Alex Ross Perry (Getty)

The idea of miserable company may not sound enticing, but Alex Ross Perry works it cleverly. The 31-year-old writer/director of Listen Up Philip, last year's coal-black comedy about a newly successful writer's (Jason Schwartzmann) toxic behavior, returned this year with the psychological thriller Queen of Earth, boasting return collaborators Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston under the influence of madness. Utilizing warm 16mm film stock, Perry embraces his troubled characters without judgment, intrigued by the rippling consequences of their often misanthropic actions.

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Perry studied at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, finding supplemental education in repertory houses and video stores. A veteran clerk of Kim's Video (RIP), you would be hard-pressed to find an interview where his voracious cine-appetite doesn't enter the conversation. What's more, he's even an ardent defender of celluloid. We caught up with Perry to discuss shooting big, the importance of fleeing the city, and the film industry’s encroachment on creative freedom. Queen of Earth is now available on iTunes, and will be available on DVD and Netflix streaming starting December 22nd.

You've stated that you try to do as much work as you can before seeing a movie alone every day. Was your film diet already pretty steady before moving to the city? Before I moved to New York, I was just in high school sitting around my parents house, playing Nintendo 64 a lot and watching videos pretty much all the time, so I wouldn’t have much opportunity until the weekend to go out and see films before I moved to New York for school.

My dad had a beta deck in the den, and a VCR upstairs. I grew up with a huge amount of tapes. I watched plenty of them, and I was encouraged to spend a lot of time doing that on Friday and Saturday nights. Rides to the video store were always something my parents were willing to do for me. I wasn’t into sports or anything to distract me from watching movies as often as possible. My grandmother didn’t live terribly far, which meant the nights I’d stay there would consist of trips to several video stores on her side of town. That was exciting. I remember going to one store in a strip mall and renting My Boyfriend’s Back, because that was the poster in the window, which I believe that store would have up for another ten years or so.

I became very adamant about visiting movie theaters in the city during summer 2005. All of a sudden I was in a situation where I was in the city, I didn’t return home, and didn’t have to go to school for several months. I was able to offset the eight hours a day that I’d be working at Kim’s with a movie a day before or after work, sometimes a double feature. There was a noir series at Film Forum that summer. I probably saw about fifty movies in a five or six week period. That was basically the introduction to the lifestyle that I still lead.

You're as noted for your literary influences—Roth and Pynchon, namely—as your cinematic influences. Have you always been as avid a reader as a viewer? Well, the pleasure of reading that you have as a child is taken away when it becomes homework on a fixed schedule. I didn’t read for pleasure until spring of 2000, when I picked up and read American Psycho, which was the first novel I went out of my way for. It changed the way I saw what literature could be and feel like as entertainment. From there on out, there was never a time that I wasn’t voraciously reading for fun.

That’s a book I’ve read twice and have to skip certain passages just because of how graphic it is. But it keeps me coming back. I owe a lot of who I am to picking up that book at that time… at an airport, actually, waiting for a flight before a family vacation. I can't imagine enjoying movies if I was just being forced to answer questions about them or take tests about them.

In regards to your own characters, what is it about people at their most antagonistic that draws you in? It's not so much the antagonism that draws me in. I'm more likely to be interested in characters during an overtly challenging time that’s disruptive to their life and their sense of stability. Seeing people who we see at their worst is the kind of drama that I find most appealing comes from.

What interests me is that even if two people are being nasty or bickering, there's always somebody else in the picture who's worse. In Queen of Earth, Katherine and Elisabeth are arguing, but then you have Patrick Fugit's character who makes them look a whole lot better. Part of that is using other characters to create contrast in the dynamic, and to, in the case you're describing, create a third character, who's more slightly more tangential to the story, to kind of be the audience proxy into the main character. It’s a way to step outside of making the audience identify with the main character. I don't think it necessarily has to be the main character who the average viewer identifies.

What struck me is the outsider’s perspective of clinical depression; the way you portray how the experience of being in the presence of somebody enduring that hardship can itself be stressful, and how that lack of understanding or compassion can inspire tension. Right. I think that's true.

Half of Listen Up Philip takes place outside the city. Queen of Earth is all about getting away from the city. Is getting away from New York important to you, personally? It is, very much so. I find it to be a pretty major, relatable part of life in New York. People who live here are constantly going away for whatever reason, so part of the experience is largely defined by a frequency of estate. That's very dramatically significant and narratively compelling to me, to have different types of stories that can be told involving that type of trajectory.

There's a comfort to it. I'm from Connecticut, and it's close but far enough from the city. Your entire mood and personality changes when you leave. Elisabeth's character even acknowledges that in Queen of Earth: “I can’t believe it’s so close to the city”. It's something you hear everyone say, even when you've only driven sixty, seventy, eighty minutes away, the same amount of time it takes to go all the way uptown or home. It feels like a million miles away. It's a bizarre experience that I find endlessly fascinating.

Did your outlook on filming in the city change after Listen Up Philip? Filming in New York is very stressful, very difficult to just move from place with the fine machinery you need to make a movie. Philip was the first time I shot anything in New York City, and even on that, only one day was in Manhattan, and the rest in Clinton Hill and Park Slope. It was only half the film, so it was as easy as it could be, but it's still a challenging place. But I like it. It requires a lot of infrastructure, which I wouldn't want to do with every movie. I wouldn't want to have to shut down an entire block in order to shoot for an hour, but if you're doing things in a professional way, that's the only way you can get that New York block. It's something I look forward to doing again, but I'll need quite a bit of assistance. With The Color Wheel, that was all stuff we had to ask permission for from very kind, local Vermont business owners. They don't really care as much, they just say, "Sure." There were no permits or paperwork or anything.

Would you ever act in one of your films again? No. Certainly not. I enjoy working with actors too much and collaborating with people who I'm a fan of and getting to be in the front row for watching them create a performance based on years of professional experience. It's, for me, the most essential part of filmmaking now.

So when you starred in The Color Wheel, was that a necessity or curiosity? A little bit of both. I was interested in trying it. There were specific creative reasons and some of the influences of that film had a say in it, and it was just a no-brainer to do. I saw it as something that you should do at some point. I can't conceive of another film I could do that demands the same thing, even if I wanted to. It would be pretty ridiculous and misguided to think that rather than work with, say, Jason Schwartzman, I would put myself in the movie. I do it every now and then for friends, like one that's premiering next month.

Are there still actors you see yourself collaborating with? Yeah, there's a bunch. But, because of the kinds of small, independent movies I make, people are very aware of the pay-grade you're agreeing to, and there's a million out there that aren't bothered by that, and there's a lot I'm excited to be working with.

But the ugly thing I'm learning now about the disgusting situation that the independent film industry has put itself in is that movies of a certain size, bigger than Philip, in the millions of dollars, go through this horrible process called “packaging." I've been working with one production company for over year now on a substantially larger movie, and these producers have as much experience as anybody in the world of film. I can suggest half a dozen tremendously talented actors, the kind that most people acknowledge to be the best, and then these packaging people at the agencies will put themselves in a position to interfere between the producer and wherever the money's coming from. The agencies will go to the money people with an unspectacular, unflashy cast of talented but not famous people, so on movies of a bigger budget, you see the same people in that budget movie a lot. There's actors who I've said "Hey, you know who would be great..." and we're told "No, you can't make a movie with that actor unless you found a sack of money with the budget in it." So that's frustrating, and so the goal is to make smaller movies without the packaging industry, so I can work with the actors I want to work with. It's just about figuring the best project to work on with any given actor.

You seem to be a creative mind who goes out of their way to make something happen, whether in making film or consuming it. I know you’re big on collecting DVDs. Will Queen of Earth’s release be special? Around the time of it coming to DVD, it will be available on however people buy things now, be it iTunes or Amazon. Elisabeth Moss and I did a commentary on it, which I think went well, and I believe there’s a behind-the-scenes featurette. Hopefully it’s a decent little package.

I’d love to hear a commentary on that. You’re obviously a big fan of special features, and I worry that with platforms like iTunes or Netflix, the special features will come to pass. That’s certainly my opinion. The special feature industry has risen and fallen outstandingly in the last fifteen years, and we did the best we could to make it something that people would want to own. Not many people are going to care about it, but not many people care about my movies anyway. I hope that 90% who care about these movies are the people who care about things like special features, and would think that this would make a great addition to their collection. The bummer is that the small population who care about owning this stuff are mostly fixated on Blu-ray, and in the case of the distributors of Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth, they refuse to release a Blu-ray of these movies, which is annoying because I’ve been denied to the handful who might want the movies in that format. But there’s nothing I can do about it.

What do you find more endearing about shooting on film? If you want to try to convey an overwhelming sense of feeling, I believe that shooting on film is the most direct path to the feeling I want all the movies to have for any audience, even if they're watching for ten seconds. You could call it nostalgic, artistic, a necessity, a creative solution, but it's a hugely important part of the process. I can't imagine that I would have a different opinion on it unless, for whatever reason, I had some idea and the way I wanted it to look and feel by design would be something cold and sterile and very computerized feeling, like a science fiction movie. The warmth and feeling of the film would be in congress with what the movie would feel like, but at this time, I have no such ideas like that.

Would you ever want to shoot on 35 mm or maybe larger? Yeah, definitely. It just depends on... not necessarily on the budget, but on the idea of the movie. Even the bigger movie I’m making with Killer Films is Super 16 mm. If you look at the most recent Todd Haynes movie, also produced by Killer, Carol—that movie’s shot on Super 16, I don’t think anyone could point to a more compelling argument for shooting on film than how that movie looks on Super 16, which is traditionally done by people with my level of budget.

A topic I talk about with Joe Swanberg, who produced on Queen of Earth, we had a conversation that was, on the one hand, look how many people are excited that Tangerine was shot on an iPhone. On the other hand, look at how excited people are when [Quentin] Tarantino and Christopher Nolan or Paul Thomas Anderson shoot a movie on 65 mm or 70 mm. Our question is, “Where do we fall into this?” If Joe and I want to make a movie on 70 mm, which is something we’ve tried to budget and figure out, would the audience of people who’ve learned about this format via Christopher Nolan’s huge 200 million dollar movies show up to see our movie? Do they go because it’s a beautiful, wonderful format, or do they only go see those because they already like Christopher Nolan and this is just some kind of bonus on how he made this movie? Would people be as excited to see a million-dollar independent movie shot on 70 mm as they were to see an independent movie shot on an iPhone? Would we get lost in the middle? Or would it be this huge talking point that 70 mm is not just for the three biggest directors in the world, but for someone like me who can get their hands on enough of it to make a small feature? Hopefully a solution allows us to do something that’s never been done before.

When you wrote that Indiewire piece, a lot of that business was opened up to me. Hopefully other filmmakers will follow suit and see how economical it is, that they can get this warmth into it. It’d be great if we could keep these labs breathing. It becomes a case of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander—Sean Baker proving you can make a well-liked, successful movie on an iPhone is good for the gander now that people know they can make a movie with something already in their pockets that has a shot at Sundance. A year ago, that might not have happened. What is the point of all these conversations if it doesn’t benefit anyone other than the person who’s leading the conversation? If an independent movie in between Tarantino and Nolan’s projects wants to be screened on 70 mm, is that going to be possible? Or just something the kings can do?