Just over halfway through Alex Ross Perry's previous film, the smart and uproarious Listen Up Philip, the recently separated heroes, Philip (Jason Schwartzman) and Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), briefly reunite in the living room of their shared New York apartment. Philip has returned and seems poised less for reconciliation than a nasty fight. "What do you want?" Ashley sneers, uninterested. "I'm very lonely," he replies. "I don't like teaching creative writing as much as I assumed I would." But Ashley isn't having it. "That's unfortunate," she offers dryly. "You're a cruel, miserable person, so it makes sense you'd end up in a miserable situation."
That's Listen Up Philip for you: highly charged, merciless, mordantly funny – and for some, perhaps too mean. The film is so abrasive that its success at the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered last January, was far from guaranteed; that it was received not only warmly but even rhapsodically was a pleasant surprise to Perry and Moss. "We felt really emboldened by the positive response to Philip," Perry remembers. So for the follow-up the pair decided to go further – to see if they could make a film extreme enough to divide the room.
That new film is Queen of Earth, a frenzied, feverish thriller of the kind scarcely seen since the heyday of Roman Polanski and Brian De Palma. It's the second effort in what is proving to be a fruitful collaboration between the esteemed indie director and the former Mad Men star. Queen of Earth is quite demanding, but it's also one of the best films of the year – an opinion that, much to Perry and Moss's astonishment, seems all but unanimous among critics. "The response to Queen of Earth was in some cases even stronger than Philip. Our whole hope was that this movie would be disliked and misunderstood. But in fact people focused in on the little things – the things that we thought were the best part of the movie."
When I ask Moss about this expectation she laughs conspiratorially, as if we were getting in on a secret plan. "It's very true," she confesses. "Alex and I have a joke now that we're just trying to make a film that is offensive enough and dark enough that nobody likes it. We keep trying and failing miserably at it." For Moss, the effort to alienate was genuine. It was an aspiration she and Alex discussed at length. "We had so many conversations before, during and after the making of this film about it being polarizing. We were sure that it would be polarizing – at the very best. And then it got all these great reviews. We liked the movie, we thought it was great, or else we wouldn't have made it. But I think when you make something this unusual you don't expect other people to like it, too."
Still, Moss is game for another attempt: "We're hoping that the next one pisses a few more people off." Maybe the trick, I suggest, would be to do the opposite – to make a film deliberately inoffensive and ingratiating. "Exactly, exactly," she says, laughing. "We want to make like a Nancy Meyers film, where everything is beautiful and everyone is just happy. … I'm sure that will be the one nobody will like."
One of the most distinctive features of Queen of Earth – especially rare among indie films made on so modest a scale – is that it was shot not digitally but on rich and sumptuous 16-millimetre film. It has this in common with all of Perry's feature films to date. For Moss, though, it was something of a change. "Film or digital didn't make any difference to me until Queen of Earth," she explains. "Just the idea of having a certain amount of daytime film and a certain amount of nighttime film. We had a certain amount of daytime film and that was all that we could film that day. I loved it."
Film, Moss feels, affords us something uniquely valuable, particularly today. "In this age when you can just record something and delete it and there's SnapChat and there's all these things, there's a permanence that comes with film that's really thrilling."
You can film about 10 consecutive minutes on 16mm before you need to pause to change the roll. With this in mind one can hardly believe the length of one of Queen of Earth's major scenes: a conversation between Moss and co-star Katherine Waterston is staged as a single unbroken take that lasts, according to Perry, "nine minutes and change." Had either of the women's loquacious monologues run even seconds longer than anticipated the entire scene would be a bust.
"The first time we did that sequence we rolled out exactly at the end – with another 10 seconds of film we would have gotten it all." This sort of challenge might tempt a less patient director to go digital. For Perry it's precisely the appeal. "The idea of shooting something that's almost the length of a [roll] has always been exciting to me. It's kind of the idea of why you would be shooting on film and why you'd be calling attention to that."
Was he ever worried that such virtuosity would seem ostentatious? "I don't think for a movie made for a couple hundred thousand dollars that there's such a thing as too showy. It's virtually impossible to pull off anything with the restrictions you have on you. Anything that is remotely impressive seems to remind people that perhaps the person making this movie was concerned with more than just covering the dialogue and finishing the day."
Nobody is happy in Queen of Earth. Though nobody seems quite real, either: This is a film as much about films and filmmaking as it is about the psychology of its main characters, two young women on a lakeside holiday retreat. This is familiar terrain for Perry; he is well-known in film circles as a card-carrying cinephile.
Moss, too, considers herself something of a movie-lover – but to Alex she's quickly deferential. "I'm so not on Alex's level," she admits. "He's the biggest cinephile I've ever met in my life. … All the time he'd make reference to films that inspired Queen of Earth and I'd be like, 'I have no idea what you're talking about.'"
Filmmaking is one of the few vocations for which expertise in the field isn't a prerequisite: You can make a perfectly good movie without knowing much about other ones. In this respect, Perry's cine-literacy is a rare virtue – and he's nonplussed that it isn't more common. "I would be very distrustful of anyone who professes an overwhelming sense of ignorance about the thing they want to devote their whole life to," he says.
"Imagine an athlete saying, 'Oh, I don't really watch sports. I liked them when I was younger but now I don't really know who I'm going up against, I don't follow people's careers.' That would be ridiculous. No one would want to assume that that person is the best at what they do. So it's weird that in the arts, pretending that you live in a bubble or convincing yourself that you do is for some reason allowed rather than completely laughable."
After the back-to-back success of Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, Perry knows precisely who he's going up against. And among young American directors he has a strong claim on being the best at what he does. Still, he isn't burdened by expectation.
"The goal shouldn't always be for people to say that the new film is a continuation of unfathomable artistic growth," he says. "You can't strive for bigger and better every single time. But you can strive to catch people off guard."
Queen of Earth plays for one night only on Oct. 13 at the Royal Cinema in Toronto.