Director Alex Ross Perry on His New Film, Queen of Earth

Katherine Waterston (left) and Elizabeth Moss in Queen of Earth.
Katherine Waterston (left) and Elizabeth Moss in Queen of Earth.
Courtesy IFC Films

In Queen of Earth, independent filmmaker Alex Ross Perry tackles big and uncomfortable questions about adult relationships. His films have always grappled with the cognitive dissonance of how people connect and disconnect in profound ways. With his latest film, he seems to say your best friend can also be your worst enemy.

The movie focuses on Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), who spend a week at a lakeside cabin owned by Virginia's parents. Catherine is in need of healing after the one-two punch of the death of her father and a breakup with her boyfriend. Virginia's company should make her friend's painful time easier, yet the film explores how quickly gestures of kindness can slip into cruelty.

Speaking via phone from New York City, the 31-year-old writer/director says he wants to examine intimate bonds that can easily unravel, causing irreparable harm to the closest of people. He ultimately asks a complicatedly simple question: Can we ever really know another person? “That's kind of a central question in all of the movies I’ve made,” he says, “the last couple ones specifically: What kind of a relationship is strong enough to be infallible? It's not a familial relationship. In the case of Listen Up Philip [his previous movie], it's not a relationship-relationship or a father-daughter relationship. In the case of [Queen of Earth], it’s not a friendship. So yeah, the dynamic of these two-way streets is very fascinating to me.”

It makes for great drama when you don’t shy away from the dark side, and he cites filmmakers Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Woody Allen, and, yes, even the recently departed horror master Wes Craven, as influences. He's particularly interested in how all of these filmmakers handled women pushed to a mental precipice.

"With Wes Craven passing, look at what he did," Perry says. "He took a Bergman film, Virgin Spring, and made it into Last House on the Left. The connection between these types of cinema has always been there. I don't think it's any different from the modulation between different types of movies, all of which I love. Now I have the Bergman and the Craven, and then you have to add another layer to what you're doing."

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Perry succeeds in making his own kind of movie by looking at a modern relationship through lenses similar to those of his hero directors. But he also quite literally adapts to their old-fashioned style of filmmaking. Perry shot Queen of Earth on Super16 film, which gave it a vintage style of light — from lens flares to the glow of sunshine through his actresses' hair. He calls this “making an honest film in an antiquated style.”

These are visual effects that would come across as phony if they were done digitally. But because Perry works with trusty, old-fashioned film, there is a natural quality to the appearance of these "effects." He explains, "You get a lot of that stuff without working too hard if you’re just shooting with the right lenses, on film... I love that stuff, of course. I lean into it, and I allow everyone to embrace it as much as possible."

Perry even pays tribute to some of the mundane, standard devices from 1970s-era filmmaking. Something as small as placing the year of production in Roman numerals under the film title during the opening credits could have a subconscious effect in preparing viewers for what kind of movie they are about to experience. "It’s just evocative," he says about the stylistic decision that he has repeated in all four of his movies so far. "As soon as you see it, it gives people some sense of identification with something from some point in the past. If they’re feeling that, then my work is basically almost done, because now their head and their reactions are exactly in the right space from where I would hope they’re watching the rest of the movie from."

But then there are impressive stylistic choices he has taken from his heroes. In Queen of Earth, Perry uses a freeze frame for the first time in one of his movies, and he's excited about the chance to talk about it, but we'll refrain from divulging the details so as not to spoil its place in the drama. "Yeah, I’ve never done that before," he reveals. "It’s kind of a riff. Dude, fun thing, obviously it’s done in a lot of great films, and I love it, so it just felt like this was the one to do it."

Queen of Earth opens Friday, September 4, in Miami exclusively at Tower Theater.

Follow Hans Morgenstern on Twitter @HansMorgenstern.

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