Published Apr 18, 2019With films like Listen Up Phillip, Queen of Earth and Golden Exits, Alex Ross Perry is no stranger to characters that are perhaps difficult to hang around. With Her Smell, however, he's testing patience like never before.
The film stars Elisabeth Moss as Becky Something, the singer of a grunge pop band called Something She. High on her own ego (as well as some other stuff), she spends many of the film's 135 minutes throwing tantrums and lashing out at those she loves most.
"I thought of Becky first and foremost, just as a sort of character that could be mine and Lizzy's third collaboration," Perry recalls, using his preferred nickname for Moss. "All of [the other elements] came later, once I had the idea of Lizzy playing a character that is this huge, out-of-control, somewhat proud of herself and everything else."
While the media has likened Becky Something to Courtney Love and her once-ragged, now poppy band Something She to Hole, Perry insists that the character is actually a composite of musicians. "It's like 25 years after the alternative music boom of the '90s — people just only remember a select few things," he says. "The music writer and culture writer Chuck Klosterman has this theory that I like that, already, the entire notion of reggae, as far as people are concerned, is just Bob Marley. And I think we're at a point — at least I'm learning doing press for this movie — is that the entire notion of women in alternative rock, which is dozens or hundreds of bands from the '80s and '90s up to the present movement, is just reduced for people to being Courtney Love.
"There's so many bands and so many women and so many albums that I was such a fan of and that I was inspired by," he continues. "But a character as large and dramatic and exciting as Becky, it just points people to the biggest signifier of what that music meant when it was played by a woman. I get why that is, I just think it points to the fact that someone like me, who went from being a casual fan to a thoroughly knowledgeable student of women in rock in this era, there's so much. There are so many women. She's one of them. She's probably the biggest. And definitely the most successful. She's definitely the most exciting and the most narratively interesting. But really it's not the story that I was wanting to tell."
The story Perry did want to tell takes a different path than the standard rock flick. Her Smell is composed of five lengthy acts that see Moss explore Becky's character with painstaking detail, meaning the viewing experience is often incredibly uncomfortable. "The structure and the literal five acts, that came from being written at a period where I was consuming, for the first time in my adult life, a huge amount of theatre and really thinking about how the structure of the play, of a tragedy, or a Shakespearean epic," Perry says. "I had seen a couple of Shakespeare productions, one on stage and one as an abridged film, and I just thought 'Why are these the foundation of all modern drama, and structurally the foundation of nothing? Why are these character types and these story lines and these conflicts still being reinterpreted over and over for hundreds of years, and literally the structure of this writing is not something you see very often, if ever?'"
Around this same time, Guns N' Roses launched their reunion tour and Perry realized that he wanted to combine the bombast of dramatic rock bands with Shakespearean drama, as well as his own experience growing up watching smaller bands at DIY shows. "It's a fun theory of mine that I'm testing, but I do think that the people that grow up being into underground culture and punk music tend to not be the people who end up in control of millions of dollars to make movies," he says. "They end up in bands or they end up being artists or they end up doing other things. I do think the Venn diagram overlap is not particularly large."
Perry did grow up attending $5 and $10 shows in the "sweaty, oppressively hot basement" of the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. "It was very much where I felt comfortable," he says. "I'd explore a lot of new music and buy the CDs of the opening bands. I take that very seriously, but it's all very underrepresented in movie and television."
That said, he never got the chance to start a band of his own. "I don't understand the first thing about music," he admits. "When someone plays an instrument on set and they go 'Do you hear how out of tune that is?' I say 'No, that sounds like a guitar.' I don't know the first thing about it."
With that in mind, Her Smell is a film Perry believes he was born to make. "I just thought, who if not me, as someone who grew up going to shows in church basements and has at my disposal as a collaborator one of the most alive and charismatic and just technically talented actresses in the world at the moment — who, if not me, is going to combine all of these things and make the five-act Shakespearean punk tragedy?" he says. "And I realized nobody, if not me. Therefore it's immediately my responsibility to make that movie."
Her Smell is now playing in Toronto and will expand across Canada on April 19. The film plays in Calgary on April 23 as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival.