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Very Slow And Then Very Fast: How Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry Writes Screenplays

The Queen of Earth writer and director breaks down his unique screenwriting process.

Very Slow And Then Very Fast: How Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry Writes Screenplays
Elisabeth Moss as Catherine in Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth” [Photo: Sean Price Williams, courtesy of Her Majesty September, IFC Films]

The dialogue in Alex Ross Perry films like Listen Up, Philip tends to be ornate, literary, and precise. It hits the ear sounding as heavily fussed-over as a symphony–which makes it all the more surprising to know that it was cranked out with the speed of a Ramones song.

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Alex Ross PerryPhoto: courtesy of Sundance Film

After being inspired by the legendarily dense book, Gravity’s Rainbow, Perry quit his job at Kim’s Video & Music in New York City in 2008 and set out to make the kind of films the cognoscenti at Kim’s might have had playing in-store. Since then, he’s directed four verbose, well-observed, occasionally abrasive films that have earned him a spot in the vanguard of rising indie filmmakers. With each successive outing, though–aside from work-for-hire projects such as the unaired series of shorts he made with HBO–Ross has kept to the same singular screenwriting process. It’s the opposite of the old adage, hurry up and wait. Ross sits with an idea for months, and then unspools the entire shooting script from his brain in a four-to-five week torrent.

As the just-released Queen of Earth, starring Elisabeth Moss, continues its run, and the prolific filmmaker toggles between writing Disney’s new Winnie The Pooh and his next directorial effort, Alex Ross Perry talked with Co.Create about his unusual writing process and why it works for him.

Letting The Idea Gestate

Here’s a timeline of the most recent movie Perry wrote for himself to direct: he got the idea last September, pitched an actress to star in it in October, and finally sat down to start writing this past March. He needed all that time for the idea to build to its potential.

“Ever since my first movie, the way that I’ve found a rhythm is that from the inception of the idea, which is always image based, I just kind of take months to let that idea and that image seed and just think about it for a really long time until every aspect of a story that I need to start writing is there, generally including a beginning and a middle, while the end of course is totally, totally not there yet,” he says. “But the first scene and sequences for sure and generally like most of the other characters. I don’t really know how much work it would take to turn an image into a story sitting in front of a writing device.”

Filling The Tank

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Perry is constantly taking in inspiration from movies, books, and art while plotting out his next film. By seeing what’s out there as the idea comes together, he soaks up new possibilities for directions to take his own movie that he might never have otherwise considered.

“A day doesn’t go by that I don’t watch a movie—usually in the theater, but generally also at home,” he says. “And I’m also always reading, especially this past year where I’ve been writing three different things for the last seven months. I’ve read more books during this phase of writing-based productivity than I usually do. So that whole period is just kind of taking other stuff in and letting it all bounce around and see if one of a hundred things that I’ve absorbed between the planting of the idea and the actual extracting of it helps me have a better understanding of what I’m actually going to be putting on the page on the day where I finally sit down. Spending that much time just marinating gives the whole process a real sense of predestination and it helps me understand everything about the characters and develop those major images.”

Taking Notes

You might think Perry keeps close track of every single idea that pops in his head while the macro idea is percolating, but you’d be wrong.

“I very rarely take notes,” he says. “Most of the time I do that on my phone I end up forgetting about it. It’s mostly just one line of dialogue or just some image that’s really simple. But part of this long con where you’re just marinating on it, is that if you can’t remember it then it’s not worth remembering. So like if I get a great idea, like a brilliant idea during a film that I’m launching or a book that I’m reading, if I even think for a second that if I don’t write this down I’m going to forget it, then it’s like well it’s probably forgettable. So I do end up with a few things and note it down. But I have on my phone still the notes from writing Queen of Earth, and I was like looking through it when Lizzie and I were doing press and it’s just full of stuff that ended up not in the movie.

Don’t Start Writing Until You Have Time To Commit

Perry doesn’t start actually typing until he’s thought most of the way through the film—and has enough of a window to finish it.

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“I know in advance when I am likely to have enough time to actually do this five days a week for three weeks or for a month,” he says. “Lizzie [Moss] and I have been talking about this other idea that exists only as a vague concept, and I just know I’m not going to have three weeks to sit down and do this until at least October. So I have that long to keep putting ideas into the memory bank and find different sources of inspiration because right now it’s really just one character and one sense of where this character comes from and I just have one theme so far and then the theme is where the first image I have comes from. So if I were to sit down and start writing today I would have nothing. I could write for like two hours and this idea would be dead. But eight weeks from now maybe it’ll be enough for me to actually do it or maybe it will not happen for longer than that.”

A Good Outline Is Like A Cloning Machine

When the time is right to actually get started, the filmmaker begins—as most writers do—with a detailed outline.

“The outline phase goes fast because it’s essentially just getting everything I’ve been saving up in my memory on paper to get fleshed out,” Perry says. “So it’s like a science fiction thing where they’re like cloning somebody and it starts with a skeleton and the next pass with the device like builds the muscle system and the nerves and then the next pass like builds organs and then finally like flesh and then like teeth and hair. It just comes from the inside and everything has its core. I lose interest in a lot of things and I don’t want to write fifty pages of a thing and then decide I don’t really care about where it’s going or how it’s going to be a full movie. I’ve never done that because by the time I get to the starting line, I know exactly where to go.”

Listen Up Philip, 2014Photo: courtesy of Sundance Film

Just Spit Out Words And Get Momentum Going

The whole point of stewing on an idea for six months before sitting down to write is that when you do sit down, the words will come pouring out.

“It’s usually just like a couple of weeks until there’s a draft,” Perry says. “The writing process of that first draft really is just like words on a page at a machine gun clip for as long as it takes. I don’t want to start this next thing until I have enough saved up that I can just run straight to the finish line because every time I’ve tried to do it the other way, I lose momentum and the thing ends up unfinished. Wait until you’re ready and then don’t stop until it’s all over. That doesn’t mean quit your job and work from noon to six everyday, but you just need to find some way to make sure the momentum is there and that you’re not going to run out of steam or time to do what you want. It really is like running a marathon. You can’t sprint through a marathon. You’re going to totally get winded and have to quit.

From First Draft To Ready To Shoot

Perry writes his first draft on an Olivetti typewriter that was his grandfather’s when he was in law school. The process of turning that document into a file on a computer is where the redrafting alchemy happens.

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“That first draft is like a burst and then it’s just there,” he says. “Being a typewriter document, it’s actually physically pages on my desk. So it’s a process of finessing it into what reads like a movie script, which that first document does not in any way, shape, or form. It takes a little bit of time and it takes some embellishing and a lot of omitting and editing and deleting and rewriting. It usually takes just as long as the first draft does, so two to three weeks for the first draft and two to three more for the one I send out. I always go into it knowing how much work it’s going to take between drafts, though. The first thing that you finish is essentially worthless and the more you remember that the easier it’s going to be.”

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