Day 7: Alex Ross Perry’s Misanthropic Listen Up Philip, and the Incremental Making of 52 Tuesdays

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Sundance Institute is dispatching its writers to daily screenings and events to capture the 10 days of festivities during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Check back each morning for roundups from the previous day’s events.

Listen Up Philip
By Eric Hynes 

You can’t say they weren’t warned.

In introducing his new film, Listen Up Philip, to the audience at the MARC Theater on Wednesday night, director Alex Ross Perry torpedoed any expectations that a rollicking feel-good comedy was about to commence. “ Well I hope everyone is ready to feel really shitty about humanity,” he said. While it may have been an indelicate introduction, especially for a film that actually has a lot to say about and for humanity—shitty and otherwise—it definitely prepped viewers for the dyspeptic unpleasantness of Philip (Jason Schwartzman), a young novelist whose misanthropic discontent saturates the first third of the film.

But something unexpected happens as the film progresses—Perry shifts focus from Philip to his frustrated girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), and later to his self-appointed mentor, Ike (Jonathan Pryce), a wizened and embittered superstar writer who serves as both a cautionary tale and a shining beacon for Philip. Though none of the characters come off as especially heroic in this triptych of portraits, the curiosity for and respect of multiple points of view, of lives normally left unseen and unexplored in standard cinematic narratives, made this viewer feel strangely better about humanity.     

“People’s lives exist when you’re not around. If you think you break up with someone and they cease to exist, then you’re wrong,” Perry said during a post-screening Q&A in which he was more amenable and approachable than his opening remarks might have suggested. “As a viewer of films and reader of stories I want to see what that person goes through just as much as I want to see the rest of it.”

He spoke of how the three main characters are all “drawn from the worst parts of my own personality, and the best that I could ever hope to achieve. Ike represents my 70 year-old lifetime of enemies side, which is probably my biggest side. I don’t have the accomplishments that he has, but I have everything else. Ashley is more driven and dedicated to her work than either of the men in the movie, and that’s something that’s been important to me as I’ve been struggling to make small movies for the last several years. And Philip is just a miserable piece of shit. So I just combined all those parts of myself and split them into three different characters.”

“Cinema is different from television, and people are starting to forget that.”

In terms of shooting style, he talked about how Super 16mm film was essential for conveying a somewhat antiquated, saturated world in which cell phones don’t exist and giants of literature still roam the earth. As for the copious amounts of close-ups in the film, which in one particular party scene recall the immersive claustrophobia of John Cassavetes’ Faces, Perry said he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Cinema is different from television, and people are starting to forget that. And for me, when I want to sit and see images this big, there’s nothing I want to see more than a face closer than it could ever be in real life. Shots like that don’t work on television, because if you’re sitting in your living room and you’re ten feet away from something, and your television’s only this big, a face like that’s really not going to read. But for something like this, I want to see people’s eyes, the tiniest twitches in their mouth when they react to something. It’s a special gift that only cinema can give, and I wanted to go as far as I could go with it.” 

52 Tuesdays
By Jeremy Kinser

While much attention at the Festival this year has been focused on Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s 12 years-in the-making drama, another film has been made under a similarly innovative process. For her directorial debut 52 Tuesdays (World Dramatic Competition), Sophie Hyde shot her film only on Tuesdays for 52 consecutive weeks and the actors were only given scripts a week in advance and only the scenes that involved their characters. Hyde, who also cowrote (with Matthew Carmack) and produced the Australian-set drama, worked by the same rule— she stopped shooting before midnight on Tuesdays, so whatever was filmed on that day is what happens in the story on that day.

It’s an audacious experiment that, despite some shaggy edges, largely works. The unusual shooting schedule added delicate layers of intimacy and kinetic energy to the story of 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) adjusting to news that her mother (Del Herbert-Jane) plans to begin gender transition, and their time together will be limited to Tuesday afternoons over the course of one year.

Hyde spoke to the audience following the screening Wednesday morning about the inherent challenges in a weekly year-long shoot and noted the obvious — that the film required a major commitment from cast and crew. “Just shooting that amount of time becomes a marathon,” she shared. “We scripted throughout the year from an initial outline. So, yes there were complications. All sorts of things went wrong.” Cormack agreed, but added, “As a writer it’s a fantastic thing to have a deadline every week.”

The atypical filming process seems to have actually aided the realism of the performances, particularly Cobham-Hervey’s. The potential for stardom is clear in this first-time actor, who alternates intensity and winsomeness reminiscent of recent breakout stars Carey Mulligan and Mia Wasikowska. “Not having worked in film was actually a blessing,” Cobham-Hervey revealed to the audience, and compared the making of the film to living in a parallel universe. “It was like being in a giant Sims game, being controlled, or like being in a choose-your-own-adventure novel.”

A member of the audience asked whether Herbert-Jane, who played James, Billie’s transitioning mother, and who was not in attendance, had similarly undergone gender reassignment. Carmack revealed that Herbert-Jane initially began working with the writers as a consultant. “We asked Del to screen test and it went very well,” he added.

“They (a gender-neutral pronoun preferred by some transgender people) are gender non-conforming, neither male nor female,” Hyde offered. “Del was cast because of their unique prospective on gender. It’s a fictionalized character. James is very much a transgender man, but Del isn’t like that at all. Whether Del went through transition or not, that’s something Del likes to keep private.”

Despite the adventurous filmmaking and the positive response from the screening audience, the director admitted she’s not sure she’d do it again. “Next time I want to shoot something in two weeks,” she said, with a laugh.

This Is Not a Panel
By Nate von Zumwalt 

The pseudo panelists on Wednesday’s sidesplitting, eccentric This Is Not a Panel did all they could to heed the event’s raison d’etre. Conceived as anything but a formal discussion with a fixed Q&A session, directors Michael Tully (Ping Pong Summer), Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip), David Zellner (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter), and Jenny Slate (Obvious Child, and for our purposes, played by Nathan Zellner) eschewed the banalities of “panel talk” for a part free-flowing conversation, part show-and-tell experience.

Lacking a traditional moderator, Tully seized the reins and engaged in a battle of wit with fellow filmmaker and friend Perry for the better part of the non-panel, which opened with a very panel-y question from an audience member about film financing. “We’ll answer that and then we’ll spring into some clips and stuff to make it real fun…so this doesn’t actually start to sound like a real panel,” said Tully. “Find someone with a lot of money,” suggested Perry, in response to the challenge of financing a film outside of a studio. “I got all of my money from one guy—such a fake reality, but it still exists.”

Appearing not in place of, but in fact as the unable-to-attend Jenny Slate (who would later call in), Nathan Zellner introduced the first show-and-tell item, Steely Dan’s “Caves of Altamira,” cueing a subdued jam session. “I like listening to Steely Dan lyrics when I’m working,” explained Slate (Zellner). Perry, hardly veiling his comical misanthropy, took exception to the ensuing question of whether he enjoyed listening to music while working. “No. And I don’t write outside my house; I hate being outside my house. It’s my home.” Perry continued, introducing his show-and-tell item. “It’s a clip from a 1972 movie called We Won’t Grow Old Together, about a miserable relationship.”

Tully, still playing moderator, opened the floor for an audience question. “What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?” a woman asked. The hilarious range of responses were uttered as follows:

Alex Ross Perry: “You’re looking at it. You wouldn’t believe how much money we get paid to do these panels.”

David Zellner: “My all-time worst job was probably the McDonald’s bun factory.” 

Jenny Slate (Nathan Zellner): “Standard waitressing, oil rigger in Alaska. My hardest acting job was when I was told to ‘have fun.’”

Another question fired in from the audience. “When you need to take a break from work, what do you do for fun?”

Perry: “Fun? The only fun part of the day is if you go see a movie by yourself. But only if you get through a good day of work.”

Slate (Zellner): “Extreme sports. I like rock climbing, scuba diving.”

Tully: “Watching a movie, eating dinner.”

Rounding out the show-and-tell component, David Zellner muted the humorous tone with his item of inspiration, Pancake Bunny. Rather than touting the meme that emerged from the viral images of a bunny balancing various objects on its head, Zellner chose to reference the original blog by the Japanese man who shot and posted the images in the late ‘90s. As Zellner noted, this trivial piece of “interweb novelty” becomes an incredibly poignant story of the bunny’s existence, all the way up to its death and burial.

It was an odd cap to the day’s conversation, but one that secured the theme of the day—this was definitely not a panel. 

That’s a wrap on Day 7. Check out this Instagram video recap from @NowThisNews.

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