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Celebrity Stink: Alex Ross Perry On Her Smell
Nick Chen , September 20th, 2019 07:29

Discussing his newest film, the 5-act girl punk epic Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry tells Nick Chen about Shakespeare, secretive script developments and why blender-style work

“I have fought you in 11 other lives, and in 11 other lives you have destroyed me. I have lived across time, and I see how to defeat those who will see me destroyed.” Those words, Shakespearean in their nature, are uttered by Becky Something, a rock star played by Elisabeth Moss in Alex Ross Perry’s electrifying riot grrrl-inspired drama Her Smell. “For the first time, I have the power to do what must be done,” Becky declares as if she’s Henry V at the backstage area of a slimy, sweaty club. “And for the last time, we struggle.”

Like a Shakespeare play, Perry’s sixth directorial feature is divided into five acts, each unfolding in real time and tinkering with different aspects of Becky’s troubled psyche. Though Becky’s band, Something She, specialise in catchy pop-punk tunes, the film opts to be claustrophobic, disorientating and deeply unpleasant for 135 compelling minutes – by the end credits, you’ve experienced something, even if that something is simply a newfound respect for any band that’s managed to last longer than two albums.

Due to the 90s period setting, the chaos surrounding Something She alludes to bands like Elastica, Hole and L7. But Perry offers a refreshing screenwriting antidote to cradle-to-grave biopics such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. As Her Smell is essentially only five scenes, the viewer is plunged into Becky’s uncomfortable headspace for around 30 minutes at a time with little breathing space. The frontwoman is certainly the most antagonistic lead character of Perry’s filmography – and as he’s also responsible for Listen Up Philip, The Colour Wheel and Golden Exits, that’s really saying something. Still, Moss, in her third collaboration with Perry, is engrossing and seemingly possessed, especially when she’s spitting out rhythmic dialogue at what often feels like iambic pentameter.

“In school, I could never get into Shakespeare,” Perry tells me over the phone from New York. “It wasn’t until seeing it on stage in the hands of the right actors that I understood it.” I share with him my favourite lines, the aforementioned words by the Bard, from Her Smell. “The dialogue you’re citing seems silly and fun on the page, which it is, and it’s fun to write, but I had the confidence it would be performed correctly, and not seem as ridiculous as if a high-school English teacher were reading it out loud to a bunch of bored students.”

The starry cast (if anything, the actors are too distractingly recognisable) includes Agyness Deyn, Dan Stevens, Cara Delevingne, Eric Stoltz, Gayle Rankin, Amber Heard and Dylan Gelula. Through elaborate blocking, these characters pinball in and out of the frame and heighten the pandemonium that orbits Becky. It’s suffocating. Subsequently, the film’s five-scene structure challenges the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps about Becky’s anarchic day-to-day existence. You wonder how much more rewarding Bohemian Rhapsody could have been if it had spent 40 minutes in real time with Freddie Mercury fretting backstage at Live Aid.

Perhaps, then, Perry should receive more credit for his adventurous plot shapes. For instance, Listen Up Philip didn’t receive the critical attention The Meyerowitz Stories would later receive for a chaptered plot structure that shifts between three protagonists. “Well, who’s to say how much attention qualifies as enough?” Perry laughs. “When I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I loved and saw three times, to me that movie is just three days – in the way Her Smell is just five scenes.

“Both of these are incredibly obvious and exciting ways to structure a movie. But one makes $100 million, and everyone’s like, ‘Wow, what an amazing way to structure a movie.’” Her Smell, in contrast, has gone straight to VOD in the UK. “But I stole the five-act structure from Inglourious Basterds, so I guess it’s a giant circle.”

Having directed six features at the age of 35, Perry is particularly prolific when you factor in that he writes all his scripts, too. “I treat it as a job,” he explains. “I’m at my desk five days a week. It’s business hours of 11 to 6.” With Her Smell, the outline and first draft were bashed out on an old typewriter. Ever since his first movie, Impolex, it’s been his preferred method. “It’s to get away from internet stuff, and to have that classical focus of doing one job with this one device. I really love and look forward to that part of the process, but it’s unfortunately not common that I get to have a couple of months to sit and tinker with a typewriter. If it’s a script for hire, it immediately needs to be sent to other people.”

By balancing for-hire gigs with personal projects like Her Smell, Perry has maintained what he describes as “making a living doing work in the industry, but without actually being part of the industry”. He regularly pitches on big properties, but is hesitant about naming any specifics – other than that my guess of Gemini Man is inaccurate. He did, however, recently turn in a draft for Fear Street, an adaptation of a Stephen King short story, and has been busy enough that he hasn’t written a “self-generated movie” since Her Smell. He also co-wrote two movies from 2018: Mark Pellington’s drama Nostalgia and Marc Forster’s Disney behemoth Christopher Robin.

After three years of turning in multiple drafts of Christopher Robin, Perry now shares screenplay credits with Allison Schroeder and Thomas McCarthy. On Reddit AMA, Perry refers to Schroeder as “invaluable” but in terms of McCarthy – the Oscar-winning writer-director of Spotlight – he writes, “Never heard of this other guy...seems like if somebody worked on a movie I started all by myself and was involved with through post production I would have heard about it...weird.”

I bring this up with Perry. “The process of doing the work is so clear and logical to the producers and directors,” he says. “And the most baffling and secretive and most under-discussed part of the Hollywood credit process is these anonymous decisions that get made by Guild members. You see it on movies where directors get fired – there’s always controversy.

“These decisions are made behind closed doors anonymously and nebulously, and they’re not made by people who have a scrap of knowledge of the production or the three years of work, or the contributions of one person over another. They’re made in a vacuum. They’re made largely, historically, in error. Sometimes those errors deny people things that are rightfully theirs, and sometimes those errors get people things that are absolutely not rightfully theirs. For the rest of time, the public only knows one thing.”

On the crediting process, he adds, “The people who participate in it don’t understand it, and certainly no one in the public understands it. There’s a weird stigma around it because nobody talks about it. And like anything that has a weird, secretive stigma – if people talked about it, then it wouldn’t be quite so secretive and confusing. But nobody talks about it.”

As a regular guest on the film podcast Blank Check (I recommend his three-hour episode on Taking Woodstock), Perry coined the screenwriting term “blender”. It refers to the Hollywood trope in which an action hero obsesses over something completely irrelevant to the plot – like Will Smith repeatedly mentioning his blender in Empire of the State. Aside from Christopher Robin, though, Perry hasn’t been hired to write any “blender”-style punch-up work for Hollywood properties.

“Not everyone can just watch a cut of a movie and suggest 50 generic jokes,” Perry says. “My brain doesn’t work that way. And I don’t feel the need to be the kind of person that looks at something and says, ‘What if, here, a character says: They’re behind me, aren’t they?’”

One outlier in Perry’s career is his brief foray into TV. In 2013, he wrote, directed and starred in seven episodes of a series called The Traditions for HBO. It never aired. “It can’t be shown, because I don’t have it,” Perry sighs. After he handed in the hard-drive for colour correction, HBO cancelled their digital streaming initiative. All he has now is a private Vimeo link. “Even if I wanted to reclaim the footage or have a one-off screening, I don’t even possess the files.”

Since then, Perry has stuck with movies, maintaining a reputation as a 16mm and 35mm purist. He does, however, deviate slightly with Her Smell. The five acts are punctuated with fake home videos of Becky Something’s life – if you’ve seen Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney, you’ll have an idea. Shot on a Sony Hi8 camera, these flashbacks feel oddly intrusive, as if we’re evading the private life of a fictional character. Perry used the same camera to shoot music video for the Vivian Girls, which was released online last week.

“They really loved Her Smell,” Perry says. “I felt there was a harmony between the video and some of the images and scenes that they were open to exploring that just come from what I view as interesting as a group of women who are in a band together.” An indie band like Vivian Girls, he adds, can’t realistically afford to shoot a video on 35mm. “I’m happy to use this low-grade consumer camera because I do feel the personality and flaws and the imperfection of that digital camera tape technology is the ‘film’ of tape. And I love working with it.”

As the interview draws to a close, I feel compelled to apologise that the UK is not releasing Her Smell in theatres. Even though the film is Perry’s most cinematic and critically acclaimed movie, it’s headed straight to VOD. It didn’t even play the London Film Festival – although, Perry admits, that was because he forgot to fill in the application form in time. “It’s a weirdly hard country for people like me to understand how movies get released there. It would be nice.”

In fact, when explaining Her Smell to a friend, I struggled to sell a movie I desperately wanted to recommend. I unhelpfully described it as “hard to watch, but in a good way”, which the other person assumed to mean that it’s another Listen Up Philip. So I emphasised that it’s more to do with a punishing aesthetic that’s closer to László Nemes than, say, Golden Exits or Queen of Earth.

“I’ll take it,” Perry says of my comparison. “There’s an unrelenting, immersive quality there. To me, that’s thrilling. To me, that’s what I want in a movie. I want to feel like, for better or worse, the style and everything is so overwhelming and so prominent that there’s no questioning the intentionality behind it. And I like that amount of decision-making as an audience member on behalf of the filmmaker.

“But I guess some people find it to be a bit much. They want no decisions. They want no stylistic decisions. They want no soundtrack decisions. They want no performance decisions. They just want simple shots, simple acting, anonymous music. They just want television. I can’t really understand that.”

Her Smell is out now on VOD in the UK