Alex Ross Perry loves BAM, so much so that he wore the free BAM socks he was recently given to a Q&A at the Rose Cinemas after a screening of his breakthrough feature, The Color Wheel, making him the first director, he hoped, to wear BAM socks at a BAM Q&A. Like his film, Perry can be silly, but also serious, cutting, and droll. His influences are varied, but Philip Roth is probably the biggest on the film's story and tone, he said—"humor plus the existential sense of sexual dread"; it's no accident that the credits use the typeface from the first edition of Portnoy's Complaint. (Perry said he spoke to the font's original designer, who was excited about their using it, and who "gave us advice, which we didn't use, on how to make the T better.")
Perry started with Portnoy and then, over eight months while developing the script for The Color Wheel, read 20 more Roth novels. He said Roth's novels are unfilmable because of their interiority, but he felt he could apply their tone to his own work. The one with the most influence on this film is Professor of Desire, which like Color Wheel is full of "sex, comedy, anger and people hating each other." It's told from the professor's point of view; Perry thought, what about telling a similar story from the student's point of view?
Perry also cited Vincent Gallo as an influence: as an example of a director who stars in his own movies—"I probably shouldn't have done it," Perry said. "It's quite a bit of multitasking"—but in other ways, too, like how he and cinematographer Sean Price Williams tried to make their driving scenes look like the driving scenes in The Brown Bunny. Brody, however, saw more of Chaplin and Jerry Lewis in the film—the actor-director, the self-effacing funnyman. "You get knocked down quite a bit," Brody said and, after a beat, Perry answered, "oh, in the movie?"
"By being the face of that humiliation, the movie becomes a little easier to watch," Perry said. "If it was another actor, you'd be like, 'oh, he's abusing that actor.'" Perry is particularly proud of the pratfall in the party scene, but said no one ever laughs at it. It's too late in the movie, he thinks, when things are already going wrong and people are starting to feel a little sad.
They may feel a lot sad by the end, when (spoilerz) the main characters, brother and sister, hook up. (After Brody danced around the question awhile, Perry said he had no siblings.) But actually Perry thinks it's a happy-ish ending—it's a bummer of a film, but slightly hopeful at the end, with the characters slightly better off than they were at the beginning. "The phrase 'the last taboo' is really disgusting," he said, but he wondered if people would be offended; only about 1 in 10 questions at Q&As are from indignant audience members, though. He supposed that there have been cinematic precursors for incest, which may have inured audiences to the idea.
Brody also compared The Color Wheel to the famously fast-talking films of Howard Hawks. "I'll take it," Perry said. There are roughly 12,000 words of dialogue in The Color Wheel. He wanted to do a rapid-fire screwball that wasn't just pastiche; 90 percent of the speed is in the acting, he said, but the other 10 percent comes from editing—from doing things like cutting 10 seconds from a 60-second sequence without losing one line of dialogue.
Perry stars in the film, and Brody noted he doesn't seem very different in person than he does on screen. "I don't know if I want to hear that," Perry said. (He often seemed to be ribbing Brody. "You started watching movies as a kid?" Brody asked. "I assume so," Perry answered.) There are some differences between man and character: for instance, in the film Perry wears pants that are too big without a belt, which he said drastically changed the way he carried himself. Still, Perry is not an actor—this was the first time he ever performed, he said, as well as for much of the cast. "Every friend of mine got a phone call, and those who said yes are in the movie," he said. "No one who wanted to be in the movie didn't get in." Despite the largely nonprofessional cast, there was little improvisation—aside from some stray lines, everything appears in the film as written beforehand. He and his co-star Carlen Altman rehearsed a lot, but "everyone else I just trusted would do it right when they showed up."
Perry also produced the film, which meant attending to a lot of the unromantic stuff. "I really wish I had a producer who wasn't me," he said. But when he tried to recruit producers, "it's like when a kid says he's going to build a spaceship. 'Oh, yeah, show it to me before you take off.'" Though the movie is shot on 16mm film, it wasn't that expensive to make: DP Williams already had the camera and five lenses, so there were no rental costs. And they got a great deal on film stock. Most of the budget went to food and gas; he could watch the crew eat lunch and think, "oh, man—look how much money these people are eating."
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