AFI Fest ’11 Interview: Alex Ross Perry’s New Spin on “The Color Wheel”

The writer/director of the delightfully misanthropic comedy about warring siblings stuck in a holding pattern *and* a Honda Accord together talks about the road to his second feature, his...

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Opening in New York on May 18th and will soon after play throughout the country. A full schedule can be found here.

All our coverage of AFI Fest 2011 can be found here.

No sooner than the opening shot of Alex Ross Perry’s “The Color Wheel” does the writer/director’s acidic sarcasm singe the edges of the frame when contrary to its title, the film is presented in a shimmery monochrome. The ironic humor you might expect from a former clerk at the venerable Kim’s Video in New York, where the cinematic erudition from behind the counter could occasionally come with a snarky attitude, but the authenticity of the emotions and the story you might not as Perry ignores the influences of the auteurs who line the shelves of Kim's that so often become restrictive to budding filmmakers to create something sharp, dangerous and blisteringly funny for his second feature.

Perry is just one half of the “The Color Wheel”’s comedic duo, joining a droll Carlen Altman as Colin and JR, a brother and sister, respectively, who hit the road to retrieve her things from a professor she slept with and eventually make their way to a party of high school acquaintances when JR is lured by the promise of furthering her nascent acting career. Both siblings are frustrated with the holding patterns their lives seem to be stuck in, yet only JR wants to do something about it, her brother obviously discontent with a girlfriend (Ry Russo Young) who’s ambivalent at best about their relationship. While the two make clear in their barbed exchanges that they’re two peas of the same pod, the bitterness they share would seem to be the only thing that unites them until it gradually becomes clear they also fear becoming unrecognizable from the mundane world they travel across, confronted with nosy religious motel clerks, roadside diners with birthday burgers with sparklers, and the preppy peers with upturned collars they loathe.

Certainly, “The Color Wheel” has transcended such middling qualities itself, stylistically daring without being indulgent in its timelessness, both visually and practically as it leads to a single-take climax that impressed Mubi’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky so much he concluded the film could be “the future of cinema.” While he was in Los Angeles for AFI Fest, Perry took the time to talk about how “The Color Wheel” came together and what it means for a “nerd working at a video store” to read reviews of one of their films.

ColorWheelCarlenAltmanHow did this get started?

Basically, I made this first film called “Impolex” in 2009 and I felt these encroaching feelings of overwhelming accomplishment of getting this thing out there. It was real neat because I shot it when I was 23 and it was premiering at festivals when I was 24. For me, that was the epitome of accomplishment and three to the day almost after I graduated from film school, I was traveling and doing Q & As and I just started thinking, I used to sit in class with all these beautiful, interesting compatriots and we talked about doing exactly this – where are they now? Why am I exactly where we wanted to be? And where is everyone that I thought was my partner?

From that, there was this idea of what makes two people move apart from a point where they feel they’re on the same path. We could’ve done the movie exactly about what I’m describing [for “The Color Wheel”] – some guy and his college buddies who don’t talk anymore. But that’s not a very incisive story. That I’ve seen before. I wanted to tell that same story, but what’s more interesting than old buddies? How about people who are related? That was it. It went forward from there.

Was it an interesting experience going from “Impolex” where you were surrounded by people you knew from working at Kim’s as your crew…

Do you know Kim’s?

I lived in New York for a summer in 2005, so I got very familiar.

Yeah, I started there in 2005.

I had probably the stereotypical experience going in there, hearing of a clerk’s acid trip as he was checking out movies. Did working there influence your films?

I learned everything there. I learned more in my three years there, working 40 hours a week than I did at NYU, no question. Just the people you get to talk to, both co-workers and the weirdoes that come in off the streets and the type of interaction you’re having with people. Someone asks about a movie you’ve never heard of, you look it up for them and now you want to see it. No professor at school is going to come in and be like, “I saw this movie 30 years ago – I don’t remember the title of it, but I’ll tell you who’s in it…” No one in academia has as much esoteric knowledge as these lifelong New York maniacs who still are shopping in video stores in 2007.

ColorWheel1Did the atmosphere feel different when you had that group of people as crew versus “The Color Wheel” where many of the people working on it are directors in their own right?

Yeah. I think six people in the movie have directed their own films and when you’re surrounded by that, you have to up your game. Bob Byington, who plays the professor in the movie, directed some incredible films, “Harmony & Me,” which is how I met him when my first film was playing at festivals. He was involved in the whole process. He was reading drafts and giving me feedback from the vantage point of someone that made four films. I’m on set with him and watching him interact with the crew and with the other cast and that’s informing me. Then Ry Russo Young, who plays my girlfriend in the movie, is a great filmmaker as well and listening to her when we’re talking about where to put the camera, it’s interesting to understand what she thinks about how to characterize a character that’s only in the film for five minutes.

From what I gather, it wasn’t just Bob or Ry you met on the festival circuit, but also your co-writer and co-star Carlen Altman. Did your offscreen relationship manifest itself into what ended up onscreen?

Yeah. We spent a lot of time together making the movie. I didn’t know her at all, really. I had seen her in Ry’s film, “You Wont Miss Me” and I had seen her do standup comedy. I just had an instinctual feeling that she could be the second half of the dynamic in the movie. In a way, it’s like meeting someone in a bar and dating them for three weeks and deciding to have a kid together. All of a sudden, 13 months later, we’ve been writing and rehearsing three times a week for a year and now, we’re about to have to spend 19 days together in a car. That becomes part of the performance because neither one of us has a lot of other acting experience to pull from, so it became a situation where we really birthed this thing together.

You can tell the film isn’t improvised, particularly because of how sophisticated the visual humor is, which seems to be something that’s been deemphasized among this generation of filmmakers. Why is it an important component for you?

Because you don’t see that. You do, but not in movies of this level. I love films that my friends make and I love films that I see at festivals by people that I don’t know yet, but I don’t want to do exactly that. There’s elements that I love about cinema that no one is putting in their films. I like acting, I like watching actors really act and discover these characters, but I also love jokes and writing zippy dialogue and sight gags and no one in this aesthetic has embraced that. Bob [Byington] does – Bob’s a kindred spirit in that regard. But yeah, I don’t see this in movies. I wondered if it’s even possible. Maybe the reason no one’s doing it is because it’s impossible. Let me try to do this and see if you can even piece this together with this type of syntax. It turns out, I guess you can a little bit.

ColorWheel2You’ve also said it was important to you to avoid shooting in people’s apartments, as is often the necessity in low-budget productions, but were the various locations you stop at on the road actually evocative in writing the story or did they come along after the fact?

The storyline obviously necessitated where we were filming, but they were important. I went and found them. A lot of them are up in Vermont where my grandma has a house, so I had seen the diner where the characters go to in the beginning of the movie — I had driven by it 500 times since I was 10 years old, but I had never been in, I just loved the way it looked. They have all these motels up there that are unrenovated since the ‘70s.

We could obviously go to New Jersey or upstate New York and find a diner or find a motel, but it doesn’t quite look like it’s in the middle of nowhere the way just some highway in Vermont looks and that was really exciting. Every single place we asked, just said sure, so we got all these locations and tried to shoot them in a way that we honored them. Each scene is about being in that location. Being in the motel is about checking into the motel and having a motel room. Being at the diner is about ordering food at a diner. Again, you don’t see that in movies.

Because these are locations that people don’t film in all the time, was it difficult?

They’re all open. The diner was open while we were filming in it and in the background, you can see the people who are working and eating there because they’re like, “we’re not going to close for you, but we can give you half the restaurant.” When we were ready for every take, they turned off the exhaust fan, so on the longer takes, the place started to smell like burgers and as soon as we said cut, they had to turn the fan back on. That’s kind of fun. And it’s unpleasant, but it gives it a sense of urgency that helps. That scene has very fast dialogue and a lot of cutting in it and I was just furious while we were filming it. Nothing was going right. We’re filming in a restaurant that’s open during lunch. The performances in that scene just totally became about how annoyed we were to be there and that helps. It sets a great tone eight minutes into the movie.

How did you come up with the look for the film?

Because of the story. It was the briefest conversation. I was talking to Sean [Williams], the cinematographer who was another Kim’s guy, and I said, I’ve never acted in anything before. I don’t know if we can shoot on 16mm [because] I don’t want to waste film while I’m just messing up on every take. He said, “You could shoot on video, but what do you want the movie to feel like?” Well, I want it to be black-and-white diners, black-and-white motels, black-and-white highways – just like these photographs that I love. And he said, “I’m going to shoot it in grainy black-and-white and it’ll look just like that. Everyone will feel the way that you feel when you look at those photos.” I was like you’re right, that is what the story needs. The story needed to have a certain tone and black-and-white, old-timey film grain was that tone.

ColorWheel3There’s obviously a timeless feel that comes with that, yet you’re telling a story about a malaise that feels very specific to this generation. Were there certain things you wanted to avoid to make it too specific?

I don’t know if the problems that I feel like with young people of my generation are as timeless as the look of a black-and-white diner, but they translate well. The maladies that young people have are, in my opinion, somewhat despicable. You look at the characters in the film, young kids who don’t read, they don’t learn – can you imagine either of the characters in that film ever go to a museum? No. And that to me is the real disgusting part of what people in their twenties are all about now. They want to watch TV and see their friends go play music. They don’t want to see a classic film when it plays every day for a week because they’re doing a retrospective and then go home and read. I kind of wanted to make fun of it a little bit, but also try to explore why I felt that way. And it just fit into the framework of the timelessness.

How have you felt about the response to this film? I’m not trying to make you sound pompous, but it’s interesting when Ignatiy Vishnevetsky can write a highly analytical piece about it saying that it could be “the future of cinema,” but it clearly takes pleasure in just getting broad laughs as well.

On the one hand, it’s kind of outrageous. Nothing is more interesting and also more unique to the current movement of independent American cinema than to be taken seriously critically. I’m not saying this is not the case of my friends or my peers, but it blows my mind that there are 10-paragraph, in-depth analytical thought pieces about this film that draw comparisons between it and my first film and discuss themes. That to me is as cool as it gets because in school and working at Kim’s, I’m reading criticism and it’s wild that I put this thing out there and Ignatiy from Mubi does this wonderfully thought out, insightful analysis of his take on the film and there’s a piece in Cinema Scope, which I don’t know who’s blown away by that magazine, but I am and my DP is because that’s a cool film magazine. I don’t know if other young American filmmakers give a shit about being in Cinema Scope, but to me, that’s untouchably neat.

At the same time, it’s fascinating to see that you can make a comedy and you screen it in a theater and there are people laughing. To craft a joke that makes two or three hundred people laugh at the same time is…I certainly didn’t think that was going to be the case by the time I was finished with it. I was so sick of hearing every joke a thousand times. I was like, nothing in this works. Then you just see people are sitting in this theater laughing and having a good time. Like we made this, we wrote these jokes and now people are coming up to me later and be like, “You know what my favorite line in the movie was? This line.” That’s what my friends and I have done since I was 10 years old. For people to come up to me, “well, your movie had this great line in it, I’m going to quote that line next time I’m in this situation,” that’s great.

"The Color Wheel" does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at AFI Fest on November 7th at 1:15 p.m. at the Chinese 1. Perry will also appear at UCLA's James Bridges Theater on November 8th to present "Impolex" and "The Color Wheel." Details of the free screening are here.

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