By Edward Douglas
Back in 2014, New York filmmaker Alex Ross Perry cast Elisabeth Moss in his third feature “Listen Up Phillip.” Moss had already been nominated for multiple Emmys for her work on “Mad Men” at that point, but it would precede her Golden Globe-winning work on “Top of the Lake” and her current Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
That partnership led to Perry featuring Moss’ talents in his next feature “Queen of Earth,” and now the two are back together again with “Her Smell.” In the movie, Moss plays Becky Something, the leader of an iconic all-girl punk band who has been at the top of their game but are starting to falter due to Becky’s erratic behavior and drug addiction.
“Her Smell” documents Becky and her band as things start to fall apart, and then cuts forward in time when Becky is trying to get her life together and make amends for all the people she hurt during her various flame-outs including her bandmates (Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin), ex-husband (Dan Stevens), her manager (Eric Stolz), mother (Virginia Madsen) and young daughter.
Next Best Picture got on the phone with Perry last week to talk about his third collaboration with Moss for what might be her best performance yet. Perry also talked to us about the casting and building sets on a soundstage for his movie for the first time.
What got you interested in making a movie in this world, and did you write Becky specifically for Liz and have her involved while doing so?
Yeah. I mean, it’s our third movie. Not only did the presentation of the character to her precede even outlining the story or knowing it. It just was, “What do you think about playing this character in our third movie together someday?” It was just always there in her and I really felt like during the writing of it, I was just actually transcribing an existing performance of her that I was already watching. Because I knew so confidently, “Oh, man this line, I can see her doing this. This is going to be great. Then, this look in her eyes right here, I’m picturing that right now. I’m gonna write that in.” I know how tall she is, I know how she moves, I know when she moves slow, I know when she moves fast. I really just felt like I was writing the closed captioning underneath a performance of hers that I was already able to see. That just comes from having made two other movies with someone and having them say, “I’m in,” only to a character.
Sure, that doesn’t happen very often, especially with an actor who has just gotten busier and busier with her current TV show. Did you know she could sing and perform and kind of pull off that aspect of it, or did she have to work on it to kind of get to the point?
Yeah, I didn’t. I mean, this came up a lot. “Did you know she could sing?” No, I had no idea. I just wanted her to play this character. Of course, I learned that she had done some singing and some kind of musical theater performing arts training as a child, but she never picked up a guitar or maybe hasn’t since she was seven or eight years old. Again, just the confidence of the performer was me saying like, “Well, I’m sure she can learn that. I mean, that’s what she does.” I was correct in having that just complete naïve, absolute confidence in her to learn how to hold that guitar like it belongs to her.
And does she play piano as well or was that something she just learned?
That she had done a little bit at some point in her life, so that wasn’t like from square one, but I don’t think she had sat at a piano in twenty years.
I have a background in music myself, having been a recording engineer for about twenty years, so when I watch a movie about musicians, I’m always looking for things that might take away from the authenticity, but this one passed the muster for sure.
Well, I’m very glad when people say that. There are things in it that are very deliberately taking a swing at authenticity, and there are things in it that are just kind of, for me, a fantasy of what I think this world maybe could or should be like, or it’s just sort of my vision of the world as it pertains to these characters. I really do love people saying that there are some relatable memories in here for them.
For me, it’s almost in a bad way because some of the studio scenes gave me PTSD since I’ve been in those situations with musicians who get as crazy as Becky does.
Folks are interesting. What kind of musicians are we talking about?
They’re not too famous. There’s one who’s a pretty famous songwriter. There’s one not too famous, but both crazy.
Okay. Great. Well, I guess maybe they all are in a way.
I was curious about that because I’ve always felt musicians are crazy, but then some might think that about actors, as well. Do you have any opinion on that – musicians vs. actors and which is crazier?
No. I mean I don’t really know if there’s a movie that I have somewhere in there that’s like this kind of a movie, but about actors. This movie is so much getting at … I mean, you know, these women in this movie are actors. They are performers. There’s a character named Rebecca who’s playing this character of Becky every day of her life. This character named Alexandra, playing a character named Allie every day of her life. So, you know, that kind of identities split, fractured sense of who am I, you know what kind of performative side of this is very much a part of it. Musician, actor, you know a politician, everyone’s playing some role when they get on stage.
That’s why I’m never surprised when musicians show up in movies and are really good as actors. Like you say, performance is at least 33 percent of what musicians need to be able to do, including being on stage.
Oh, yeah. They’re naturally charismatic. Performers, that’s what they are. These women in this movie are no different.
Did you have any experience in that world before or did you have to do a lot of research to make it seem authentic? Where did you draw from?
Well, I have no experience. I mean I’ve never been in a band. I don’t know the first thing about music. In terms of the craft of it, I know what I like when I hear it. My experience is as a fan and sort of someone who grew up in the ’90s and appreciated a lot of this alternative rock that the movie is about. My Dad always worked in radio, so I would be in radio stations or backstage at concerts sometimes. So, I had a bit of that, but no. I mean it’s just my creative vocations of making movies and being on sets with crews and actors and kind of family of collaborators. Got the experience and I can sort of, and have several times, transposed my experiences into some other industry. Then, if we’re lucky, people like yourself say, “Oh, I just really … This really feels pretty spot on.” And it’s like, great well this is, in a way, a movie about me and my friends who are all filmmakers and not musicians. In another way, this is a movie about, as I already said, women’s identity and performing these characters at all times.
That seems like a good segue to talk about your frequent composer Keegan DeWitt. I’m sure we’ve spoken about him before, but I actually spoke to Aaron Katz about his movie “Gemini” and he mentioned knowing DeWitt since they were college roommates or something like that.
I believe they were … No, they went to high school together.
Ah, so it was back even further. How did you work differently with him for this movie, since he’s scored most of your other films?
Just the last four, yeah. The Keegan collaborations now are such that, much like Lizzy and Sean as the DP and many other people, Keegan’s getting a script may be a year before we’re shooting the movie and being told, “Start thinking.” Whereas on many jobs that a composer gets, they’re being shown an edit and told, “Start thinking.” So he can really think about the tone of the material and he can find inspiration at his own pace, rather than, “Here’s a cut movie, we need a score in six weeks.” So he was on board, and just at a very early point, I said to him simply, “I want the score of this movie to feel like a panic attack. I don’t know what that is. I don’t know if that’s all drums, or it that’s all guitars or if that all this or that. That’s your job. Just make it feel like a panic attack.” Then at some point, he said, “I want to start and end with electric guitar and then I want the entire middle of the movie, beyond the first and last five minutes or score, to not be instruments you see on screen or any rock instruments that you’re really in the world of.” And I said, “That is a brilliant, inspired idea. Run with it.”
Then he’s looking at the dailies and by day three or four of the shoot, he’s sending in his demos of these electronic loops and these beats and tones. It’s just so unexpected and then suddenly it’s like, “Yeah, this is it.” Then, we just cut the movie around his demos, send him a cut, and then he listens to what we did with his demos and then re-scores it. Which we’d never done that many steps. Typically, we cut it with his pieces and that’s that. This time he actually went back and did a whole other composition once we had edited, but the edits were only really based on his rhythm anyways. It was kind of like putting the cart before the horse, but then putting another cart behind the horse and that other cart has a horse in it.
You start the movie with the Other Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet,” and then at one point, Becky plays Bryan Addams’ “Heaven,” so did you talk to Keegan about writing some original songs?
Four of the songs in the movie are original. Becky plays three original songs and then the Aker Girls song is original. The Becky songs were written by Alisha Bognanno [of the Nashville band Bully] and the Aker Girls song was written by Anika Pyle. I also knew that just historically, just traditionally, there’s so much coverage in this culture, in this time in the ’80s and ’90s. I learned about so much music from bands I like covering other bands. I mean, “Another Girl Another Planet,” I learned about that and about The Only Ones from The Replacements, who made that cover kind of a staple.
We’re kind of tipping our hat to that, but the same time by having an all-female band play that song with no changed lyrics, it’s kind of like The Raincoats covering “Lola” or Hole covering “Hungry Like The Wolf” at MTV Unplugged. There are these kinds of surprising covers that for me, the origin of that is like The Ramones covering “Needles & Pins” or Phil Spector songs. That’s how I learned about that music, which is really important that the movie represented that a lot of these bands would just pick up a guitar and jam on a cover. So Becky had to do that a lot, but also we needed to show quite a bit of her own actual output. The challenge for that was, you know, what female songwriters are there working today that can create something that’s authentically of this period and that was exactly what we found.
There are four distinct sections to the movie in three locations – I assumed the club at the ending was the same as the one at the beginning. So where are these places, how did you find them and get them set-up to do what you needed to do?
Well, all the backstages are sets that we built on a soundstage, which has been a dream of mine for a very long time. When you do it, you kind of get to this point where you have this control and there’s nobody saying for three weeks of filming, “We need to get out of here. The venue guy needs us to leave. This location, this bar is opening” or “Hang on, the light is changing,” or “Hang on it’s too noisy.” When you have that level of control, you just suddenly think, “Oh, this is why they made movies this way for 75 years, exclusively.”
This is why when you looked at classical Hollywood, you look at all the titans, you know, Hitchcock, Kubrick, you just look at it and you’re like, “Oh, these movies are this way because you’re on a soundstage, and you have complete control over every single element.” I really wanted to experiment with that, so we built all the backstage. Then the recording studio is a real studio, but you know, it’s completely shut off from light and sound as though it is a soundstage. In fact, the recording studio was even quieter than the soundstage, of course. So yeah, the movie only does have four locations and you’re right, one of them plays twice for a total of nearly 50 minutes of the movie. You need to really be able to live with looking at those and they never need to betray that there’s anything about them that is wrong. You need to just live in those spaces and that was the challenge.
I feel like at least some of the opening and maybe the ending, you did a lot of single shots or at least the appearance of single shots. How was that arranged to happen?
Well, that’s just choreography, which was very important because I knew that the energy and the sort of mania of all of the performances really needed not to be stopping and starting every two minutes. We’re going to get this line and then we’re going to get that line. I knew that the performances would only really reach their full potential if we could actually execute six or seven minutes at a time of filming so that by the end, people who’ve been in a hallway, in a room, and back out into the hallway and everyone’s actually moving like the characters. That duration becomes really important for the actors.
Sometimes you just get a miracle take where in the edit you can use a straight 90 seconds or two minutes of a take. Even if you don’t, once you start getting really cutty … There’s still material in the cutting that is only being performed by the actors and the camera, the way that it is because they’ve been doing that take for six minutes even though we just cut into it now for the first time. It’s all the challenge of how do we do a movie that just has five twenty-five minute scenes. The answer was to do it like theater where the duration of the performance is the performance. It’s not a movie where it’s like, “Now we get your close-up, now we do your shot.” It’s like, you’re all in the frame, all the time and you’re all moving, and you’re all responsible for acting and reacting because I can’t guarantee that you’re never going to not be on camera.
That and the music give the movie a very different feel from what you’ve done before. I was curious about the casting around Liz. Obviously, Eric Stoltz I knew, Dan Stevens I knew, and Virginia, obviously. Agyness and Gayle, I wasn’t really familiar with their work at all. How did you find them to be part of a band with Liz?
I mean this is one of the best things of this movie that I love the most, is that we really had the freedom to actually cast who I felt certain was the right performers for the role, which means Agyness and Gayle are two of the main leads of the movie. I had this opportunity, which is very rare, especially now with the way people kind of place value on actors to not say, “Oh, well you’re going to be doing press with people who’ve never seen these performers. We need to just put really famous people in here even if they’re wrong for the movie.” So we were able to really just cast them the old fashioned way, honestly and because they were the best people for the job. Agyness had blown my mind in this movie called “Sunset Song” that she was in. The British film set in Scotland from like 2014 or ’15. It’s a truly astounding performance… if that movie, with that kind of performance, came out in 1996, she would have been nominated for an Oscar. But in 2016, it’s just like a little arthouse movie that a handful of people see and get excited by. That made me always want to work with her. Gayle I wasn’t really familiar with. She was in Noah Baumbach’s last movie, “The Meyerowitz Stories.” She has the same agent as Agyness and she said, “You know, I think that she might really click for this.” I Skyped with her and then she’s just made her own self-take of some scenes. We didn’t ask her to do that, and she just did it. Lizzy and I looked at it and we thought, “Oh man, this is a formidable performer of extreme potential, and we want to get in the room with this actress and see her opposite what you’re doing.” So, it was just really the honest way. It was because we were excited by both of them, and they were both clearly best for this job.
Also, many of the more familiar actors we knew were playing different roles, and a few I didn’t recognize like Cara Delevigne and Amber Heard.
I just love putting together a big ensemble cast. I don’t have the luxury and therefore I’ve learned to not need auditions or chemistry reads. It’s really just based on just the feel of talking to them and their response to the script and my ability to picture them in the movie. With someone like Cara, who I’d only seen in “Suicide Squad” and things like that, she was just so perfect for this movie. I kinda know her as an actress a little, and I’m kind of aware that she’s very well known in fashion and other things, but really, just our conversation for an hour and a half convinced me that she wants so badly to be in a movie like this. I think she’ll, so clearly that she’s correct for this. It’s just a lot of fun to put that stuff together.
This has been done since last Fall, so you’ve been developing anything else writing-wise? Has writing “Christopher Robin” for Disney gotten you interested in writing more studio stuff? What’s been going on since then?
Not a whole lot. We kind of made this movie very quickly and very focused, which was great. “Christopher Robin” and this kinda were unveiled a month apart, which was fine because I wrote them at the same time. I really don’t have anything else at the moment. I mean, this one, I feel like I made five movies in this one movie. Which leaves me with a dubious sense of what else is there. If there’s anything else … I mean the only thing I even have that I’ve ever done any work on that’s beyond just an idea is my long-gestating passion project adaptation of Don DeLillo’s The Names, which only has to be the next movie because there’s no other movie I have thought about making for the last three years. I kind of used up everything I had on “Her Smell.” Yeah, just kind of taking it easy.
Oh, nice. Well, you have to do that once in a while, for sure. Alex, it was great talking to you again. I’m sure I’ll see you around the New York scene.
“Her Smell” is now playing in New York and will expand to L.A. and other cities on Friday.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW