“If you’re hard of hearing, I have some very good news for you,” filmmaker Alex Ross Perry told the audience before an AFI Fest screening of Her Smell Saturday night in Hollywood. “If you’re prone to motion sickness, I have some very bad news for you. And they’re the same news.”
Nobody can say he didn’t warn them: The experience of Her Smell is so visceral you can practically… well, smell it. The film chronicles the hard fall and hard-won redemption of a ’90s riot grrrl, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), the frontwoman for a once-successful punk band, Something She. The action takes place in five long scenes, all critical moments in her story.
In a post-screening Q&A, Perry told AFI Fest director of programming Lane Kneedler that the structure was heavily inspired by another, very different film — Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay, which happens as three long scenes. “When I saw it, my jaw was on the floor. I thought, I’ve never seen such bravura writing and commitment to these 40-minute sequences in this movie. Three scenes,” the writer-director said. “I thought, well, you know what’s better than three is five. I thought, if you could make that movie but make it Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains also, then you’d be playing with fire.”
Perry wrote and rewrote the first four acts a few times before approaching the final chapter in Becky’s tale, “because I didn’t really know what the ending needed to be yet until I had bonded with the characters.” While the finale eluded him, however, he was clear from the start on the period that would provide the backdrop for the drama. “It just needs to live in a time where the success of a band that makes alternative music is real and could matter. There’s a very narrow window where these bands could sustain enough, that there’d be enough riding on them, that it matters how they’re doing, just so that there’s some sense of tangible stakes,” he said. “Because that movie, to me, doesn’t exist yet. I mean, it does now, but three years ago it didn’t.”
The musical aspect presented new challenges for the Golden Exits filmmaker — “Aside from classical ballet, I don’t think you can ask an actor to do something harder than what all of these women in this movie were asked to do,” he said about his stars — as well as a wide-open creative space. “The pool of girl punk movies is pretty shallow,” Perry admitted. “But also, that’s okay. Even music movies, there’s only so many.” He cited Velvet Goldmine as an “important” one (though he intentionally avoided rewatching it until after Her Smell had wrapped), and said he admires “the way that it’s adjacent to history; that’s always what I kind of wanted out of this.”
“I like that a lot about this movie, it’s sort of an alternate history — it’s almost like a Philip K. Dick sort of thing,” Kneedler said.
“That’s very lofty, but thank you,” Perry replied. “Imagine a world where the Nazis won World War II, and that this woman existed!”
Her Smell will be released in theaters in 2019.