Richard Shepard‘s The Perfection is probably not a movie anyone would call predictable. It twists and turns, but more importantly, always reveals more underneath the star cellists of the movie, played with real intensity by Allison Williams and Logan Browning. They keep a movie grounded even as it quickly goes from gross to horrific to funny and to tragic, always keeping the audience on its toes.
Co-written by Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo, The Perfection pays homage to the cinematic worlds of Brian De Palma and Park Chan-wook. It’s not afraid to go to some dark places with its tongue remaining in its cheek, maintaining its sense of humor all the way until an unsettling end. While Shepard knows the Netflix thriller is not for everybody, based on the reviews, it’s proven to be a must-see for adventurous viewers.
It’s a movie with a lot of color and personality, much like Shepard’s last few movies: The Matador, The Hunting Party, and Dom Hemingway. Recently, Shepard told us about the making of his latest film, why movie stars like to take risks, and how Greg Kinnear saved The Matador.
This feels new and familiar from you, but I like how much of a departure it is from your last few movies.
Thank you. It’s definitely different from Dom Hemingway or The Matador, but there is definitely a sense of dark humor in there, though it’s a little harder to find perhaps.
Like your last few movies, The Perfection is about duos, like Pierce Brosnan and Kinnear in The Matador or Jude Law and Richard E. Grant in Dom Hemingway. When do you know two actors are really clicking? Is it always noticeable on set or do you sometimes not know until later?
Well, it’s obviously the big gamble in any of these movies when you’re pitching a two-hander, but putting together the cast is the main part of my job. And truly, in this case, I had written the movie with Allison in mind, and I was looking for someone to play opposite her that had a fierce intelligence just like Allison did. And Logan not only would give a great performance, but as a person, just such a dynamo. I thought together they would sort of push and challenge each other. Then again, you never know. It could have just been a disaster. I think everyone understood the movie that we were trying to make, its very specific tone. And I think once you understand the tone, much like my other movies, if you understand the tone then theoretically you understand the movie we’re trying to make.
Do you usually have a lot of conversations with actors about tone?
I think that my movies are so specifically about tone that there’s a lot of questions to be asked. It’s a little bit of a bonkers movie, and in general almost all my movies have a little bit of that to it. So I think if you get it, then you kind of get it. Certainly in this case, Allison and Logan spent a lot of time together going over the script just to make sure that they were understanding what each scene meant tone wise, because a movie like this which is mixing so many genres, it’s horror, it’s suspense, it’s comedy horror, it’s romance, there are so many different things that if you’re not quite on the ball or the same page, it really could just fall apart.
Your movies tend to have very colorful characters, but this is your most intricate plot, so I was wondering, do you usually start with a character or a story in mind?
I think every project is different. Certainly, The Matador was a situation where I just had an idea of two strangers meeting in a hotel bar, and I wrote the very first scene where they meet in the bar first before I had any idea what the movie was about. In this case, I didn’t set out necessarily to write a horror movie. I had an idea for a sequence on the bus, of someone getting sick on a bus, and how scary that could be. And from there Eric and Nicole, who I wrote the movie with, we sort of fleshed out the rest of the film. And then in a way, we fell in love with the story that we created around that initial idea, to the point where it all sort of made sense as crazy as it is.
At the end of the day, writing three-dimensional characters, no matter what genre you’re doing, is the key to getting a movie made because you’re not gonna be able to cast it. If you’re not doing a sequel or giant studio movie, when you don’t have a lot of money to pay your actors, the way to get the movie financed is to get an actor attached. I think that these are challenging roles, and certainly Alison I think was interested by doing something she’d never really done before.
You’ve definitely gotten actors to do things they normally haven’t in movies. What’s the trick? Is it just writing juicy roles?
I like to make the roles juicy and I appreciate you saying that. The fact is that I always go after actors who haven’t really done what I’m asking of them to do before that much, because you have a much better chance of getting them to, in a way, say yes. It’s like if I went to Jude Law with a romantic comedy I’m sure he’d be like, you’re paying me nothing, why would I do this when I can be paid that much money, a lot more money doing it [in a bigger movie]? If I went to Allison with a role just like Get Out or Girls, I think she would have been like, well I’ve done that before. It’s one thing if you’re backing up with money, but if you don’t have that to offer people, you have to offer something that’s a challenge.
I think actors inherently are risk takers. They’re surrounded by people who try to protect them, but at the end of the day, actors love to take risks. I think this is a situation where, with my other movies, Allison saw an opportunity also to show people what else she can do. And by doing that, she came in ready to create something that was deeply memorable. The fact is that once you’ve seen The Perfection, and if you like it, it’s really hard to shake both Alison and Logan’s performances.
Your last couple movies explored the comedy and drama in male intimacy. You directed episodes of Girls, but for the last few years, have you been wanting to finally make a movie with more female intimacy?
Well, I think that’s a good observation the fact that I’ve written a bunch of these male-centric movies. But I also directed a lot of episodes of Girls, and in other television work that I had done like the pilot of Ugly Betty or stuff like that, I had done female-centered projects before. With this movie, it just seemed like for whatever reason we had just started out with an idea, it stuck with me to try to write something for Allison because she’s my friend and I loved working with her on Girls, and so that challenge of trying to write something for an actor and get them interested, was one of the motivators as we were writing it.
It’s hard to classify my movies in a way, and I think that hurts me in some way that I’m not easily put into a box. And at the same time I love it, because it just continues to hopefully surprise people, but at the same time, hopefully, people who know my work or have liked my movies in the past, will be willing to sort of go on an adventure with me on a different path.
The kind of movies you make, how much is it an uphill battle getting them financed?
I think every movie is a miracle to get made. I said that before and I truly believe it. There are so many factors involved from trying to get producers that like the script, finding actors who want to do it, finding money that want to do it. In a way, a drama would be slightly easier to finance because there’s a built-in audience for it. But at the same time, this isn’t a slasher movie. There are violence and gore in it, but there’s far more violence and gore in other movies. And it’s about something, so there’s more than just one idea going on.
So it wasn’t immediately a slam dunk, but this one did come together pretty quickly. In a way, the amount of time in between movies that I make is because I end up making these without a lot of money, it takes a while. First of all, I have to take other work to pay my rent. I do a lot of television pilots, and it’s a great business to be in and I love it. But that takes months of the year doing that, and how much time do I have to write and all of that. But when I get an idea that I’m excited about, you’ve gotta say okay, I’m rolling up my sleeves, here’s two years of my life now to try to get this thing made, and then trying to get it sold.
This movie was made independently and we sold it to Netflix after Fantastic Fest last year, but that’s a terrifying thing. We premiered our movie to a room full of people who, if they didn’t like this movie, we were doomed because they were the perfect audience for it. It’s always a scary situation if someone didn’t want to buy it. Now I’m excited because we obviously have a chance to reach a bigger audience than any of my other movies ever got a chance to reach.
You have an array of tones in your movies and The Perfection, which has sensitive subject matter and dark humor. Without spoiling anything, you’ve said before you didn’t want to make an exploitative movie, so what was that line for you?
One of the reasons I started the conversation saying that Allison and Logan are very strong-willed people is I wanted that strong opinion surrounding me through the whole process from rehearsals to rewriting the script based on their thoughts, to putting them in fact into the editing room, which I invited both of them in to comment and look at, to make sure that we were treading this line. Some people will be triggered by this movie and some people will not see the fun in it, and I get that. Everyone’s view of this movie will be different because everyone is different.
But for us, we felt that we were right on the end of the wager there, and we just felt like we were writing it the correct way. The movies that I referenced for the actors to watch, and the rest of the crew to watch, like Oldboy and The Handmaiden, which also are full of twists and turns and have sex and violence and all sorts of stuff but they’re done in an artful, beautiful, controlled way. It’s a big deal for everyone to understand and see those movies, even in the writing process I showed Eric and Nicole those movies too because I feel like if we can maintain that balance, we can be something that is actually really beautiful, but at the same time, completely wacked out and insane. And that’s kind of what we were trying to do. We were like “holy shit, let’s see how far we can push it. Let’s do it.”
The scene where Logan Browning’s character gets sick on the bus overseas was based on a real experience you had. As far removed as you probably are from these characters, how much do they share with yourself and your own experiences?
I feel like my life and personality seep into my work without a doubt. I’m none of those characters, and I’m none of the characters in any of my movies. But at the same time, there’s been some pieces of me in all of it. And I do tap into things that have happened to me and moments that have happened to me, and feelings that I’ve had. I can’t help it. It’s part of what I do and being a filmmaker, as a writer/director I’m used to doing that. I’ve never made a simply autobiographical movie, and I don’t know if I ever will. But I feel that every single movie represents a part of me. This is perhaps an extreme part of me. But at the same time, I had great sympathy for Allison and Logan’s characters as twisted as they are. And I definitely found the humanity to them was my own humanity in a way. I think that’s true.
Certainly, this wasn’t based on the event that had happened to me, being sick on a bus. But that’s just the jumping off point to all the deeper stuff. It did lead to a really cool sequence, and for me, I can’t believe we got to make it, and how insane it is, and how amazing Logan is and Allison are in that scene. It’s a twenty-minute little sequence in a movie, but it’s like wow, that was super fun to do.
Before the interview, I read that Greg Kinnear gave you notes that saved The Matador. I love that movie, so I wanted to know, what were his notes?
Here’s what happened. I made The Matador and I was cutting it, and we were screening it week after week, and I showed it to Greg and he loved it, and he gave me some notes. And then right near the end we were in week twenty of editing, and everyone was really stressed out, and I was getting some investors and producers to cut a sequence in the movie, like a ten minute sequence in which Pierce Brosnan sort of admits that he made everything up, and it was a sequence at the house. It was a lot of pressure to remove it, and I did.
We locked picture when we actually cut negatives with the negative cutter. And then Greg was like “Can I see this final cut?” And I said “sure,” and I sent him the DVD of the movie, and he called me up on Sunday, I’ll never forget this, and he was like, “You ruined the fucking movie.” And I was like “What?” And he was like “You ruined it.” And I’m like, “I know, I realize it. I’ve been thinking that the whole time, but I’ve just been beaten down to cut this. But in my heart, I knew it was wrong too.” He was like, “You gotta put it back.” And I called everyone that night and said, “We’re putting it back.” And thankfully, they hadn’t started cutting the negative yet. But to me, it really did save… I totally believe the movie would not have been as well regarded and wouldn’t have done for me what it did if he hadn’t splashed really cold water in my face.
The Perfection is now available to stream on Netflix.
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