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Spinning 'The Color Wheel'

Bob Byington supplies the Q's, Alex Ross Perry the A's

By Robert Byington, 2:03PM, Fri. Jul. 27, 2012

I was in a movie that's done really well and it's coming to Austin, so I wanted to ask the director some questions.

He and I will both happen to be in Locarno, Switzerland for a film festival when the movie is here, but I think it's worth seeing, and a lot of people seem to agree. It's lively.

Of the film A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote:

"When I saw 'The Color Wheel' last year at the BAMcinemaFest, I hated every minute and was glued to my seat, unable to take my eyes off the screen. A movie that can scramble my signals so effectively, overriding deeply ingrained habits of response and judgment, is at the very least doing something interesting, so I approached a second viewing with wary respect. 'The Color Wheel' remains, in my estimation, a singularly unpleasant movie: full of obnoxious characters in scenes that seem overwritten and under-rehearsed, oblivious to the most basic standards of tonal consistency, narrative coherence or visual decorum. But it is also sly, daring, genuinely original and at times perversely brilliant."

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The Color Wheel screens at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz starting Saturday, Aug. 4; see drafthouse.com for showtimes.


Robert Byington: I'll try and keep this fairly brief, I know you've done a ton of press for the film – I read some of it, and I was kind of impressed, in the Miriam Bale interview for Slant, how you went into it with a fair degree of "I know what this movie is about." Is that a fair assessment? Or were you flying slightly more by the seat of pants?

Alex Ross Perry: I think a lesson we both know is that there is no possible way to stay on track and guarantee the movie does not end up being unwatchable. I really knew what I expected this movie to be as a script, and like a promising child athlete, it disappointed me at an early age by forsaking what I considered to be its youthful promise in favor of something of which I did not approve. Eventually it kind of came back to its eventual destiny, but overall I think it benefited, perhaps only slightly, from taking a spirit walk for some portion of filming that allowed me and it to sit down and have a stern lecture during editing, wherein it eventually saw my point and came to its senses. Never having been a part of a film other than my own two productions in any major way, it is hard to answer the second part, except to point out that a lot of films I love that seem fully formed from script to execution likely had their own stumbling blocks along the way, much to the chagrin of the director.

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RB: We've both worked with your camera man Sean Williams, and you were the one in fact who urged me to work with him, despite the awareness that we might butt heads. Can you talk about working with him – he's shot both of your films.

ARP: There is no collaboration I value more than the one with Sean Williams. His instinct is second to none and the amount of quality control that goes into the framing of a simple shot is going to guarantee that the end result is a film which looks fresh, exciting and creative. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but I really cannot overstate how important it is to have a cinematographer like this when shooting a movie for no money on an incredibly tight schedule that still, hopefully, has to be a piece of quality work. He is not afraid to argue to make his opinion heard, though what he is yelling about is always for the good of the film itself, even if that mostly means good for him and his reputation when people watch it. Despite not having made a movie with you or been on one of your sets, I knew that your ornery natures would compliment one another nicely and that there would also exist between you and he an unspoken level of one-up-manship, the result of which being the occasional blackout confrontation (which I had seen in him and knew to be just under the surface in you) but also a piece of work that you were both proud of. In short, I knew you both could take what the other was sure to give and not let that affect anything negatively on set.

RB: Having acted in the film, I have followed it and noticed a quote in an interview you did with my friend Ray Pride in Chicago, where you said that my performance "straddles a strange place between wish-fulfillment and unchained ego.” That's fair, but I wasn't as deliberate as you may seem to be suggesting. Like all performers I was thinking about my hair and what I was wearing and I was trying and failing to remember my lines.

ARP: This is self deprecating and only partially accurate. I think our rehearsals of the scene, both several weeks before which resulted in lines and suggestions being added in as well as the personal upheaval you brought to set resulted in the performance being very specifically grounded in a sort of fantasy – we all wish we could just yell and scream endlessly at somebody who we are trying to care about, in whatever way, and are facing resistance on this very urge. You did resist my desire to have the character wearing a suit jacket, just as I resisted your suggestion for pajamas. This is mostly what I mean by unchained ego, though I refer to my own as well and my lingering dream of berating somebody as beautifully and hilariously as you do in the film.

RB: I was in a disagreement with a lady on the way to set and brought a lot of that to Carlen [Altman, co-writer and costar] in the scene, but then, at lunch, at that moribund Thai restaurant, I was on the phone with her, and we resolved things, at least for the time being, and then when I came back to set I was completely useless – it was a real lesson. Do you remember getting mostly nothing from me after lunch? This is why I am against phone calls and heavy meals on my sets.

ARP: I recall you expressing a profound sense of worthlessness after that lunch. This is a part of what I mean when I say that shooting in the morning tends to be best. Being given an hour or so to decompress ruins people's stamina. Taking them out of the isolated bubble of a set into a world with food and phone calls, it would take an incredibly consummate professional to keep their head in the game. I think the scene works regardless and I would be hard pressed to identify any specific moments from it that were filmed in the afternoon and not the morning. Perhaps my memory is tainted with the several weeks after this where many people suffered far more than you from post-break uselessness.

RB:The nine-and-a-half minute take at the end of the film – was it your ambition to do it that way when you wrote the script or did that decision arise later?

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ARP: It was an ambition in the script. As you know, there is a similar device used at the conclusion of my first film Impolex.

RB: Do you work better in the morning? afternoon? evening? Does it matter? Was there a "happiest accident" in shooting?

ARP: I am not sure there is an answer to this question, except to say that when actually shooting working in the morning tends to go best because the enthusiasm and excitement of the crew has not been squashed for that particular day, yet. By the afternoon people are upset about the morning and also perhaps sluggish and tired and trying to force people to work in the evening – certainly when shooting in the summer, as we did – is unnecessarily difficult. As for happy accidents, certain locations gave us more than was to be expected and we got mileage out of some jokes that could not have been planned. I am thinking of gags involving a bible in the motel room and a cat that lived at the location we filmed your scene.

RB: Were you getting good footage right away? I know your dynamic with Carlen shifted at least slightly from the beginning to the end of the shoot – were you conscious of wanting to harness disagreeable feelings toward her? And did you have a pretty decent sense for how to calibrate your performance? People assume you had access to playback, which of course you didn't.

ARP: I do not think we were getting good work at the beginning, but this is mostly revisionist as the first two days of filming (the scene in the thrift store and your scene) are both quite excellent and are almost exactly what they were conceived as being. However not only did we not have playback but we didn't see any of the footage until about three weeks after filming wrapped, at which point the entire production was considered an unmitigated disaster. To the credit of the shooting schedule, the scenes filmed got more angry as filming progressed, with the last several days being mostly the beginning of the story where the characters really cannot stand one another. I suppose you could call this a happy accident of sorts. You are correct in that we did not have playback of any kind. This goes back to Sean. Without him, I would not feel comfortable not seeing my own performance/directing during the shoot, but with him as my filter for what sinks or what floats, none of that sort of thing was needed.

RB: I responded also to Richard's Wedding, which has people talking. Very quickly, do you want to reveal your frame rate trick in this interview? I'm quite taken by that, and I also noticed that CW and RW both had some trouble finding their festival footing initially. Now RW is starting to find an audience [it screens at Cinema East this Sunday, July 29] – looking back it's hard to believe SXSW would turn both movies down, and it may be possible to muse on this.

ARP: You are referring to an anecdote I tell sometime that I adapted from probably Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder wherein I would look at a scene that I considered to be edited properly and succinctly and then re-edit is to make the scene five or six seconds shorter without losing a single line of dialogue. This is harder than it sounds but is a useful way to manipulate performance in post-production, which I found very handy in forcing the film to take the shape I wanted it to have. And while I have not seen Richard's Wedding, I can only express exuberance at any new examples of the crumbling film festival infrastructure failing to discover and support films that are different from the ones they showed last year. Nothing surprises me anymore w/r/t any movie being rejected from any festival. This mostly comes from a place of near total acceptance by any number of festivals and a simultaneous disillusionment with other films that either do or do not get programmed alongside my own, coupled with a personally acquired sense of awareness that these things tend to play out like marathons, not sprints, and how fast you run for the first lap or two isn't going to help you win the race.

RB: I had no idea there was a race.

ARP: An often uncompleted race to a proverbial finish line of independent film acclaim, assimilation and acceptance, both by festivals but also ideally something like audiences and theaters. But that stuff is all real close to the finish line and not everybody makes it. 


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