You might not see another movie this year like The Perfection. Making its debut last fall at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, the movie stunned audiences there with its no-holds-barred approach to a story that could probably best be categorized as psychological horror. But in a way it’s difficult to place The Perfection into one neat genre box: think of something along the lines of Whiplash crashing head-on into Audition and that might give you an idea what lies in store for you.
The Perfection stars Allison Williams (Get Out) and Logan Browning (Dear White People) as Charlotte and Elizabeth, two incredibly talented cellists who are both students at the same esteemed music conservatory run by Anton (Steven Weber) and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman). Charlotte was a rising star who had to leave school and curtail her career to take care of her ailing mother; Elizabeth is the young prodigy who has been groomed to replace her.
What happens when they meet does not follow any trajectory you might imagine, and it’s best left for the viewer to discover the twisted, bizarre path this intense and haunting story of obsession, jealousy, betrayal and vengeance ultimately takes.
The Perfection was directed and co-written (with Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo) by Richard Shepard, whose previous films — the acidic crime comedies The Matador and Dom Hemingway — as well as his work directing Girls and other TV series, did not hint at the baroque horrors of The Perfection. Den of Geek spoke with Shepard by phone about his nasty, possibly insane and wildly unpredictable film, which premiered today (May 24) on Netflix.
Den of Geek: I was just thinking before this interview that somebody should put out a triple bill with The Perfection, Whiplash and Audition. That that would be a pretty good day’s entertainment.
Richard Shepard: I just tweeted about Audition because it definitely was something that was an influence on this movie, without a doubt. And yeah, I think that’s a great triple bill. And they should just play it on 42nd Street though, in 1983. That’s my fantasy of this movie, is being in a grindhouse theater on a crazy triple bill.
That’s right. I understand that some of Park Chan-Wook’s films were sort of an influence on you for this one as well.
Huge influence. The Handmaiden. Oldboy is one of my favorite movies, but I also discussed, I was blown away by The Handmaiden when I saw it a few years ago. And one of the many reasons that was, was the sort of the storytelling that he does, he takes huge plot twists that are happening, where you cannot believe that it could possibly all be related, and yet it somehow all is related. And I also love his sense of style, where he elevates his material into something quite gorgeous to look at. So when we started thinking about this movie, I made the writers take a look at Oldboy and The Handmaiden, and we just got started talking about the idea of what can we do for an American audience that has … a lot of movies have twists. But these were heavy duty plot turns, and yet, we wanted to try to make them all work, feel like they’re all the same movie.
And then moving forward I had Allison and Logan and Steven Weber look at The Handmaiden and Oldboy and Vanja Cernjul, the DP, as well, and a lot of people working on the movie, just to kind of get a sense of what kind of things we could be attempting to achieve. So yeah, I’m a wild fan of his work. I mean, I just think he’s one of the best directors working right now.
I read that the idea started with the bus scene, which you had in your head for years, and then you finally got together with a couple of co-writers to develop it into something.
Yeah, when I was in my 20s, I was in Mexico on vacation and got deathly ill on a bus in the middle of nowhere. And it was probably the most harrowing two hours of my life. And I was like, “Man, this would be an interesting idea for a sequence in a movie.” Especially if it was not only a physical, but mental, sort of breakdown — what that would look like, and what it would be like to be the other person next to the sick person and dealing with it. And so that was sort of what got me thinking about this movie. But Eric and Nicole and I had a lot of other ideas we’d been thinking about trying to tackle.
So we started melding it all together and creating this. Every single movie’s different, in what is the impetus for the film: sometimes it’s the story, sometimes it’s a title, sometimes it’s an actor. In this case, it was that sequence and then trying to shape a movie around a female protagonist that Allison Williams could play. I wrote it with her in mind, because I wanted to work with her again after working with her on Girls.
What was it about Allison that made you want to fashion this role around her?
Well, besides really liking her as a human being, and thinking that she’s incredibly smart, I feel like there’s a quality of Allison where sometimes you’re not exactly sure what she’s thinking. And she can control that very, very well. And let you know what she’s feeling when she wants to, but at other times being almost like a cipher. And I felt like that would really work in this case, in which for the first portion of the movie, you really don’t know whether she’s a good guy or a bad guy. Whether she’s insane, or not insane, and what her motives are. And I found that that could be really interesting and thrilling.
Plus, I wanted to see Allison do this, as we were writing it I was like, “Oh, I think Allison could do this. Oh yeah, this would be fun, to see her do that.” I had no idea whether she would say yes or not. But it was definitely on our minds as we were writing it. Because I like working with people I’ve worked with before, making movies is so difficult. So if you can craft something for someone that you know, or hire some people that you’ve worked with before, it’s always a plus. And thankfully, she said, “Yes.”
You sort of used, I don’t know if baggage is the right word, but I’ll just use that word for now, the baggage of people seeing her in Get Out, as a way to possibly keep the audience off balance, seeing her in this film as well.
Without a doubt. Listen, if the audience comes in feeling like she can’t be trusted because of Get Out, that’s a huge bonus for us, in terms of making this movie. And it was definitely part of the discussion. I think Get Out came out while we were writing it, so we hadn’t really seen it. But it was definitely, when it all happened, it was so great. Because we were like, “Oh yeah, this is really going to work in our favor.” And to Allison’s credit, she also saw that as a real opportunity. Because she believed that the baggage from Girls helped her in Get Out, and she believed the baggage from Get Out helped her in The Perfection.
And with Logan, you went the other way. You didn’t really know her, and you saw a lot of people until you finally found her.
Yeah, we auditioned a ton of people and her audition was without a doubt the strongest, but I didn’t cast her based on the audition, really. I cast her based on meeting her, because I just wanted to make sure that she was a strong, opinionated person, much like Allison. I figured that would be a good way to make sure they would both keep each other on their toes. Logan is such a smart, fascinating person. In that lunch that I had with her, I was like, “Oh wow, she is going to bring everything to this film.” Both actors, from the beginning, I made them learn to play the cello, they put a lot of work into this movie. I didn’t want to use any cello doubles, I didn’t want to do CGI and put their face on a real cellist, I wanted them to learn how to play those songs as well as go through the process of having to learn it, so that they would know what it would take to be a musician.
I mean, obviously, neither of them are ready to go perform at Carnegie Hall, but they definitely had a sense the practice routine and what was needed, and how your fingers bled, and the pain from sitting in that position for hours at a time, and all of that…I felt like it was incredibly key for this film, that in the first part of the film, you believed that these two people really could play the cello.
Some of this made me think, in a weird way, about that scene in The Matador where Pierce Brosnan walks through that hotel lobby in just his black jockeys and boots and jumps into the pool. I remember watching that and thinking, that took a lot of guts to have James Bond walking through a hotel lobby in black jockey shorts. You seem to push your actors into doing some pretty crazy stuff. Are you ever worried that you’re going to push them too far?
Well, I appreciate that. The fact of the matter is that I do like asking actors to push themselves because I feel like it brings them closer to the movie and makes them feel more part of the process if they’re pushing themselves in some way. So that they can’t kind of coast through the whole thing. In terms of The Matador, that was a scene that wasn’t even in the script. We were in the lobby of that hotel, and I was like, “Pierce, I think you should walk through the lobby in your underwear.” And he’s like, “What do you mean?” “I mean, I think you should be hungover, walking through the lobby in your underwear and jump into the pool.” And he said, “I’ll give you one take.” And that is the take that’s in the movie. And he said, “I want to see it before we can put it in the finished film.” But I think he loved it.
And in this case, I think that Allison and Logan, neither of them wanted to fake their cello stuff. I think they both would have been embarrassed by it, had they done it. And I certainly think me telling Logan that Allison was studying it, and me telling Allison that Logan was studying, their competitive nature both made them want to do it. But I do think this is part of the process of directing a movie, is pushing your actors in a way that livens things up so you don’t get the same old, same old.
The movie had such a strong buzz coming out of Fantastic Fest last year. Do you remember how you felt right before it premiered and then afterwards?
It was so scary. It’s always scary premiering your movie, and not only premiering a movie, but premiering a movie at one of the major genre film festivals in the world. In an audience, at midnight, of people who would definitely let us know if they didn’t like it. The fact that it was midnight was also crazy. By the time the movie started, we’d been universally drinking since like 8 p.m. So I was half in the bag to begin with. But it was an enormous amount of fun. And the audience really responded to it, and I remember just feeling extremely elated by the connection people had to it. You just don’t know when you’re making a movie. You have a sense about whether people will respond or not, but it was great. I think this movie wouldn’t be on Netflix now if we hadn’t premiered it at Fantastic Fest.
Did this sort of scratch your genre itch or is it something you’d like to return to again?
Definitely scratched an itch, but at the same time, there’s a lot of stories out there that I want to tell. And some of them are genre. I won’t tell anything quite like this again, but yes, the answer is yes. There are other movies I’d like to make that are somewhere in this world.
You mentioned at the beginning of our talk how you would like to see this on a bill on 42nd Street in 1983. But this is 2019 and the film is coming out through Netflix. How has your experience with this altered your thinking about making movies going forward?
Listen, we’re in a brave new world right this minute, in terms of streaming services and how people watch their movies. I end up believing that there’s several processes to making a movie. There’s the writing of it. The most important is the filming of it and editing it. That’s a deeply creative experience. And then there’s the selling of it, marketing it and getting audiences to see it. And I’ve had movies that audiences have seen, I’ve had movies that no one has seen, I’ve been all over the spectrum. At the end of the day, however the reaction is, and whatever the audience is, each film is its own journey for me. But yes, I think it’s a very exciting moment when my film can be released in 100 countries in 20 something languages, all on the same day. I mean that’s pretty exciting.
The Perfection is available to stream right now on Netflix.