One of the most anticipated titles at this year’s BAMcinemaFest is The Color Wheel, the second feature directed by the going-on-27-year-old Brooklynite Alex Ross Perry. Perry and his cowriter Carlen Altman play Colin and JR, differently directionless semi-estranged siblings road-tripping to pick up JR’s things from the house of the professor (indie filmmaker Bob Byington in a memorable cameo) with whom JR’s just broken up. Along the way, they banter and bicker incessantly, drawing out each others’ insecurities, which are further flayed by everyone they meet (including a number of familiar faces from the microindie festival circuit, and New York City in particular, like Kate Lyn Sheil, Chris Wells, and Ry Russo-Young). Perry and Altman answered some questions over email this week.
The Color Wheel is the best low-budget film about the reconciliation of a brother and sister since at least Cold Weather. What, if anything, inspired the central relationship
Alex: I think we are the only brother/sister film since Cold Weather! But that is a great comparison, and I am happy to be mentioned in the same breath as a film I liked so much. I think for me, I wanted to tell a story about two people who had drifted apart and what, if anything, could ever happen to result in a reconciliation. This was based on a number of deteriorating relationships I noticed I was having with people. It seemed to me that telling that story with something like two old, high school or college friends was not the most original, interesting or emotional way to approach that. The brother/sister aspect was a fictional representation and conglomeration of my own problems in life, and one that I thought could be explored for an appropriately emotionally upsetting narrative.
Carlen: I see so many of my childhood friends who had big dreams of stardom are now married and “grown-ups,” living very comfortable lives (at least it seems that way on Facebook!). It makes me feel pride and insecurity over my decision to choose a life of creative uncertainty (pursuing a bunch of random creative pursuits with little concern for long-term finances/starting a family/ health insurance/”grown up issues” /etc), and Alex discussed feeling the same way. We wanted to show through the movie how two people from the same place (brother and sister under the same roof) could end up on different paths, and the problems those paths (uncertainty aka JR versus certainty aka Colin) present.
How much of the script was improvised (or derived from improvisation)? How much time did you have to play around while shooting each scene?
Alex: Hardly any of the finished film is improvised. We wrote a very specific script and rehearsed for months, maybe too damn long. I think a lot of our rehearsals became improvisations, so then we write notes on our scripts and they go into the next draft. However, because we were shooting on 16mm, even though we had a lot, we still had to be mindful of wasting it, so we really didn’t have very many opportunities to “try stuff out” while filming. There were some spontaneous moments that I am glad made it into the final film, though.
Carlen: I am really bad at memorizing lines which has always prevented me from wanting to “act” in the conventional sense of the word—so I always felt that if I were to make a movie or something, it would have to be something that I wrote, so I’d have no excuse for not knowing my lines!
With that being said, I would say 90% was scripted, and 10% was improvised. There are lines in the movie that I have used in my standup routine for the past few years (“I’d cut my bangs but then nobody would know I was the type of girl who likes music and art”), and there were lines and imagery that I have always wanted to put into a movie, and those made it in there along with lines and scenes that Alex wrote, and that we came up with together.
Your speech rhythms are somewhat different—Alex, you have this almost viciously quick and even tone, and hyperarticulate syntax; and Carlen, you tend to drop into unexpected, goofy-dopy vocal registers, or mimicry—and I wonder about the challenges, and rewards, of playing off each other verbally as you do throughout the movie.
Alex: I think this is a big part of what appealed to me about working with Carlen: knowing that our speech patterns were different, but that our sensibilities and conception of awkwardness, comedy and awkward comedy were similar. I thought that we would be able to create scenarios that would allow us both to do what came naturally to us, and most of the script was written with this in mind. It’s satisfying to watch it now and know that Carlen’s character has a personality that I could never have created, that I needed somebody with her own voice to create.
Carlen: I agree with Alex here. I really connect with Alex over our mutual appreciation of awkward situations. Sadly/happily, the way I talk in the movie is pretty much how I talk in real life, with awkward vocal registers and creepy mimicry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me! Perhaps I have multiple personalities.. While filming with Alex, I don’t think we were aware that our speech rhythms had such a melodic/noticeable quality to it.
I love the extended scene of the fancy house party JR and Colin are humiliated at, for the stagy, arbitrary cruelty your characters encounter—they’re both, in their way, self-doubtful and unprepared for the adult world, and its polish seems almost unreal to them. (And to us—it’s edited together like you had different actors on different days.) Had you always conceived of the scene, and supporting performances, as being so stylized?
Alex: We did have different actors on different days! There is a cut at one point from the second day of shooting, to the first, then back to the second. It’s painful and not a fun way to make a movie, but when you are shooting a 95-page script in 18 days on 16mm, you’re going to run up against issues like that. We got a huge apartment to film in—huge, that is, for apartment standards. Not huge for lights, actors, camera, a staging area, all that nonsense. It was a challenge to find ways to shoot the apartment that did not specifically repeat, but at the same time, this kind of forced us into allowing those scenes to become like an abstract nightmare of being boxed inside this horrible, dead space. The fact that it follows nearly half an hour of hand-held, exterior scenes doesn’t do anything to make it an easier transition for people, but it does convey pretty much what those characters are going through. And what I go through every time I enter a party where I do not know anybody. I definitely wanted those characters to be one-dimensional jerks as much as possible, basically the way I see most snooty people I meet at parties. They’re barely human, they’re like sketches for what people think they should be.
Carlen: Truthfully, the party scene was the scene was my least favorite part of the movie (no offense!)—to me, everyone seems so act-y and painful to watch. But perhaps those qualities are what makes it memorable, and upon seeing it in its final/edited form, I do think it accurately expresses the discomfort that we were trying to convey when having to attend a party where you want to impress people!
But then, I imagine that performance anxiety—like JR’s desperate monologue attempting to prove her news-anchor chops—must be difficult to play, too. Did you have discussions about how much verbal fumbling and general amateurishness you’d want in the finished film?
Alex: No, but I think people would be surprised, and probably angry, to find out that we wrote most of that stuff into the script. That coupled with my own lack of performance experience suggested that we had better get comfortable with the idea that JR and Colin would often stammer on nervously.
Carlen: With my insecurity over memorizing dialogue/acting, it came naturally to me to stumble over lines, and the way that JR says the desperate news anchor monologue is the way I imagine I would read the news if I were actually trying out to be a weather girl (which is something I did think about wanting to do for a minute when i was in college!).
In some ways this sense of personal uncertainty is a common concern among the films made by a certain subset of young people—but there’s also a good deal of professional polish in the retro music choices and especially in the black and white cinematography. Why’d you choose to shoot in black and white? As a performer, is it different acting, or seeing yourself acting, in black and white?
Alex: When you look at a movie, any movie, but especially ones being made by young folk with limited means, you have to think about the choices they made. You see the grain right away, you know we shot on film, and you are already thinking, perhaps furiously, about the decisions we obviously made. It’s really about my love of outdated models of film production. The black and white really benefited the story I wanted to tell. We’re showing you these kids on the open road, motels, diners, rest stops, and Sean Price Williams (our cinematographer) was asking me, how does this story need to feel for you, where does this come from, and so on. I had just seen an exhibit of Robert Frank’s photo series “The Americans,” which I had seen part of before, but never all prints, all in one place. We started talking about the tone and spirit of that depiction of America, and quickly realized that if you are going to film a chrome-trimmed diner, you really can’t even consider doing it in color.
As an aspiring egomaniac, it is nice to see hours upon hours of footage of myself, tenderly filmed by an amazing cinematographer in black and white. It goes a long way toward convincing me to stop hating myself. I hope Carlen agrees with me on this, but we definitely look better than we would have in color. Like my hero Peter Bogdanovich says his hero (and also my hero) Orson Welles said, “Black and white is the actor’s friend.”
Carlen: I agree. I like how black and white looks, especially for a portrayal of “anytown America,” and I do feel like as Alex has pointed out in the past, it makes it harder to tell that our teeth are yellow! bwahaha…
A few people have asked me if i was trying to go for a “French new wave/Anna Karina” look in the way I dressed JR, but truthfully, iIhave never been a fan of artsy French movies (once I tried to watch Masculin Feminin but could not sit through all of it because I am so ADD-ish/low-brow!) and I never get along with people who are “Francophiles” and wear stupid Eiffel Tower necklaces from Urban Outfitters, but from googling pictures of black and white French new wave stars like Chantal Goya and Anna Karina, I think they are dreamy, so I’d be honored to make a film in anyway reminiscent to the work of Godard and/or seem like I am going for that sort of French aesthetic.
And here, too, the framing of the quarterlife tentativeness is a bit deeper, a lot more Freudian. There’s of course the, let’s say, lingering unresolved sexual issues, or the extraordinary way in which Bob Byington’s character dominates and infantilizes J.R. by parsing her emotional state for her… Is this the Philip Roth influence, do you think? I know he’s a major guidepost for you, Alex, and for the film’s title font; there’s a certain amount of neurotic intellectual aggression in Byington’s scene, and elsewhere…
It is one hundred percent ideas and inspiration I got from reading Roth. (To whom Carlen is distantly related!) I really cannot overstate the importance of his novels on the last few years of my life, or this film. I learned, or extrapolated, or inferred, more from Roth about sexual insecurity, what it means to be a man, the plight of the creative mind and the distance we can feel from those close to us than anything else ever could have taught me. For me, the Byington/professor scene is like something out of The Professor of Desire, a personal favorite.
The way the men treat their women in Roth’s novels, specifically that, obviously Portnoy’s Complaint, but also When She Was Good, The Anatomy Lesson and Sabbath’s Theater, was important for me to consider in making a film that is centered around a female character. Because I wanted to invert what Roth does, and show the effect a character like the Professor has on JR, and how much being treated that way would destroy this girl’s psyche and confidence. In the novels, we don’t follow the girl when she leaves the room. And I wanted to add the additional element of my character to that, basically a sexually unfulfilled guy who would give anything to be the Lothario that JR’s professor seems to be. Colin is probably a guy who would read Roth and try anything he could to be as sexually deviant as the characters in the novel.
Carlen: Truth be told, I have never read any of Philip Roth’s work, so at least for me, Roth’s writing was not an intentional influence. but perhaps because of my distant relation to him (so i am told by my father), Roth’s genetics trickled down to influenced my writing? Just kidding!
The Roth influence also got me thinking about a couple more gently executed moments in Green and Tiny Furniture, where Roth and Woody Allen’s books are the tools with which extremely self-aware young urban Jews exercise a certain amount of dominion over the women in their lives. Carlen, I’m curious to hear your perspective about J.R.—as you play her, she seems at times incredibly defiant, at times lost, and at times cowed by the people around her.
Carlen: All i can say is JR is a representation of all the confusing emotions I have experienced as a young adult trying to figure out my place in New York as a “grown up”; like me, JR is ambitious but confused about what road to take in life/where to focus her energies, but feels she is meant for something more than a “9-5 existence” and goes through life with a wide range of responses, sometimes defiant, sometimes cowardly, and sometimes unexplainable.