The first page of Alex Ross Perry’s screenplay for “Her Smell” includes a pair of quotes not featured in the film, the first from top-hatted Guns ’n’ Roses shredder Slash and the second from Jawbreaker’s frontman Blake Schwarzenbach. The two epigrams implicitly announce that this will be a story about hard rock, self-destruction, and forgiveness, but their basic presence signifies something subtler: that this script contains snatches of meaning unavailable to those who have only watched its screen adaptation. To put it more broadly, it’s proof that a screenplay is its own distinct beast, something to be pored over and considered both independent of and in relation to its visual final form.
This idea holds quite a bit of purchase with Perry, who mentions that he’s glad someone’s honing in on the written aspect of his latest production upon meeting with The Playlist at a cafe around the corner from his Brooklyn home. He believes that a screenplay qualifies as a work unto itself, and the specificity with which he breaks down his own goes a long way toward proving him right on that particular point. After deciding to refrain from purchasing an overpriced juice (“I’m trying to stop buying things I have at home”), he delves into the rise and fall and possible rise again of Becky Something — one of the year’s finest works written for the screen, and now available for download exclusively at The Playlist.
The quotes from Slash and Schwarzenbach are the first thing to jump out as distinct from the finished film. What do they mean to you?
You ever read the “Apocalypse Now” author’s note? This is very important to me, it’s a kind-of famous thing, a bit of trivia that pops up every couple of years. It’s from John Milius, and it’s a blockquote, that’s all that’s on page one. It’s an anecdote about soldiers going to Vietnam and coming back at the same time. People go off to war, there are reports that they’re acting all crazy, they’re ready to pop, they seem really crazy and violent. And then somebody says, “Just imagine what they’ll be like when they come back.” That’s the beginning of the movie. It’s not in the movie, there’s no scene like that. But ever since I saw that, I felt you can justify a piece that’s for the reader.
It’s exciting to talk about a script because they have many different readers and no audience. This document is for the actors because they need to get the context of the quotes for performance. It’s for investors, financiers, and producers because they need to understand the big ideas. But quotes from famous artists, the crew doesn’t need that to do their work. And of course, the audience will never see it.
It’s a way to situate what you’re talking about within a precedent. In the innumerable documentaries I watched and stuff I read, I wrote down everything I found interesting, and I thought maybe I could use a couple of those pieces.
You’ve said that one of the big influences was Shakespeare and his five-act structures. What about that schematic proved useful to you during scripting?
As I’ve said about this script a lot, Shakespeare forms the foundations of all modern drama, but only narratively. You can recycle character tropes or plots endlessly, but for some reason, the structure is the basis for almost nothing. This is why I’m happy to sit and talk about this aspect in specific. It’s interesting how differently people perceive the concept of good writing.
There’s a very rigid, from-the-book idea about successful screenwriting, all the things it has to do.
I’m actually inspired by something like that, but inasmuch as I’m inspired by chapters one through five of “Inglourious Basterds” for structure, or by the way “Pulp Fiction” changed screenwriting structure for a generation. There are ways of breaking molds while still doing everything classically just-right, just not doing it with the same order or same shape. As a writer, that’s the only goal worth pursuing.
I like seeing people excited about movies. At the end of the year, when people start elevating scripts, you’ll get them sent to you if you’re in a guild or a critic at a certain level. But nobody really knows what a script for a movie looks like. It can be totally different, you can tell that in some cases they’ve cleaned it up and made it look just like the movie. It’s a fake object. Then in other cases, you can see that this is really the script. They sent me the “Phantom Thread” script, and it’s like eighty pages long for a two-hour movie. It’s a weird, fascinating document. It’s its own thing.
Something that’s become increasingly clear to me in the way people respond to movies and TV — and the predominance of TV is partly to blame for this — is that what people think of as ‘good writing,’ means compelling plot and interesting dialogue. People think the best writing means the most interesting tale being spun, instead of the most time-honored tale being broken down and reconstructed in an erratic way. The approach to it, the digressions it takes, the creation of vivid unique characters — that’s the best writing, to me.
I’ve found that some screenwriters, when they know they’re also going to be directing the project themselves, look at the script as a shorthand to be used in the future. You’ve got to show it to other people, but did you catch yourself leaving things just for your own benefit?
Always, yeah. For myself and for the actors. There was some stuff I wrote down just because I knew I’d forget it otherwise, that’s for me. I didn’t do a whole lot of writing shot patterns into the direction, but you want your reader to be able to visualize the scene. Nine times out of ten, your reader has no setup or a very brief one. When you’re trying to put a movie together independently, the question is always, ‘how are you going to do this?’ That’s why in the script, at the beginning of each act, there’s a color palette and camera style written in. Everyone’s going to ask that, so if we put it on the page, then no one has to.
About those, the first and last acts take place at the same venue. Was the decision to reuse the same color palette as simple as keeping the space stylistically consistent, or were you going for something more symbolic?
In every sense of the word, it’s a circle by design. The movements, the color, even the opening and closing moments, it’s all circular. In color theory, though, bluish-green is supposed to be the most easily watched color scheme. I’m no scientist, hardly an expert about this stuff, but it felt like a good palette to hook people in the first twenty-five minutes. The red and blacks of Act III, on the other hand, don’t have that alluring quality. Red conjures hell, stop lights and stop signs — the need to stop.
In the performance sections, we sometimes see notes like “this is awesome” or “it’s the most moving performance Becky’s ever given.” Having seen the film, we now know that yes, it really is awesome or moving. But when this only existed as a script, was there a degree of “just take my word for it” in your pitching?
I didn’t take a close look at the scripts for the sort of music movies that I like. I didn’t examine, like, “Velvet Goldmine” to see how performance scenes are written. I wasn’t avoiding it, it just never occurred to me, and now I almost wish it had. I didn’t realize until the middle of the process how influential that movie was becoming, and once I did, I didn’t want to look any closer at it. In terms of writing those scenes, though, the execution of those sequences is so not about the writing. It’s all acting, camerawork, sound, editing. It’s supposed to feel like a concert, but we weren’t really shooting a concert movie at a two-thousand-person concert venue. We’ve got about two hundred extras, so all we can do is light it like a full concert. What really matters is the character descriptions that come a few pages earlier, because those give the actors and whoever else reads the script an idea of what it’s supposed to feel like to watch them play their instruments.