Listen Up Philip: Knowing When to Break the Rules
Writer/director Alex Ross Perry on narrators, characters who don't arc, and making a screenplay feel like a book.
By Shanee Edwards.
As screenwriters, we’ve been inundated with rules we need to follow to tell a satisfying story on film. So what happens if you decide to break a lot of those rules? You get the clever, witty and honest film Listen Up Philip, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry.
Listen Up Philip is about a young misanthropic novelist Philip (Jason Schwartzman) whose life begins to change after the publication of his first book. As his success increases, he becomes bitter and his relationship with his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), blows up in his face. Looking for solace, Philip begins to spend time at the isolated summer home of his idol, celebrated author Ike Zimmerman. But getting close to Zimmerman seems to only make his life worse.
Broken Rule #1: Films about New York are passé
Given that so many films about Manhattanites have been made over the years, a writer would need a pretty fresh idea to be brave enough to make another. We asked Ross Perry where his inspiration came from.
“I’d been wanting to make my New York movie for a couple of years and I didn’t really have a handle on how to do that. I was traveling with my last film and the more I was gone, I realized all the hassles that come from success. The more successful you become, the less available you are to people and that became interesting to me. I wanted to do a story on that.”
But Ross Perry said the film isn’t autobiographical. “Maybe 15 minutes of the film are about things that literally happened to me, but the rest is fantasy, or projection or imagination of what could have happened or still might happen.”
Broken Rule #2: Write what you know
Despite the film being about the world of novel writing, Ross Perry knew very little about that realm before writing the screenplay. “I don’t really know anybody in the publishing world or in academia. Those are just things that seemed appealing aesthetically and narratively. The personalities that I know are people who make movies. But people say I nailed it just right. I think the egos and attitudes are unilateral across professions.”
Broken Rule #3: Don’t write movies about writers – they’re boring
Philip is sort of an anti-protagonist in this movie. We asked Ross Perry how he describes the complicated character.
“Jason [Schwartzman] asked me early on how to describe this movie to people, he said he was telling them ‘it was about a writer’. I stopped him right there and said, ‘tell people it’s about an asshole who also writes books.’ This is a character who, with every opportunity he has, makes a wrong decision. That’s the character. Whenever he’s faced with a fork in the road, he always takes the one that leads right off the cliff.”
Broken Rule #4: Stay consistent with the story’s point of view
It’s not easy to do, but Ross Perry manages to bounce around from the perspectives of several different characters in the film. We asked him to tell us why that was important to this story.
“You could do a movie about a young writer and his rise to success. I’ve seen that movie and often enjoy that movie, but what I haven’t seen is one about someone who becomes successful and their life changes, and what happens to everyone in their old life. That’s the thing I really wanted to get deep into. To see what happens when the young guy meets his hero. Many movies focus on what that feels like, but I’ve never really seen anything that goes inside the life of the older, respected hero and then see what happens to them when the young guy leaves the room. That was very interesting to me. It’s a novelistic structure, a lot of books do it.”
Broken Rule #5: Don’t make your screenplay feel like a book
In terms of using this unconventional narrative structure, Ross Perry says he was inspired by the book, The Recognitions, by William Gaddis, about an art forger who disappears from the story for several hundred pages, and also by Jonathan Franzen, who uses a similar technique in The Corrections.
“Doing it this way felt like a very lively way to tell a story that I don’t see in cinema very often,” he said.
Broken Rule #6: Nix the narrator
Many films use a narrator, but most film teachers tell you to steer clear of the over-used cheat. Here’s the reason Ross Perry was excited to have a narrator in the film, voiced by Eric Bogosian.
“For me it was just a way to dig myself out of the hole of writing expository dialogue that is delivered only by characters for the benefit of the audience. I was really frustrated in my last movie where I knew the characters were just saying things to help the audience. In my next movie, I wanted to use a narrator so in the very first scene, when Philip sits down with his ex-girlfriend, he doesn’t have to explain how long ago they broke up, how long they dated. I just wanted to have an extra character who put that information out there, so that when we as the audience jump in, we’re totally up to speed as to what’s going on in the story.”
Broken Rule #7: Your protagonist must have an arc
Truth be told, Phillip doesn’t really change much in the film. While it sounds shocking to us writers who’ve had the concept of character arc shoved down our throats, Ross Perry had a very specific reason for not arc-ing Philip.
“A guy who’s who been on the same path for 15 years is not going to change in 6 months and I don’t think it’s an honest way to tell the story. I’ve never seen it happen in real life and I don’t believe it personally. I guess if I really believed it was possible in human beings, I might be able to see it through in a fictional story. I just don’t think anyone would change that quickly in any overt way.”
Ross Perry may certainly be correct, but does that make for a satisfying movie ending? The audience will have to be the judge.
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