Alex Ross Perry talks about literary impulses and social engagement in his first two feature films, Impolex and The Color Wheel.
Alex Ross Perry broke into the world of independent cinema in 2009 with Impolex, a feature length film loosely inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The thematic and narrative parallels between the works are apparent enough: Impolex follows a protagonist named Tyrone S. as he attempts to track down rockets in a forest and mentally unspools in the process. But the film quickly distinguishes itself from Pynchon’s infamously complex novel, which, as Perry has observed, is by its structural and compositional nature somewhat ill-suited to conventional filmic adaptation. Inventive, hallucinatory, and beautiful in its own right, Impolex invites its audience to tread through the woods alongside Tyrone and indulge in the absurdity of his quest before diverging into more serious emotional territory. Its dénouement—an emotionally tense scene that crescendos in a long, affecting monologue—rivets the viewer on its own terms, and by the film’s conclusion, we get the impression that whatever debt Impolex owes to Gravity’s Rainbow has been paid back in full.
This result is true to Perry’s filmmaking process which seeks, on one level, to explore the complex, “un-adaptable” territory of literature in a cinematic vernacular based on personal relationships to the texts. The director’s latest film, The Color Wheel, represents his effort to reckon with the comedic American portraits and taut sexual frustration typically found in the fiction of Philip Roth. The Color Wheel examines the lives of two disagreeable twenty-something siblings, J.R. and Colin (played by Carlen Altman and Perry, respectively), in details that are by turns excruciating and hilarious. J.R. quickly enlists Colin’s assistance in moving some things out of the home of her former boyfriend and college professor, Neil, and the pair embarks on a long, hilarious and torturous journey through the vacant Americana of the Northeast—which, thanks to the masterful camerawork of Sean Price Williams, assumes the visual quality of a raw, grainy, black and white fever dream.
For most of the film, the plot remains somewhat spare; Colin and J.R. make slow headway on their journey, and spend the bulk of their time bickering, sniping at each other, and fumbling to articulate vague explanations of themselves—defenses or justifications, often posed to one another, of why they behave the way they do. The Color Wheel finds its characters entangled by a series of minor problems and the occasional embarrassment—in one instance, the ostensibly religious owner of a rurally-situated motel makes them perform a winkingly perverse charade of marriage—but to be sure, the lighter comedy is balanced by much darker scenes. When J.R. does in fact confront her professor—played to an acerbic tee by Bob Byington—the audience is forced to acknowledge the genuine emotional turmoil beneath her abrasive exterior. In the course of their subsequent travels, the siblings attend a party thrown by some of J.R.’s former high school friends and are victimized by a coterie of flat, mean-spirited socialites, who—for all their ostensible financial, emotional, and professional security—are infinitely more wooden than the film’s two protagonists. The Color Wheel presents its audience with a difficult calculus of judgment, on the one hand forcing us to condemn J.R. and Colin for wasting their lives and on the other asking us to bear witness to the sad, aching reality of that purposelessness.
For all its comedic spleen, The Color Wheel never permits its audience to make definitive conclusions about J.R. and Colin; the film instructs—or, to use Perry’s term, perhaps “indoctrinates”—its audience to alternate frequently and unpredictably between feelings of pity, contempt, and even sympathy for the siblings. As the artifice of their obnoxious cattiness collapses, J.R. and Colin become individuals you cannot help but feel for, however repulsed you might be by their self-absorption. Perry has made it patently clear that a central priority in crafting Colin and J.R. was to explore his (and co-writer Altman’s) complicated, ambivalent relationship to perceived tendencies of laziness, shallowness, and conceitedness in their generation. As far as the audience is concerned, The Color Wheel is an invitation to emotional and social vacillation, but it puts that challenge to us in the most accessible of languages—one of riotous, flawlessly-timed comedy.
After shoehorning ourselves into a corner of a small, dark bar near his Park Slope home, Perry and I discussed the trials of producing independent cinema on a small scale, the influence of literary story on his films, the sad, complex truth behind people you love to hate, and the importance of making fun movies.
Ryan Sheldon The first thing I wanted to ask you about was whether or not you saw an evolution from Impolex into The Color Wheel in terms of how you were making the films, the means you were working with. Impolex was shot in like six days, was it not?
Alex Ross Perry Eh, it was more like seven. The Color Wheel was shot in seventeen. I see no—I mean, I don’t think there’s any evolution. They were shot under nearly identical circumstances. Almost entirely the same people. The Impolex cast wasn’t there, so it was a different cast, but same DP, same camera, same sound guy, same equipment, you know. We were staying in the same house in Vermont both times. In that sense, there’s very little difference, which is why, to me, I think the films feel very similar. They were shot ostensibly for similar reasons—you know, just to get together with your friends in the summer and have a good time.
So, for me, I see them as being very, very similar. When we were back in Vermont, shooting The Color Wheel, living in the same house, eating in the same restaurants, it felt a little bit like being in The Big Chill. We were just back, and some people weren’t there. It was weird, but yeah, they were made very similarly. [It’s] just that one needed twice as many shooting days.
RS Do you feel as though—with Sean [Price Williams]—that you guys have come to a sort of natural understanding of how you work together?
ARP Yeah, it’s quite unspoken. With Impolex, we’d never done anything together before except work at Kim’s, but the relationship on that film was very intuitive and nonverbal, ultimately. And shooting The Color Wheel, as we said at Nitehawk, without a monitor, with me in it—I was only comfortable doing that because I knew that our relationship being based on nonverbal communication, and you know, just [our] being mentally linked—thinking the same things are good, or bad—made that possible. It makes the working relationship very comfortable, and that’s what makes shooting something in one week or three weeks possible. Because he works fast, you know. He could say, “we could do this fifteen more times and it won’t get better. It’s gonna be the same or worse.” And a DP that says that is an asset on a movie where you only have so many days and very limited resources. Just to have someone be like, Alright, honestly, the first time we did it was the best, so we should just stop wasting time. And he’ll say that. He said that on both films, so it’s very helpful to have someone like that.
RS And Kim’s, of course, is the video store where you cut your teeth—
ARP My video store teeth. Yeah, I mean, I worked there for several years—my last year-and-a-half at college as well as the summer in between my junior and senior years. Sean worked there. And so have the numerous other people that I collaborate with. Kate Sheil, who’s in both films, worked there, and I also knew her from NYU. But we started hanging out in the store. So it’s an important place, and now it’s kind of having a second wind of history thanks to, you know, people that worked there talking about it a lot. I know Kate talks about it in interviews. And it’s still there, on First Avenue, but that’s not the location that any of us worked at. So, the one that we all worked at is gone, which helps it seem like a kind of closed chapter.
RS Is that where you first met Sean?
ARP Yeah, I first met him as a customer.
ARP He’d worked there since 2000, maybe 2001. And—yeah, I met him as a customer, coming in and renting stuff almost every day when I was at NYU. I handed in a resume, and every time I was in, I would say, “Anything opening up?” And then one day I got a phone call—I later learned it was to get me to stop asking. They were like, The guy’s just going to keep asking if we don’t, like, eventually give him some like two-day-a-week job. But yeah, I just knew him from there, and then we worked together and started seeing movies together.
Then [Sean] stopped working there, and we kept seeing movies together, and at that point the relationship was there, and it became a working relationship, which I had never really anticipated until I saw the film Frownland, which he also shot and which I was very impressed with and was pretty blown away by the aesthetic of, and his work in particular. So when I started thinking, you know, looking at reviews of this movie made by a guy who I know, and shot by a guy who I know, is doing so well . . . there’s no reason that can’t be for everybody. I have access to the same cameraman, the same skill set, I’d like to be making a film that does this well also. And things just kind of moved forward from there.
RS So, Impolex came out of that relationship, then?
ARP Yeah, it was exciting to leave the job before I couldn’t leave—before it was what defined me—and do what I’d always wanted to do, which was make an independent feature film on 16 mm. And I was liberated, to do that. It was a lot of fun.
RS I know, with respect to that film, that the question that always comes up is, What was the impact of Gravity’s Rainbow? What was the influence of that work [on the film]? It’s not a direct interpretation, but I wonder—did you set out to make an adaptation, or is that what you think of the film as?
ARP No, I don’t. I mean, I always said, “If you read the book, and wrote a book report, I adapted the book report.” That was kind of my intention with that. My intention was just to honor the book, and play with it a little bit in a way that’s personal, because the book is very deep, and very giving. It gave me so much, and I wanted to do something with the thoughts it gave me, and all the images that it gave me. And I felt, I can either put this book away back on the shelf and get nothing out of it, or I can spend two years of my life making this a film—and only by doing that will I be able to process and understand what I felt about this. So it was just kind of my own way of coming to terms with something that opened itself up to me more than any other piece of fiction I’d ever read. I wanted not to adapt it or make it my own but kind of do something with what it planted—you know, it gave me all these seeds when I was reading it, and I had to do something with them or else they’d just die, and I wanted to see what they’d grow into. And then, of course, the film became very distinct, and had lots of elements that were not from anything—they were just from me, or from the actors, and in that sense it became its own thing, but it still allowed me to intellectually and artistically engage with the novel in a way that was satisfying and ultimately brought everything full circle when I finished the film and put that on the shelf and said, “Alright, I’m done with the book now.”
RS Similarly, people have discussed the influence of Philip Roth on The Color Wheel. Would you liken the processes of making the films—where you’re trying to work through that?
ARP Yeah, [it’s] basically the same thing. Yeah, these are not novelists who ever made work outside of fiction. They gave us that, but I like to think that if they made films, they’d be like these films. Because their books are not things that lend themselves to actually being films, but if these authors were to have written their own screenplays, they might include elements of their own work—or themes of their work—but would also go in other directions. And that was what I’ve set out do, several times now.
RS OK, well what are the challenges to making straight films out of those books? When you say they don’t lend themselves to being films—
ARP Oh, the challenges are infinite. They’re not straightforward narratives, they don’t have beginnings, middles, or ends. In Philip Roth’s books, there’s sometimes a fifty-page dialogue scene and then a fifty-page internal monologue. It’s just not narratively forward enough. I mean not every book, but generally. And the tone and content of the books is one that’s more linguistic than narrative driven. They’re not Michael Crichton books, where all you need for a good movie is the plot. What you need for the Roth or the Pynchon books is a sense of style and syntax that is so specific to fiction and literature that it doesn’t translate into a visual medium. That’s not to say that the books don’t have vivid images, because they do—Gravity’s Rainbow is full of them, and I was inspired by them—but as a straightforward plot, it’s not what you look for to adapt a book. But there’s so much in it that’s so visual and so cinematic—in both bodies of work. And that’s exciting to me, to get to play in the same realm that some of these wonderful authors open up is kind of fun for me to do, and it gives me a greater understanding of their work, and of fiction in general. Postwar literature is something that’s very, very fun and very interesting. Something I highly recommend for filmmakers is to look less at films that are inspiring them and more at stories that are inspiring them.
RS Another thing I was wondering about—we talked about how you met Sean, but what about Carlen [Altman]? How did that collaboration begin? Or where did you meet?
ARP I mean, we met at a comedy show, called Giggles, that my friend hosts. And [Carlen] was in a film called You Won’t Miss Me, which was directed by the actress—well, not an actress—directed by the filmmaker who plays my girlfriend in [The Color Wheel]. It’s an excellent movie, and I really liked Carlen in it. I enjoyed talking to her at this comedy show, and someone said, “you look like siblings,” and I thought, We should make a movie together. And then we did.
RS And she does comedy—she performs stand-up.
RS Yeah. Is that something you’ve ever dabbled in?
ARP I mean, I was doing it at this show, where we met, because it was the first one of my friend’s shows. It was the first show of his, and he didn’t have a network of comics or contacts and he just asked his friends to come in and do things to get the show started. She showed a video and did a few minutes, and I came in and told some jokes. That was where we met.
It’s not something I do. I mean, every Q&A is basically stand-up. You’re literally standing in front of people who are seated and waiting to be entertained. If you are good, they will give you positive feedback and there’ll be a good vibe, and if you’re bombing, everyone will just want it to be over. So they’re very similar—perhaps one with lots of good stand-up experience would do good Q&A’s, or vice versa.
RS Are you willing to say how much time went into writing The Color Wheel—
ARP Yeah. We started writing in June 2009—just kind of outlining and coming up with characters—and our first draft of the script was done on November 1st, 2009, and we started shooting June 1st, 2010. So, give or take, eleven months of writing, rehearsing, and rewriting. But, you know, we would just sit at [Carlen’s] house several times a week and just go through the motions of saying, What would this scene play out like? What scene do we need here? Then I came home and actually built the script, and we sat there with it and, you know, personalized it and developed it and would just read through it from start to finish. One day we’d do forty pages, and the next day we’d do the next forty—just rewriting notes in the margins. And then the next week I’d have our newest draft of it and we would just keep rereading it until it flowed from start to finish—every scene we liked, every line of dialogue we liked.
RS Many people have called J.R. and Colin “unlikable.” That seems to me reductive and simplistic—
ARP Well, people are—reductive and simplistic by nature. Can’t fight that. People are so eager to have some easy label for something that makes them feel uncomfortable. So if you want to watch a movie and say you don’t like it, and someone asks why, all you have to do is say the characters were unlikable and lazy people will say, “Oh, that’s perfectly reasonable.” But that denies people any sort of experience of struggling to connect with something. Certainly people don’t watch Mad Men and see characters who are cheating on their wives, and lying, and be like, Wow, I really like these characters. I really think these are great people. Certainly nobody says that. But if people are willing to pull their heads out of their asses and connect with a character who’s clearly full of unlikable characteristics, the dramatic value of your watching that isn’t, Wow, that would be a really good friend to have, or a really good wife or a really good boyfriend or husband. For some reason, that’s the way most people want to engage with filmed or written narratives. And if anyone can get away from that, they’re going to allow themselves to connect with works that have much more difficult protagonists.
RS I think what’s difficult about the characters in The Color Wheel is the accessibility of both of them—you’re showing ugly dimensions of characters, and I don’t think that’s the same thing as making them unlikable. There’s vulnerability there; you can see their flaws—
ARP Well the implication when people say that is that they’re incapable of liking someone in whom those flaws are . . . you know, visible. If you see the worst of somebody, then you’re not going to like them. And a lot of people who have that response to the film probably feel that way about people. They see someone who seems vulnerable or annoying, or is overcompensating, then this person might not like that person. And they’re having the same problem that they have with the film—unfortunately, they’re never going to connect with someone who actually might expand their horizons about what it is to live and interact in this world.
RS The film definitely requires a deeper level of engagement, and I really like that. There’s—I think, anyway—a fantastic intimacy in depicting people that way. What went into crafting those characters? Did you find that it sort of came naturally out of the premise of the film, or did you have to go back and make sure they were exposing more of themselves, and of these darker sides?
ARP I never really thought of them as having these issues and being all exposed until people started watching the film and responding to them that way. To me, they were just honest representations of what I consider to be the type of person I see every day. You know, the people who you meet, the best thing anyone can say about them is, “Oh, they’re really nice.” I never meet that person, or I do and I never want to see them again—
RS Because there’s no depth.
ARP Yeah, you meet people at a party, and it’s like, Everyone really likes that guy. And how come? Oh, he’s really nice. To me, it’s like, Fine, I never want to see him or speak to him again. So, having said that, my idea of creating a character is having someone who goes beyond that. Again I met them, and I got this really weird vibe, and they were making jokes that were funny but were actually kind of inappropriate, considering where they were telling these jokes and I didn’t know what to think. Then I saw them again later at a different party and they were alone—they looked really sad and I felt really bad for them because I had all these other thoughts and all these other experiences. So putting all that stuff into a character—which are all things I feel myself or I’ve experienced and been part of my own relationships with people—you put all that stuff in there and then people’s response is, Boy, what a sad, angry person.
Well, that just means you don’t get to know people, because if you got to know people, you’d learn that most people—people who you look at and think are happy-go-lucky, [about whom] you would never say, There’s an angry miserable person—they’re not showing anything in themselves to you. Or they’re just completely delusional, or they’re on so many prescription medicines and antidepressants that they’re incapable of having one jagged or irrational thought, and that’s what their life is like. And you meet them and you think, Well here’s a nice, well-balanced person, and you want to be friends with them. And you meet someone who’s confrontational and difficult and outspoken and a little bit angry and a little bit direct and you think, Boy, I don’t want to be anywhere near this person. So, I don’t see anything wrong with a movie populated by characters who act in that manner.
RS Would you say, then, that a central priority of this project was to make an honest film, more or less?
ARP I don’t think there’s anything honest or dishonest about it. People say, “I don’t like these characters,” and I say, “I don’t like people.” What does that mean? That I’m not going to leave my house. I have to go parties, or I go to festivals, or wherever, and I meet plenty of people that are not interesting or worthwhile. That doesn’t mean I’m going to shut myself off from them, it just means that’s what society is like, and this is the fabric of the world that we live in, and people in their twenties today—like the characters in the film—act and conduct themselves in a way that I consider to be slightly obnoxious, and I think that both of the characters in the film speak to equally revolting tendencies, in my opinion, of my generation and I just kind of wanted to examine that. I wanted to spend two years with these types of people as a way to come to terms with how I felt about them.
The J.R. character is the typical directionless hipster who has no specific interests, wants nothing more than to be successful, doesn’t even care in what way—she just wants people to know her name—and she probably thinks a great use of time is sitting around a friend’s apartment, you know, drinking warm beer and talking about all this great stuff they’re going to do. And maybe then they leave the apartment to go see their friend’s concert that one of their friends is playing or they go see an art exhibit that one of their friends is in and they think, This is a great time. They think they’re really capitalizing on their twenties. And that’s the sort of person that’s very specifically revolting to me—the these people who sit around saying “I want to do this, or I want to do that,” like she always says in the movie, I want to be a news anchor—they don’t actually do anything towards that end. They just kind of assume that will come to them. The Colin character is on the complete opposite of the spectrum, which is someone who’s just doing something—[people] who are making something of themselves. But what they’re making of themselves is this ambiguous, in-between of something, and no one understands why they’re doing it. You run into them—you haven’t seen them in a few years—and they say what they’re doing, and the only response you have is, Where did that come from? Everything I knew about you—I never would have thought. What brings you to this? What interests you about this? You’re not interested in this. Those are the two cartoonish extremes of what I think people in their late twenties are like, and both disgust me equally, and I just wanted to blend them together and make one the Id and one the Ego and then see what the middle ground was between these two wildly divergent personalities, and how these two types of people could grow out of the same home.
RS Yeah, that contempt for aimlessness notwithstanding, you extend some sympathy to these characters as well—
ARP Well, that’s part of it. I mean, no one would watch a movie if the impetus behind every scene was for the creator to make fun of the characters. There’s nothing honest or heartfelt in that. So the idea was for Carlen and I to create these characters that we felt very particular towards in one direction or another, and then ask the audience—by asking ourselves—what makes them this way. Why are we so quick to judge? You see someone acting like this, and you might hate them on the surface—or you might meet them and be like, What a nice guy—and underneath that there’s more going on. And if we make a film that shows you what’s underneath that person that you made a snap judgment about, then you’re going to feel very sad and sympathetic about them. If I’m out on the street—if I’m in some neighborhood like Williamsburg or Greenpoint—and I see someone that I immediately identify as being like J.R., my instinct is to hate them—and I do—and my second instinct is to be like, Well, I bet they’re really sad. I bet they’re a sad, miserable person, just like her. I bet they’re totally unaware of how to make their goals come true, and they’re just throwing darts at the wall and hoping one of them hits the bullseye. And they have no idea what they’re doing—they’re going to wake up one day, and they’ll be thirty-five, and they’re going to have no idea of why they haven’t accomplished anything. And then I’m like, You know, these are sad people. They look happy and they’re well-dressed and they going to hang out with all their friends, which I don’t have, but I’m sure ultimately they’re very sad.
And I see guys like Colin coming home on the train—bad clothes, ugly, ugly pants, horrible shoes, great job, good money. They’ve got beautiful girlfriends who look like strippers and tons of friends to go have barbeques with, and I have to look at them and think, These guys are probably pretty bummed out that they’re not doing anything that gives them any sense of notoriety or accomplishment—they’re just part of an assembly line. And so doing the film, if we didn’t have any sense of what makes characters like this—specifically, depressing or emotional—then the film would’ve had no emotional resonance to it. It was kind of interesting for us to try to find where those story beats would be in order to make the audience actually feel, Wait a minute, those characters who we’re set up—perhaps even indoctrinated—to look at as pathetic are actually quite sad and well-rounded people. And a lot of people who you might just dismiss, they’re probably dismissing themselves, and that’s a bummer. That’s kind of what the film is about—people who, in one way, are striving very hard to not give up on themselves, or are just giving up.
What do those two things feel like for the average twenty-something? That’s what the underlying theme of the film is. You can look at it and say, Well, it’s about siblings, or whatever, but it’s about this, and that’s something that Carlen and I bonded over. It’s a universal theme—for people in their twenties, who are living through it, or people in their thirties, who have, or people in their fifties, who remember it or are seeing their children go through it. It just comes up a lot, and people can connect to that story, and as a result of that, they understand why it means something.
RS Bearing that in mind, what was the hardest scene to write?
ARP I don’t know, they’re all hard. I mean every scene is difficult—
RS What about the hardest scene to watch?
ARP My friend said, “Here’s the way it is when you’re editing a movie that you’re in—it’s only finished when you can watch the entire thing and feel the least amount of embarrassment.” So, it’s not that any scene is harder or easier to watch. The ones that are easy to watch are the ones that are shot well, where I think we did a really good job with camera set-ups and we filmed the locations properly and the performances are good. The ones that are hard to watch are the ones where filming was a disaster—people were tired, no one was on their A-game. Obviously, I can put myself in there and say, The hardest stuff to watch is the stuff where I’m doing this, or I’m doing that, but really, watching it, you just feel your failures as a filmmaker, not as a performer, even though I’m looking at my own face. So there are plenty of scenes where we just weren’t on it, or one person was totally off key with everyone else, and those scenes are excruciating, but there’s nothing you can do about it. We didn’t have money or resources to do any reshoots, so everything that’s in there is just from the shoot—scenes that, if we’d had three days of reshoots, could’ve been a whole new world. But that was totally out of the question, and so there are some rough spots in the film, but it’s a rough film and they don’t stand out like they would if they were poorly shot scenes in Spider-Man. They kind of blend in to the rough-and-tumble fabric of the film as a whole.
RS You’ve mentioned—in interviews—a sort of nervousness on screen, or some anxieties about performing. But you’ve also said that you and Carlen rehearsed this forever, and you knew your lines really well, and there wasn’t too much improvisation. I’m wondering, if that performative anxiety is manifest in the film, if that dynamic evolved while you were rehearsing, and did that get into mode of delivery that we see in the film?
ARP By the time we got on set, we were both very insecure about not being trained actors. We were both insecure about not knowing how to act or perform, so . . . we just made sure to learn our lines and do a really good job with that. The rhythm that we found was just from the fact that we were sitting there writing scenes that were for us to perform, and we got to the point where we could leave the apartment and just do walks around the block and we had the dialogue memorized . . . Once we got to that point and we were on set, it was just about doing it exactly that way.
RS You called [The Color Wheel] a rough film, and I think there’s a way in which the viewer is aware of the textures of the film—there’s a close proximity. I’m thinking of this moment where they’re discussing molestation and Colin says something like, “Don’t look at my crotch while you’re talking about molestation” and the camera looks down. Was that stuff improvised, or is that a detail that was written into the script?
ARP No—well, I wouldn’t call that improvising, that’s just ad-libbing. Stuff like that was not written; stuff like that was us filming, and me noticing that when Carlen said that line, she looked at my crotch, and then I made sure that we had the shot of the crotch. But that wasn’t written, nor would it need to have been written, nor would it necessarily have worked. But we filmed it and it seemed like a good thing to add in there. It was a nice thing, because at that point we’d been living with and as these characters, at times, for about a year. And it was easy to have that dynamic, which ultimately became not that dissimilar from our actual dynamic. Our actual dynamic during filming got to the point—we started off having been together for a year as co-writers, and it was very easy to take a small step sideways to people who have grown up together and are at their wit’s end with one another. Little lines like that just come from a general sense of aggravation that can arise between two people who are familiar enough with each other to know how to push one another’s buttons . . . and can, you know, throw a bit of banter. And then the other one just has a response for it immediately, which, fortunately, because we spent so much time together writing and rehearsing, little ad-libs like that became quite possible during filming. But really there’s only a handful of them in the finished product.
RS And what was the editing process like for you? You mentioned being somewhat limited in how you could organize or reorder the scenes—
ARP I mean the editing was fine—I like editing, and I was able to sit at home and do it comfortably on my laptop. But, you know, there were certain restrictions in place because of the limitations of the film. The first time I looked at the footage, there were scenes that I really wished we could shoot again. Ideas like you’re mentioning, like the sequencing based on costume changes that during the writing and shooting never would’ve occurred to me . . . during editing, you might think, Well, let’s play around with these a little bit. But we couldn’t play around with them. Which was frustrating, but ultimately, the editing process just became about finding the moments that worked the best in what we had, because when you’re shooting a hundred-page script in eighteen days, it’s not about doing things just right. It’s about getting things as best as you can do. And editing a movie like this is about finding the best of what you’ve got. And there are some scenes, like the ones we’ve talked about, that have shots that are painful and excruciating to watch, but they’re the best we’ve got, and they’re in the movie because no matter how bad they are, everything else we did was worse.
That’s just a limitation of what it is to be doing something at this level. Certainly, people at festivals understand that, because they know how movies that are cheap and play at film festivals are made. People at multiplexes or critics might not understand that, because to them, they see your independent movie and then they go see the new Woody Allen movie, or the new Todd Solonz movie, and they think these are all the same and look at you movie at say, This is a piece of trash, because the only things they see at the art house are films made at that level. And that does affect the way people look at the finished thing, but ultimately you make do with what you can and hope that people realize that this movie was made very quickly and very cheaply by a bunch of friends who are just trying to have fun.
RS I mean, you don’t regard those restrictions as necessarily artistically inspiring, in a way, then? Would you ever impose those limitations on yourself as filmmaker out of some sort of aesthetic consideration, or out of an idea about process and what result it might force? Is it at this point just a matter of resources?
ARP If you’re limitless, and you’re not imposing any restrictions, then you end up with totally uninspired garbage. Like the last couple films by several former heroes . . . who just, without any sense of restriction, when they get to do whatever they want, what they do is just totally unwatchable—totally devoid of any value for me. Obviously, you want to keep that stuff in check so that you continue to have a relationship with compromise. If every idea you have someone tells you is a great idea, and every first draft you have, someone says, Yeah, you should do this . . . you end up with a terrible movie like Inland Empire. Or an unwatchable movie like The Limits of Control. Movies that are bankrupt on ideas, where there’s no one to tell [the directors], “This is horrible.” When they had 30,000 dollars, they were so full of life and compromise. Now you can do whatever you want, and it’s just so up your own ass and it’s just totally worthless to a viewer. You see audiences failing to respond to these films the way they respond to earlier works by these heroes and masters. So I would never want to get to that point, because then what’s the point of doing anything? There will always be limitations, even if you have twenty million dollars. There’ll be something you can or can’t do. I don’t really know yet, I’m sure someday I’ll find out, but I can’t imagine working in an environment surrounded by yes men and a bottomless bank account creates anything full of genuine artistic moments.
RS What went into the decision to shoot in black and white 16mm?
ARP The story necessitated it. It was a nostalgic, hazy trip through a nonexistent Northeast America. If you did that in color—in crisp digital—it just wouldn’t look the way peoples’ memories and emotions allow that moment to look. So, you want the story to look and feel right—a very easy shortcut to that is making it look the way the old photographs you’ve seen look.
RS I mean, it’s a beautiful film. There’s a great visual quality in that grain. It’s not rough in the way you mentioned before, but there’s a something of a raw visual quality to it that’s perhaps lacking in most other films.
I wanted to ask what you’re doing now. Are you going to continue in this mode of exploring story—especially stuff that isn’t necessarily cinematically representable—and the way you internalize things. Are you going to keep going in that vein? Do you have any projects coming up?
ARP I don’t specifically. I have another script that’s finished and that I’m trying to get made—there’s a tentative dream of doing it next summer. Again, it comes from ideas that I had while reading a particularly important book—a thousand-page, un-adaptable book that gave me ideas that I was very excited about exploring. I’m hoping that will come to fruition. I’m also working on a TV deal—a development deal for a company that is real, unlike a lot of deals that get made—with a company that is real and will pay me. We have a sort of gentleman’s agreement to shoot this thing in October, and hopefully that will actually happen and I’ll be doing this sooner rather than later.
RS Can you talk specifics on that project?
ARP Ah, not really. I mean the script I can talk about, but it doesn’t exist yet—it’s just a script. There’s no movie yet. But it’s inspired by some ideas I had—it’s a New York movie, which I’ve never done before—inspired by ideas I had while reading a book called The Recognitions, written by William Gaddis, which takes place in the ‘50s and is set in the West Village and contains a multitude of truths about artists and phonies and the way that people treat others that they think are artistically interesting, and what a disgusting display of fakery that can be. It was very amazing, and like I said, it’s fifty, sixty years old, but it could’ve been written today, and set in modern times. I was really blown away by it, and while reading it amidst all the things that were happening with The Color Wheel, I really started to have an idea for my first New York story. The TV thing is not a New York story at all, and this is my New York movie. I really want to make a New York movie that doesn’t cast it as this magical, emotional city full of hope and wonder, but as a deeply competitive place full of people that are willing to treat you like you don’t exist until you decide that you’re successful—and then all of the sudden they treat you like you’re their best friend—and what a disgusting system that is, and what type of a city it is that allows a system like that to continue to exist. I’ll try to make a modern comedy in and around that world.
RS Speaking of Gaddis . . . is there—
ARP No, there’s not. Total coincidence. Carlen came up with the name—I said, “Carlen, you need to name your own character,” and that’s what she came up with.
RS Have you gotten that question before?
ARP Yeah, it comes up. I mean it’s not even a question sometimes—just people either enthusiastically or dismissively saying it’s obviously a reference.
RS Are there any other filmmakers working today that you feel a kind of kinship with? People working in television, too
ARP Just philosophically, yes, because a lot of my friends and the people I’ve met at festivals along the way over the years I feel a kinship with. Not because our films are similar in any way, but because when you meet people under similar circumstances, and they film on similar budgets for similar reasons—which are to express something on a very small scale and get it out there to a limited audience—a small number of people—you have a kinship with them. The films could be very different. My friend Calvin Reeder directed a film called The Oregonian—shot on 16—that’s an art-horror movie. It has a lot of exploding boils, blood, and vomit. You know, the two films back to back wouldn’t make sense as a double feature, but he had a very specific idea of who was going to watch this movie—what the audience was—he got money to shoot it on 16, and he committed his vision fully to celluloid, and I feel a kinship to that. The works aren’t the same, but the reasons we made them are very similar. I can think of countless examples of friends and colleagues who have done the exact same thing, and it’s very inspiring. Those are the people I really connect with, more than with those whose movies are superficially similar.
RS Do you like a lot of the cinema that’s being produced today, or not very much?
ARP I have liked it. Impolex was at festivals in 2009, The Color Wheel was at festivals in 2011. I see a movie at a festival, and I meet the actors, and I meet the director . . . and it’s so easy for me to like the movie, because I meet them and I see their enthusiasm just to get a body in the theater—I feel a kinship there. So when I go see their movie, I’m so happy to see that I’m so not alone in wanting to make idiosyncratic movies that are not for multiplexes and are not for huge audiences—they’re for the people at festivals and friends and lovers of film. So I end up liking a lot of those films—I’m starting to reach a saturation point with them because I see so many, and every one I see now reinforces my ever-growing desire to see these people all collectively take a step forward, so I don’t have to keep watching these movies that cost under a hundred thousand dollars. And I would like to see all my friends making million-dollar movies—I would love to see what that level of expression and that level of resource and freedom could bring to people who’ve already proven how much they can do with very limited means.
A lot of the time now when I’m at festivals watching these films, I just wish that these people would all agree not to make movies until they can make different kinds of movies, but that’s just because I’ve been seeing fifty movies a year at the same level for three years. It has nothing to do with the movies, but with the fact of how many of them I’ve seen and how bored I get, and my desire to see people doing things that are different, and hopefully I can. When I go to European festivals, the films in the section that I’m in are always very different—very weird, very different things, totally not the same. I’m just in there by total categorization, not because the movies are the same. And I always enjoy seeing where European festivals place the one American movie amidst twenty foreign films. There’s some interesting stuff there, and very different filmmakers from the ones you’ll meet at your average American film festival. I always get very excited—I love nothing more than going to festivals and meeting filmmakers and seeing their movies, and then talking—or not talking to them about it. As someone who’s watched movies for so long and cared about them, I like to see one where I know the person who made it. When I was thirteen years old, I never would’ve thought that I could see fifty movies a year made by someone whose phone number I have—again, that’s very interesting to me, and I hope to continue doing that by whatever means.
RS If I can ask you one more question—I mean, I don’t know how much of this is designed to fluff or complicate reviews or make them more interesting—but when people talk about a certain hostility on the part of audiences to this film—
ARP Who does?
RS A lot of critics—for instance, what do you make of A.O. Scott saying he “hated every minute” of the film and then going on to write a glowing review of the film? Were you seeking to make a challenging film?
ARP (laughter) No, people who seek to make challenging films make horrible movies. There’s nothing interesting or fun about watching deliberately challenging films. I wanted this film to be entertaining and funny, and then just by default it ended up being challenging and transgressive and difficult, which I didn’t know was going to be the case—I didn’t plan on that. The people who set out to make films that are intentionally challenging or artistic . . . those films are unwatchable. There’s nothing human about them. The Color Wheel is a film that’s supposed to be fun and entertaining, and underneath that candy coating there’s supposed to be deep, sad, emotional issues, but because it does or doesn’t succeed as being an actually entertaining movie . . . the only good movie is a movie that, when you have friends over, you’d say, You guys have got see this, let’s put it on, sit here, and watch it.
I see hundreds of movies, and I see plenty of very, very long, impenetrably challenging films, but if something exists only to provoke that reaction, then you’re going to watch it and think, Oh, that’s very interesting, that’s very challenging, I’m going to go home and wrestle with that. But if you watch it and you’re like, Wow, it’s really fun—that’s kind of amazing. It’s like A.O. Scott going, Oh, that’s a horribly difficult movie to watch, but ultimately, there’s really a lot here—I need to make sure someone else sees that. Those are the types of films that I grew up watching, and want people to continue to be able to have. Impolex is the same thing—this movie is crazy, and we’ve been drinking, let’s put it on and watch it. It’ll blow your mind. There’s crazy shit in this movie, and now that we’ve got some beers in us . . . you won’t believe what you’re seeing. Something that people really want to pass on to their friends as a social event, and a gesture—a good thing you need to watch because you’ll have fun watching it.
You know, Eraserhead is fun to watch, because it’s beautiful, and it’s funny, and it’s weird, and you want to tell your friends to watch it. Inland Empire is not fun because it’s ugly and it’s boring—and it’s long as shit. No one would be like, You’ve got sit down and watch this movie with me, it’ll be a fun crazy cool night. People have been saying that about Eraserhead for forty years. People have been saying that about Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. No one says that about Inland Empire, unless they’re so blind because of their devotion to David Lynch that they’re convinced it’s a good movie. If you handed that DVD to somebody and said, “You’ve got to sit down and watch this with me,” they’d look at the run time and say, “I don’t think so. No, I don’t want to watch this with you.” And you’d put it on, and after five minutes, they’d say, “This is hideous. I feel like I’m watching YouTube. Why are we watching this?” They’d never have a good time watching that. When you lose track of that motivation for making a film—when you’re really just making it for yourself, or for people exclusively to have an intellectual or academic response to it—then you’re just really completely out of touch with making important entertainment that people will actually enjoy. Because what’s the point? People should go enjoy something. People are spending their money and their time to come watch something you’ve made, and the least you can do is entertain them. Do you want to torture them and force them to sit there and think at the end of a workday? Do you want them to have to engage with your film critically? Or do you want to just let them enjoy themselves, and if they choose to, engage with it in whatever way they’d like? Because really, if you can’t entertain people, then you shouldn’t be taking their money, and they shouldn’t be giving it to you. That’s how I feel.
Ryan Sheldon is a fiction writer living in New York. He writes for BOMBlog about books, film, and music.