Interview: Alex Ross Perry & Jason Schwartzman Talk LISTEN UP PHILIP And The Paradox Of Success

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Interview: Alex Ross Perry & Jason Schwartzman Talk LISTEN UP PHILIP And The Paradox Of Success

Alex Ross Perry makes no attempt to mask that the Philip of his new film Listen Up Philip, played to perfection by Jason Schwartzman, at least partly takes his inspiration from the daunted body of work of author, Philip Roth. Though Perry doesn't aim at any one Roth work in specific, he manages to evoke the tone of Roth's ideas far more effectively than other proper adaptations of his books.

Schwartzman plays Philip, a young writer anticipating the release of his second novel. Early praise is in, allowing relief from the burden of sophomore pressure, and Philip is growing accustomed to being lauded as a genius. Philip makes new friends, like a personal hero of his, writer, Ike Zimmerman. The elder author takes Philip under his wing, protecting him from progress-inhibiting parasites like friends and family. Girlfriend be damned, Philip accepts Ike's invitation to spend time at his cottage getaway, one Ike himself has found to be a creatively fruitful getaway from the distractions of those who love him.

Listen Up Philip reflects the cinematic aspects of Roth's work, which take an unsurprising cue from Woody Allen. Like Roth, or Allen, or any number of great narrative voices, Perry weaves his story episodically, allowing the supporting characters to come alive in their own right, as well as in their relationship with Philip, a trying character who unapologetically conducts himself as though he's the centre of the universe.

Alex Ross Perry expands his capabilities in leaps and bounds with Listen Up Philip, a sharply-crafted cautionary tale, warning of the dangers of vindication. In Philip's coming to terms with his success, validation of his neurotic hyper-honest talent detrimentally affects his personality, gradually giving way to esoteric expectations of the people in his life. There is only room for one in the life of a true narcissist.

Perry's a new talent that most indie-film fans first got wind of in 2011 with his low-budget film, The Color Wheel, a B&W road talkie that's as funny as it inevitably ends up being unsettling. But with the help of Jason Schwartzman, an excellent ensemble cast and a genuine zeal for the written word, Perry's potential comes alive with Listen Up Philip.

ScreenAnarchy: Jason, how did you come to be involved in Alex's new film?

Jason Schwartzman: I got (the script) through the usual channels, which is that my agent sent it to me.  I don't mean to imply that I get sent tons of scripts but I will say that when it arrived it definitely felt different. Just in the way it looked; it was so much bigger than a normal script. A normal script, I feel like, is 110, 115 pages. This was like 160 or 170.  It just had a weight to it which made me smile. It came with a DVD of The Color Wheel.

Alex Ross Perry: First things first, let's just be clear that it was not that long. He changes the length of it every time he talks about it.  It was only 140. Sometimes he says 170 but I assure you it was like 138. It definitely feels bigger, I'm sure, because most scripts are 100-110.

JS: Anyways, I started reading the script and I thought a couple of things. One is it was clearly very well written. This guy, Alex Ross Perry, had really taken a lot of time to make it an enjoyable reading experience. In a way that if the movie never got made it would still be a great way to spend the day because it was a really great read. I mean pages of the script, things no one will ever see.

But also I was stunned, I suppose, by a lot of the things the character says and does. I was like, I don't like this person right now. I mean maybe he's a good guy, but I don't know how much of this I can take. The movie felt claustrophobic very early on.  To the point where like 20 minutes in I was like, 'I got to put this down right now. This is just hard to read because it's great, but it's hard reading. I put it down and an hour later I was like, I wonder what's going on with those guys. You know, I was like drawn to them.

Then I went back, kept reading, 20 pages again. I was like, I don't know, this is pretty brutal. Put it down. That sort of went on until I finished it. Then when it was over, everything just fell into this great place where I was like, that was great.

What movie is this going to be?  Can you watch someone act this way. I mean can someone be so extreme for so long and can you really make a movie that is showing someone acting poorly and then the people around him; the affects of that poor behaviour. I really wanted to meet Alex and find out who is this guy that wrote this?

Alex, from your recent introduction to a screening of RUSHMORE in Brooklyn, I know you're a big admirer of Jason's first film... 

ARP: Sure! My memory of (Rushmore) is that it was the first limited release film that I went to see.  I remember my dad had either gotten interested in it for whatever reason or just knew enough about it to think that I would be interested.  I remember driving with him to a theater plainly out of the way of the normal multiplexes that we would usually go to. It was a really exciting thing to do. It was maybe early '99. I'm really not used to movies being that much of a to-do.

It was a pretty different experience to go somewhere and see something that was so idiosyncratic and strange. The whole experience really felt like I was discovering this other type of cinema where you would drive 40 minutes instead of ten minutes to the movie theater and what you saw would be not a movie you'd see 100 commercials for but something much more unique. It was really a pretty major moment for me that informed a lot of how I continued to appreciate and watch film. Of course everyone in it, everyone involved with that film was at the top of their game and gave me a lot of people whose careers I was able to become very much a fan of from that moment onwards. It was a pretty major thing for me.

Did Jason Schwartzman ever cross your mind as you were writing LISTEN UP PHILIP?

ARP: No, of course not because that would be a very callous thing for a guy who had just made a $25,000 black and white 16mm movie to ever think that you could be writing a movie for an actor like that.

So, when that became sort of a reality what kind of emotions were you dealing with?

ARP: It just seemed completely absurd and absolutely too good to be true that an actor that I was even just a fan of, much less actors that were perfect for the film and had inspired me to become engaged and interested in independent cinema, would want to meet with me, much less want to actually put their faith in me to make a movie together. It was weird, but you had to quickly get over it when you realized that these guys are just emailing and texting me now and they're just going to be friends who want to make a good movie.

JS: Within like two minutes of meeting him I knew that I wanted to work with him. I didn't know actually when we met that it was a meeting in that way. I thought he was probably meeting with 100 actors. I didn't realize he wanted me to do it. It was kind of a miscommunication. So I was also trying to be protective of myself. Like I really want to do it. I don't want to put myself out there and have him be like, I got to check with a couple people. So I was kind of cagey.

Where did the seed for LISTEN UP PHILIP come from?

ARP: The entry point was just, you know, going back a few years to when I was thinking about The Color Wheel, my previous film, and a lot of the ideas in that were starting to sort of find a home. At the time I was really reading a lot of (Philip Roth's) work and his work has been very influential to a lot of where that film needed to be. It really emboldened me to kind of go for the tone that I really wanted to when I was going through his work for the first time and writing that film.

By the time I got around to making this film and editing it and everything, a lot of the thoughts and lessons, tricks and ideas that are part of his work were just sort of in me. I never had to go back and look at any of his work. At this point I internalized the lessons that are all over his writing. It just felt that like this film came very naturally out of what I consider to be a fairly comprehensive understanding of what his work means to me.

Jason, did you read any Roth to prepare?

JS: Well, not really, because there was no time. I'm a slow reader and there wasn't a ton of time before it all sort of happened. I bought some Philip Roth books and kept them close with me at all times. Like I had them in my backpack. I watched Philip Roth, Unmasked. Actually I said to him what Philip Roth book should I read? It's not a Philip Roth thing but I know how much he means to Alex. I said, well obviously there's something in here... But he said don't read it. If you could read anything you should read this book Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates. He's like, that's far more of a meaningful book to this movie than any Philip Roth.

It seems to me that Woody Allen films are far closer in essence to a Philip Roth story than any one of Roth's actual adaptations. Did you find yourself thinking about Woody Allen at all during the production?

ARP: I would agree with that to some extent because they're parallel. Their careers have been moving through the last half century in different mediums. Going from small personal comedic work to big sweeping dramatic opuses. They're definitely parallel. I think just because of the circumstances of when they were both developing their professional identities.

They were asking a lot of the same questions. And being Jews from the east coast they probably came up with a lot of the same answers when they were trying to explore a lot of their curiosity about what the world was like in the 60s 70s, 80s, 90s. They're always on the same page. I imagine they're actually fairly close in age although I'm not sure how close they are; probably within ten years I would imagine 

Do you have a favourite Woody Allen film?

ARP: Husbands and Wives emerged as the biggest stylistic influence of the film, really specifically with regard to the camera work and the lighting. Also everything from the production design to the color correction and the wardrobe. That film just loomed very large. I would confidently say that it is by far my favorite of his films.

Allen did this appropriately bleak interview where he discusses the impossibility of happiness. I don't think you personally find happiness impossible, as evidenced by your recent engagement, but how do you feel about this sort of defeatist, achievement is unattainable perspective. He's always going to the next thing without a sense of satisfaction to some extent.

ARP: What you're saying is sort of what the impetus behind this movie was for me, which is the story of somebody who always sets a goal for themselves, achieves those goals relatively quickly and then at no point stops and says, 'Okay good, I did it. I've accomplished it'. It sounds similar to what you're saying in the sense that this is where my own experiences do justice to a lot of what happens in the film to Philip, where five years ago I would say man, I'm 24 years old, my first film that I made for $15,000.00 with my friends is being invited to film festivals all over the world, I'm being flown; being given plain tickets. What could be better than that?

Then two years later I was at an international film festival presenting my new film for 1,000 people. I thought, this is what I always wanted. What could be better than this? Now three years later I have this movie at Sundance and then at the New York Film Festival. Now this is even higher than that... What could possibly be above this?

So, I wanted to do a movie about somebody like what you're saying; who at every point rather than saying, 'Wow!  I can't believe I did this. I'm so happy. I'm just going to finally relax and be the satisfied person that I want to be at every point'. Says, well yeah I guess this is what I wanted but I feel nothing so where do I go from here? In fact Philip even says that in the film.

listen_up_philip_poster.jpgJason, considering that you had success pretty early in your life, having starred in countless cinephiles' favourite film, perhaps you didn't necessarily experience pining for success in the same way Philip might've leading up to his success. To what extent could you relate to Philip's existential crisis of getting what you want?

JS: Well I think it's definitely existential because you never get anything you want, which is the obvious thing. I think it's two things. I definitely pined for success with my band that I was in for years. That was my dream, that kind of success... and I was seeing other people get that. But then also I realized that I was successful.  I got to tour the world (with Phantom Planet). I mean, yeah, we never got a gold record or anything but we got to do things that bands never get to do. So it's a success in that way. Then I got success with Rushmore. Obviously, my life changed because I was in a movie, but I never could understand this weird feeling until just recently.

I was talking to Alex about Los Angeles and New York. He was saying that 'Los Angeles was a place where success really is measured in huge things like $100,000,000.00 is a success. Whereas in New York, so many different things are going on and I know people whose lives change just because they made this $10,000 movie'.

I've never been in a movie that's made $100,000,000.00 - maybe Grand Budapest Hotel did worldwide, but I've never really been a part of that type of success. I suppose, in a way, without knowing it, I've pined for like - you see these other actors have a kind of thing where it connects with a super audience, but I totally don't feel like I need to connect to a ton of people really, to be honest with you... feel like I've connected with more people than I ever thought I would.

I absolutely have the best life and yet and I realize that everything's great, but I realize that Los Angeles is this kind of culture that, without even wanting it, puts in your blood a feeling that you haven't hit that thing, you're not this. I didn't really realize until Alex said, 'in that city, with the level of what is great, you have to do something that is a fuckin' tent pole type thing or else really you're not successful'. I only contextualize that too because people who would hear this would be like, 'wow, you've had success'. I know I've had success. I'm just saying you pine for stuff, Hollywood, it's designed to make you pine for that thing... which is rare.

In your respective climbs to aesthetic success, did you ever find yourselves with older, more esteemed figures in your life giving advice that might have been somewhat poisonous?

ARP: Well, yeah. I feel the dynamics between Philip and Ike Zimmerman - Philip is early 30s and Ike is obviously in his 60s - I've had relationships like that with people that are five, six, seven years older than me. It doesn't have to be someone of a different generation. It can be somebody that sort of presents themselves as the authority on something that you are going through.

I think that I definitely have had these relationships and it's just fun to have a friend or someone who you sort of become close with who you just enjoy watching them walk through the room like they know everything and they have all the answers.  Then at the same time I got to meet people at festivals; hero-filmmakers whose work I admired and I've become friendly with people like this. There's a line between sort of idolizing someone, meeting them and then having friends who are a little bit older than me. I was sort of working at the video store when I was 20, just sort of watching people that are two or ten steps ahead and just imagining what the rest of their lives are like when I'm not interacting with them.

JS: I feel like I've dated some girls that I looked up to and then they gave me advice that later was wrong. I've also gotten great advice from older people. Who knows if it's wrong or right. I don't know. I think it's hard because they're just doing what they think is right. I think it's up to you to make up your mind about whether or not it's going to work for you. I think for actors, especially when they're growing up, they read all these books about acting methods and things. What is the right way to do it? You take this advice but maybe not everyone's the same. I don't know.

One of my favourite moments of the film is the small montage of fake books written by Ike which, in passing, covers the evolution of the 1st edition aesthetics throughout the years. Do you have a favourite book cover jacket?

ARP: Thinking of the ones from the movie or in real life?

Real life.

ARP: That's a good question. Nobody's ever asked me that. I have a lot. I have a shelf of every first edition Philip Roth. The original cover for When She Was Good. It is a really beautiful, striking image; pretty good colors and designed really, really well.  That's a pretty major one for me.  Off the top of my head, anyway. That's the sort of thing I have to think about.

I like that your book cover montage replicates cover styles over time, from the illustrative jackets of the 50s, to the simple typeset title over colour in the 60s/70s and the transition to photography, and cool thin fonts in the 80s/90s... Does that sound sort of accurate?

ARP: I mean, yeah. There definitely was a design element coming up to the 60s that was illustrative.  Then it did become very reliant on fonts and typesets.  Into the 80s, I'm looking at the Philip Roth - those are just titles on a colored background. Then by the time of his 90s books, it's an illustration over an image or stock image, you know a famous work of art.

I'm not enough of a designer or a student of the history of that medium o really authoritatively say what the trends were and where they came from but I know what I like. Fortunately Teddy Blanks who did all the designs and studied things like, you know 'Well this font wasn't invented until 1986, so you can't use it on anything prior to that'. He really got it and was able to put those all into a chronological order that was authentic and lots of people respond to that from fans of collecting beautiful books to actual writers.

Jason, do you have a favorite book jacket?

JS: That's such a great question. Penguin put out this book of all their book covers and everyone of them is beautiful. I would say that I sort of like the more simple ones like Joan Didion's The White Album, which is like her name and it's white. It's just a white album. I like that. At the end of the day I think that's kind of what I would gravitate towards most likely.

Listen Up Philip expands its theatrical release in North America today. Click here for cities.

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