“No soul or locale is too humble,” John Updike wrote, “to be the site of entertaining and instructive fiction.” Which is a good thing for Nick, the nominal hero of Alex Ross Perry’s new film Golden Exits. The mild, meek, nearly-fifty archivist, played with greying dignity by former Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz, lives a pinched and incapacious existence, toiling ten hours a day hunched behind the desk of a basement office only a few blocks away from his Brooklyn apartment. It’s a spartan, closed-loop life, and Nick thinks it’s “thrilling”—which it becomes for a time, when a 25-year-old assistant arrives from Australia and threatens to disrupt it.
Golden Exits is about that threat. Or more precisely, it is a film about what happens when order and routine are besieged by the promise of change—when the life one has accepted is beleaguered by temptation, possibility, and desire. Nick is unhappily but uncomplainingly married to Alyssa, a forlorn psychiatrist who can no more imagine leaving her husband than ever wholly trusting him; she spends her evenings ruminating over wine with her brusque and defiantly single sister, Gwendolyn, to whom she wishes she could confide her feelings but of whose criticism she’s too afraid to risk confiding them. Gwendolyn oversees the family estate—her and Alyssa’s late father, Timothy, ran a magazine—and keeps a full-time assistant, Sam, a decade younger and terrified by the prospect of ending up like her boss in ten years. Sam’s sister, Jess, works as an assistant at a recording studio in the neighborhood—and her boss, Buddy, also happens to be her husband. Buddy’s been spending a lot of time lately with Naomi, an old family friend from Australia in New York to work as an assistant to Nick.
This is, needless to say, a sprawling, unwieldy cast of characters—and Perry, needless to say, delights with a novelist’s panache in the ways they converge, collide, and glancingly interact. It helps that he’s been blessed with an incomparable ensemble: not only Horovitz, who acquits himself with the screen presence of a bona fide movie star, but also a troupe of world-class actors, including Chloë Sevigny (Alyssa), Emily Browning (Naomi), Jason Schwartzman (Buddy), and Mary-Louise Parker (Gwendolyn), as well as old Perry mainstays like Keith Poulson and Kate Lyn Sheil. And the director’s usual coterie of backstage collaborators have happily returned, each in top form: cinematographer Sean Price Williams spurns his peerless knack for the free-hand camera in favor of sterling work from a tripod; editor Robert Greene sets a dreamy, languorous rhythm with fade-outs and overlapping cross-dissolves; composer Keegan DeWitt marshals strings and piano for a lush score that recalls, ravishingly, Michael Nyman and Georges Delerue. The talent brought to bear on this picture from all quarters is a rare and marvelous thing.
Perry, one senses, thinks of Golden Exits as something of a minor film. Certain factors do indeed suggest that it is: its meagre budget, narrow scope, rushed production schedule. And this is a period for the writer-director that a biographer would call “transitional”: at present he’s developing a live-action adaptation of Winnie the Pooh for Disney, has optioned Don DeLillo’s colossal opus The Names, which he plans to write and direct, and is attempting—still—to secure the resources necessary to make at last the personal period drama he’s been intent to see through for nearly three years. Perry is poised to make something big. Golden Exits, like Queen of Earth before it, is unmistakably small.
But it is also vigorous, provocative, and brilliant; it’s a clear-eyed, penetrating drama, serious and true. Its insights about marriage—about the diplomacy needed to negotiate the terms of a shared life, about the unspoken internecine battles couple wage unwillingly day-to-day, about the indispensable armistice that is simply choosing not to ask—have scarcely been articulated with such clarity or force, and without a trace of the righteous moralizing with which relationship dramas are so frequently barnacled. Minor this juncture in a career on the rise may seem. But as film qua film? It is major.
We sat down with Perry in the middle of the Berlinale Film Festival in Germany, where, shortly after its introduction to the world at Sundance, Golden Exits enjoyed its international premiere.
NOTEBOOK: When we spoke the December before last I don’t believe you were in production on anything. Had you even begun work on this yet?
ALEX ROSS PERRY: Sort of. I started writing the script in early January last year, just before I went to Sundance with Joshy [which Perry acted in]. The month before, though, I had confirmed Emily, Jason, and Chloë’s involvement, just based on walking them through a story that was evolving in my mind. Then I wrote it throughout January and we started circulating the script throughout February, getting it all put together for March in order to begin shooting in early April.
NOTEBOOK: Was this another quick between-projects movie for you?
PERRY: Well, if every project is a between-projects project, none of them is. They can’t all be called that. Do you want to hear the specific nuts-and-bolts process of how this came together?
NOTEBOOK: By all means.
PERRY: For a year and a half we were trying to pull together a big movie—like a five-million-dollar movie. This is now going on three years of trying to make this same movie. And it’s impossible. It’s borderline impossible. Fifteen movies of this size get made a year in the American agency-packaging independent film system. In summer of 2015, we got one person involved with the movie that gave us a potential start-date of April, 2016. I went down the crew-list of people I always want to work with, from cinematographer to makeup head and everyone in between, and made sure that everyone I wanted to be involved with was holding April. I told them if you start having any offers, I don’t want you to lose work, but we’re trying to make this happen and if it does, you have to be involved.
By November, so only a few months later, the writing was just on the wall that there’s just no way this is happening—I could tell by November that it’s just not going to happen in April, even though at this point that’s still five months away. We had two members of a four-member cast confirmed and zero dollars. There was just no way this was going to happen. So I wrote a preliminary outline for a different movie and told all of the people I wanted to work with on the big movie that I had another thing we could make in April—a small movie that would be shot entirely in Brooklyn that wouldn’t have to be packaged or financed and that we could make very easily. I told these actors, “look, if it were up to me I’d put you in this other movie, but I’m not in a position to make it, but if we make this we’ll at least get to work together.” Everybody said yes. Basically the entire cast I wanted on the other movie is in this one, plus many others. So Golden Exits came together not because something else fell apart but because something else just failed to come together when it was supposed.
NOTEBOOK: And what about that other movie?
PERRY: I don’t know what it would take. After three years of never going past square two, I don’t know what the other part of the equation is that would push things past that stage. It’s been three years. That script was finished almost immediately after Listen Up Philip played Sundance. We started in earnest sending the script out in April, 2014. After that much time, I can’t still be sending it out or having producers send it out thinking that something is going to finally click.
NOTEBOOK: This is a movie you can only make for five million dollars?
PERRY: It’s a period piece, and there are ambitious aspects to it. Maybe it could be three and a half million in a place with a tax rebate or something. But it requires serious money—and it requires a system of production that precludes just independently raising a budget as I normally do. It’s a system of production and a size of movie that requires an intermediary business model between me just having coffee with investors and asking for some money. It requires massive infrastructure. It requires an insurance bond. It would have to be union because of the footprint of the production. It requires all these real things because it’s at a level that just needs all this stuff. I don’t know how to make things like that. Not a lot of people do, and you’ll notice that not a lot of movies seem to be made in that vein.
NOTEBOOK: Right. It’s movies the size of Golden Exits and then Disney movies.
PERRY: Yeah. I mean, there are enough movies like that to suggest that they can get made. They’re the films with Toronto premieres instead of Sundance premieres. But they’re rare, and they come together in a different way.
NOTEBOOK: How might one crack that system?
PERRY: It’s very actor-dependent. Unless you can get one of the ten unicorn performers that will get movies financed then it’s very difficult. And if you like working with incredibly good actors, then your list of people that will get your movie made is even smaller—because of the people who will get your movie financed, the number that are really good actors is three or four. And they’re booked for years, because everything goes to them. They’re getting stuff from huge important filmmakers, and that’s probably more of a priority than taking a chance on someone who is not as established. You can see an actor’s idea of a small movie change as they become more famous.
NOTEBOOK: You mean what constitutes a small film for them becomes much bigger?
PERRY: Yeah. A small movie for an Oscar-winning actor in a superhero franchise is not a small Sundance movie. It’s a $15 million movie that premieres at Cannes or Toronto. That’s the thing they can do in between whatever comic book or action franchise thing they’re in; that’s what they have time for in that limited free portion of the two-year franchise cycle. They can come make a $2 million movie with some nobody like me, or they can star in a Woody Allen movie.
NOTEBOOK: What about pitching a different big project? A different script?
PERRY: The problem is that you can only have one thing in that world, in that system, at one time. I’ve retracted this project from that system in favor of working in a comfort zone where I have the ability to work and make movies when I want to. But I also don’t want to only make small movies that I shoot in my neighborhood. It’s very nice in this case, but the idea of doing four of those in a row is not ambitious or exciting. At some point, you really just want to do something else.
NOTEBOOK: In a way, though, Golden Exits seems incredibly ambitious—in its dramatic structure, it sprawling cast. It feels to me like a big movie.
PERRY: Huh. That’s good. It doesn’t feel that way to me. I couldn’t afford to do anything ambitious. I couldn’t afford the ability to put it in another era—not that it needed to be, but all of the things that the bigger movies I want to make have that prevent them from being made just weren’t on the table here. So then the only opportunity to do something radically ambitious was just in the writing of the movie. Which is liberating when you are, as I am now, making your living as a screenwriter—because suddenly when you do something for yourself you can come up with some structure that you want to try.
NOTEBOOK: Like having this web of interconnected people.
PERRY: When I pitched this movie to people when I was putting it together last year, explaining the connections between the characters to people—describing the complexity of the relationships—was very confusing. Confusing in the way that it would be if you were trying to explain to somebody how the characters in Magnolia are connected. That’s the ambitious element that I could afford here: a structural conceit that excited me, an opportunity to try something different.
NOTEBOOK: And it costs nothing.
PERRY: It’s free. That’s something you can do, for free, that will make somebody say, “that’s an interesting choice.” That’s an important thing to keep in mind and something to think about when working on a smaller movie. You have to try to do something that makes people say that this isn’t the way an ordinary script looks or moves.
NOTEBOOK: Which was true of Listen Up Philip, too.
PERRY: This is doubling down on that. If not, why even bother taking time off from my actual job to make a tiny movie? It has to be something complex enough to be exciting. And that made the editing process interesting. In this film there were opportunities in the editing to do with the structure that weren’t possible in Listen Up Philip.
NOTEBOOK: Such as?
PERRY: Well, in Listen Up Philip the character-based sections of the movie were so rigid. People who looked at it and gave notes would say, “somewhere in this 40-minute stretch where you don’t see Philip, you could move some scenes in there…” But that would betray the entire point of the movie. In Queen of Earth we just didn’t have that opportunity at all, because it’s just one location and two characters. In this we could do something we’ve never been able to do before, which was really shuffle the deck in editing. This scene that is in minute 50 now we could try at minute 20 and see how it worked. We could see if things paid off better earlier or later in the movie—and we did that a lot, which was a really different experience.
NOTEBOOK: The movie spends an unusual amount of time lingering with characters—finding them alone at home, or walking down the street. You aren’t just cutting to them when they need to advance the action.
PERRY: I think in the writing and in the initial stages of editing it was actually the opposite. You’re with this character for this period of time for some particular reason. The script didn’t say: “New scene: so and so walks down the street. Next scene.” A lot of that arose from months of editing—trying things to make things feel better, cutting scenes in half and then salvaging scraps of them. Just little things like that. It became clear in editing the movie that the very frequent checking-in on characters was much more relevant and necessary than I gave it credit for. It helped a lot to try everything we could in editing until we found a rhythm that worked. Trial and error.
NOTEBOOK: So it started out less conventional?
PERRY: My belief when writing this was that all the rules I’d been working within for years on for-hire projects were unnecessary. I didn’t want to follow any of those rules. All I do is those rules, so I wanted to get kind of reckless with this, and not do traditional things like check in on a character we haven’t seen in 15 minutes. And then it turns out that stuff was all a mistake and all the stuff that I thought was liberating to not have to do we ended up having to do in editing anyway.
NOTEBOOK: In order to make it work dramatically.
PERRY: Yeah, to some extent. This movie is an endless series of five-minute dialogue scenes. But in conjunction with all of that, we had to deliver a more traditional sense of setup and payoff. An easy example is this: 20 minutes into the movie Adam and Emily go to Anthology Film Archives, and Adam says, in a tossed-off way, “the person’s whose work we’re about to see used to shoot photos for Timothy’s magazine.” Even just having the phrase “Timothy’s magazine” appear at minute 20, instead of minute 45 like it used to, felt more necessary. It was necessary to move that scene up just so that you’d hear those words, which you never hear at any other point, slightly earlier in the movie, so that you’re only wondering what Timothy does for 10 minutes—rather than wondering about it for so long that you stop thinking about it. There’s a lot of stuff like that in the editing of it.
NOTEBOOK: How did the speed and scale of the production affect the structure?
PERRY: On a schedule like this, shooting in only 15 days, you can really only do two kinds of scenes: you can shoot six pages before lunch where you put two people down in a room and you shoot them delivering one long scene, and then you can do about four single-shot things with them. That was basically the structure of the movie. It wasn’t like Listen Up Philip, where we could do this two minute scene, and then hustle over to another location and do this two-minute scene, and then go somewhere else and get this quick thing, and then settle in for this long thing. We didn’t have the time for that. Here you’re either doing a long scene or a quick shot.
NOTEBOOK: There are a lot of exteriors in the film—buildings we’re about to enter, footage of the neighborhood. You’re not usually an establishing-shot director.
PERRY: I’ve never done establishing shots. It doesn’t feel natural to me. Sean [Price Williams], the DP, always calls them “Seinfeld diner shots.” I just don’t think about it and it doesn’t register to me as a normal part of filmmaking.
NOTEBOOK: Why this time?
PERRY: We needed them. We had to go back and shoot them, because in the editing it became very apparent that some spatial orientation to the repetitive locations was necessary and would be easy to do. And also, just on a very minute rhythmic level—which is the kind of thing in editing that Robert [Greene] is very good at intuiting—because a lot of the scenes are similar in pace and tone, truly just cutting from one scene to an establishing shot to another scene, as opposed to cutting from one scene to another scene, does really help. Sitcoms have figured that out. All the scenes are very repetitive, so something to just give people a moment is really helpful.
NOTEBOOK: The opening and closing montages, of the neighborhood and its residents, were those shot at the same point or was that planned from the outset?
PERRY: I think those were pickups. But there’s a way Robert can justify that, and a way I can sell him on it. You know how every Fred[Erick] Wiseman movie since the beginning starts and ends with that kind of thing? If it’s Racetrack, the first minute of the movie is outside the racetrack, people walking into the racetrack, people parking their cars, locking their doors, walking through turnstiles. I told Robert we just needed to Wiseman in and out. I wanted us to see the value of starting and ending like that.
NOTEBOOK: You end nearly every scene on a fade to black. What was the thinking there?
PERRY: Well, I think if you’re dealing with a fixed time period and fixed locations, you do have to think about time passing. The movie takes place over about 10 weeks, but it really takes place over eight days over those 10 weeks. How do you justify going from one location to another? There is a right and a wrong way to convey the passing of time. We know this scene is in the morning because it’s the start of the workday. We know this scene is in the afternoon because it ends with people going out for happy hour. So what does a fade to black tell us about time passing versus a cross-dissolve? I love stuff like that. I love cross-dissolves. Cross-dissolves were a big part of Queen of Earth. Kubrick does cross-dissolves really well, and they always mean the right thing in terms of how much time is passing. If you use them because they look neat or because they consolidate images, that’s maybe not the right reason. But if you actually use them to transmit that x amount of time is passing, that’s effective.
NOTEBOOK: They signify shorthand connections between characters, too. The fade to black also seems charged here with sexual tension. Not to get too abstract about it, but there’s a lot of dramatic weight implied in those interstitial blacks…
PERRY: Yeah, in the scenes in the middle, like when Adam is in Emily’s apartment and it fades out in the middle of the scene. Then he goes home to Chloë and the scene also fades out. In both of those instances it’s an opportunity to leave people wondering why the scene ended there—which is another kind of Kubrick thing. There are a lot of scenes in 2001 that seem to end just as they’re about to begin. It’s a trick that seems very obvious and very mysterious and appealing, be it an enigmatic genre movie or a drama where people are sitting around talking, but I do think it can mean something. It can raise more questions than it answers.
NOTEBOOK: Like what happens between Adam and Emily before he goes home.
PERRY: Right. Even though to me that is incredibly unambiguous, the fade to black serves one specific function—and the number of people who come down definitively on one side or another based on the next scene of what actually happens is really appealing to me. Not because it’s fun to be tricky. But we were very specific to put that fade out on Emily’s face, which says “I hate this, this is terrible.” Then suddenly we’re in the next scene, on Chloë’s side, and suddenly we’re not so sure. You get into her headspace and at that point you’re wondering whether you side with her or with him, even though he’s not making a case for himself. If you just cut to black in the middle of that scene it would seem very odd.
NOTEBOOK: It’s more interesting to me to assume that nothing happened between them. If only because I like this idea that the movie is an infidelity drama without infidelity. The drama derives more from these benign deceptions and unusual, minor transgressions. Like when Jason says he’s “loose with the times” when he meets up with Emily for lunch.
PERRY: There’s a million things like that. The first one, that no one’s really talked about, is that Adam is paying for Emily’s apartment. It’s only covered in one wide shot. There’s something so uncomfortable about that fact, and it’s never brought up again by either her or him. Shortly after there’s the scene when Jason goes out with her and comes home just before his wife. He tells her he’s done all this other stuff, all of which is perfectly plausible, but you have to wonder: why is he lying about this?
NOTEBOOK: But I think we’ve all done that. It’s this extremely low-level, basically pointless deception. What’s he even covering for? He’s conscious of the charged nature of what he’s doing.
PERRY: It’s like a number of interactions in the movie, in that it’s simply slippery. The motivating rule in writing it and in conceiving of it as a different experience than the previous movies was that the attitude of everyone in most scenes in the movie had to be, “let’s just not talk about it.” Which is not the way that the other movies I’ve made recently play out. The idea has always been to see how far people go when they get incredible honest, down these slippery slopes of brutal truth. In that scene Jason could say, “actually I just got back,” and she’d say, “that’s an insanely long time, you were out with her for four hours?” But instead he’s like, “let’s not talk about it. I know if I tell you the truth, even if nothing happened, there will be this conversation and I don’t want to have that conversation. If I just pretend that I got home two hours ago there will be no conversation and everything’s fine.” Having a series of characters living with that philosophy makes the script and the movie it’s own thing.
NOTEBOOK: But that’s also kind of the opposite of conventional drama. An argument is dramatic. Not having one isn’t so much.
PERRY: Yeah. But it is interesting. I was interested in seeing a movie like this, that alludes to all that stuff without ever approaching it in a substantial way. You’re wondering the entire time if this is all going to fall apart, or if the last half hour is things toppling and people finding things out. It’s tough to deny people that. It’s tough to set up these expectations or work within a genre that has its own set of expectations and then not deliver on any of them. But I guess that’s the balancing act.
NOTEBOOK: Of course, already some of the Sundance reviews have seized upon that as precisely the reason the movie is bad. “Nothing happens.”
PERRY: I think if it were the other thing it would be a movie you’ve seen a bunch of times before. Simply put. I guess it would be easy enough to make, or easy enough to have a scene that I guess people are waiting for in which characters are at a common location and other characters walk in and the whole thing opens up. But it would never have occurred to me to write that. The only appeal for me of doing so would be to see certain actors interact with others—to justify a scene where Jason and Mary Louise are together. Maybe to some people it seems there should be a scene where the different groups are all having dinner at the same restaurant. Maybe that’s what people are hoping for. I can understand that being frustrating, but for me, I can’t imagine getting even 20 minutes into this movie and expecting anything like that to actually happen. To me it’s just so obvious by the end of the first couple of sequences that you’re never going to have any sort of payoff. I don’t know what people expect.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve mentioned Another Woman as an influence.
PERRY: There’s always one Woody Allen movie we refer to on set when we make a new movie. On Listen Up Philip it was Husbands and Wives.
NOTEBOOK: I hate to play spot-the-influence, but did anything else specifically inform the movie?
PERRY: Not really, honestly. We talked a lot about the later Rohmer movies. That’s an obvious reference point, but even mentioning later Rohmer as a reference point to most people is pointless, because only really in the last few years have these emerged from total obscurity and have people realized that these are as great as the early movies. In terms of costuming, specifically Emily’s character, and elements of the tone and the rhythm: Boyfriends and Girlfriends and Rendezvous in Paris. Those were big ones that I had on my computer. Actors were looking at them; the costume department was looking at them.
NOTEBOOK: I was thinking maybe A Tale of Springtime.
PERRY: Yeah, A Tale of Springtime because this was also a spring movie. Boyfriends and Girlfriends as kind of the counterpoint to Husbands and Wives: two different groups of people come together for this brief period throughout the movie, and the last shot of the movie is people saying goodbye and walking away. You don’t get the impression that the encounters of the preceding two hours are really going to stick with these people. It just happened to be a movie about that. But just structurally, the idea of making a movie in which “nothing happens,” or for which the criticism of it would be that it’s “boring as hell,” you’re just watching people sit around and talk about themselves—if you’re doing that, you have to be thinking about Rohmer.
NOTEBOOK: Right. The complaints are basically the same: nothing happens, it’s boring, people talk about themselves too much.
PERRY: If people complain about that in my movie and think they’re making an original observation or criticism, they’re wrong, because those are the same things people have been criticizing some of my favorite movies for for about 50 years. You’re not really saying anything new about dramatic movies by saying that Golden Exits is boring and that nothing pays off, because a lot of Rohmer movies have always been criticized for being boring and because nothing pays off. If you like them, you like them. I mean, what is this movie about? It’s a limited span of time and an older man stares at a younger woman and nothing happens. That’s the plot of Claire’s Knee. That’s the movie. But if you make the movie well, then there’s a reason to still be watching it. If you do a terrible job of it then people are not going to accept it.