Philip is not the most likable guy. In the first few seconds of director Alex Ross Perry’s film, Listen Up Philip (premiering at Sundance on Jan. 20), we see Philip (Jason Schwartzman) rushing down a New York street as a narrator (Eric Bogosian) explains that he’s “characteristically not in a hurry, but perpetually enraged by slow foot traffic before him.”
It’s the perfect intro to the character that you’re about to spend the next 108 minutes with as the embittered, narcissistic writer navigates his life, the stresses behind the release of his second novel, and his crumbling relationship. But you can’t seem to look away.
“The character is so specific and such a curmudgeon and so angry. But when I heard that Jason [Schwartzman] wanted to do it, it really clarified things for me,” said Elisabeth Moss, who plays Philip’s photographer girlfriend in the film. “Jason has this knack for playing characters who are maybe not necessarily that likable. He doesn’t try to make them likable, but there’s something about the way he is that makes you just want to watch him. You’re interested in what his character’s doing even if he’s being an asshole.”
“I based Philip on my daughter,” Schwartzman joked. “A lot of times I would say to Alex, like, ‘No one would say this. This seems unreal.’ And he’d be like, ‘Well, it’s actually based on this person or that person, or this actually happened.’ A lot of this movie is true. I’ve met some of these types of people.”
James Salter’s short story “Last Night” influenced Schwartzman’s approach to the role after he heard Thomas McGuane read it on a podcast. “[McGuane] talked about why he chose it and what he liked about it. He said, ‘This main character…I just don’t trust him. I don’t like this guy and I don’t trust him.’ Now I have not read nearly as many books as I should have, and this is something I might regret having said later, but I remember thinking, ‘Oh, you mean you don’t have to trust and like the main character?’ This was before I had even read Listen Up Philip. It stayed with me.”
Still, Schwartzman said, “I kept having to fight my instincts to make things socially acceptable in all situations.”
Perry, a 2006 NYU film grad and Kim’s Video alum who gained acclaim for his sophomore feature The Color Wheel, worked closely with his cinematographer Sean Price Williams to develop the look and tone of the film — drawing from the amorphous way time is used in the 1972 Maurice Pialat film We Won’t Grow Old Together and the camera work in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives. “I’ve never seen anything like it in any of his films or anybody else’s films. It’s from another universe of filmmaking,” Perry said.
From there, Perry assembled his dream cast, including Schwartzman and Moss — who’d known each other socially in Los Angeles during his Phantom Planet days and had always wanted to work together — Jonathan Pryce, who plays Philip’s literary idol Ike Zimmerman, and Krysten Ritter, who plays Zimmerman’s daughter. For Moss, she was just excited to finally play a character she could specifically relate to. “It’s the story of a girl going through a breakup in New York in the summer. I lived in New York for 11 years. I’ve gone through those and I really felt like I wanted to explore that,” she said.
Perry admits that the experience of making the film couldn’t have been better. He got 26 days to shoot 135 pages of material and didn’t have to resort to crowd funding for help. And his film gets to have its debut at Sundance. “I feel bad. The story of the movie is so positive. It’s just me saying I got the best people possible and they were amazing to work with. That’s not a fun story. It’s not like a legendary tale of production.”
“I was very nervous,” Perry said of his first high-profile film with known actors. “But, my nervousness about working with world-class talent basically disappeared because they came to play on our court so excited to be part of this very small, very unique process.”