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Her Smell Director Alex Ross Perry on Elisabeth Moss and Her Performance of the Year

on December 24, 2019, 11:11am
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On “Heaven” and the vulnerability of rocking out


It often seems as though Becky is most coherent or honest when she’s making music, even at her lowest. What were those musical moments like to shoot? How did Elisabeth approach them?

That’s sort of a tricky thing. I’d never made a musical movie before… All you can do is put lyrics into a script and hope that people get what it is going to be. Therefore, the writing of those sequences always had an excessive amount of me saying, on the page, “This is an incredible performance, this is beautiful,” or in the case of the opening scene, “The energy is high, she gives no fucks,” and so on and so forth. Just so that, as a reader, people could get what it was. The other interesting balance to consider is that two of those performances, the first one and the last one, are in front of 200 extras, and then two of those performances, the ones that are in act four, are in a house with a skeleton crew and one or two other actors in the room.

So, in terms of the delicacy of filming for act four—not that this is a [perfect] comparison, but we almost treated them like intimacy scenes, like sex scenes would be handled in an erotic movie. In the case of the stage shows, it was about giving Lizzie the space and the comfort and the freedom to feel safe to just basically go for it and look ridiculous—swinging your instrument around, acting like you do this every single day of your life, and this guitar is a part of you. You can rock out if you’re strung out, and do this or that. It’s ridiculous, it’s nonsense, it’s completely embarrassing to imagine doing that, for me as a human being.

And for an actor, [as a director] you have to be sensitive to how vulnerable it is to sing. I don’t like karaoke, I don’t want people to see me like that, it’s too embarrassing. So doing it with 200 extras [who were] incredibly enthusiastic—but paid to [be enthusiastic]. You know what I mean? We had to film those songs in concert 12 or 15 times. It was just vulnerable. Those are some incredibly raw and vulnerable things to do. It’s different from acting in a theater, with a thousand people. [And it’s different from] acting for film and television typically, with sometimes with only five or 10 people in the room. But acting for film and television with hundreds of extras, that’s another thing, because you kind of have to combine the most vulnerable parts of both styles of acting. And [that’s also true of] the scene that’s not a “performance” per se: the onstage breakdown in act three, which again has hundreds of extras. I mean that’s the same thing.

With that scene, it was very clear, just in terms of the energy and the vulnerability, that she could not do that for an hour, that it had to be captured. And we had to be incredibly sensitive to how difficult it was to get up on that stage, smeared and wet and handcuffed, and then to fully go for it. If you bottle that energy and you do it three times, and you tell the performer we’re only gonna do this three or four times, then they don’t hold anything back. And if they think, I might be doing this all day, then they’re never going to give it [their all] because they’re pacing themselves constantly. We wanted all the performances, especially these crowds scenes, to not hold anything back. “You just get this perfectly on the second one; we would love to not have to do that again.” And she did.

Those two act four performances are incredible, and “Heaven”, in particular, is maybe the best scene of the year. What were your conversations with Elisabeth like around that scene?

Our conversations were basically focused on the fact that there’s nowhere [for her] to hide. There’s no trickery. These concert scenes, we were going to be shooting with two cameras, were going to do a dozen takes, it’s cut like a concert movie. We can cut to the other members of the band, we can do this and that. But with “Heaven”, it was, “There’s nothing you can do other than just do it perfectly in front of the camera.” And that’s the challenge, as the actor, to know that we can’t fake this, we can’t fix it. We can’t make it better than whatever it is when we roll. And we were doing it at the very end of the shoot. [I told her,] “Just give it 30 minutes a day, and practice. But it has to just be the thing.”

But honestly, I didn’t really have much to say to her, because it says in the script on the page, “This is the best performance of ‘Heaven’ you have ever heard or will ever hear.” And when you put that on the page, the actor knows, Oh, okay, no pressure, but I guess I need to deliver that because that’s how it’s written. It was there, on the page, that it was one continuous shot. The actor has to know this is an insane decision, but the director’s not doing it because they want to punish their performer. They’re asking for that because they truly believe this is the only possible correct version of that. In your third movie with somebody, [the actor] knows if I write in “one shot”, I’m not going to like be like, “Oh, I don’t have the confidence [in you]. So let’s just like get some insert shots of your fingertips so we can use different takes.” She’d know I’m not going to do that. And she’d be correct.


On what makes Elisabeth Moss great

Us, Horror, Jordan Peele, Red Carpet Photo, SXSW 2019, Elisabeth Moss

Elisabeth Moss at Us SXSW World Premiere, photo by Heather Kaplan

How would you characterize your collaboration?

The important, broader thing is there’s just so much value to collaborative units in my mind. It’s our third movie. But because I worked with the same crew and all the same departments, it’s also Lizzie’s third movie with the same hair and makeup department, and her third movie with the same wardrobe designer, and her third movie in front of the same cinematographer and the same gaffer. So, the fact that it’s not just the two of us finding repeat collaborations, but everybody on set is basically a familiar face, to me, is beyond the familiarity I can have when I’m writing something and thinking, This performer will do great with this role. I don’t have to worry about this feeling difficult and challenging for them, because the awkwardness of just showing up on day one, and launching into the character is gone, because she’s had cumulatively like 50 days around all these other people on our other movies, and she knows the Sean [Price Williams], the DP who’s going to be right up in her face, a foot away with the camera, because he’s done that on Listen Up Philip and Queen of Earth.

It’s like there’s no shame. We can be embarrassing in front of each other. We can try these things. Then the rest of the cast and people who I have not worked with before, because that energy level is set between [the person who’s] number one on the call sheet and the entire crew, everybody feels that. The whole thing is just comfortable and casual. When you see the lead actress calling the gaffer by his first name on day one, as another actor, you think, Oh, so this is the kind of production where everyone’s going to know each other’s names because the lead of this movie knows everybody’s name. And now that’s kind of how it’s going to go. We all need to just kind of learn each other’s names and be friendly. It’s [the responsibility of those] at the top of the call sheet to make sure everybody knows what it’s going to be like to come to work every day.

Performance of the Year Elisabeth Moss

Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss on the set of Queen of Earth (IFC Films)

This is an insanely broad question, but it’s pretty widely agreed that Elisabeth is one of the best performers out there. What makes her great?

I don’t know. There are so many buzz words I could [use] as a way of attempting to answer that. Like: mystery. There’s just an inherent unknowability and an inscrutability for the performer as an entity that we love the most about our best actors. There is a sort of unpredictability which we love the most about our best actors. To me, there’s a quality that touches on, clearly in terms of the other greats working right now, what we as a culture love about your Joaquin Phoenix-es or your Daniel Day-Lewis-es. A sort of fearless intensity, but also technical perfection of the craft, which is a perfect balance that no one can really put their finger on, including me. The 135 minutes of this movie show great work, but I watched 30 hours of footage for this movie, and there’s great work consistently.

It goes back to extreme confidence. My confidence as a writer that this character could be executed by this actress made the script better than it ever could have been if I was just writing it thinking, I wonder how we’re going to cast this. Her confidence reading the script and thinking, I can do this better than anybody else, not just because it was written for me, but because this is so clearly exciting [to me] makes the performance better than it would have been otherwise. And that confidence [comes from the fact that] a 30-year-old actress has been working since she was five years old and has the experience to back that up. But it was also that she [didn’t feel the need] to impress me or the crew. It’s not like, “Oh man, these people took a chance on me, I’m so lucky to be here.” We’re all here for this performance. The whole point of making this movie is to create the character and film it on 35mm. That’s why we’re doing this, so this performance can exist. And rather than being nervous and thinking, I better not screw it up, I would assume the actor’s attitude is probably like, Yeah, that makes perfect sense, I can do that. I can land this plane. Because, otherwise it’s just too much pressure. She doesn’t crack under the pressure. Nor do I feel there’s any risk of that happening.

Performance of the Year Elisabeth Moss

Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell (Gunpowder & Sky)

It’s totally mysterious. It’s not method, there’s no risk that if this gets too intense, she’s gonna yell at somebody on the crew and there’s going to be this tension because what we’re doing is too freaky. It’s just showing up, doing your job, being technically great at it, and then going home and coming back the next day and doing it again. That’s just called being a professional. But it’s also the ability to kind of be totally wild and reckless and have fun and be ridiculous. You think about the great performances of the year… I’m sure if you watched them filming Joker, it would look really stupid, but the way it comes together? It’s an incredible performance. It just has to be based in the process. The one answer, if I needed one, and this is part of our answer to the question of “Why do you guys feel like you work so well together three movies in?” …  it’s because she operates day to day the same way I operate both as a director and in my relationship with Sean, the DP. We do so much craft of a very specific kind, and then on the day when we’re rolling, we just want to fuck around and come up with new ideas to add whatever we’ve done. It’s meticulous but then it’s just chaotic. That’s how Sean and I worked on all six of the movies we’ve made, and on this movie, we realized, “Oh, that’s totally how she works too.”

She’s done all this work and is off book and has made decisions and mapped out a performance, and then when we’re rolling, it’s just like, “I’m going to try something different on every take, because why not. I figured this out, I know what I’m doing, I’m gonna do the thing I planned on doing five times in a row, and you’ll have five versions of it. We’re gonna try one take that’s completely paranoid ,and one take that’s completely goofy, and one take that’s mean and you’ll just figure it out.” And that’s a performance that becomes better in the edit than it was on the day because an actor knows to give the director and the editor all those options.

Bonus: On when we can expect to see Elisabeth Moss in the Stephen King universe

Stephen King Adaptations, artwork by Cap Blackard

Stephen King Adaptations, artwork by Cap Blackard

We were really excited to hear about your forthcoming adaptation of The Dark Half. Are you still planning to do Rest Stop as well?

They’re both in the hopper. I’ve been working on Rest Stop for a year, and Dark Half has just now come together. Obviously, due to the vagaries of [the industry], you can never really speak to anything, but, in terms of what I’m doing at home at my desk, they’re both happening. When you’re making an independent movie, you can basically will it into existence. When you’re developing something with studios, there’s a hundred other factors in place. I feel like my strategy on everything I’ve done is, if I want to make one thing happen, I should have two things going and then hopefully one of them will work out. But, everything is all about balance.

What draws you to King?

Beyond the nostalgia and just a lifetime of considering this to be some of the most fun mass-market genre pulp fiction I can crack open any time and just get lost in, it’s the breadth of the imagination of that body of work. When I looked down at my shelf of all of my identically-sized paperbacks, starting with Carrie—my collection going up to about maybe ‘96 or ‘97—you just have to be inspired by the scope of that imagination, and the ability as a writer to not only create so much, but create so much that is so different and to write everything equally well. It’s just as inspirational as any body of work can be. It truly is writing you can disappear into as a reader. I’m not saying anything anyone hasn’t already said.

Elisabeth Moss in "Baggage" (George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Is there a King story you’d want to do with Elisabeth?

Yeah, certainly. Every time I’m pitching any project, to anybody, anywhere, everybody in the industry says, “Can we get her involved with this?” And my answer is always, “Well, it would be easier for me than almost anyone else to at least get an honest answer on that, but my problem is, honestly, if she’s going to do this, I need to know that now, because I would need to find some way to make it better than Her Smell in the sense of what she’s going to be asked to do.” If we’re going to just cast this with actresses far and wide, I’m going to do what I’m going to do. But if we think that we’re going to make this potentially the fourth movie she and I make together, I need to know that now, because then that character has to be exceptional. It has to give her something to really sink her teeth into. Because now my biggest crushing sense of fear and insecurity is, “What do you do after we made this movie?”

I can see how that would mess with your head.

There’s an answer to it somewhere. It makes me nervous.

her smell gif Her Smell Director Alex Ross Perry on Elisabeth Moss and Her Performance of the Year

So, should we expect a fourth Moss/Perry collaboration?

I certainly hope so. I mean, if I can think of something that’s as thrilling and as challenging as this was, and when I’m writing it, if I have that feeling that I had when I was writing this, which was just like, “My God, do I want to see this, and my God, do I want to see this performer playing the character, I cannot write this fast enough, I cannot get it into her hands fast enough, and we cannot shoot it fast enough”: As soon as that level of excitement is back then, then we’re in good hands.

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