Philip speaks up more than he listens
The characters in Alex Ross Perry's new feature speak their mind. But even if actors Jason Schwartzman and Jonathan Pryce admit they would thoroughly enjoy saying everything that comes through their heads, they don't. Instead, they offer the crowd in the film's press conference polite answers about the film, the death of Robin Williams and their impression of New York City, where the story of Listen Up Philip takes place.
Philip, a rising author, is about to publish his second novel and feels more and more stressed out by his life in the city, the supposed lack of support from his girlfriend and the commercial expectation of his editor. When he meets his literary idol Ike Zimmerman, played by Jonathan Pryce, he knows that he has found his mentor. Both men are their own favorite subject and sensibly like social skills.
Explaining the struggle of the characters to come to term with the city, themselves and their entourage, director Alex Ross Perry says they are "two miserable men, ending in the same place where they started. It's not hopeless, but I don't know if people can really change." Asked if it was pleasurable to play mean characters, both actors say they enjoyed the openness of their respective roles, without boundaries between feeling and saying. "But I don't see Philip as mean," says Jason Schwatzmann, "there's something nice about speaking your mind." Pryce adds that theater master Harold Pinter - who he had known well - was exactly like that in real life: "it was shocking".
Inspired by movies like Woody Allen Husbands and Wives, Robert Young Rich Kids and the novels of Philip Roth, the vintage look of the film let the story float in an indistinct time. No cell phones, no computer, no cables, even if the film is not a period piece. "I fantasize the era I was born in and don't remember," explains Perry, "and the story didn't necessitate anything modern". It didn't necessitate anything vintage either, but sufficient funding and an "army of crew" allowed the director to create the exact environement he envisionned, in the slightest costume details. "I don't want to see a replica of my daily life when I enter the editing room". What the film lost in precision, it gains in pleasantly esthetical lighting and atmosphere.
An other influence of Perry is William Gaddis first novel The Recognition, set in a post-modern New York and in which the main character can disappear for as long as seventy pages. This type of structure greatly infused the writing of Listen Up Philip, allowing space and time to develop the female second roles, especially the one of Ashley Kane, the abandonned girlfriend, played by Elisabeth Moss.
Perry likes gimmicks: his previous film, Color Wheel, was in black and white, Listen Up Philip is told by a disembodied narrator. "It's not voice-over, it's narrative. And I will correct every one who says otherwise," reacts Perry when asked about the voice explaining the characters life and emotion throughout the film. This choice gives the film a literary quality, diversely appreciated, but allowing Perry to "generously give twice as much information," whitout more structural effort.