Wielding old grudges and fierce regrets as sharpened weapons, two women reassess their friendship in Queen of Earth, an intense interior drama from Alex Ross Perry.
On the surface the film’s a barebones narrative, assembled in one location (a lake house in upstate New York) with a handful of performers. Yet inventive Super-16 cinematography, courtesy of rock-star indie DP Sean Price Williams (who lensed all three of Perry’s prior features: Listen Up Philip, The Color Wheel and Impolex), allows leads Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston to savor two delightfully unbalanced roles. Williams employs extensive close-ups that capture even the slightest changes in expression, coupled with the unmistakable texture of film for an experience as visceral as it is cerebral.
Perry and Williams differ in their appreciation for film stock. The former sees it as the only way to make a movie, and the other as merely one great option of many. However, they both value the unscripted magic that occurs on set, when there are no rigid guidelines for the camera to tell the story.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): One of the most noticeable stylistic choices in Queen of Earth is the use of extreme close-ups.
Alex Ross Perry (ARP): My experience on my last couple of movies was excitement about having actors who are capable of little modulations in their performance. When we were doing Listen of Philip [starring Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss], Sean said, “You are working with a whole different caliber of performer now, capable of innately understanding timing and responding in a way that nonprofessionals don’t.”
It became this fun game of chasing the tiny little moments that they would bring to the performance, and that just meant being as close to them as possible. The fun of a close-up when you see it in a movie theater is that you’ll never see a photograph of a face that’s that big or that close—maybe a billboard, once in a while. It’s that kind of exclusive voice of cinema that I find exciting, and I end up relying on it a lot.
Sean Price Williams (SPW): Technically, it’s easier to find focus on a close-up.
MM: Did you work with a very small crew to create an intimate setting?
ARP: It was definitely a small crew. Even though the size of the crew on my last two movies has been radically different, when you are doing the scenes, it’s really just the actors, Sean, myself and the boom operator in the room. Sean is just a few inches away from the actor’s face. It’s not a huge, open environment where I’m far away in a monitor and Sean is looking at a monitor and has an operator working the camera. No, we are both right there. That’s a great place to be.
MM: What conversations did you have to establish the overall visual look of the film? Were there any specific references for it?
SPW: Alex usually has a couple of titles that we sort of have in our heads, but we don’t rewatch them or discuss them too specifically. We don’t even look at stills or anything like that. I don’t really like pre-production. I don’t really like talking about what we are going to do until we are there.
ARP: For the first time ever, we talked shortly before we shot this film. We were staying at a resort in Greece, and around midnight we would pull out the screenplay on the computer and sit outside. We would come up with ideas like a scene shot with a split diopter, which you can’t come up with on set.
MM: Did you decisively want to make this film visually distinct from Listen Up Philip?
SPW: Alex likes to stick with shooting on film, but we don’t believe that we have one vision that is going to be right for every story, or anything like that. We are not like most celebrated American filmmakers of our day, whose looks and styles do not service their films, so their films all suck. We try to make each one of ours suck specifically according to it [laughs].
ARP: For Listen Up Philip, we had so many conversations about how to make the browns saturated and make it a handheld movie. This film was only about two or three months after. I said, “We are gonna make this one very cold and sterile, and there will be no saturated brows or yellows. It’ll be bluish, gray, hazy, with a waterside feeling.” Four minutes of this movie are one shot, on a tripod. Before the title even comes up, there is more tripod work in this film than there is in all of Listen Up Philip.
SPW: And we’ll do the next one different and we’ll have some nudity, hopefully.
MM: The film takes place entirely in one location. How did you design the shots to escalate the drama, despite this?
SPW: We tried to never really repeat the shots. We had some tropes we used, like slow zooms and things, but every time [Moss] is painting, we wanted to shoot it a little bit differently. We tried to keep it different so you never get sick of seeing the same thing over and over, but at the same time, you realize you are kind of watching the same thing over an over—for a reason.
ARP: For this movie, that was always the challenge, because no matter what, we are doing a movie that’s entirely in a single location. You are going to be recurring a lot of the same physical spots of the location, and you can’t just repeat shots because then we would be bored and we wouldn’t have any fun.
Sean would say, “If this is the same shot as we did before, then I don’t need to do it, because my assistant knows that shot. He can just do it.” So I had to come up with something that made him say, “OK, that’s a different way to do it. “
We had these three scenes with the easel out in the deck, one of which is just one shot with the split diopter, and another we probably shot for four hours and rolled out five or six different rolls of film and covered more than anything else in the entire movie. It’s more fun to let whatever you are doing take shape around whatever variables come into play that day.
SPW: Only as far as camera, that is. The actors are prepared, Alex is prepared; it’s usually just me that’s unprepared.
MM: What specific tools did you choose for this film?
SPW: We shot on an Aaton Super 16mm. I shoot on Aaton all the time if I can, because it’s a comfortable camera. We used some Zeiss 16mm lenses, different speeds. Then we had the Fujinon zoom lens that we relied on while we were outside, which is a fun lens. We also used those split diopters—Brian De Palma is known for using those split diopters in his films. They can look cheesy, but I love Brian De Palma, especially at his cheesiest. I thought it would make sense to use them for the painting scenes.
MM: Tell me about your commitment to shooting on film.
ARP: I don’t have anything to compare it to. For me it’s the only way filmmaking has ever existed, the only way that it really makes sense to me, and the only thing that I aspired to when I was discovering film when I was younger. There are a million reasons in terms of aesthetics and time-honored purposes for which I find it to be relevant, but for me it’s really just the default way to make a movie. People respond to the beauty that is innate to film, but also people respond to it now because it’s uncommon.
SPW: There is such an inconsistency in exposure, and grain. When I watched the movie I said, “Wow, that looks really different.” I like to look through the glass and see what I’m shooting, and then I like to get the footage back, months later sometimes, and be really thrilled by how much lovelier it looks than real life or than a digital representation ever seems to look. Digital is just trying to look really “real;” film has its own thing. I’m not afraid to fuck up on film either, though I refuse to let anybody pull my focus on smaller films. Even then, one or two shots out of 35 will be out of focus—oh well. It’s still a surprise for me.
ARP: I found that shooting on film—in the case of my last two films on Super 16, and my first two films on regular 16mm—is just an instant aesthetic you can’t replicate. It just gives the movie an entire world of emotions and connections for anybody who watches it. It really affects the way people watch the film. Because of the look of this film, the hazy graininess of it, people think of ’60s and ’70s cinema. It justifies all the other choices, which are minimal besides choosing to actually shoot on film.
SPW: Again, I don’t really want to be associated with one type of look. I think it’s unfortunate that people think of me as “the film guy” because film is pretty much gone. I don’t get asked to shoot things as much as I’d like to. Most of the people I work with are my friends—Charles Poekel, the guy who made Christmas, Again, is an old friend. I promised to shoot that film three years ago or more, which was before we shot it, so five years ago now.
Then there are the Safdies. I’m going to keep working with them. They are very involved with the look of their films, Josh especially. He is really focused on the visual, as well as everything else, but he pays a lot of attention to what I’m doing. The next film we do together is definitely going to be very different than Heaven Knows What, but I think it’ll have the same energy in general. There are also other movies I’ve shot that are completely different than these. I always like to surprise myself. I’m not trying to make the next one look more professional so that I can get a bigger job. I probably could if I tried. Maybe that will happen once I have kids and a family. Otherwise, I just want to make something that no one has seen before.
MM: That’s what we want to see when we go to the movies—something we haven’t seen before. It seems like all studio films have the same look.
SPW: I’d like to think that, and you probably do, but I also find that stupid people just want to see what they’ve seen before. I saw Trainwreck at a drive-in. That was technically very well done, but I started to look at the rear view mirror more than the movie. I didn’t know why it was still going on past two hours.
MM: Alex, are you thinking at all about the visual look of the Disney project you are working on, Winnie the Pooh?
ARP: I’m just writing that, so I don’t have to focus on any of that. That’ll be someone else’s job. It’ll have to be someone that understands technical filmmaking on a level that I’ll probably never will.
SPW: He says he is only writing it now, but we’ll see.
MM: Hopefully you direct it because I’d love to see how Sean would shoot that.
ARP: I can’t even imagine. That’s kind of the liberating thing being hired to write something like that. I don’t have the possibility to even suggest that what I’m writing could be filmable. Nor would anybody expect that this could cost under a certain amount of money. You can have all this crazy stuff, with characters that will have to be special effects flying around. It doesn’t matter.
SPW: I don’t understand what live-action means when it’s all stuff done in computers and shit. Has Disney made a live-action film in 30 years? MM
Queen of Earth opens in theaters August 26, 2015, courtesy of IFC Films. This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2015 issue. Pictures courtesy of Sean Price Williams / Her Majesty September LLC / IFC Films.