The Marriage of Character and Plot: Alex Ross Perry on Screenwriting

Listen Up Philip‘s writer-director, Alex Ross Perry, investigates the primary symbiosis of the writing process.

A movie begins with a single image that I want to see, followed by a reverse engineering of who the character in the image is and how they got there. It’s an approach that allows the writing process to back comfortably into plot as the images announce themselves. Maybe it’s a privilege of having only written scripts that I myself would be directing—it’s entirely possible that handing one of them off to another director would reveal a shambling patchwork of internalizations and imagery, meaningless to anybody else. It might be about trusting myself enough to follow the scent until the script turns into something I can call tangible.

I do not know how to write something that might be considered “plot-heavy.” My attempts to do so, either for myself or others, have been marked by sporadic half-successes at best. The characters come first. Everything that follows is an opportunity to put them into a situation that interests me, once I have some idea of who they are and what their challenges on a minute level would be. Minute challenges are delightful to me, and I’m not ashamed to admit that most scenes I find exciting are moving towards little else than a character making a point. Or being faced with obstacles that interfere with their goal of getting from point A to point B with a minimum of interference.

My new film, Listen Up Philip, is, to me, an epic narrative. It covers about nine months and has three different protagonists; different sections of the film follow them through different points of the narrative. Once these three characters were more fully formed, the appeal was in segregating them as much as possible and letting the results play out naturally. Still, not much “plot” actually happens to any of them. Two of them are almost certainly in pretty much the same place at the end as they were at the beginning, and the third has taken two steps forward on a very long path.

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Elisabeth Moss as Philip’s on-and-off, cat-loving girlfriend

The character of Philip, a novelist, slowly became a nucleus as questions start to pile up regarding the way people handle success, and to what extent they do or do not change. The catalyst for this change became the character Ike, an older, well-known and respected writer and hero of Philip’s. The victim of his change developed into Ashley, a professional photographer and Philip’s suffering girlfriend. What came next we can call plot but I would rather call “substance.”

A “plot-based” movie about the same things follows Philip from rags to riches as he befriends an idol, while his girlfriend pops in and out sporadically, never emerging as a fully formed or complex character. The audience never gets closer to any of the other characters than they do the protagonist. It’s a solid movie, with a solid structure and at the end the character learns lessons and either returns to his old life, or doesn’t. Problem is, I’ve seen this movie before. Probably about two dozen times.

What I wanted to build Listen Up Philip upon was the obvious but seldom-asked question of “What happens to the idol when the protégée goes home?” Also, “What happens to the spouse/girlfriend/significant other when the protagonist moves on to the next opportunity?” Exploring these questions became my way to enrich the characters of Ike and Ashley, to make them more than functionaries of Philip’s narrative and to suggest that he is just as much a function of theirs.

The plot of Listen Up Philip isn’t unfamiliar. It’s indebted to works of sublime perfection both literary and cinematic, by heroes of mine such as Philip Roth and Woody Allen. But what happens to plot when the characters become more interesting and uniquely your own? The “New York movie,” the “young writer movie,” the “autumnal collegiate small town movie,” the “powerful female artist movie”… the plot, such as it is, was within these structures, as were the characters. But they weren’t married yet. I had a nucleus and its orbiting elements, but there was nothing that made me excited to do “my version.” I was stuck.

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Jonathan Pryce as famous author Ike, and Jason Schwartzman as Philip

There’s a book of essays by another hero of mine, Jonathan Franzen, entitled How To Be Alone. In this collection of essays is one called “Mr. Difficult” about the author William Gaddis—specifically, his 1,000-page book, The Recognitions. Franzen says that he was inspired by The Recognitions and its structure in his own writing. The way he spoke of its narrative shifts and de-emphasis on the “main” character, I instantly saw Gaddis’ influence on Franzen’s novels, Strong Motion, The Corrections, and Freedom. So I read The Recognitions and, like Franzen, I was blown away and also inspired. Gaddis gave me something more important than plot or character: syntax and structure.

My writing process isn’t what I would call precise. I love trial and error; writing stuff that, before it’s even half-finished, announces itself as useless and gets omitted. I write my outlines in a sort of unceasing forward dash and by the end the whole thing is more or less laid out. I do these, as well as the first draft of my script, on an Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter that my grandfather bought in Italy and used in law school. I don’t do it as an affectation; I do it because computers are distracting. I like to have mine nowhere in sight when that first document is being formed. I also like that on a typewritten page, everything is still there. The aforementioned useless passages remain with a parenthetical “(rev: omit)” at the moment of abandonment.

I sit down and plow through these pages without stopping to hit Backspace, or email, or things like that. I’ve found that in doing this, the plot sort of seeps onto the page while being surrounded and padded with character notes, lines of dialogue and general ideas for subsequent pages. The original typewritten outline for Listen Up Philip is 17 pages. The original typewritten script (unformatted, entirely block text) is 38. The first draft in the computer was 130. So it’s all fairly imprecise, and also more of an act of physically writing, than just keystrokes and pressing Save.

Here is a note I decided upon while on page three of the outline:

Copy of Script 1

and here is a further elaboration of this concept that appears on page seven, so probably written no more than three days later:

Copy of Script 2

Looking at these, I can see the strands of plot and the visions of structure forming around the characters that, by this point, fully have their own voices. There are lines in the outline, (written c. September-December, 2011) that appear verbatim in the finished film (shot and edited c. September-December, 2013). There are also elements in it of which I have no recollection whatsoever.

What is stimulating and rewarding about this methodology is the surprises that appear slowly. Much of the actual goings on of the story followed the creation of Philip, Ashley and Ike. But as I sought new ways to move Ike to where I needed him to be, to have the lasting impact on Philip so that Philip could have the correct effect on Ashley, the character of Ike’s daughter, Melanie, found her way into more and more scenes. It wasn’t surprising, but it was pleasant for another voice to emerge from the in-motion mechanics of the plot, and to find that she was necessary to move Ike and Philip towards their final destinations.

By the time the outline is complete, the characters are who they are ultimately going to be. The plot is laid out with room to grow and breathe, as those 18 pages become 38. The process may not be seamless—those typewritten pages definitely show lots of seams—but it results in the writing process being at once both organic and unpredictable.

Alex Ross Perry's previous features are the equally literary-inspired Impolex (2009) and The Color Wheel (2011)

Alex Ross Perry’s previous features are the equally literature-inspired Impolex (2009) and The Color Wheel (2011)

The time spent at the desk, at the Olivetti or, eventually (unfortunately), at the computer is playtime, and it is immensely valuable. I “write” about 12 hours a day, but only four or five of them are actually spent at the apparatus. When I am in writing mode, when the characters are announcing their individual peculiarities and the details of the story are finally landing, I am “writing” while watching films, while riding the subway, while cooking, while reading, and so on. By the time I am seated, it is less creative and more of an information dump containing the ideas and words accumulated since yesterday.

I imagine that, in the rigidly taught and formula-tested world of screenwriting, there are rules that you are told to follow. Further, I imagine that two of those rules may be “Do not write a script that changes perspectives and leaves the ostensible main character sidelined for 40 minutes, unless it’s one of those triptych movies like Pulp Fiction or all the movies that ripped it off,” and also “Do not use voice-over.” (I’ll defend one thing about Listen Up Philip that people seem to get wrong: I don’t use voice-over. The film has a character called “Narrator” and he provides narration. This is different because narration exists in all forms of storytelling and voice-over only exists in visual ones—because, I suppose, the “voice” is “over” something else.)

I’m not sure if I really know how to write a script where the plot dictates who the people are and what they do, but I imagine this process is what leads to formulaic or unnecessarily convoluted stories with flimsy characters. If an idea appeared that started with a story, rather than a single image or the behavior of a character, this process would likely be useful and necessary. It is more interesting and natural, though, to reverse that progression and see what the characters want to do, which helps avoid situations where they may be acting in a way that betrays who they are or what an audience would expect from them.

I am very proud of the characters in Listen Up Philip. They fascinate me as though they are real people and I am invested in their actions and behavior, more so than I am in what actually happens to them. This, to me, is a successful marriage of character and plot. MM

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This article was originally published in MovieMaker‘s 2015 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on newsstands now. Listen Up Philip opens in limited theaters October 17, 2014, and on VOD October 21, 2014. All images courtesy of Tribeca Film.

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