Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 26, 2015, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
The horror lies just below the surface in Queen of Earth, which showcases a tour-de-force performance by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as a woman slowly losing her mind. It’s a piercing collaboration between Moss and writer/director Alex Ross Perry, who sat down with FANGORIA to explore the journey.
In Queen of Earth, Moss plays Catherine, who has recently lost her father and been dumped by her boyfriend. She retreats to a lake house owned by her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), but Catherine’s mental state continues to crumble as Virginia’s attentions turn toward her local boyfriend Richie (Patrick Fugit). The madness that grips Catherine, and the penetrating way in which Perry and Moss dramatize it, lead to chilling scenes in which the damage is psychological, not physical, with Moss wholeheartedly embracing her most disturbed role yet.
Even with all the dramatic roles you’ve done before, this may be the darkest place you’ve ever gone in a movie. How did you get to that place?
ELISABETH MOSS: Honestly—and I think this is going to become something I’ll say over and over connected to this film—I’m not a Method actor. I don’t take the process very seriously at all [laughs]; it’s a lot of pretend. I keep getting asked, “Was it really hard to do? Was it very emotional? Was it taxing?” and I just keep saying, “No,” because it was really fun. If anything was taxing, it was just the hours, getting up early in the morning, but it wasn’t emotionally taxing. Did I seem emotionally taxed?
ALEX ROSS PERRY: No; I think what you’re saying is that the methodology I like making movies with is that it’s just a gathering of my friends, where the whole point is that it’s a chance to hang out with a bunch of people I like for a few weeks. So hopefully it is fun, but you were pretty clear that the second half of the shoot was going to signal, not a Method process, but… We shot the movie in two weeks, and for the second week, you were pretty clear about, “Look, as we get into this stuff…”
MOSS: But I feel like I didn’t adhere to that; you said that was going to happen, and then it really didn’t!
PERRY: Well, you did enough that Sean Price Williams, our cinematographer, came to me and said, “Is she OK? A couple of days ago, she was hanging out and everything was great, and the last few days, in between every setup, she’s like, headphones on, sitting outside by herself.” And I said, “Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, that’s what the second week is going to be like.” [Moss laughs] But you were also very clear that when we finished for the day, that was done. It wasn’t like, “Hey, we’re going out to eat,” and you said, “No, I can’t do that, I need to stay in character.” It was just that in the day, you were pretty focused.
MOSS: And that’s not like staying in an emotional, sad place. It’s just tiring to try to conduct conversations in between takes or between setups. I can’t do that and then go back to what I’m doing. So it’s not like I was sitting in the corner crying; I just needed to not talk for a while.
The movie eventually gets to a place where the style, in terms of the cinematography and especially the music, suggests a horror film, and where you wonder if Catherine is going to violently act out. Can you each talk about that element of the film?
PERRY: Yeah, and that’s why I’m so excited to talk to representatives from genre publications, because people have a lot of assumptions. They’ll say, “Oh, this must be inspired by these hugely influential European art films,” and I’m like, “No, this is inspired by an American horror film called Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.” That’s a more achievable kind of cinema for me, making a low-budget independent film, than Bergman. While we can play with those highbrow influences, what we really want to do is exercise our fondness for “low” cinema. Sean and I worked in a video store together, and a democratic appreciation of different kinds of movies is totally natural when you’re in a place like that, and can take home Carnival of Souls and a Fassbinder film the same night. To me, making movies, and this film specifically, is a result of that mentality, and my love of that period of American genre cinema is pretty profound. I’ll never miss screenings of that kind of movie; if it’s playing at the same time as a classic Hollywood film, I’ll go see the genre film, because they’re very important to me. This was like a first step into hopefully making more movies like that.
MOSS: For me, that stuff was all in the script, which was so good, and laid out Catherine’s arc so well, that I just had to follow it. And we shot mostly in order, which was very helpful because… One literal example is there was a salad, and we were able to leave the salad in the room, and two weeks later it was decomposed perfectly. That’s kind of a great metaphor for what I was able to do with the character. I was able to map out her descent into madness day by day, like, “OK, I went this far on Tuesday, so now on Wednesday I can go this far.”
Something I didn’t intend to do, but noticed when I saw the movie, was that Catherine actually develops a clarity of mind the crazier she gets; her ability to verbalize her feelings “improves.” But that was also in the script; I didn’t make up that speech [a monologue late in the film in which Catherine tells Richie off]. That speech was awesome. When playing “crazy,” I try to find why it’s not crazy, how it’s just maybe 100 degrees turned up from a normal day. I feel like that speech is something I have dreamed of saying to people many a time, but would never be able to come up with in the moment in such a clear, poetic way.
It’s one of the scariest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen, but it’s also the moment when Catherine is saying exactly what’s on her mind, in a way we’ve probably all wanted to at some point or other.
MOSS: Exactly—“You are the reason why everything is bad.” That idea is so much fun to me.
Another of Queen of Earth’s most disturbing scenes is the party, where Catherine is at her lowest point and feels she’s being terrorized—by actors I’m assuming you were unfamiliar with, as they were new to the set that night.
PERRY: Yeah, that was the only time there were more than three people on camera.
MOSS: We literally picked people up in the parking lot!
PERRY: We would meet locals and ask them if they wanted to come do this.
MOSS: We weren’t sure how many were actually going to show up.
PERRY: It was also a night shoot, so it was a real ask of strangers. But that’s a great example of where we got to have the genre cake and eat it too, using that sequence as a very subjective moment where we actually have people looking into the lens. We use the camera there to have the audience identify with Catherine’s experience, which is a total Roman Polanski trick. I mean, it’s in everything.
Most movies just try to make you feel the way the character feels [throughout], but what’s more interesting to me is that most of Queen of Earth is very objective. There are two women, and you can take one side or the other. But during the party, we put you in Catherine’s shoes and let you feel her mania and her claustrophobia. I don’t tell you how to feel about it, but I’m showing you what she’s seeing, and then it ends with this point-of-view shot where there are these kind of ghouls reaching for her.
We did that whole sequence so meticulously. There were a lot of elements in it, and I was kind of shocked at the time we were able to spend on it; we could spend an hour waiting for all the ghouls to have their makeup put on, just to get that shot perfectly. On an independent movie, you never spend an hour getting one shot; you spend an hour getting a whole scene. That was really fun, and it was important for a film like this to play with the conventions that way.
MOSS: A lot of credit should go to Amy L. Forsythe, who designed the makeup. She came up with this amazing concept where the people looked like paintings.
PERRY: The idea was that they kind of resembled portraits. It wasn’t paint, but what was on their faces as makeup was meant to look like oil and watercolors.
MOSS: So that their features are enhanced rather than natural, which is so horrifying.
PERRY: Yeah, there’s a guy in there who has a mustache in a few shots, and then he shaved it off and we painted one on; if you look closely, you’ll notice that. It’s all from Catherine’s perspective, so she sees him with this painted-on, ghastly expression, and then we cut out from that and you see what’s actually happening, and it’s a guy with a normal face who’s looking at her like, “What’s wrong with this person?” On a small movie, you really only have a camera and actors to manipulate the audience with; you don’t have special effects and all that other stuff. So if you use those things cleverly, you can get people feeling how you want them to.