It is a performance and a film that many people are talking about, and that should garner some serious award attention at the end of this year.
It’s the riveting, visually and aurally stunning Elisabeth Moss vehicle Her Smell, which screens Tuesday, April 23 at the Globe Cinema as part of this year’s Calgary Underground Film Festival.
The film, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry and also stars Cara Delevingne, Dan Stevens, Eric Stoltz and Amber Heard, is a time machine back to the alt-music movement of the ’90s, and tells the story of the enigmatic but self-destructive, emotionally dysfunctional Becky Something (Moss), the Courtney Love-esque frontwoman for fictional rock act Something She. But more importantly it’s a character study in what single-minded artistry, ambition, fame and ego and can do to someone, and the effect it can have on people in their orbit including family members, collaborators, business partners and even fans.
It’s not an easy watch, as Moss goes fully, completely down the rabbit hole of awful with her manipulative, often detestable, still somehow relatable and eventually even empathetic portrayal of the singer, but it’s still one that offers many rewards — including that tour de force performance and Ross’s singular vision.
Before the CUFF screening, the writer and director of Her Smell spoke with theYYSCENE.
Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q: Congratulations on a film that’s not a lot of fun to watch but pretty fantastic.
A: Well, thank you. I think mileage might vary depending on what people might find fun.
Q: Good point. But it is an unsettling one. You put the character through the wringer and Moss shows all of it.
A: Well that’s the idea. I think spectacle is fun, I think as far as completely over-the-top camera-performance duet it can be fun and it’s really electric to watch.
Q: The reviews are amazing so far. Are you surprised that it’s striking the chord it has?
A: Well, no. I mean I really love the movie and I’m really proud of it so I feel like any positivity makes sense to me because I really think that this movie represents the finest work of some of the best actors and crew members that you could possibly put together on a single film right now. The cumulative effect of all of their hard work is something that from day one on set has just been so exciting. But I’m glad that people can see it for what it is. There’s a lot of ways to watch movies that have people in them playing musicians, I’m glad that people understand how and why this one is different.
Q: I think people understand it’s kind of turning the music biopic on its head and it’s also a wonderful redemption story. I think people are picking up on what you intended.
A: I hope so. There are lot of things that I intended that, to the best of my knowledge, have yet to be uncovered and unpacked by people, but that’s just me as a personal thing, something out there for someone’s second viewing should they have one …
There’s no shortage of deliberate repetition in the shots and the editing and the dialogue that is so precise and so intentional that either it’s working subconsciously on people or the movie has too much stimulation going on at any one moment for people to isolate these things. It’s a big, loud, very fun, subtle movie, but it’s a very nuanced and mannered movie in some ways that I think remain to be uncovered.
Q: Is that what you aspire to and what you’re drawn to … creating an entire world in your film?
A: Well, I do like it. What’s the point otherwise? It takes so long and it takes so much time, it’s really fun for me — which is probably what it’s all about and why I would even ever want to do this at all growing up — I get to create this world where I can build environments entirely to my own specifications. I can create this kind of alternative universe that I live in during the shoot, and then during the edits I just get to re-experience it over and over. A movie like this it’s so created and these sets are so vast and intricate, but they’re so dingy and unexciting as physical spaces that the specificity of them exceeds anything I think anyone would ever expect. You don’t even notice it because what you’re seeing is these scummy backstages that the amount of thought that we put into it, like, ‘The TV goes here and the ceiling fan goes here and the lights go here, the door’s here for this reason and this camera movement is very precise,’ but it’s all precise in the service of chaos.
Q: It’s interesting because I kind of came of age during that time period, during the early ’90s — that was when I was first really into music and going to shows — and it really did strike a chord.
A: Yeah, I mean it’s a beautiful time and I believe very under-examined in a serious cultural context.
Q: Why were you drawn to that time period to set this film in and that particular movement of music?
A: I grew up at the time and it’s my time of what I really love and care about. Everybody has at some point wanted to have a music movie. Of course it’s a tempting thing to get to film concerts and performances and musicians, and lots of great movies have done that … You look at One From the Heart and New York, New York these guys, (Francis Ford) Coppola and (Martin) Scorsese, they couldn’t resist making a music movie because they were very personal to them. You look at (Peter) Bogdanovich and At Long Last Love, a Cole Porter movie, it’s makes a thing that’s your thing. And I really felt like if I didn’t make the big, sweeping, epic, two-hour, alternative, grunge, girl punk movie then I don’t know who else ever makes that movie, because it’s kind of the thing that when I thought of it, every single thing about this feels like it has not existed yet. We’re only 20 years removed from a lot this stuff, 25 years at the most really from some of these albums, and so I don’t really know how much we’ve rounded the corner to be properly contextualizing and examining this kind of music. I take this music as seriously as a Baby Boomer would take their music. And you can see Baby Boomers have been making movies about ’60s and ’70s music for decades, and there’s no reason for someone like me to make that, but I can make a movie that’s just about my era and my music.
Q: It has a sense of fondness and nostalgia but it doesn’t get mired in it, doesn’t get weighted down by that.
A: It’s not like I’m nostalgic for it because I feel like I still kind of live in it. I’ve never made a movie that has computers or cellphones or anything — I’m always pretty much writing in the time period of roughly when I grew up. I still buy CDs and I’m still very connected to the tactile sensation of this era and that’s still very important, so I’m not nostalgic for them because I’m still living in them.
Q: We need to talk more about Elisabeth — just a powerhouse performance. Did you write that role and film for her?
A: Yes and with no — I mean this in every sense of the word — with no sense of her not doing it. She had agreed to do it only as a character with no sense of the script, the movie, the story, she just liked the character I described to her two years before I sent her the script. But I really felt like, beyond writing it for her, I was writing a performance that already existed from her. While writing the dialogue and the physical actions I just felt like I could see the performance and I was just writing the subtitles.
Her Smell screens Tuesday, April 23 at the Globe Cinema as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival. For tickets and more information, please go to www.calgaryundergroundfilm.org.