If you’ve seen the trailer for Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, streaming on Netflix Friday, you probably won’t know what to expect from what is a bat-shit crazy movie. You certainly won’t know what that title refers to, and maybe that’s just fine, too.
The Perfection stars Allison Williams (Get Out) as Charlotte, a masterclass cellist who has been off the circuit, who encounters Elizabeth (Logan Browning), the new protegé of her former teacher. The two women bond and form an unlikely friendship, but on a trip they take to China together, things start to go horribly wrong.
It’s been almost five years since Shepard directed a movie, as he’s been keeping busy directing television shows like HBO’s Girls and others. The Perfection certainly diverges away from his darkly humorous previous films such as Dom Hemingway and The Matador. It’s still dark, and still kind of funny (in a sick way) but it’s also the closest he’s come to a straight-up horror movie.
The Beat spoke with Shepard over the phone last week for the following interview.
THE BEAT: I have a feeling it’s going to be hard to discuss this film, because there’s so many twists. I didn’t even watch the trailer before seeing the movie, so I was thinking, “Here’s a nice movie about classical cellists.” Just let me know if we go into territory which you don’t want to talk about.
Richard Shepard: I think, in general, we have to just be as respectful as we can with trying to not spoil the movie too much. Part of the fun of the movie is all the twists and turns. I mean, more than part of the fun of the movie is all the twists and turns, so it’s a toughie. It’s funny because, when people are asking me what the movie’s about, I’m like, “I can’t tell you a thing other than it’s just bonkers.” That’s kind of [inaudible 00:01:29]. I just say, “It’s not what you think it is, and it never is through the entire movie.”
THE BEAT: I don’t know if you’re a fan of Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, but this kind of reminded me of one of his movies where it kept going to places and you would think, “I can’t believe it’s going there…”
Shepard: That’s exactly right. I’m a huge fan of his. The Handmaiden and Oldboy were two definite influences on this film, the Handmaiden specifically. What I love about his movies are the twists are so insane that you’re basically saying, “This no way that this twist has anything to do with the movie I’ve been watching.” And yet, when it’s all said and done, it does. And I think that that’s something that is lacking a little bit in American film making. I think there are movies with twists and stuff, but not so outrageous that you’re like, there’s no way this could be… And then it does make sense in its own zeitgeist-y way. I made my co-writers watch all these movies before we started writing. I had Allison and Logan watch The Handmaiden and Oldboy. I was really pushing everyone to understand that you can make something beautiful and artful and make it also a genre movie.
THE BEAT: How did this first come about? I read that you had an idea for a scene and the rest of the movie kind of evolved out of that? Was it the bus scene we see in the trailer?
Shepard: [It was] the bus scene. I always thought that an interesting sequence in a movie would be someone sick on a bus in a foreign country, because I remember being sick on a bus in a foreign country and feeling like it was the worst ever experience where you couldn’t speak the language and you’re stuck on a bus. And I was like, well that could be an interesting starting point, but it’s an odd starting point. It was just a scene that I had been thinking about and trying to figure out a movie around it.
I ended up going to Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, who wrote the movie with me. They’re a writing team, who had done this TV show Ringer. I had done the pilot for it, and I knew they loved horror and genre, and we just started talking about what kind of movie we would want to do and could write around that. Then we started talking about Allison Williams, who I worked with on Girls, and I was like, “I want to write something for her.” Sometimes, you set out to write a movie, and you can never get there and never break the story and you can have something very strong and you just can’t find the movie. And here we didn’t have much of anything, but we were inspired enough by all of this stuff to find the characters and the movie that we did.
THE BEAT: How did you bring up the movie to Allison while you were working with her? Did you already have a script ready or did you just throw out the idea about cellists?
Shepard: No no, I wrote it with her in mind without telling her I was writing it for her. I just felt like she would be perfect for it. When it was done, I called her up, and I was like, “Will you read this script?” She was the first and only actress we sent that script to, and she said “Yes.” I knew she would respond. I was hopeful she would respond, and she did and then really became our partner in crime. She’s a very smart lady and had a lot of strong opinions, of which I really appreciated. She poked holes in the script and forced us to rewrite stuff, and at the same time was part of the process of casting Logan. I showed her all my top candidates, and I wanted her opinion on everything, because ultimately, I like working that way with actors. I like to get them as involved as possible, especially on these movies that don’t have a lot of time or money. Getting them passionately involved is a way to ensure that they’re going to do your movie and do it well.
I even brought Allison into the editing process and seeing cuts of the film, because this is a tricky movie and you go one way or the other and it’s suddenly exploitative in a not-fun way, or in a bad way. Part of the process of this was hopefully writing the right balance and being a really cutting-edge genre movie without it being an exploitative piece of cinema.
THE BEAT: That seems to be one of the hardest things about being an actors. You’re giving it your all on set, then you’re in the hands of the director to use your best work. Sometimes, you don’t see the results until the premiere and go, “Oh, they used THAT take.” Have you done that before with actors? Bringing them into the editing?
Shepard: Not every actor is someone you want to bring into the editing room because a lot of actors are incredibly… I mean, they’re all sensitive people, but some of them, they can only focus on themselves, and they’re only looking at their performance and not looking at the big picture. I brought Greg Kinnear in on The Matador. He came into the editing and in fact, he saved that movie in my mind, his notes. From that moment on I was like, “Oh, I should bring the actors, the ones who I feel like can really look at the movie with a smart eye in.” Jude Law was in the editing for a lot of Don Hemingway and it’s useless if all they’re doing is looking at their performance.
It’s very helpful when they can look at a bigger picture and say, “Do you remember when we were on the set? We were trying to do this, and I don’t think you found that moment that we were all trying to do.” That’s helpful, because you can get lost in editing. It’s like you’re in a dark room for three months, so it’s helpful to have people come in who can remind you what you were originally intending to do and be able to help you get to where that place is. Certainly with this movie, especially with some of the subject matter, having both Logan and Allision, two young women who have strong opinions about things, in there with me from the script stage through the shooting at the editing helped make sure that we were on the right path with the storytelling.
THE BEAT: Did you or either of the writers have any sort of background in classical music? That aspect of the movie seemed pretty authentic, so I figured one of you must have drawn from experience.
Shepard: I appreciate you thinking that, Ed. No, the answer is none of us played classical music, but the fact is that we did some serious research. I had my friend [composer] Rolfe Kent compose those cello pieces that they play in the movie. Those are all original compositions, and they were hugely complicated. Then I gave them to Allison and Logan [and said] “You now have to learn how to play the cello because we’re not using doubles here.” They spent months before we shot learning to play those pieces, just those pieces, and cello’s a famously difficult instrument. The determination they had to be able to play those instruments so that we could shoot those musical sequences, and it looks like they’re playing for real, was part of the process of getting this movie made, but also part of the process of hopefully making it feel as real as possible and earned, so that you’re not just thinking that it’s a prerecorded piece of music that they’re playing to, “cello-syncing” to, but they’re hitting all the right notes and doing all the things, so hopefully it feels authentic.
THE BEAT: Was Netflix involved very early on even before you went to production? Because I thought it was interesting that they had two actors who both are on Netflix series, and I was curious whether or not that was a coincidence, or not.
Shepard: Well, the movie was independently financed. Allison wasn’t yet on Lemony Snicket or had just got on Lemony. I’m not exactly sure. Then obviously Logan’s on Dear White People, but we made the movie independently, and then we showed it at Fantastic Fest last year. A lot of people seemed interested in buying it, and Netflix came in with the strongest and best offer. I’m sure one of the reasons was that their algorithm showed that these people are popular, but [the Netflix algorithm] is out of my paygrade. I was excited about Netflix buying it because I knew that ultimately, if we had sold it to a theatrical distributor — while I would have of course loved my movie in theaters, as the way any filmmaker would … especially a movie that’s hopefully as cinematic and beautiful as this one — but at the same time, I was deeply worried about marketing.
I knew that a theatrical distributor would have to reveal more than I would ever want in their trailer to get people to spend hard-earned money. I knew Netflix could cut a trailer that, while still giving some stuff away, didn’t have to give nearly as much away. That was one of the main thoughts from the very beginning that we had all talked about, was to make sure that whoever distributes the movie hopefully loves it, but at the same time also respects the type of movie it is, that if they reveal too much, then they’ve taken the joy out of the film. [Netflix] cut two trailers, the one that exists in the world now and a slightly longer trailer. The one that exists now is only a minute and 20 seconds, which is very short for a trailer — most of them are two and a half minutes. They [also] cut a two-and-a-half minute trailer, and they gave away too much. It was just so simple. I’m like, “No one should ever see this, ever. You ruin the movie. Thankfully, they had the clear head to agree with me on that. I was very strong in my opinion, so we’ll see. Hopefully, we’ll find an audience on Netflix. I have no idea. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
THE BEAT: I think the trailer’s perfect because it shows you the intensity of what to expect without giving much away. The Perfection fits into the current trend of elevated horror as typified by Jordan Peele’s Us, last year’s Hereditary and others. I know you’re a horror fan but what sort of horror do you like – are you into gorier stuff or just stuff with scares?
Shepard: I’m a horror fan, but not an obsessive horror fan. I’m a genre movie fan, but I’m far more likely to watch Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill than I am to necessarily go and see a horror film on a Friday night. I’m a movie buff in general, so I see almost everything, but there’s a lot of smart filmmaking going on in the horror genre now, whether it’s Green Room, whether it’s It Follows, whether it’s Get Out. There’s some really beautiful filmmaking going on, as well as the freedom — because you’re a genre movie — to push boundaries that you can’t really do in a drama or comedy, and I wanted to push some boundaries. I wanted to do something a little shocking and different and give myself a little kick start. I was up for the challenge of doing something.
I think because of the way we approached this film and the movies that inspired this movie, we were able to hopefully do something that feels elevated, that feels like there’s more to it than just one thing. I think audiences expect it at this point. They stay away from something that smells like it’s just one thing. They want a lot, and there’s so much product choose from right now, so many movies and TV. How do you get people to watch anything and talk about it? I mean, that’s the big challenge for all filmmakers right now is how to get eyes on what you do.
For me, I thought the movie was bonkers when I wrote the script. I couldn’t believe anyone financed it, I couldn’t believe anyone bought it, and I hope people watch it. And when they do, I will be shocked that people watch it. I was like, “I’m just making this little movie and having a really fun time doing it.” It was ultimately about the making of the movie. Like, this seemed really fun. This seems like a movie I would want to watch. I always just think about my friends, and it’s like, is this a movie that my friends will like? After that, it’s out of my hands. But this is something I was really passionate about.
THE BEAT: I went back and read an interview we did five years ago for Don Hemingway, and I had noted that most of your movies are very male-dominated while your TV work is mostly female-centric. Did you make The Perfection so you could say, “Shut up, Ed. You’re wrong”?
Shepard: I made it for you, Ed. To shut you up.
THE BEAT: Do you have any idea what you want to do next? Will you continue doing stuff with Netflix or doing more television?
Shepard: I just followed up The Perfection by doing a musical pilot for NBC that just got picked up which is about as opposite of The Perfection as possible, literally singing and dancing on the streets. I’m really excited for people to see that. It’s called Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. It’s going to be on NBC in January, but I’m writing a new movie with the same people who I wrote The Perfection with. Still a genre horror movie but really different than The Perfection, and I’m really excited about it. We’re in the midst of writing that, so we’ll see. I set a goal for myself to make more movies, and I’m going to try and do that. Making movies is so hard and so difficult and almost impossible, but you know, my movies are small and odd and weird, but at the same time, they’re mine and I feel very proud of them. And that’s what I want to keep doing, so hopefully we’ll be speaking in closer than five years again.
THE BEAT: Having co-writers must be helpful, because when you’re a writer/director, you literally have to sit down and write the whole thing by yourself. And then it takes a lot longer, especially if you’re directing TV and other stuff.
Shepard: It’s like an instant writers’ room, especially movies that are so plot-driven like The Perfection. I think [movies] like the idiosyncratic Dom Hemingway, that ultimately isn’t a movie you can write by committee. That’s a movie that has to be from one person, good or bad by the way. It’s just such a singular vision. But in this case, these types of movies that which are sort of, not only character-driven, but also majorly plot-driven, it helps having other people there to sort of, A, kick holes in anything that doesn’t make sense but also to come up with ideas for ways out of those holes.
The Perfection streams on Netflix starting Friday, May 24.
Edward Douglas has been writing about movies and other forms of entertainment for over 25 years, so he’s probably older than you.