THE COLOR WHEEL
Chinese 1, 11/5/2011 10:30 PM
Chinese 1, 11/7/2011 1:15 PM
By Ben Greenblatt
Q. I haven’t seen your first film IMPOLEX, but I’ve read about it. It’s a World War II story that has many Thomas Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow influences, and this new film seems more indebted to Philip Roth, but I was wondering what the transition was like between the two?
Alex Ross Perry: I don’t think they are super different, for me. Both of them came from me looking at these novels that I love and then saying “this is very cinematic, but there’s no movies of this author.” And there couldn’t be necessarily exact film adaptations of their work, but just twice now I was reading an author and they really blew my mind. I decided I wanted to explore making a film in their style, kind of indebted to the ideas that they have bestowed upon me.
So they both came from that. It was a very similar spark at the beginning of both projects.
Q. I read in an interview about you being frustrated with post-college life, and trying to fulfill your dream, whereas other friends of yours have taken the easy road and given up. Can you elaborate on where the idea for THE COLOR WHEELcame from? And the dynamic between the brother and sister?
ARP: I made this one movie, and I was pretty pleased with myself, and I was very excited to have made it. I had been out of college for two years, almost to the day when we started shooting IMPOLEX. And that just seemed very logical to me, and it was very exciting.
I looked at the fact that I had left my job at a video store, very much excited to direct this feature film, which had been the goal for me. But people I had known would come to screenings and just wouldn’t be supportive. I became very frustrated and confused as to why at one point we had had the same goals, and now all of the sudden, two to three years later, there I was, having done exactly what we hoped to, and these other people had not.
Part of the film school thinking is that you have to wait for someone to get up and give you permission to do this, and eventually I realized that that was just nonsense.
Q. Do you find that people are more supportive with THE COLOR WHEEL now?
ARP: Not those people. But I’ve met new people that are very interesting and very kind to me, and eager to support me; other filmmakers who have actually done these things. They are my core group now.
And at every festival I go to, I meet more people like this. I’m very happy now to be in a place where I can meet the people that I thought I knew all along.
Q. I think that’s important, to have a group of like-minded people, who can support you and challenge you in a positive way.
ARP: Yeah, it’s just a big part of it. With my first movie I didn’t really know who to go to for feedback, to show cuts to, but on this new one, every time I had a different cut, I could show it to different friends who had directed films of their own. Having a huge support system of other filmmakers, all of whom I really like and respect, to give me feedback on my own film, and to help me edit it, was great. And it really made me feel good.
Q. IMPOLEX was just written by you, but THE COLOR WHEELwas co-written by co-star Carlen Altman (JR in the film). What was the writing process like between you and her?
ARP: Basically I had ideas, and I was interested in exploring them, and I came to her and decided we wanted to do a movie about a brother and sister. We spend a couple months talking about both of our characters and what should happen to these people. So we had conversations and took notes and came up with a loose outline as to what the story would be. And then I went away, first alone, to my apartment for a couple months, wrote the first draft. Then I brought the first draft back to Carlen and both characters talked exactly like me, so she worked on her own dialogue, and made her character something that she was comfortable performing. And that was our second and third drafts, and from there we just rehearsed and revised the script as we went along.
Q. So it was a good collaboration?
ARP: Yeah it was good. Having her bring her own writing to her character was very helpful, because her character would not have been very three dimensional had they both been written by me. And the amount of time we spent rehearsing really gave us a lot of time to figure out how to play the characters. We started writing the movie in June 2009, we had our first draft of the script done, and were rehearsing and revising starting in November, then we started shooting June 2010. We had eight or nine months to write the script, revise it, and rehearse, so it became very lived in.
Q. You co-wrote, co-starred, edited, produced and directed this film. What was this process like? Was there a benefit to this way of filmmaking, or was it too nerve-wracking, and you wouldn’t do it again?
ARP: Oh yeah, I wouldn’t do it again. Nerve-wracking doesn’t even describe it. It was incredibly difficult, and incredibly complicated. It wasn’t done for fun—it was done out of necessity. I would have loved to have had somebody else handling any number of tasks while we were working. It was kind of by default that I ended up having to do all that on my own. It was very complicated and in the future I would like to be able to work with a producer so I’m not doing every phone call myself, and taking care of every problem that arises on set while I’m trying to direct and act as well. It’s stressful, but it keeps the size of the crew down.
Q. With the small crew and wearing so many different hats, did you find that you were able to maintain your ideas and vision?
ARP: Yeah it definitely becomes easier for you if you didn’t have to go through a lot of people and everything. Every idea I thought we should do I didn’t have to explain to four different people. It was just straight from my head and then all of the sudden we were doing it. All you need to do is talk it over with the cinematographer and then we’re shooting it. But it is stressful, and very complicated, and I would love to some day find someone who can help me make movies where I’m not wearing all those hats on my own.
Q. How was it working with your cinematographer Sean Price Williams?
ARP: It was great. He shot my first movie and I really value our collaboration, and I love working with him. He’s very distinctive in a way that I respond to. We don’t have a monitor or anything like that when we are shooting. He doesn’t want it, because he doesn’t want it to be plugged into his camera, cause that would slow him down. And I don’t really need it, because I trust him. Plus I’m in most of the scenes. If he says the framing is good, then I trust the framing is good. If he says that we didn’t get it, then I trust that we didn’t get it.
Q. What was the shooting ratio like?
ARP: We ended up with about eleven hours, and cut that down to an hour and twenty minutes.
Q. So much of this film looks, and I hate to use these words, “spontaneous” and “improvisational,” but I know that it was well-rehearsed and well-planned. So it’s got this really amazing quality. And I’ve seen Sean’s other work like FROWNLAND, and it’s just off the wall.
ARP: He’s great. He can make the dull seem a little bit more interesting with some of his ideas and choices. When we show up and the space is smaller than we thought we were going to have, his solutions do help. And it’s like what you’re saying, there is a certain vibrancy and life in the movie and in the camerawork that we have that helps set the tone, and it helps it seem at times a little bit spontaneous. A lot of times people are very incredulous when we say that there is really no improvising in the movie. I think a lot of that is from the acting and the way the movie looks and the way it feels, because it moves around a lot. It gives it a vibrancy that sets a tone that people respond to.
Q. I agree. Working with Sean, how much did you two discuss influences? I know you’ve mentioned Jerry Lewis, Vincent Gallo and Robert Frank, but did you two go into specifics?
ARP: Sean and I are very united in our love of going to see films, and we both see hundreds of films a year. But we don’t really talk a lot about influences. We usually just fixate on two or three films and just go for that, cause anything more than that and we’re just throwing too much stuff out there. Jerry Lewis is his favorite director, and a hero of mine. We just talk, not about the look of those movies at all, but about the energy of them and the tone and the spirit, and the way that it feels watching somebody in that movie who is a director and what that means, and what kind of film that becomes. So it just became kind of a guidepost, not like ‘let’s make shots look like this,’ but to get our heads in the right space.
In terms of look, the only thing we talked about were the films of Bill Fosyth a little bit. We talked aboutLOCAL HERO and HOUSEKEEPING, which Sean described as “needlessly beautiful comedies.” That was sort of our signpost – a comedy that doesn’t need to have nice camerawork, but it does and it becomes a little something else. And we watched Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN just for five minutes because we wanted to see the driving footage in that – we wanted to see how they shot driving in cars. Obviously also a black and white movie.
Q. It’s funny you mention studying MANHATTAN for the driving shots because in THE COLOR WHEEL, there is no shot of you and Carlen talking in the car, only driving.
ARP: Well that’s partially out of necessity.
Q. It works though. It’s a road movie without physically being with you on the road talking.
ARP: I’ve seen stuff like that in movies a lot, and it’s not super interesting to me. The shots inside the car I’ve seen in a thousand movies, and there’s nothing I can really add to that, especially without proper equipment, so we decided to not even try to half-ass it. And once we decided that, the decision came at the same time we realized they’re driving this whole time and not saying anything.
Q. Going back to the question before, about Jerry Lewis and Vincent Gallo, and a personality taking over the film, Carlen’s character JR seems to inhabit that quality, but not necessarily your character.
ARP: The thing about the character that Jerry Lewis plays in his movies is that he is always the bringer of chaos—he’s always the character that cuts through order and brings absolute insanity to the situation. I think for our movie both characters fulfill that function. But I think we split it up a little bit. In the Jerry Lewis movies he always says the wrong thing to the wrong person, which I think my character does at every chance. I had all the pratfalls of the typical comedy, but we tried to make both characters part of the figure that cuts through the room and ruins everybody’s situation, which Jerry Lewis does in every scene in every movie.
Q. I always liked yours and Carlen’s characters in the film—I didn’t necessarily feel sympathetic towards them, but I liked them. And even keeping in mind their role in bringing chaos into the world, they were always the best people in the room. Especially in the scenes with the Professor and the Party.
ARP: Well what we wanted to do was make every character they interact with as difficult as possible. And in that process, smooth out the JR and Colin characters so that they get to the point, which you just described, that you are kind of endeared to them. In the beginning they might seem loud and annoying, but once you see a handful of people really beat them down and just destroy them at every chance they get, you start to feel very very bad for them.
Q. Turning the question to style, I know you shot this film on 16mm black-and-white, and with your cinematographer discussed Robert Frank, but you said in an interview with Miriam Bale, “If we shoot a chrome diner in color it would terrible. But if you put it in black-and-white, all of the sudden it’s an image people recognize, it’s a tone people understand.” The film has a sort of timeless quality—besides the Honda that you and JR drive throughout the movie, there is no other hint of modern technology—no cellphones or computers. Was this a decision?
ARP: You see the settings—the motels, the diners—and it feels familiar, but you see the characters in it and what they’re doing, and it feels different—a little bit modern. Not entirely, because we did shy away from any of the modern technological contraptions, just because there is no drama there, it’s taking it too far. If you see a diner in black-and-white, great, but if you see a guy on a laptop in black-and-white, it just becomes kind of a joke—you’re just putting a modern movie into black-and-white. Seeing a cellphone or a laptop into this movie would’ve just been anachronistic to the tone that we tried to get at as soon as possible.
Q. Olivier Pere, Director of the Locarno Film Festival, wrote an essay titled “Guerrila Cinema” and your name is mentioned alongside other AFI FEST alumni Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra and Harmony Korine. I don’t know if you set out to make a political film or a political work, but what’s it like to be on this list?
ARP: It’s amazing. I’m a big Olivier fan and I’m honored that he included me in that. It’s one of those things where seeing my name next to those other names you just listed really blows my mind. To even just have my name on an essay…
It goes back to what I was saying earlier, these are guys that, when I was talking with my friends in film school, were all heroes of ours, and to be seriously mentioned in the same breath with anyone like that is very very strange for me and incredibly exciting. It makes me feel like I did something right.
I was just at the Viennale film festival, and they have this poster that they do every year, which is comprised of one still from every film that is playing in that year’s fest in a mosaic. And I bought this. It’s a still from my movie next to a still from Cronenberg’s movie and one from Gus Van Sant’s movie. People who, when I was in high school and film school were incredibly important to me, and I have this poster where we are all just there. It’s very exciting, and also very humbling.
It’s part of why I’m very excited to come to AFI FEST because they are showing lots of movies from Cannes and Venice. They’re showing the new Polanski film, and then my film. It’s very exciting to be apart of festivals like that.
Ben Greenblatt is a filmmaker in Los Angeles.