Director Richard Shepard could’ve made a straightforward psychological thriller for his latest film, but he felt it would’ve ultimately been disposable. With The Perfection, Shepard swung for something out and out “bonkers” that will, “for better or worse,” elicit some kind of conversation.
The Perfection stars Allison Williams as Charlotte, a cello prodigy who had to drop out of a distinguished music conservatory to take care of her ailing mother. When her mother eventually dies, Charlotte is looking to reclaim the career she put on hold. The only problem is that the music conservatory director found a new star pupil in Lizzie (Logan Browning), and she is now queen bee of the cello world.
The Perfection is set up as a classic revenge story: Two women clashing for power, prestige, and, as the title suggestions, perfection. But the cursory reading of the plot is merely a trapdoor. What’s buried underneath is a psychological freefall where nothing is ever what it seems.
“I’m a big fan of the Korean filmmaker Chan-wook Park, who did The Handmaiden and Oldboy. And both movies are these outrageous stories that have so many twists and turns, and yet at the end of the movie, you actually feel like they are all earned,” Shepard says. Aside from the hairpin-turn plot twists, there’s much to unpack in The Perfection: sexual trauma, mental health, women’s sexuality–the list is long and the line to walk it successfully is harrowingly thin.
Helping on that front were both Williams and Browning, who helped shape the story to keep it from running off the rails. Shepard, who co-wrote the film with Ringer creators Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo, actively sought the counsel of both actors to mitigate the male gaze on the more salacious elements and keep it from veering into exploitation.
“It really helped having Allison Williams be part of the process from almost the very beginning,” Shepard says. “Her comments and notes on the script were intense in a great way. She challenged so many things that forced us as writers to have to defend ourselves. And then once Logan was hired, she also had very strong opinions. As a filmmaker, it’s best to be surrounded by people who love the material that you’re doing but are also vocal in their opinions and are smart and articulate.”
“When we were shooting was when the Olympic gymnast coach Larry Nasser’s trial was going on,” Shepard continues. “And we were watching and talking about that on a daily basis in terms of how it affected our movie. It’s tough. I’m sure we’ll get some dings from people who think that we were being exploitative. We weren’t setting out to be that.”
It’s a toss-up as to how audiences will receive The Perfection. Some may read it as a modern tale of female empowerment. Others may dismiss it as psychosexual torture porn. Certainly, Shepherd is hoping for the former, but what he’s primarily concerned with is making sure all those left-field chances he’s taken are merited.
“You can have a million twists and turns, but if they feel inorganic or they don’t feel like they’re character driven then it just feels like a filmmaker throwing darts at the wall,” Shepard says. “The idea is you’re constantly surprised, but by the time you get to the end, you start putting the pieces together and hopefully say, ‘wow, it actually worked.’ The movie is bonkers, so you have to accept that it is bonkers. But if you do, then hopefully that is an enjoyable thing for the audience.”
The Perfection premieres on Netflix on May 24.