Credit: Donald Stahl
by Conor Truax Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

I Just Put the Food in Front of You: An Interview with Alex Ross Perry

June 20, 2024

Alex Ross Perry first made a name for himself in an emerging class of young New York filmmakers in the late aughts. What followed was a decade of delightful feature films, fraught with the anxieties, comedies, and joys of creation, whether his subject be a writer, musician, or an artist. 

In recent years, Perry has become disinterested in linear storytelling, gravitating instead toward a more maximalist mode that collages documentary, fiction, nonfiction, and music. His newest directorial venture, a syncretic concert film weaving the lore of the Swedish rock-operatic group Ghost, marks a feature-length consummation of the various forms he has been experimenting with over the last few years. 

On the occasion of the film’s release, I had the pleasure of speaking with Perry about what entices him to the hybrid form, how he came to collaborate with the theatrical Swedish band, and what excites him about his future projects which aim to “examine an unexamined era.”

Conor Truax: For the past while you’ve been migrating toward work that weaves narrative and performance, whether it be Her Smell, Maya Hawke’s Dark music video, your ongoing Pavement project, and so on. What got you interested in moving beyond the form of a conventional feature into a more integrated hybrid mode?

Alex Ross Perry: Notwithstanding Her Smell, because that doesn’t really apply to what I’m about to say, but a lot of it is a complete boredom and disinterest in the two-dimensional form that’s a normal, straightforward thing, something that lacks the extra, meta, playful helical quality of hybrid films. The two-dimensional form has gone away from me, as it has for most people, not only because the modern world is increasingly hostile toward ideas that are simply two-dimensional, but also because it’s not enough to excite me. It’s not challenging. That’s not to say I’ve mastered it. I just don’t care about it anymore. Her Smell was in 2018. By 2020, everyone was saying I should make an isolation movie, and that I could do it for no money and get great actors. I was like, nothing could interest me less than making something about characters sitting around and talking. I’ve done that. It’s boring. There’s nothing in that for me. There are no ideas there that are going to be anything other than cheap, difficult, begging and borrowing from everything I’ve done before. 

That’s what drove me toward Pavement and the music videos I’ve made, some of the short-form hybrid documentary stuff. The Ghost mockumentary I made, for example. That was the beginning of my creative partnership with the band and with Tobias [Forge]. I think it’s a new, expanded reality of other things I could otherwise make, largely things I can do cheaper and quicker and with more freedom, because, for whatever reason, the stakes are lower and you’re not raising all the money and getting all the actors to speak a bunch of written lines about private equity. The work becomes much more playful.

Further along the road, the course has also become more obvious. So many heroes, past and present, haven’t done a clean filmography of feature after feature. When you look at the filmographies of Lynch, Spike Lee, Scorsese, Soderbergh, Spike Jonze — you see that the goal should be a never-ending faucet of creative ideas that can take whatever shape that month is giving you. You can make a concert movie, a music video, a documentary that’s five minutes or feature-length. In the case of Spike Jonze, as I do in my Pavement project, you can play a character, only further playing with the viewer and the question: what am I watching? It’s become more interesting to have nebulous work rather than only having one lane, the two-hour feature one after the other. I can’t think of anything more boring than making one of those. 

CT: I’m curious about what in particular excites you about working with Ghost, and how you first got in contact with Tobias Forge, the mind behind Ghost, to make the mockumentary Ghost: The Story So Far.

ARP: I’m just a fan, first and foremost. I saw them open for Iron Maiden at the Barclays Center seven or eight years ago. For once, I was on time, and when I saw them, I was like, “Wait, this is what I like.” The grand theatrical rock music that borrows from Kiss, my favorite band, and other groups I’m fluent in. Watching the storytelling, I went, “Oh, okay — there’s this goofy, ham-fisted, campy-comedic horror element that I love.” 

I’d previously done work for Loma Vista, which is Ghost’s record label, and I said if you ever have anything in the world of Ghost, my hand is raised. I’m a fan. Then, some months later I was given the opportunity to make the definitive mockumentary because so many fans were making YouTube edits trying to untangle the band’s lore. Tobias and his team greeted me warmly, because my approach to that was very research-driven, but also a very tongue-in-cheek tribute to the 10+plus years he’d given to shaping the band. We went further after that, and I wrote a linear story that was told through a walkthrough pop-up with props made by a production designer last February. We had like 3,000 people come through in the day. But that wasn’t a movie. It wasn’t even a short film. It was a real exhibit that was meant to give the audience an experience. And we did. 

Parallel to that, in L.A., I made the Jesus He Knows Me music video, which was really another planet of their universe. One planet is the music, and the other is the promotional materials, meaning the music videos, t-shirts, artwork, and so forth. On the second planet, you’re really closely working with Tobias, who has total domain over the first. It was delightful; I heard his concept and wrote up a treatment, and the budget ended up being about a third what it would have cost to execute the idea to the letter, without the added cost of some unaffordable bells and whistles, and that endeared everyone onward to what I could bring to the work. From that shoot, I told him that I knew they were shooting the Kia Forum shows, and that if he needed anything, he should let me know. Sure enough, he got back to me several months later, and let me know. 

Credit: Marcus Maddox

CT: Given your previous independent projects and your name behind so many of the film’s core credits, I’m curious what the process was like collaborating with Tobias in shooting the concert and being brought into this universe that he’s constructed, which exists far outside of the typical closed-circuit of most feature films?

ARP: The biggest part of my willingness to collaborate is that I don’t care about my own work in a greedy way. I’m not protective of that side of my life. Logistically, anything I’ve authored is not a meaningful part of my life in terms of the fact that I’ve never made money on anything I’ve ever done. That in itself has become a fanciful creative freedom that I’m able to do when I can afford the luxury of it. 

Otherwise, I’m screenwriting for hire. Despite what people might think or say, like that I’ve only written and directed my own movies, it’s not the case. I’m spending the majority of my time working for a producer or an executive and taking orders. And they are much less collaborative than Tobias, and have 1/1000th of the creative vision that he does. I’m really used to collaborating with industry pinheads, and begging these absolute nobodies to give me the opportunity to take an idea that they don’t even have, and turn it into something that they can feel proud thinking they’re the primary author of. That’s just the vulgarity of being a for-hire screenwriter. So when you get to work with somebody who has a crystal-clear vision for 1,000 different parts of his life’s work — crystal-clear vision for the concert music, filming, angles, edits — compared to begging someone to give me a shot to pitch an undersized remake of some forgotten terrible movie, it’s the best kind of collaboration I could ever hope for. 

CT: Watching the film, I was curious what your experience was filming at the forum over two nights, given that I couldn’t imagine a less controlled environment compared to a set. 

ARP: Jim Parsons is one of the many secret weapons on this project, because him and this company, Fortress, knew what to do, which is what I didn’t. I’ve learned to accept that you hire the professionals. Jim came to Tobias, because they both work with Jonas Åkerlund, who was a producer on this film. I showed up and Jim was in charge: he’s sitting in front of a bank of monitors, wearing a headset, like he’s calling a sports game in real-time. 

Everything can be edited a billion ways later, but there’s a magic to the process in the moment that is totally different than a single-camera movie, which no concert film has ever been, and the hundreds of cameras they used for concert films from the ’60s to ’80s. Despite how it might seem, it’s not plug-and-play work, because every band has a show of different energy and intensity. Of course, there are the conventional roles you’d see on a film set: a production designer, wardrobe designer, cinematographer. But during the concert, you cede to the professional, in this case Jim. Don’t bother them and go away. 

Movies like these, and movies in general, are like a restaurant, excluding maybe a farm-to-table restaurant. You don’t go and assume they grew all the food you’re eating. I didn’t know every ingredient in this movie. Of course, there was a large collaboration with Jim and Tobias, but ultimately I’m just the waiter handing the food off at the end. I get the credit, but nobody sees who grew all the food and harvested everything. You don’t think I own the restaurant; I just put the food in front of you, and if you’re wondering who came up with the amazing menu ideas, well, that’s Tobias.

Credit: Marcus Maddox

CT: Going back to the idea of the exhibit, knowing that you did a Pavement musical and pop-up too, I’m curious what excites you about ephemeral experiences that aren’t recorded, especially because you’re generally known as a filmmaker. 

APR: There’s really not a lot about the filmmaking process that I love. You see filmmakers all the time who say, “I love being on set, I love the energy of it.” Some people just like showing up in the morning, being handed a call sheet, and then immediately being yelled at and told that they’re running behind, and then having actors ask them a bunch of irrelevant questions. I don’t like that at all. What I do like is the storytelling. For this Pavement movie, and also Rite Here Rite Now, you put more thought into a thing than anyone will ever take out of it, which is true of making a movie, right?  People spend five years making a movie, people spend two hours watching it, and that’s that. They’ll never notice 1/100th of the things that every single technician and craftsperson put into it. Doing a pop-up, you get to work with a great production team. For Ghost, it was finding an artist who illustrates in the ’60s pop art style and have them design something for us. In the case of Pavement, we created some ’90s-passing elements to make it seem like these last ephemeral objects. Let’s do all that work, weeks, months of work. Then we get there on the day, we get it installed, and I have nothing to do. 

I’m not a set decorator. Sure, we have a camera rolling because we need to capture this, but my job is done. And that’s what I want from working: to say I’ve created the story, I’ve created the props, and how people experience them. I mean, this is Disney Imagineering talk, but someone could walk through this exhibit and say, “Oh, I missed that thing because it was a little bit hidden.” There were things in the Ghost exhibit where many people were like, “Oh, I didn’t see that until I saw someone post a picture of it,” whereas who’s ever going to watch a movie and say, “Oh, I missed that one prop in the movie.” No one cares about that. 

When you do something that’s specifically tailored and curated and custom-made for a rabid fan base, then you’re playing with house money because people actually want what you’re doing. One of the great joys of working on this film is knowing Ghost fans are frothing at the mouth every day for more content. And we’re serving them up a two-hour-plus feast of images and Easter eggs. 

There are things in Her Smell that are so intentional and so deliberately placed and designed and props that are meant to allude to future scenes and things that are callbacks that no one has ever once mentioned or noticed, whereas Ghost put out a 92-second clip the other day, and every element of the set that was an Easter egg has already been noticed, analyzed, dissected, and appreciated. And that’s a 92-second clip. Fans are going to get to do this for months and months, which is freeing because I know people are going to care. That gives me the confidence to voice opinions or to really stress whether something is a good idea. 

CT: To finish, I’d be remiss not to ask you about the Pavement project. 

ARP: It’s the opposite of this. Everything I just said about the fans is the same. That’s the joy of it. I’ve been working on it for four years. It’s starting to feel like it’s this fake thing that doesn’t actually exist because we’re just dying to share it with people. There’s never been something where more things have gone sideways and fewer things have gone correctly. We’ve been dealt just about every setback and blow you can imagine. Yet, despite all of that, the movie is picture-locked, and God willing, something people can watch and dissect soon. Because, again, it’s something I’ve never seen before. 

When you’re making possibly even five entirely separate projects — ranging from a physical space filmed secretly for a movie, a musical being written and staged for documentation, and then editing that into a movie not specifically about the musical — you’re just making things harder for yourself. I’m reaping the benefits of that by creating something truly unique. The downside is that it’s been the biggest pain in the ass, both financially and practically, on a very small scale. 

If it were a $100 million movie, it might be exciting, but instead, it’s a $1 million movie that keeps going and going. We just had to figure out a way to finish it, and we have. It’s similar to Rite Here Rite Now in some ways. It’s very much a part of me, and there were days when I worked on both on the same day. It’s also different because it’s something I’ve never seen before. I hope people get a chance to pick it apart because it doesn’t follow any logical rules of narrative or documentary storytelling. It breaks every rule and puts them back together.