The title of La Ultima Pelicula, which plays for a week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a week starting Friday, can be translated as The Last Movie, a la Dennis Hopper’s legendary/notorious Heart of Darkness-ish Easy Rider follow-up, an experimentally, elliptically achronologically edited and expressionistically photographed film starring Hopper as a cowboy stuntman who stays on in Peru after a Western shoot, and ends up starring in a postcolonial passion play shot with wooden cameras. (The film’s troubled postproduction is addressed obliquely in Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson’s rare Hopper doc The American Dreamer, including much drug-addled rambling, nude massage, and target practice; American Dreamer also screens at the FSLC, on Saturday.) The title could also be translated as “The Last Film.” Indeed, the film stars filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (of NYU, Mondo Kim’s, Park Slope, the New York Film Festival, and many features in these pages), as a denim-clad director in unfamiliar Mexico to shoot a feature film on all the world’s remaining celluloid film stock, on a shoot coinciding with the purported Mayan apocalypse of 2012. Perry will be on hand to introduce the film on Friday the 9th and Saturday the 10th, and he answered a couple of questions from me over email earlier this week.
Co-directed by occasionally incendiary Canadian film critic Mark Peranson and prolific young Filipino filmmaker Raya Martin, whose work melds a global pop consciousness with ambitious historiography, La Ultima Pelicula utilizes quotations from both The Last Movie and The American Dreamer, both explicitly (via the dialogue music cues) and implicitly, through the recurrent structural conceit of interviews in which Perry beardily holds forth on the nature of film, and film (in his own career, Perry is a dedicated celluloid partisan). It utilizes different film and digital stocks and an anti-narrative strategy to tell the story of its own making, as well as the making of the film within the film, and is a ruminative musing on the past, present and ontology of motion-picture photography. My questions, and Perry’s answers, follow.
When I listened to you talk about La Ultima Pelicula on the Cinephiliacs podcast, you spoke a little bit about the day-to-day frustrations of being at the mercy of logistics on a shoestring shoot planned by people other than you—has the experience of being an actor in someone else’s film (which I know you’ve done previously, though not as a lead) changed the way you relate to actors, especially as you begin to work with larger casts and crews from outside of your initial circle of collaborators?
Well first of all I wouldn’t say I was frustrated with the budget of this film, it was very consistent in terms of crew and resources with both Impolex and The Color Wheel, the only films I had made when we shot La Ultima Pelicula. In fact it probably had more money than both combined. My biggest takeaway from the experience of just “being the actor” on set was having time to think about the way that a crew has to relate to one another, something I never really have any perspective on when I made my first two films, mostly because they had such a “get it done” attitude that I couldn’t really pay attention to particulars. Not to make it sound like my time in Mexico was more important than anybody else’s, but it did give me time to think about how relevant it is for the actors to be happy and understand what they are doing and have faith in the direction of the project as a whole. I was unhappy in Mexico because we were in horrible places and would often arrive at a location to find that we had no permission to be there, or that it was an unfilmable hellhole. So I guess moving forward from this project to the subsequent things I have directed, I became even more sensitive to making sure the actors feel like everything is running smoothly and we are all in good hands, but not because of anything that happened on this shoot, just because it was my first experience being on a film set every day where I actually had time to think about such things.
By riffing on The Last Movie and The American Dreamer, the film invokes the idea of the legendary film maudit. To you, as a filmmaker building a body of work, is there any attraction to the idea of making a disastrous, overreaching, tragically ambitious movie?
I suppose people generally don’t know they are making those films until it is too late, but I think making La Ultima Pelicula got me close enough to the madness inherent in such productions. We only shot for a week and even in that small of a time frame, being in some foreign country where locations are five hours apart and you arrive and there is some inexplicable custom which forbids filming was enough to make everybody very tense and unhappy at times. The idea of being “in the jungle” or something for months on end, just running on fumes, really feels like it would be a horrible experience. But I think every film made within limited means is overreaching and tragically ambitious. Mark and Raya’s idea here, even for one week, was to be in a strange place and document it on different formats with no film production services or equipment rentals within 400 miles. That is overreaching, albeit not on an Apocalypse Now-type scale, but it’s the same idea I think. I shot The Color Wheel in four different states in sixteen days where many similarly sized films would be produced in a single location. That is sort of tragically ambitious, even if it isn’t Fitzcarraldo.
I was struck by the sequence, shot digitally, in which your character walks around the foot of a Mayan ruin, talking disparagingly about the American tourists gathering in hippie and new-age drag to play pretend primitive—and then in the middle of that sequence are these insert shots of the same people, shot on celluloid, and looking like, not kids playing lame dress-up, but something out of a more romantic past. It struck me as being related to your films, where you’ve very explicitly used specific film stocks to evoke specific periods in cinema and in history. But I’m curious—setting aside economics and other inside-baseball stuff, can you envision any aesthetic reasons why you might like to someday shoot a feature film digitally?
It’s interesting to look at some of the images in this film and extrapolate the way that similar images captured on different formats reveal different texts and meanings. I truly did feel anger towards those people but perhaps they take on a slightly romantic quality when shot on film. I personally have no idea if I would have an aesthetic reason to shoot digital. The biggest argument I can find for it is the way Albert Serra works on digital. Reading about the production methods and duration of takes and subsequent the re-editing of material captured therein on his recent masterpiece Story of My Death was very interesting and inspirational to me, and as good of an argument for using digital as I have ever seen. But I don’t know if I have the temperament or patience to shoot 200 hours of footage and build a movie from it.