to repeat on “Queen of Earth.”
“You can ask everyone to recite gospel,” Perry said. “But for me that doesn’t work as well as being like, ‘What do I want out of this scene and how do you think you can get me there?’”
On the “Queen of Earth’ set, he sauntered, without a headset, from Moss to the crew to actress Katherine Waterston, talking to them about the film’s ending, which was still being decided just days before shooting wrapped.
Moss seemed to enjoy the laid-back vibe, going from a slightly deranged character she was playing when the camera rolled to a kind of effervescence when it wasn’t. Upon the cinematographer jokingly noting an off-color possibility for the ending, she quipped, “Everybody is suggesting an ending that’s emblematic of their personality,” before giving one of her trademark unself-conscious laughs.
This is, needless to say, a rather different filmmaking experience for a veteran like Moss, who in a few days will head to Australia to shoot the Dan Rather “Memogate” story “Truth” with Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett (she wrapped “Mad Men” earlier this year)--and who in her collaborations with Perry offers a refreshing counterpoint to those actors who seek to immediately cash in on television fame with the splashiest film roles their agents can find.
For his part, Perry made “Queen” because he wanted to shoot a movie even quicker and smaller than “Philip” — it had a crew of 10 compared with “Philip’s” army of 50. He made it over a few weeks at a house he paid his cousin to use. The production was so small that no one had headsets because, as a producer dryly said, “there would be no one for any of them to talk to.”
Though hardly likely to be called placid--Perry has an a seriousness of manner and purpose that’s reminiscent of “True Detective’s” Nic Pizzolatto--the director can take on a more relaxed vibe on set. Part of the so-called “Kim’s Video” posse of indie filmmakers (named after the legendary defunct New York video store where Perry, his cinematographer Sean Price Williams and others worked while at NYU), he made “Philip” in part to channel his own angst about success.
And though he’s far more gracious than his main character, it’s easy to see some parallels between them.
Moss says the two talked a lot about those issues, and found, as they do with most things, common ground — a way of navigating the world with wry humor and blunt talk.
“The big difference between us, I think, is I like New Jersey and he likes New York,” Moss said.
That is not a geographic disagreement but a fannish one — over the quality of respective “Real Housewives” shows, a passion that seems as likely for Perry as the idea that, say, Stephen Hawking has a favorite golfer.
But cable-reality interests are just a small part of their bonding.
Said Moss: “We have a lot in common.”
Perry laughed sardonically. “Yes, we both believe some people are jerks.”
It's a date
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