Alex Ross Perry and the Democracy of Movies

Queen of Earth
Director Alex Ross Perry and actress Elisabeth Moss on the set of the new film 'Queen of Earth.' IFC Films

When you're an avid cinema consumer, it's dangerously tempting to become jaded about the industry. The major movie factories—your Sonys, your 20th Century Foxes, your Disneys—exist solely to convert artists' hopes and dreams into cold hard cash, extracting every last dollar from franchise properties until they're run into the ground. When each week seems to bring another overblown bonanza touting the new adventures of the superhero du jour, cinephiles may grapple with the suspicion that the only meaningful films can come from the fringes. While executives puzzle out inter-brand synergy strategies to promote Spider-Man 12, independent filmmakers continue to make capital-A Art with whatever funds they can get their hands on.

Alex Ross Perry recognizes what a facile, unproductive binary way of thinking this is. With four features under his belt at age 31, the filmmaker knows that the industry's not nearly as black-and-white as these narratives may suggest. His newest film, the psychological thriller Queen of Earth, is about as indie as indie can get. To tell the story of a pair of girlhood friends (Mad Men alumna Elisabeth Moss and Inherent Vice breakout Katherine Waterston) who retreat to a plush cabin in the Hudson River Valley for a bit of emotional convalescence, Perry winnowed his process down to the absolute essentials. He worked on a minuscule budget with a skeleton crew of 11, trimming all the fat from the set until everyone present was directly involved in the creative process. For leading lady Moss, getting back to basics was a welcome change of pace from the elaborately produced shoots of Mad Men.

"You get eleven people, you're gonna know 100% of those people. No walkie-talkies, no call sheets," Moss tells Newsweek. "There'd be times when we're all sitting around and someone might have an idea for how we should do something, and we say 'Great, that's a good idea.' It's a quick, clean, pure process."

Perry also prefers this method, despite the fact that his first three films steadily grew in size, attracting bigger names and larger budgets to match. His first two projects, the little-seen Thomas Pynchon riff Impolex and the acerbic sibling comedy The Color Wheel, drew plaudits on local film circuits for their wit and lo-fi ingenuity. For last year's outstanding Listen Up Philip, Perry stuck with the grainy 16mm visuals of his trusty cinematographer Sean Price Williams, but tapped A-lister Jason Schwartzman for the lead and expanded his canvas to cover the whole of New York City. However, Perry scaled down his budget and production process for Queen of Earth, making it the director's first step backward—though he wouldn't think of it that way: "Making [Color Wheel and Impolex] was a summer-camp experience. And then we've got [Listen Up Philip] with a crew of 45, which was a totally different experience," Perry says. "With Queen of Earth, I tried to see if I could marry those two processes. It was like, 'Let's try to bring this level of professionalism and the decorum you demand when you're working with professional actors to a smaller production.'"

The small-scale production vibe makes sense, but it might present some challenges for one of his recent projects. No, not the upcoming adaptation of Don DeLillo's The Names—that's pretty much on brand for the literature-obsessed Perry. But he recently inked a deal to drum up a script for Disney's live-action reboot of Winnie the Pooh, though Perry has no intention of directing the project. His unexpected signing follows a recent trend of indie talents making the jump to studio features, though not always to great success. When he was tapped to direct this summer's Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow had only the modestly budgeted comedy Safety Not Guaranteed to his credit, and some critics have attributed the failure of the new Fantastic 4 reboot to the inexperience of its director, Chronicle's Josh Trank. But as he tells it, Perry knows exactly what he's doing.

"The value of [working on Winnie the Pooh] is that it puts me in a place, logistically, where I can keep making movies like [Queen of Earth]," Perry says.

In the olden days, fans had a word for artists who'd take high-paying jobs serving corporate interests: sellouts. But for the most part, we've evolved beyond that reductive epithet and accepted that artists must genuflect to the late-capitalist powers that be, if only a little, so that they can continue to fund their own passion projects. The Hollywood shorthand for this wisdom is "one for me, one for them" but Perry takes issue with this notion as well.

"Writing Winnie the Pooh is for me, because it's fun and I love those characters. It's for them, Disney, because they own the character, I guess, but I don't really know what 'for them' means. It'd have to be totally hellacious labor for me to feel like it's 'for' anyone else." He stops for a moment, and grins. "They're all for me."

He talks the way anybody talks about a job they enjoy, which, at the end of the day, is all filmmaking is—a job that Perry just so happens to really, truly love. He tries to maximize the amount of time he spends doing the parts that he's passionate about, and finds pleasure in the parts he has to do in order to get to those passionate parts. He knows that his pet themes of cruelty, arrogance, entitlement and pettiness do not studio vehicles make ("Of course they wouldn't wanna make this movie. It's a 70-page script, full of gaps that actors will fill in while we're on set"), so he's successfully carved out a space all his own—one where he can work as he wishes. And most impressively, he's done it all without becoming cynical. He looks at the film industry like a thriving and diverse ecosystem, where the apex predator and the humble rodent contribute equally to the jungle's equilibrium.

"It's not a dichotomy of cinema at one level or the other," he says. "It's not a competition. It's a democratic system. All movies exist for a reason. Buying a ticket for Queen of Earth costs the same as a ticket for Mission: Impossible."

For all the flagrant misanthropy on display in Queen of Earth, Perry's outlook on the state of the cinematic union smacks of optimism and positivity. He knows better than to get mired in the politics of studio hacks vs. indie auteurs, opting instead to do a little of everything available to him. He also understands that there's joy to be found in films of every shape and size. Passion can survive in a project regardless of budget or studio oversight: Those factors only control how that passion gets expressed. All an enterprising director can do is try to take on whatever work he or she can, and try to make it their own.

"I feel like there could be a time five or 10 years from now when I realize Queen of Earth was the most important movie I ever made," Perry adds. "When I'm 50, I might look back and say 'That's the reason I made 20 movies instead of six.' Learning that lesson was valuable. There's no reason I can't make a movie like this with a dozen people, and a five-to-10-million dollar period piece, and be writing for the big studios. It's all just cinema, and it lives in the same space. I'll go see a tiny independent movie, a big independent movie, I'll see every Marvel movie. I like it all."