The uneasy low-budget thriller Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry’s follow-up to 2014’s chatty, offbeat comedy Listen Up Philip, just premiered the Berlinale—and though it’s a “smaller” movie, it still made a big impact. Shot in one location, the film centers on the dissolution of a friendship between Catherine (Elisabeth Moss, Listen Up Philip and Mad Men) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice).
The girls spend the week at Virginia’s country house in various states tear-stained despair, unloading self-centered monologues and delivering calculated insults while resentment fills the space like a noxious gas. Unpleasant visitors throw their own brands of nastiness into the mix. Sounds like our kind of vacation! We caught up in Berlin with Perry and one of the film’s producers—mumblecore legend Joe Swanberg—to discuss Perry’s “misanthropy,” staying productive as a filmmaker, and the expulsion of fluids as a filmic symbol of emotional release.
You only just shot the film last September. That was fast.
ALEX: If Joe gave you his “let me sell you a timeshare” pitch about the importance of making as many movies as possible in a short period of time, you’d say what I said: “Hey, it’s absolutely not hard.” We used the same timeline for Listen Up Philip, which we shot in September 2013 and premiered at Sundance a few months later.
JOE: You’ll learn more by making another movie than by spending time promoting the previous one or developing the next one. I was hoping Alex would get right back to work after Listen Up Philip because, selfishly, I want to see more good movies. I get frustrated watching filmmakers take a long time between projects, so I started a company to help obsessive filmmakers like Alex. I’m like an enabler, a drug pusher for somebody with a filmmaking addiction: “You wanna get high again? Here’s how you can do it quickly. And cheaply.”
So how did he enable you, Alex?
ALEX: He said, “Go make the smallest movie you can that will be interesting.” Filmmakers who take a break because they’re trying to make a bigger film—their embers cool, they get rusty. And then they come back with a really small movie anyway, because they gotta do something. Better to just make one of those small movies whenever, rather than when all else fails. I’ve changed from thinking, “How do I move forward?” to “How do I keep moving?” I always have a clear idea of the next ten-person movie I can make.
JOE: The bigger project’s gonna take three years anyway—you can make three more movies during that time.
Joe, you’ve made like a gazillion films. How old are you again?
JOE: I’m 33. And I think I’ve made … 18 features?
You’re like Fassbinder! I hope you don’t …
JOE: I’m gonna attempt to survive till my forties. I’m making no promises.
ALEX: Your leisure-time activities since we got to Berlin have, like, really moved you in the Fassbinder direction. After dinner it’s your ambition to go out and find some drugs and dance until six—and then you’ll probably go make three movies this year. That’s exactly what Fassbinder would have done.
Speaking of Fassbinder—his films, and cinema in general, are fascinated with histrionic women. Queen of Earth seems to be tapping into that.
ALEX: It’s an entire world. The links between a “broken woman” film like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or Interiors, and horror films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or Carnival of Souls … the essay “Film Bodies” by Linda Williams argues that melodrama, horror, and pornography as the three true women’s picture genres. Love, terror, pleasure; films that expel tears, blood, and sexual liquids as the woman’s release.
It’s fun to tell women’s stories that fit into these genres. And do it the way Polanski does, where it’s not exploitation, like a running-through-the-woods-in-your-underwear horror movie, but rather something that takes real dramatic emotional direction. I wanted to find that sweet spot.
Do you think men can be the subjects of similar films?
ALEX: Maybe, but it’s not tradition. I could name fifteen movies that are relatives of Queen of Earth, and every one is a women’s film. Because in most stories of broken women, the pain is inflicted inward—broken men usually inflict it upon others. So it’s easier to make a broken women film.
How do you write your female characters?
ALEX: I can’t ask, “How would a woman deal with this?” I don’t know the answer. Instead, I ask myself how I’d deal with it. I’m a person, she’s a person, and hopefully the questions we share about privacy and entitlement are relatable human experiences. Then I just put the “broken woman” genre trappings on top.
Critics have called your films “misanthropic.” How do you feel about that?
ALEX: If being misanthropic means I don’t believe in easy solutions and happy-quick endings then yes, that’s exactly right. One week is not enough for the Queen of Earth characters’ issues to be resolved. Maybe a happy ending could come after twelve years—like Boyhood.
It would be unpleasant to make a movie full of people I don’t care about. I’m curious about people like this, and I can answer a lot of my own questions if I am forced to process the way somebody else thinks. It’s not a lack of empathy.
JOE: People really missed the humor of Listen Up Philip. They said, “That character seems like an asshole.” But that’s his best quality! Doesn’t it make you laugh to see him misbehave? We have a history of characters like that, like Larry David. Why can Curb Your Enthusiasm be popular, and Listen Up Philip gets “Mehh, mehhh, this guy doesn’t seem very nice!”
Maybe some viewers need other dimensions to balance things out.
JOE: I’m happy to do that work myself as an audience member. Also, Elizabeth Moss’s performance in Queen of Earth is this incredible tightrope walk between pathetic and horrifying. I’m laughing as much as I’m scared for her and everyone around her.
Ostensibly the two leads are best friends, but they’re awful to each other—and even in the flashbacks, they’re still awful to each other. Why?
ALEX: People have relationships full of built-up aggression, really passionate love-hate: “Oh, we had a huge fight” or “We haven’t talked in three years.” I don’t know how they do it; I just don’t go that deep with people. Overall, the entry point is a small period of time that looks at a longer period of time: “When was this good, how was it good, and what changed?” It’s a central question in my movies: In The Color Wheel, it’s siblings; in Listen Up Philip it’s a relationship. And here, it’s Catherine and Virginia.