I spoke briefly with Alex Ross Perry, director of The Color Wheel (Indiewire’s “best undistributed film of 2011) to talk about siblings and film versus digital formats.
Neal Dhand: The relationship between Colin and JR is very interesting. How was it conceived? Is it improvised?
Alex Ross Perry: The relationship isn’t necessarily anything that has to do with siblings per se. It’s more just the best way that I could think of to represent something that had to be about characters who had grown apart. Obviously it didn’t need to be a sibling-related story. You could do that story about other people who have grown apart – old roommates, or college friends, or what have you. But I’ve seen that film many times and it was more interesting to me to try to tell that same story about people growing apart from one-another and watching their relationship change over time if it was about siblings, which is something that I’ve seen explored far less often in films.
ND: Is it improvised?
ARP: No, not at all.
ND: The ending reminded me a bit of Murmur of the Heart.
ARP: Yeah, that’s a big influence.
ND: I was going to ask about that. Is Louis Malle an influence, or are there others? How’d you work towards the ending, which I’m sure has been very talked about?.
ARP: I really like that particular film. The ending was something that we always had in mind. It wasn’t anything that appeared transgressively or randomly during development. The entire thing was building to that, so it was never something that we had any question about, how we were going to arrive there. It was just – what do you do with these characters in order to get to this ending that we know we wanted in a way that’s going to feel genuine, and honest, and not shocking, and not added there to mess with people.
Because we always had that in place it was a relatively simple journey to construct the preceding events of the film leading up to that.
ND: I liked the structure of the film. It forced me to go back and watch the beginning after it was done. Was the film always structured this way?
ARP: It was one of those things where you’re piecing it together and after looking at the first couple cuts of the movie it became apparent that we didn’t really have a beginning. It was one of those instances where, through editing, the solution just kind of presents itself. Originally it would just begin with my character at the family’s house waiting for Carlen’s character to come.
It always just started abruptly and then we started adding more and more elements to the beginning, starting with the shots of the driving, and ultimately that scene seemed like it was the best way to start the whole thing. Not just because we needed a beginning that worked, but also because we wanted to encourage people to arrive at the end of the movie and think back to the beginning and wonder, ‘is this a shocking, unforeseen development, or should I in fact have totally seen this coming?’ Anyone who’s ever watched the movie a second time very sheepishly admits that they felt very silly for not seeing it coming, especially taking into consideration the first scene or two which you’re referring to.
ND: How do you build that feeling of inevitability? Is it through the scenes themselves – you have plenty of really funny scenes with Colin and JR, like when he [you] asks her to stop looking at his crotch? Or is through framing?
ARP: A lot of the scenes you’re referring to were kind of things that were just stolen from your basic Hollywood romantic comedy structure. And I’m a big fan of going to see any newly released romantic comedy and you always have scenes where two people that the audience knows hate each other are being forced to pretend to like each other.
I like scenes like that and I thought it’d be really funny to just kind of take those scenes and put them into this movie at a point in the narrative where it might seem as though this is really just a weird and perhaps slightly perverse scene between two siblings, and by the end it just seems that everything just plays into the complete Hollywood romantic comedy structure that you later will hopefully realize the movie has stuck very closely to.
The scenes you’re referring to were all part of my desire to base these scenes on any tropes of the classical romantic comedy and a lot of the cinematography choices really just come from the way that Sean [Price Williams] – who’s the cinematographer – works, and his ability to follow the action in the scene. His training is in documentary, so his ability to be shooting something and see what is actually the interesting thing happening and stay with it, is pretty innate.
When you look at the footage he made a lot of those choices without saying anything on-set. He just follows what he knows the camera should be looking at. Not everyone time, but on some specific takes. And more often than not all that stuff ends up making it in, because it’s very impressive and it’s not the type of choice that someone who’s only focus was on getting the scene covered would make.
ND: You’re actor and director. Was that a difficult way to work?
ARP: It’s pretty unpleasant and it’s not something I really liked a lot or would wish upon anybody. We don’t have any AD. We don’t have any monitor. We don’t have any playback. So really the best I could do was just do a lot of rehearsing and learn all the lines as best I possibly could in order to not have to be doing them over and over. Again my trust of Sean’s camera work and what he’s doing would make me feel very comfortable just knowing the lines and covering them that way.
There were really, unfortunately on this movie, not enough people working on it to have made anything that could have come along with it any easier. But we managed.
ND: Are you planning to continue acting, or would you prefer to remain behind the camera for future projects?
ARP: Yes, I very much hope so. That’s what I really like doing and want to do.
Some people on new projects that we’re working on, just assume, having seen this movie, that everything of mine is going to feature the added element of me acting in it, but I really hope to not make that my thing because it just adds another series of challenges that, in addition to every other challenge is sort of unnecessary in my opinion.
However if we had people like ADs or if we had a monitor or any sort of playback, it’s entirely likely that I would have found it to be a much easier and pleasant experience.
ND: I’m curious about the look of the film. It’s black and white and it looks like 16mm?
ARP: Yeah, regular 16. Part of that’s just – my first movie that I made was shot on 16 and we love it and you know, the only momentary drawback that was ever going to be an issue on this was me saying that I don’t really know how to act and I don’t want to be learning how to act while wasting all this film.
But our discussions about the tone of the movie that we were looking for quickly led us to believe that once again the only way we could make this look and feel the way we wanted to was to shoot on 16. And then further discussion led us to realize that it had to be on black and white just for what we were trying to capture.
Fortunately, black and white film is quite cheap. I would almost call it affordable. So we were able to buy more of it than we needed, which made me feel like I had the freedom to be a little bit less on top of things as an actor than I would have been otherwise if I had really felt like it was impossible for us to have the resources we needed to be shooting this on film.
But it was quite important to both of us, and we were very happy to be able to do, because it was really essential to the film that we wanted to make.
ND: Can you put that tone or feeling into words?
ARP: Well, hopefully most of that comes across in the movie itself. But obviously there’s a certain antiquated, almost anachronistic, by today’s standards, tone of a visual look, and a feel, and sort of a texture that would come along with shooting on film that this story that takes place in this vaguely anonymous location that is not in any specific way tethered to modern society would really benefit from.
Locations like diners and motels would be virtually meaningless and also perhaps unrecognizable if they were filmed in crisp, HD color. But by filming them in a grainy, sort of filmic black and white, immediately, within one minute or five minutes of the movie, people are able to put themselves in the headspace of another time period and another sort of film and another sort of story.
By getting them there within the first several scenes of the film, that’s basically where we needed them to be for the rest of it.
ND: Is this aesthetic choice or personal preference? Would you shoot film again on future projects?
ARP: It’s certainly a preference for us to be working on it. As far as I’m concerned there’s no reason not to unless something we were working on needed a very crisp, very modern or futuristic look. Then that would, with the technology today, perhaps make sense. But with the stuff that we want to keep making, at least for feature films to be screened in theaters, I would like to continue working on it.
But if it truly, genuinely made no difference for the story that we were making, and furthermore if it was also 100% out of the question, then I’m sure it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to not do it for a project or two. But again, that would only be if genuinely and honestly we looked at the project and said, ‘really this could be shot on anything.’
There’s a hypothetical situation on a small thing that we’re going to be shooting in January where it really doesn’t actually affect the story with what it’s shot on. And the way this project will be seen won’t benefit in any way from being shot on film and from having that look and feel. And we’re perfectly comfortable preparing to shoot this new project – not a movie, not a feature film – we’re fully comfortable preparing to shoot it digitally and that’s what this project requires.
At the same time we’re trying to prep a feature to shoot in the summer and the plan right now, 100% calls for regular 16.
ND: I’d like to ask about the party scene. It feels to me like such a tonal shift. Other scenes are satirical, but this one feels even more so. Was it a conscious choice to make this different, almost absurdist?
ARP: At that point that’s not the first mildly drastic tonal shift in the film, nor is it the last. It’s just one of a handful. But it does occur at a point where some sort of a transition from the bickering, very specifically comedic, and verbally driven first section of the film, into what the final act of the movie is. Some sort of radical change was necessary there in order for it to have the feel of incredible confusion when they get to the cabin. And it was really about finding a legitimate way to get people from the interactions that they’re having to the interactions that they were going to have when they were finally alone and able to actually talk.
There’s a major shift when they go to visit the professor character where a certain sense of ‘outsider’ comes into the movie for the first time and that’s about 20 minutes in. All of a sudden the characters are separated, which they haven’t been yet, and put up against a real adversary.
Then, after that scene there’s another shift where they’re sort of alone spending part of a day exploring different parts of Boston and then, you know, another shift as you mention when they enter the party. So it does just kind of go through a series of ups and downs for them, but all of those were just in service of making that moment when they enter the cabin at the end quite believable and not the only radical shift in tactic or style throughout the film.
ND: What about future projects? You mention the romantic comedy. Are you interested in riffing on other genres? Staying within the romantic comedy? Moving somewhere completely different?
ARP: Well I certainly wouldn’t want to do anything that was repetitive just because that would be boring and uninteresting. The two things that we have up in the air right now are both comedic in nature although much less overtly, though they are still full of jokes and dialogue that can be perceived as funny. But I wouldn’t say anything that’s something as specific as a romantic comedy that comes out today and stars sexy actors from TV is an influence on anything going forward. That just sort of fortuitously announced itself early in the development of Color Wheel. It was a very roundabout sort of influence that seemed like it wouldn’t be an obvious influence on something that we were working on.