Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler and you’re listening to On Writing, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media about their work. From pitching to production, from process to favorite lines, and everything in between. Today, on the podcast we have with us Alex Ross Perry talking about his latest feature Her Smell. As always, feel free to drop us a line on Twitter @onwritingwgae. Thanks for listening.
Caroline Waxler: Alex, thank you so much for coming into today, really appreciate it.
Alex Ross Perry: Thank you for welcoming me here.
Caroline Waxler: This is great. So excited about your movie, Her Smell, which I had the privilege to see at Lincoln Center Film Festival.
Alex Ross Perry: Oh, great.
Caroline Waxler: It was great.
Alex Ross Perry: You may have been at one of the best screenings of the movie.
Caroline Waxler: Really? Why?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, the first New York film festival screening was easily the best screening we’ve had and probably ever will have.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, no. It was amazing. There was such electricity there. It was awesome. Why do you say it was the best screening?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, it was my second time at the New York Film Festival. It’s just the home town feelings, and the festival means the world to me, and Lincoln Center is the greatest place to foul up with this movie. That was always the ambition. When you don’t have a casting crew screening, but your casting crew screening is inviting 75 people who worked in the movie to see it at Lincoln Center, that’s pretty much as good as it gets.
Caroline Waxler: Well, it definitely really felt electric, and it did have, as you say, that hometown feeling. I thought there was a lot of energy and everyone was rooting for it. It was so good.
Alex Ross Perry: Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: You’re a member of Writers Guild East. You’re a New Yorker. Where in New York do you live?
Alex Ross Perry: I live in Prospect Heights.
Caroline Waxler: So, it was not far for you to come in today?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, it wasn’t close, but I did have to transfer.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, okay. Well, that’s a hardship.
Alex Ross Perry: Yes. Especially as they go. By writer terms, that is the definition of a hardship. For everyone else in the world, that’s a joke.
Caroline Waxler: Prospect Heights, what drew you to that area? How long have you lived there?
Alex Ross Perry: I’ve only lived there for about seven or eight months. I lived in Park Slope for 10 years prior to moving last summer. I don’t really know what drew me to that area.
Caroline Waxler: A lot of writers live there.
Alex Ross Perry: It’s just the nicest place to work at home and just be stable around the neighborhood. When I met my wife, I was living in Prospect Heights and she was living in Cobble Hill. Then, we moved into together in Park Slope in the middle. Now, 10 years later, I live one block from where I lived when we met. It suits my lifestyle perfectly, but I didn’t know that when we moved there in 2008. I had no lifestyle. Now, my entire lifestyle just became that neighborhood. Just walking around and being near everything and being near a park and everything just felt so calm and peaceful.
Caroline Waxler: Good. Good inspiration for your writing.
Alex Ross Perry: It has been, certainly.
Caroline Waxler: Because Park Slope is not calm and peaceful.
Alex Ross Perry: No, no, but you have to be able to do work in order to do work. It’s not like I could write it in a bar while everyone’s drinking around me or something.
Caroline Waxler: That would take a special kind of talent.
Alex Ross Perry: Yes, which I don’t have.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, nobody has that I don’t think. Where in your-
Alex Ross Perry: I saw a guy on my way here writing … I don’t know what he was doing, but he was working on a laptop balanced on top of a trashcan on the subway. So, people can work anywhere.
Caroline Waxler: But, we don’t know the quality of that work.
Alex Ross Perry: I don’t know what he was doing on it. I didn’t see the front of the computer, but he had to work.
Caroline Waxler: [crosstalk 00:03:24].
Alex Ross Perry: His standing desk was the subway trashcan.
Caroline Waxler: I like it. Very pragmatic.
Alex Ross Perry: I suppose.
Caroline Waxler: Where in your house do you write?
Alex Ross Perry: At my desk. I don’t relate to or understand at all people that write in bed or on a couch. If I’m not at a desk, I feel like I’m not doing work. One benefit of moving is I now have my own office room. Whereas previously, I just had an alcove in the bedroom.
Caroline Waxler: It makes a difference to have a dedicated space.
Alex Ross Perry: I suppose. Yeah. It’s just more space for crap to sit around, but yeah, I was working with someone last year and she was an absolute degenerate couch writer.
Caroline Waxler: Degenerate … Very judgemental.
Alex Ross Perry: She can’t write unless she’s curled up in a ball. She can’t work at a table or a desk at all and that just blew my mind.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, a lot of different styles.
Alex Ross Perry: I suppose. Yeah, I’m a real … The desk is a drafting table-
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s interesting.
Alex Ross Perry: … that I found on the street 10 years ago, but it’s just so much bigger than normal desks.
Caroline Waxler: I love it.
Alex Ross Perry: Now, I just have this ridiculous wobbly drafting table. If there was drawers, they’d be full of crap.
Caroline Waxler: That you wouldn’t use.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, so I just like that it’s just this giant surface.
Caroline Waxler: I love that. Now, you’re not originally from Brooklyn. You’re originally from the Philadelphia area as am I.
Alex Ross Perry: Really?
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
Alex Ross Perry: What part?
Caroline Waxler: Ardmore.
Alex Ross Perry: Oh, I grew up in Bryn Mawr.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah.
Alex Ross Perry: My grandma lived in Ardmore and my mom’s from Ardmore.
Caroline Waxler: Good people.
Alex Ross Perry: Interesting.
Caroline Waxler: I was reading just part of your earlier preparation and so you worked at the local station? Is that right?
Alex Ross Perry: Well-
Caroline Waxler: Or, you did work for a local station.
Alex Ross Perry: … I don’t know if you got channel 16. That probably didn’t go to Ardmore, but my high school, Radnor High School, had a cable access station-
Caroline Waxler: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Alex Ross Perry: … in the basement that broadcast throughout Radnor. It was really nice to watch when I was in middle school because it seemed like a thing I wanted to aspire to. There was a show on called TeleGrande. It was the student-run, sketch and video submission show run by these guys names Jon Davies, Dan [Elortegui 00:05:17], and Chris Swisher. They just seemed like the coolest guys in the world. In the way that you hear comics talk about I watched Saturday Night Live and I wanted to be on it, I watched these guys and I was like, “I just want to be in that basement where they host their show and I want to be shooting and editing.” It was VHS, reel to reel, deck to deck, VHS editing.
Alex Ross Perry: But, it was something to aspire to, so when I got to high school, I immediately tried to get into the studio, which involved paying my dues by shooting an elementary school talent show and doing other stuff. Then, eventually working my way up to having my own show with my friends and then hosting … Not hosting, but directing and overseeing the weekend news program. Our show was on on Thursdays-
Caroline Waxler: So serious.
Alex Ross Perry: … and the news was on Fridays. Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: Big operation.
Alex Ross Perry: By junior year, school would end at 2:30 and I’d be in the studio until 6:00 PM every day and then go home straight to dinner.
Caroline Waxler: Wow. How great that you could pursue your passion that way, the way other schools make you focus on sports during that time after school.
Alex Ross Perry: Well, I did have to have gym. I don’t know if many schools make you take sports beyond gym class. That would be really unpleasant. It was extracurricular. There’s classes in it, but the woman who ran it weirdly she worked nine to five instead of eight to three like most school employees. So, she was there late so we could just stay until whenever we wanted. Yeah, it was everything. It was just a place to noodle around and pick up S-VHS cameras and just run around and do whatever.
Alex Ross Perry: Our episodes were 15 or 20 minutes long, but between junior and senior year, we made 35 of them.
Caroline Waxler: What great experience.
Alex Ross Perry: We did two episodes every three weeks essentially.
Caroline Waxler: Well, you’re not the only filmmaker from the mainline to then go to NYU, M. Night Shyamalan.
Alex Ross Perry: Okay, yes. That’s true. I forget he’s an NYU guy. Is that true?
Caroline Waxler: Mm-hmm.
Alex Ross Perry: That’s accurate? Yeah. Well, I went there and then I worked at Kim’s, yeah, on Saint Marks, if you-
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, Kim’s is an institution and I was reading that you worked at Kim’s and it was seriously eight-hour days during-
Alex Ross Perry: Well, it wasn’t-
Caroline Waxler: You had to work full-time and then do your NYU work.
Alex Ross Perry: Sometimes. Yeah. I started working at Kim’s halfway through my junior year. The shifts at Kim’s were either 4:00 to midnight or 10:00 to 6:00. If I had night classes, which is a thing for films, some film classes are six to nine. Sometimes I would do both on the same day.
Caroline Waxler: Wow.
Alex Ross Perry: Generally, ’cause I worked at Kim’s on the weekends, so I’d only have to work three weekdays. It all kind of worked out.
Caroline Waxler: It sounds like a great education all the way around and what I read is that you met some amazing people that then you further collaborated with.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, it’s like anything where there’s just … Any kind of self-created, DIY scene where it’s like where does everyone come from, and the answer is just these are the people I spend all of my time with. So, I ended up making stuff with them. Other people would say I ended up forming a band with these people. I ended up having an artist space with these people, but for us, this was where we landed.
Caroline Waxler: so, what films did you work on with them?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, Sean Price Williams, who shot all six of my movies, worked on the rentals floor and was helpful in getting me hired on the sales floor because he thought I could use a job there because I was very insistent as a customer, but also I don’t think he wanted to work directly with me. He has shot everything I’ve ever done. He was a charismatic employee when I was a customer. Then, Robert Greene, who’s edited Her Smell and the three films before it, he worked on the rentals floor with Sean before my time.
Alex Ross Perry: Kate Lyn Sheil, who’s in almost everything I’ve ever made, she worked on my floor with me. The other actor in my first movie, Impolex, this guy named Riley O’Bryan, he worked on my floor with me. So, everything, basically. Our onset photographer who took 500 usable, wonderful photos of Her Smell, he worked on the music floor. It’s just all still part of it.
Caroline Waxler: It sounds great. It sounds like such a good talent pool and a great resource.
Alex Ross Perry: It certainly seems that way when you take a 12-year step back and tell the stories about it, which is good. It holds up well nostalgically.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah. When did Kim’s close?
Alex Ross Perry: I left in December 2007 because that Saint Marks location was meant to be closing shortly. I think it ended up staying open for about another year and then they opened up a location on First Avenue and Seventh Street that had no rentals. It was just music and video sales. That was open until, I want to say, 2013.
Caroline Waxler: Such a shame that it closed.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah.
Caroline Waxler: It was a New York institution and how great that you …
Alex Ross Perry: The First Avenue location was a depressing husk and I went in there a lot. But, it wasn’t very fun, like concrete floors that were all chipped. Yeah, that one hung on for a little while.
Caroline Waxler: So, it sounds like Kim’s was a huge influence. What were some of your other influences?
Alex Ross Perry: When I was at NYU not only was I working full-time, but all I did was just go to repertoirian movies. This is why this is the only place for me to live. Because if there’s not something at Anthology, then I could be a MoMA or Film Forum. My friends and I got so into this, just making our calendars based around it. While I’m working at Kim’s, I had friends, or sort of satellite friends, that were this big shared group who also worked at Film Forum. So, you could get in for free there, which means you could go see 20, 30 movies in a film series.
Alex Ross Perry: Again, this was if I started work at 4:30 at Kim’s, I could easily go to 12:00 and 2:00 shows at Film Forum and then make a 13-hour day out of it.
Caroline Waxler: That is a long day, but a good and impactful day.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, I was 21, 22. I had nothing else going on. It seemed like the only use of my time. Also, this, to me, at that age, was just I’m living the dream. There’s nothing else desirable. I get paid in cash. I get movie rentals for free, and all my friends let me into movies for free. I can’t imagine needing anything else.
Caroline Waxler: Sounds like a great ecosystem.
Alex Ross Perry: It is when you’re 20, 21, 22.
Caroline Waxler: Tell us about your first film?
Alex Ross Perry: The first film is called Impolex. I made it, like I said, with two people I worked with. It was shot in seven days.
Caroline Waxler: What year?
Alex Ross Perry: 2008. So, another big part of the last couple months is that starting last summer when we were editing Her Smell and then leading up to now when the movie comes out, is all this 10 year stretch of making that movie and premiering it. We made it in July 2008, seven days, it cost $15,000. It was shot on 16mm Fuji. Shot by Sean from the third floor. We couldn’t afford lights to the whole movie’s outdoors, shot in July so we could shoot for 12 hours.
Alex Ross Perry: It was a Fantasia riff on ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’. It’s the first time in these six movies that my main source of inspiration was from across the aisle. There’s so many-
Caroline Waxler: What do you mean?
Alex Ross Perry: There so many movies that we’re talking about and Sean and I can just be on set, or in the case of Impolex, just standing in the middle of the woods, and we can talk about 40 different movies. It was my first time being inspired by novels or theater or music, which has become a huge part of what the writing process starts as. Very inspired by films, just in my bloodstream, but without even really thinking about it, the creation of the stories of all these things kind of always comes from a book I read or a play I’ve seen or music I’m listening to.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, we just went to the woods and shot that movie and didn’t really think about it. You’re 23 years old. There’s not a whole lot of brain power functioning to tell you what a bad idea this entire undertaking seems. It just seems so fun and it was. Then, a year later, it’s just a miracle that I’m being flown to … The movie only played at like 10 or 11 film festivals, and I think-
Caroline Waxler: That’s a lot of film festivals.
Alex Ross Perry: … two-thirds of them have the word underground in the title. To me, I was like 24 at that time, I felt like the biggest success in the world and then everything I needed to make another movie was just the tank was filling up.
Caroline Waxler: So, who were the influences or what were the influences for that movie?
Alex Ross Perry: Oh, it was Thomas Pynchon’s novel ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’. It was this novel that was really important to me. ‘Journey to the End of the Night’, the Céline novel, these post-modern war things that were more about the comical, painful absurdity of war and conflict. It just seemed like I had to make it. I don’t really know when or why. I just was reading ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and wanted to quit the job at Kim’s and write a 25-page script outline and go shoot a movie for seven days. It made perfect sense at the time. I can’t imagine that now, but at the time, nothing made more sense.
Caroline Waxler: I love that. What did you do after that? What was your next project?
Alex Ross Perry: I made a movie after that called ‘The Color Wheel’, which came out at festivals in 2011. We shot it in 2010, which is a sibling, road trip movie. It’s shot in black and white, 16mm black and white. Again, same Sean shooting it. A lot of-
Caroline Waxler: You acting in it.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah. That was the first and only time that I did that. Again, it just felt like the movie I had to make. Yeah, I don’t really remember much about … It’s weird, you just lose track of what the thinking was at the time. But, it just seemed like I wanted … With Impolex, I was at all these festivals and I was seeing a lot of, so-called, American independent movies that seemed to excite people. I just felt interested in doing my version of that and I was reading a lot of Philip Roth at the time. Somehow, it all just seemed like I needed to make this movie that had this cliché bickering sibling, road trip thing.
Alex Ross Perry: It was very neurotic and very perverse and very grotesque and very just objective in every way. I just wanted to come in and spike the punch bowl of those kinds of movies.
Caroline Waxler: I love that. Then, where did you go next?
Alex Ross Perry: After that, there was this weird period where that movie did enough of me.
Caroline Waxler: What do you mean?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, if Impolex played at 10 festivals, The Color Wheel played at 60. Then, I was nominated for a Spirit Award and got a manager out of it. I did all those things that you need something to do or else you’re not going to walk up the ladder in any way. Then, there’s like a couple year period where stuff like that’s just trying to happen.
Alex Ross Perry: In the middle of that, I wrote Listen Up Philip during that time, which we made threes years later, two years after Color Wheel came out. The Color Wheel had this terribly long life. We shot it in 2010. It was at festivals in 2011, then it came out in the summer of 2012. We’re at the Spirit Awards in February of 2013, so it was this three-year thing.
Alex Ross Perry: I made a web series for HBO that they just deleted before we finished it.
Caroline Waxler: What? What happened?
Alex Ross Perry: They were trying to do this failed initiative of creating essentially exclusive streaming web series for HBO GO.
Caroline Waxler: I vaguely remember this.
Alex Ross Perry: Created as a destination, not just of catch up on the shows, but also we make our own things. This is 2012, which ended up being what a lot of other services did at exactly that time. This was a moment where a lot of places where thinking, “Customers only come to us for one thing. We should make our own things.” They just failed where others succeeded. We shot it … It was the first thing I ever got paid for.
Alex Ross Perry: I wrote it, seven episodes. We shot it, edited it, and then delivered it, basically final delivery. Then, a week later, they said the entire initiative of these is canceled and we’re never giving you this drive back and you don’t have a copy of it. It’s pretty crazy.
Caroline Waxler: How frustrating.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, it was frustrating, but that was June of 2013 and Listen Up Philip was already at that point 10 weeks out of shooting and had been getting cast concurrently. I kind of spent years getting both of those things together and then made them both in the same year.
Caroline Waxler: Busy year and that was also the beginning of your relationship with Elizabeth Moss, right?
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, so Listen Up Philip is her and Jason Schwartzman and then Jonathan Pryce and Krysten Ritter.
Caroline Waxler: Great cast.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah. It was my first time doing anything like that, getting a cast, getting a budget that was resourceful, having a crew that wasn’t 75% me.
Caroline Waxler: And Kim’s.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, well there’s still a lot of that.
Caroline Waxler: Or, the Kim’s folks.
Alex Ross Perry: More than you think.
Caroline Waxler: I know you’ve done-
Alex Ross Perry: Both of the two actresses from Impolex are in Listen Up Philip.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s great.
Alex Ross Perry: We kept it in the family.
Caroline Waxler: Good. I know you’ve done several collaborations with Elizabeth. How did she first come to Listen Up Philip and how did you guys keep up that relationship?
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, it was put together the normal way.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, casting agent.
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, just producers. The producers were Sailor Bear, which is David Lowery and his producing partners, Toby Halbrooks and James M. Johnston. They were making Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which is David’s movie with Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. They were accumulating a lot of credit in the bank and they wanted to use it to help me make this movie.
Alex Ross Perry: They were getting it moving with WME, but I had no relationship with at the time, but that was where they had all found their home and gotten Saints packaged and cast and financed and what not. So, they brought my script in and then miraculously, a couple months later somehow, I had a meeting with actors I’ve admired for years. Then, a couple months later, they’re in the movie.
Alex Ross Perry: So, there’s no magic to it. The only magic is that Jason and Lizzie and everyone else, they watched The Color Wheel, which is a really cheap, really poorly made movie. They watched that movie, or at least enough of it, to have confidence in the director and then read the script and then still wanted to make the movie. If there’s a miracle, it’s that. It’s not that these actors wanted to meet with me, it’s that they saw that movie and still were like, “Yeah, this seems like a great use of my time to make a movie with this director for scale.”
Alex Ross Perry: But it worked out and just having the two of them as the central cast was really exciting for me having come from nothing. Then, a year later, we were making our second movie, Queen of Earth, which just came together very, very quickly.
Caroline Waxler: When did you write that?
Alex Ross Perry: After Listen Up Philip was at Sundance. So, probably February, March, April, and May of 2014 and then we shot it in September.
Caroline Waxler: In general, what is your process of writing versus directing? How do those timelines go?
Alex Ross Perry: It depends. Listen Up Philip and Her Smell were written and then we did all of the normal stuff and we took our time and did all the casting at a normal speed. Whereas Queen of Earth and Golden Exits, the movie I made in between Queen of Earth and Her Smell, were both written, were basically I’m telling everyone we’re going to make a movie in this month and I’m writing this movie for it. I’m writing it just completely backing into every location that I know we already can borrow and I already have one or two actors who have said they’ll do it.
Alex Ross Perry: I’m writing this movie. This person’s going to be in it, this is when they’re free, so this is when we’re going to make it and this is how much I’m going to make it for. Those two movies were really just written straight into the shoot. Whereas the bigger ones, Philip and Her Smell, are written to figure something out and try to build a whole new infrastructure of what we’re doing. Yeah, those two movies in the middle, which were both really small movies in terms of budget and scope and everything, the whole idea was just I made these movies, Impolex and Color Wheel, for $15 and $20,000.
Alex Ross Perry: So, I can make a movie for $150,000 and I can make it on Super 16 and I can make it with great actors. Because now that I’ve made this other movie, I can get these actors to come do this. We can make Queen of Earth essentially exactly the way we made Impolex where we just have this one house and everyone is there and that’s just the movie. I can make my fourth movie the way I made my first movie for 10 times the budget, but still less money than most people would think is acceptable. But, get these actors to come and turn this movie into a different kind of thing.
Caroline Waxler: Which isn’t a small feat.
Alex Ross Perry: No, it’s not, but I can only do that because I earned it by making the movie with them that worked out nicely where they had a great collaborative experience and then they’re proud of the work and then they want to come and collaborate again.
Caroline Waxler: Now, how do you go from being so steeped in the indie film world to a Disney production?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, yet again, I already mentioned that David was instrumental in getting Philip moving. He’s instrumental in that as well because Dave and I have the same agent and David had gotten himself set up to write and then later direct Pete’s Dragon. Our mutual agent, Craig Kestel, had this ear at Disney and he just was now saying, “What else can I put over there?” One day, we’re in the editing room-
Caroline Waxler: For which movie and what year?
Alex Ross Perry: Of, Queen of Earth.
Caroline Waxler: Queen of Earth and what year roughly is this?
Alex Ross Perry: It was November 2014. So, Philip had just come out and we shot Queen of Earth before Philip came out. So, we were editing that movie. I think it was probably already … Maybe it wasn’t into Berlin yet, but we knew it would be done soon and we were editing Queen of Earth at the end of 2014. He called and just said, “I talked to a producer at Disney. They’re looking for a writer to come in with a new take on a Winnie the Pooh movie. Do you want to talk?”
Alex Ross Perry: Because I had been, since Sundance eight months earlier, we had been trying to get the rights to Teddy Ruxpin, which I wanted to try to develop into a stop-motion movie that no one ever wanted to make and was very difficult. So, he knew I was in the market for a children’s property that was related to a bear or a bear-like character.
Caroline Waxler: Any reason for this?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, I grew up loving Teddy Ruxpin and that just was a thing that I thought maybe there’s a chance where I’ve made this movie, I’m something of an entity, maybe I can get the rights to this and I can create this. It’s nostalgic, emotional reintroduction to the character, which didn’t work out. But then because of that, he just thought maybe you should talk to Disney about Pooh, which is, after Sundance, I would have said, “What about this old, maybe somewhat forgotten toy?” But I never would have said, “What about a flagship property, the flagship entertainment studio?”
Caroline Waxler: Right.
Alex Ross Perry: It ended up working out. I then became lightly engaged with building out a take with the film’s producer, Brigham Taylor, I assume in conjunction with him talking to other people. There’s no reason that they would have only talked to me, but I don’t know any of this for a fact. Then, just slowly amass support with him and then the film’s executives, Kristin Burr and Jess Virtue at Disney. Then, they chose me to keep working on and then we eventually put the take in front of the studio two weeks after Queen of Earth premiered at Berlin, so March of 2015. Then, I got the job.
Alex Ross Perry: It’s weird because I had made Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, which no one had seen yet, but at the same time. I’m just following my peers who have blazed the trail already, people we work with who know one person can do two different kinds of things. It’s not like, “Oh, well we saw Listen Up Philip and you’re the person for this,” it’s more just like, “Well, that movie shows that you can work, and you can do good work. Also, we talked to you, and you’re the person for this. You have the spirit and you have the take that’s going to get this movie out of the icebox where it’s been for 15 years since we last tried to make adult Christopher Robin.”
Caroline Waxler: What was the issue do you think? Why had it been in there for 15 years?
Alex Ross Perry: One thing on a grand level is that I don’t know if they had the technology and the wherewithal to make that movie in 2000.
Caroline Waxler: Interesting.
Alex Ross Perry: Obviously, in 2015, Disney is changing their priorities and looking at a lot of their existing properties and finding new ways to reintroduce those stories. So, the technology really caught up with it. Also, at that moment, the studio was much more interested in let’s invest a bunch of money in new versions of old properties. Whereas in 2000, they were making Touchstone movies and Buena Vista movies and it would have been very different.
Alex Ross Perry: Also, fundamentally and business stuff aside, those takes were just bad. Those were just bad takes on the scripts and on the property and on the character. The tone was wrong. They didn’t satisfy anybody. They didn’t go anywhere because they were unsatisfying. No one then or now wanted to see adult Christopher Robin as a modern-day, New York real estate developer. This is a garbage idea that rightly ended up in the trash.
Alex Ross Perry: Then, 15 years later, it needed me to come in and say, “This should take place in London in the 50s and be this woolen, tweed movie that suits the look and tone of what people’s imagination brings them too.” That was the thing that was like, “Oh, right. That’s not ever what we were thinking before. It’s a good thing we found someone who never writes about the modern world and never writes about technology or anything. Because that is the kind of spirit we were always wanting for this and no one ever really had that.”
Alex Ross Perry: Things happen for whatever reason. Stuff gets put aside. You have a great producer that doesn’t give up on something, who just … Since the day Brigham Taylor saw AI and saw Teddy in that, he said, “We have to do this with Pooh.” Then, 15 years later, he did.
Caroline Waxler: I love that. [crosstalk 00:27:49].
Alex Ross Perry: That’s just his dedication to the idea.
Caroline Waxler: Are you planning on working with him on other projects?
Alex Ross Perry: I would love to. We have two other things that we’ve been trying to shape and put together. It was just a great collaboration and as a learning experience. Right away, we started talking about other things. God willing. I would love nothing more than just to keep working with that system and that pipeline and those people.
Caroline Waxler: It’s great. Yeah, we talked before we came in about the process and your experience, your positive experience, working with the studio. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, yeah. Like I said, I’ve already named the three central players in that process, Brigham, and then the two execs, Kristin and Jess. Kristin later left her position as an executive and became a producer at the studio and a producer on the movie. I’ve learned from them and from my other experiences with other people, or even just other near experiences, is that the experience is only positive because Disney is the only place I’ve ever met or worked where everyone there only wants to be there.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, I love that.
Alex Ross Perry: Everywhere else that I’ve met or whatever, in my limited five, six years of industry flirtations, people move jobs all the time, mid-stride. I recently had people move jobs in the middle of a thing that we were working on and it’s just that’s the way it works. But, both Brigham and Kristin had been ad Disney their entire careers. I walked into Kristin’s office for my first pitch to the execs on the movie and it’s full of Muppets and snow globes and giant prop chairs from fantasy movies. It’s just like, “Oh, these are why Disney movies are good. These are why Disney movies make a billion dollars because these are who’s making them.”
Alex Ross Perry: It’s not someone who’s taking meetings to potentially go be a big shot at Netflix. They just want to be doing work with Kermit and Pooh and this is truly what these people all believe in. That’s why these movies have this touch that feels so uncynical and so successfully nurtured. Also, again, this is the rarest thing. These are the only people I’ve worked with ever in any of my experience. They just love the movies.
Alex Ross Perry: They shot Christopher Robin in London. So, you take all these people from L.A. where there’s no culture and nothing to do ever. There’s no movies. There’s no theater.
Caroline Waxler: Spoken like a true New Yorker.
Alex Ross Perry: In New York, it’s 11:30. I could leave here and go see five movies today if I wanted to. In L.A., there’s nothing to do during the day. You take all these people from L.A. and you put them in London, every Saturday of the shoot, I only was on set twice for a week each, but Brigham would be at the Prince Charles Cinema seeing triple features at 11:00 in the morning, 2:00 and 5:00 PM and then going to a play at night.
Caroline Waxler: These are your people.
Alex Ross Perry: 100%. I knew all along, but during the shoot, he said I showed up on week three. He’d been there for a couple months in prep. He said, “I’ve seen 35 plays and 60 movies since I’ve been here.”
Caroline Waxler: Wow, so jealous.
Alex Ross Perry: Because it’s just that appetite to consume that much inspiration. That’s just a version of me going to a double feature and then going to Kim’s. These are high-level studio producers, but they have uniquely, among other people I’ve ever worked with or even met with, they just have that. Then, go home and watch movies.
Alex Ross Perry: It’s just that same spirit. They just love movies and they love their projects. They don’t want to win. They don’t want to make the most money. They don’t want to have the most success and be a big shot, they want to make movies that mean the most to the audiences that they were when they were children and that they are now. That’s just such an honest way of working. My entire experience with Disney was so honest because of that, because of those three bosses that I had.
Alex Ross Perry: I see that touch in other movies that the studio makes or other movies that some combination of these producers or executives are involved with. It’s just the way my brain works. So, I was very much among my people.
Caroline Waxler: I love that. What did you take from that experience and bring to Her Smell? Was that the next movie you worked on?
Alex Ross Perry: It is. Yeah, I wrote them at the same time, almost. I always describe what it was like writing Christopher Robin as though I’m a self-taught chef who just threw some dishes together, opened a low-key counter that people liked my food. This is like the movies I made prior to that. Then, someone gives me a bunch of money to go live in France and Italy for three years and just study classical technique. I come back and I just look at what I’d one before and I’m like, “Wow, I can’t believe people ate this.”
Alex Ross Perry: Because I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know the right way to hold a knife. You can hold a knife however you want and cut vegetables however you want, but now I’ve learned that there’s a more graceful and more elegant and more classical way to do this. He’s a producer who showed me the way on that. His collaboration with me for three years was just me listening at all times and learning things about character and just structure and so many things that I then said, “I’m going to make a huge, messy, sloppy, five-act, girl punk, epic, but I’m going to thread everything through here with the precision that I’ve learned to do because I’m going to write this script which is being sent to nobody.”
Alex Ross Perry: It’s being sent to Lizzie and whoever’s working on the movie, but I’m going to write this script as though I’m sending it to Kristin and Brigham. As soon as I finish my draft, I’m going to read it and I know what all their notes would be. I’m just going to give those notes to myself and I’m going to then take those notes and do another draft on it. Previously, the writing what just, yeah, so now I’ve finished a draft and I want to add this scene or add that.
Alex Ross Perry: Then, after working with them, the writing of Her Smell was more this I think you set up, but you forget to check in on this and this character talks about this a lot in act one, which, in the case of Her Smell, act one of five because the movie just has five 25-minute long scenes that are all unbroken time. This character talks about this thing in act one and then they talk about it again in act five. I think you forgot that middle step which is the sort of thing that producers like that are very attentive to.
Alex Ross Perry: Or, this is a big Brigham thing that he said a lot that was a huge breakthrough in Christopher Robin and for me now in any writing, is he said, “What is the thing that our character is wrong about that the audience knows he’s wrong about on page 10, the audience knows he’s wrong about on page 40, and he knows he’s wrong about by page 60, but on page 70, he knows he’s wrong but he still can’t do anything about it?” Just thinking about withholding that moment of satisfaction is so simple and so obvious, but yet I need someone who’s been at Disney for 25 years to explain it to me.
Alex Ross Perry: Then, I can apply that to Becky in Her Smell. It’s the same logic of writing. I’m just dressing it up in torn fishnets and glitter instead of a three-piece tweed suit from the 50s. The structure of that was so similar. There’s hundreds of lessons. The other big one … ‘Cause Her Smell has a dozen main-ish characters and Christopher Robin has nine, it’s Christopher and then the eight animal friends. A big lesson was there’s an elegant version of creating a C-plot for a Piglet or a Tigger. The elegant version of that is that when we meet them on page whatever, 30, they just say something. It is some goal of theirs to defeat so and so, to be brave, to find something. They just say it. One sentence.
Alex Ross Perry: Then, on page 60, they say one other sentence about why they haven’t gotten yet and we understand that they’ve tried and failed or you see them try and fail. Then, on page 90, they get it. That’s just a three-act C-plot and it’s three sentences. Putting that into Her Smell, I was like, “Oh, I can do this with every single character in this movie.” Every character who’s not Becky can show up in as little as three scenes, and I can have a complete setup and payoff for whatever that character has gone through in the intervening years of this movie even though we never see it.
Alex Ross Perry: I was just writing Her Smell with an eye towards that level of just smooth, rocketeering perfection. I just wanted it to be so clockwork despite being a 140-page script that has 30-page scenes that don’t have a beginning, middle, or end.
Caroline Waxler: How did you come up with the idea for Her Smell?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, I had tried to write a music movie after Listen Up Philip that came close-ish to happening, but not really.
Caroline Waxler: Why, what happened?
Alex Ross Perry: It just got held up by the appalling nature of the fact that people don’t want to finance medium-expensive movies unless they’re full of heavies and famos that make them feel like they can’t lose their money. Every actor I wanted was deemed unworthy and every actor that would have gotten the movie made didn’t want to make the movie, nor did I want them to. We had an expensive period piece set in the world of 60s pop, which I love, and it just didn’t happen. That’s for the better. It’s fine because through that non-process, I had so many casting meetings with actors I wanted to work with.
Alex Ross Perry: Basically, the entire cast of Golden Exits is those meetings. I emailed all the people that I most wanted to work with and said, “That movie’s not happening, but I have this other thing.”
Caroline Waxler: That’s great.
Alex Ross Perry: “Same time frame, but just shorter and less money. Do you want to come do it?” And, I got everyone I wanted. I wanted to do a music movie and then the other thing that I glossed over was around the time of Queen of Earth, and this is relevant for us, the job that got me in the WGA was that I wrote a pilot for Amazon.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, tell us about that.
Alex Ross Perry: Right after Philip and in the midst of Queen of Earth.
Caroline Waxler: So, like 20 …
Alex Ross Perry: 2014/15.
Caroline Waxler: Yep.
Alex Ross Perry: Then, it ended in 2016. So, it was a year and 18 months all told. That was the job that I had to join and actually, it was the first real money beyond the HBO web series. It was set in the 90s, so through the process of working on that, I just found myself-
Caroline Waxler: It was music set in the 90s or it’s just the show?
Alex Ross Perry: No, no, it was just set in the 90s.
Caroline Waxler: Did it go anywhere?
Alex Ross Perry: No. Everyone that I worked for on it … I won’t say with ’cause that would imply collaboration … had since been canceled in disgrace.
Caroline Waxler: I have a feeling I know who you’re talking about.
Alex Ross Perry: Yes, a couple people. More people than you’d think, but yeah, everyone I worked with is a complete … They’re just gone now. I don’t even know, which is great karmically, if you want to look at it that way.
Caroline Waxler: The best way to.
Alex Ross Perry: It was set in the 90s, so I was simultaneously trying to write this 60s movie, but then also writing this 90s show and listening to a lot of the 90s music and promoting Queen of Earth. Somewhere in those firing pistons of I’m at home listening to a lot of 90s music for the first time since I was living in it and growing up in it, and I’m realizing that this other music movie won’t happen. I’m promoting this second collaboration with Lizzie, it all just was there. I said, “The next movie we should make should be you as a 90s rock star, mother, addict.” And, she said, “Yeah, that sounds great.”
Alex Ross Perry: It just started from that and then years of nothing happened, of just me trying to figure out what it what. That was really the first step of it. Yeah, that was almost four years ago that I gave her that character. It started with the character.
Caroline Waxler: Who influenced that character? Is it Courtney Love? Who are some of the big influences?
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, my kind of dream alchemy on this movie is … On the one hand, you have Velvet Goldmine, which when you look at it, no matter how much you know about David Bowie, you’re like, “This is David Bowie.” Except that what Todd Haynes wants to do is that he wants to have this character vanish from the public eye, which David Bowie didn’t at this point in his life. He wants to do this David Bowie, Iggy Pop movie that has everything. That has them going to Berlin and it has this and that.
Alex Ross Perry: But, he also wants to do a movie that’s structured like Citizen Cane where you just have a reporter going around trying to piece together the stories of this guy. But, there’s so much in this movie that is Bowie, but then the more you know about that era you’re like, “Oh, but there’s a lot of Mark Bolan and a lot of Jobriath A.D. in this movie as well,” but most people just see this as Bowie. It is largely that, but also it’s called Brian Slade and it’s not David Bowie.
Alex Ross Perry: On the other hand, you have Boogie Nights or the Master or Phantom Thread and you have these wonderful stories that are just one step adjacent to real history. They feel so lived in in that era. There’s no real sense of who really is this person? It seems like there’s a clear jumping off point, but it’s just a jumping off point. I wanted this movie to be what I like most about those two kinds of storytelling, which is I want to absorb everything I can about all these women, both their music and their narratives. But then I don’t care at all about any of their specifics because I’m not telling their stories. I just need to make my own movie, which in this case, is this five-act, theatrical, grand tragedy.
Alex Ross Perry: There’s nothing that happens to any woman in rock that I want to have to grapple with. I don’t want to have to deal with the ups or the downs of any of the women that I’m listening to. I just want to tell my own story. So, there’s just a huge amount of freedom in saying, “We’re looking at 50 different women for visual inspiration and for narrative inspiration.” For Lizzie, she would rather focus on watching the Amy Winehouse documentary, which is not the same kind of music, but it clicks for her as the same kind of tragedy. Which means nothing to me.
Alex Ross Perry: I never listened to her music and watched that music once on a plane and thought it was fine. But, it really meant a lot to her. For me, I’m looking at other stuff. Between the two of us it just was if Brian Slade and Velvet Goldmine is 51% David Bowie, and if Dirk Diggler is 51% John Holmes, Becky’s just like 51% me and Lizzie. Then, the rest of it is … The majority share in the character is entirely not rooted in anything, but if you stopped 100 people on the street and said name a woman in a rock band from the 90s, 99 of them would say Courtney Love first.
Caroline Waxler: Absolutely.
Alex Ross Perry: It doesn’t mean that that’s not true. It just means that there’s so many things from her life and from women’s lives that if I were a different kind of writer, I would have put in the movie. I keep saying the biggest example is there’s a scene in the movie where Becky has an onstage breakdown.
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
Alex Ross Perry: Just from a script-writing perspective and a visceral movie-making perspective, nothing would be better for that scene then Becky taking out a tampon and throwing it at the audience. That would be the best version of that scene. But Donita Sparks from L7 did that. If I put it in this movie, I’m just taking something. I’m not creating anything.
Alex Ross Perry: All these women’s narratives which I admire and respect, I don’t want to take anything. Even something like that that I don’t think most people would know that that happened, they would just think that that belonged to Becky and to my writing and to this movie, two out of 100 people would be like, “Well, that’s just L7. You didn’t even think of that. You just saw that in a documentary and you stole it.” I didn’t want to do anything like that for any of these women because then people are thinking the wrong thing.
Caroline Waxler: Given that, how did that impact the way you did your research for the writing in this film?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, the research was … It’s interesting because, like I said earlier, I’m crossing the aisle and I’m being inspired to make this big, epic, very specifically written movie by just listening to 35-minute CDs and seeing theater. The inspiration is coming from this music and yet, to read about music is very particular. You read a biography or an autobiography or the series ’33 1/3′, which is really important to me in this movie where it’s just each 120-page book is about a single record.
Alex Ross Perry: To consider music only from a narrative perspective … You can listen to it and you can hear the rhythms in the lyrics and you can feel the energy. Or, you can read a book about it and you can think about this album as a narrative, as the story of a band writing it and the story of a band recording it and then touring it and then breaking up. Then, music just becomes a story. That was the interesting part of the research is listen to all the music in the world, but then ultimately put it aside. Because all I need is a narrative. I need to know the narratives behind the music of these records, which is very important to me.
Alex Ross Perry: It’s just weird to read about music because most people say, “Don’t read about it. Just listen to it.” But, I needed to read about it because behind every great album is a great story. That’s what the movie always wanted to be.
Caroline Waxler: Any particular books?
Alex Ross Perry: Yeah, there’s a great book by an author called Sara Marcus called ‘Girls to the Front’, which is a history of riot grrrl-
Caroline Waxler: Oh, interesting.
Alex Ross Perry: … that I highly recommend and think most women in the movie read this book at my urging. It’s very, very, very nicely researched and very informative. The book ‘Meet Me in the Bathroom’ that came out a year or two ago, which is not about our movie scene at all. It’s about the New York music explosion of the 2000s, the Stokes and Interpol.
Alex Ross Perry: Again, it reduces or elevates music to a narrative. These bands, this moment, this money, these opportunities, these implosions. It just turns music into a story. That book is by Lizzie Goodman. It’s very good as well. Then, like I said, this ’33 1/3′ series. I love these books. They’re so much fun. The Liz Phair one about Exile in Guyville was very important. The one about the Raincoats was really useful. The one about Jawbreaker was really useful. I think it’s about 24-hour revenge therapy.
Alex Ross Perry: The one about Live Through This was really useful. Just because each one tells a story about a band, but because it covers an album. The story’s only two years long. They’re all written by music journalists or rock critics, and they’re just generally a fantastic, fun, quick read.
Caroline Waxler: I love that. I wasn’t familiar with that series, so I’ll check it out.
Alex Ross Perry: They’ve got a couple hundred of them. There’s at least five of your 10 favorite records of all time have a ’33 1/3′ written about them.
Caroline Waxler: In terms of the style of the script, was there any pushback because it is such a long script and such an epic?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, I always hoped that there wouldn’t be. The movie’s 135 minutes, which some might say is long for an independent movie.
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
Alex Ross Perry: There was not really any pushback because our producers, Bow and Arrow, just had my back. They were all in on the movie. Lizzie was all in on supporting whatever the movie needed to be, but also, this is again … Here’s a hack for not having your writing changed. You can’t edit the movie. You can’t cut scenes down because each scene starts, goes straight for 25 minutes and then ends. To cut even five minutes out would complete damage the entire integrity of what the point of this movie is.
Alex Ross Perry: When we showed the producer-investors the first cut of the movie, it was like 150 minutes.
Caroline Waxler: Wow.
Alex Ross Perry: They were like, “Honestly, it’s almost done.” They were like, “This is great. Maybe act one can be five minutes shorter.” I was like, “There’s no way it can be.” Then we made it three minutes shorter just by magic, but we just made everything faster. Because people are stupid. They hear 135 minutes and it seems like wow, that’s long. And, they watch the movie and they’re like … Many people said this, “It seems long. I wonder if there’s anything you could lose?” I say, “Could you tell me one thing that we could?” And they’re like, “No, I can’t because anything that you could would just … “It’s like, “Yeah, exactly.”
Alex Ross Perry: That’s long, but longer movies make more money. It’s not like people can’t handle it. I think because it’s just episodic where it’s just these five things, it doesn’t feel quite as long as I think it is because each one just moves so fast and then starts over and you’re watching a different movie all of a sudden that looks different, has different styling. No, we were really afraid of that and then the fact that they watch an even longer … That’s just the movie. It’s not like people didn’t know that’s what we were doing.
Alex Ross Perry: It was really nice to be able to just pushback, not that anyone was pushing that hard, and just say, “Right, but there’s no way to cut the scene. There’s no way to cut five minutes because every scene is just real time. To change that would be to ruin everything.” I secretly, unbeknownst to everybody, built in little shortcuts where I would tell someone that and then I’d say to the editor, “The way this scene ends, we can cut 30 seconds off of it.” No.
Alex Ross Perry: There’s some that we call them warp pipes.
Caroline Waxler: What do you call them?
Alex Ross Perry: Warp pipes like in Super Mario. I was like, “There is a pipe here that we can jump down and get to the next thing a little bit faster.” Because it is all continuous and it is all real time. Each act has four or five hard cuts to another room. Basically, every one of those ended up having trims at the top and bottom. That’s how the movie went from being 150 minutes to 135.
Caroline Waxler: Well, it seemed like everything belonged when I saw it and there was nothing to cut. It just seemed perfectly done.
Alex Ross Perry: No, it’s a weird thing to say about a 135-minute movie, but this movie is stripped to its bare essentials. There’s not an errant line left in it and there’s not one shot that I think we could lose at this point, which is great because the movie’s done and it comes out next week. It would be weird if I still felt the other way.
Alex Ross Perry: This is like a thing that I learned talking with Disney people. It’s this is just what the movie wanted to be. It just needed to be this. This movie at 100 minutes, you’re not in it long enough for it to have the same impact. You have to be in this movie longer than you’re in most movies for it to pay off. Otherwise, it’s just not enough.
Caroline Waxler: Did you have a favorite scene?
Alex Ross Perry: Well, there’s only five scenes to chose from.
Caroline Waxler: Or, favorite moment?
Alex Ross Perry: Favorite moment in the final movie or on set?
Caroline Waxler: You know, both. Tell me both in our final few minutes.
Alex Ross Perry: I don’t know. Act two of the movie takes place in a recording studio. That’s the longest. It’s like 28 minutes. It’s only my favorite act because it is the most technically precise thing I or Sean or Robert, our editor, have ever executed. It’s in a recording studio with a huge glass window, which we shoot through in almost every shot. The booth of the recording studio is the size of a van. The entire sequence is shot on a huge dolly.
Alex Ross Perry: Just every setup and every cut is so mathematically perfect, and we use this window and there’s actors reflected in the window. Some action plays out only in the window, but then it cuts from the booth to the studio. That’s like a whole day later. Somehow, everything just clicked perfectly and we just … This is a script supervisor thing too. This guy, Gordon Bell, who just was so indispensable on this movie. The precision that sequence, I think, speaks a lot to what we were capable of on this movie.
Alex Ross Perry: Also, it’s just fun to shoot a movie in a recording studio. There’s no sound. It’s just dead silent. You would open the door from when we would cut and everyone outside in the hallway would just be talking. You couldn’t hear them at all.
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s interesting.
Alex Ross Perry: It’s a great place to shoot a movie. Yeah, I really love how that sequence turned out. It’s the longest, but it’s the one I never get tired of watching just because I can still just marvel at … We cut from the booth into the studio looking into the booth and every actor’s in the exact same position and the shot is perfect and then it’s this dolly … It’s just the technics of that sequence, I think, we’ll never get credit for ’cause every shot is so obviously right that it just seems like it wasn’t very hard, which it was.
Caroline Waxler: Got it. Well, you’ll get credit on this podcast.
Alex Ross Perry: I hope so. If people think about that … Really, you’d have to watch it to be like, “Oh, yeah.” It’s like the thing where when you see a Cronenberg movie or some kind of low-key, perfectly made movie that you’re just … The camera’s in the right place every single shot. You can either marvel at that or you just don’t even notice it. It’s not [inaudible 00:54:57], crazy shots. It’s just always just right.
Alex Ross Perry: Then, if you really get keyed into that you’re like, “Wow, this is really impressive,” or you’re just like, “Oh, this is nice.” It’s not calling attention to itself. It’s not flexing. It’s just elegantly, simply correct shots and we somehow pulled that off, which is hard for us ’cause we’re generally very sloppy and we work very quickly.
Alex Ross Perry: So, it comes out April 12th in New York and some other cities and then April 19th and then the subsequent weekends it will continue to expand before being available for home streaming and stuff a month or two later.
Caroline Waxler: Good. This has been terrific. Thank you so much and best of luck with the film. It’s amazing-
Alex Ross Perry: Thank you.
Caroline Waxler: … and I’m excited to see it again.
Alex Ross Perry: Thank you, that’s very nice.
Caroline Waxler: That will do it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org and follow the Guild on social media at @wgaeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate your tuning in. Write on.