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A Conversation with Alex Ross Perry About The Color Wheel

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A Conversation with Alex Ross Perry About The Color Wheel

I know Alex Ross Perry from the movies, from seeing him at repertory screenings in New York. Before I had even met Alex, I heard a rumor that he had made Out 1 T-shirts to commemorate the “I was there” experience of that rare, 13-hour film’s U.S. premiere. Who was this kid? Oftentimes I’ve been at screenings with just five people in the audience: Alex, a notable critic, a DP (who shot Alex’s films) and a publicist/programmer (who has a cameo in Alex’s latest film). It was rewarding, then, to see his second film The Color Wheel and see that the lessons from all those films had sunk in. Alex made a film that feels like films he seeks out—idiosyncratic and perfectly flawed, and awaiting discovery. I spoke with Alex about his film, and then asked him to make a list of some of his most memorable moviegoing experiences.

This is your second film, and it’s really different in tone and even genre than your first film.

I actually think both movies are very similar. They both establish a vaguely determined quest that must be undertaken, with a character who is not equipped to be undertaking this journey. So for this, we did stick closely to the structure of a roadtrip. But also for this one, the structure that I really copied and that I really looked at examples of was the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. I really like romantic comedies, and I like that structure. Which means by the end of act one you’ve really established that these two people hate each other, and you’ve established that, for better or worse, these two people are going to have to stick together, because they’re stuck in some situation that they really need each other.

So what came first, deciding it was a romantic comedy or deciding they were brother and sister?

The brother and sister thing was always part of it, because there were certain issues that I had in my own life that made me question how far apart I had grown from people that I grew up with. So I wanted to ask questions about how you lose people in your life, and I thought that the easy way to explore that was, oh here are these two college roommates and now one is married. But that’s boring, and doesn’t cut deep at all. So I thought that the most specific way to address that was that, okay, these two people grew up under the same roof, that’s how close they were. They were together everyday and now they’ve grown so far apart. So the brother and sister thing was the most exaggerated way to address the concern of having a mutual starting point of togetherness and having divergent paths throughout adulthood.

But that was your starting point, but I’m still curious how you went from that as your own point of entry to what you ended up with, which is a romantic comedy about a brother and sister?

Right, so the question that I had from my own life was, is there such a thing as forgiveness and reconciliation? If I feel betrayed by people that have turned their back on me or on our shared goals, could I ever have an experience with this person where I just totally see their point of view and understand why they’ve made the choices they’ve made. So as much as the brother and sister thing was always a part of it, so was the question of, “does forgiveness exist?” Do two people who are shown on one day to be diametrically opposed in terms of their opinions and outlooks, can they just a few days later reach a point of understanding where they both actually see into one another and realize that the person projects an image of being very satisfied with the life that they’ve made for themselves, but now that I’ve spent time with them I understand that they struggle as well. Can I now forgive them? And I wanted to have some explosive sense of what forgiveness would be between these two people.

And that…took a sexual form?

It did. I just think that sexual tension is a very specific way to express that someone is not getting all they want in their life. If you have two characters that are very sexually frustrated then I think it’s easy to infer that other aspects of their lives are frustrating and unfulfilled as well.

Did you always plan on playing the role yourself?

Yes, for a couple of reasons. Well, first of all, I’ve been told that Carlen and I resemble each other enough to pass for brother and sister. Also, the primary reason was that we present two opposing viewpoints in the movie: 1) You shouldn’t have a day job. You should just follow your dream, be a bum, do whatever it takes in order to follow your dream. That’s Carlen’s character’s point of view. And then 2) My character’s point of view is that, all of that is very difficult, and will take a lot of time and a lot of energy. I’d rather just go to work everyday, not pay rent because I live with my parents, with my girlfriend in my parents’ house. My life is easy, and I’m afraid of everything.

And I always thought that if I tried to explain to some other performer what Colin needed to be, it would come across as if we were making fun of him. And I didn’t want to pass judgment on anyone who’s made a decision like that, because it’s not wrong, and I don’t find fault in that, and it sounds very appealing to people who don’t have steady jobs. I didn’t want Colin to come off as a loser or seem like it was a joke. So I wanted people to look at Colin and see the face of the person who made the movie. That seemed better than asking someone to convincingly straddle the line of being kind of a sad guy but also kind of a sweet guy who’s actually kind of figured out his life. It was important to me to actually let people see a certain amount of duality in Colin. I wanted to be as fair and equal as possible, and the only real way I thought I could do it was, this is my face, don’t think I don’t actually believe these things he’s saying, because some of them I do.

So you mentioned that Colin was sweet. You’ve said that you tried to put in elements of frustration in every scene. But it seems that—even though these are obviously very obnoxious characters—you also tried to put in some of that sweetness, empathy or directness in the characters in every scene, too. Is that true?

Well, I wanted that. I mean, some people will look at this movie and say these are the most irritating and obnoxious and unlikable people, and that’s definitely one way to look at it. But I think we tried to put just enough sadness into both characters, as early as possible, that if anyone watching it is an emotional person or has been through any kind of conflict in their own lives then they might recognize that this anger is motivated by something rather than just writing it off as I just can’t watch these two annoying people. Because insightful and intuitive people will pick up on the fact that any character in the movie who’s being a really big baby and is carrying on and is being mean, is perhaps doing it for a reason.

That’s why I think it’s important to have the scene where she gets berated by her professor because now the audience feels sorry for her. Because she starts off very loud and obnoxious and very difficult to relate to, but hopefully within about half an hour we’ve done enough to her that the audience is now feeling bad for her. You see that often in movies where, like, women have to be a little bit humiliated otherwise audiences won’t know how to react to them.

What do you mean?

Oh I mean something like Bridesmaids. I remember when that came out there was something about how every film that focuses on women has to begin with them at a very low point, so the audience can follow them on their triumphs and the audience can relate with them. Because a powerful, successful, proud woman is very alienating, for some reason.

You mean to men?

Bridesmaids was written by two women.

Who directed it?

A man. But I don’t know who wrote that, but I do remember thinking when I read that description, oh we humiliate Carlen a lot in the beginning of the movie so that people feel bad for her. I don’t think she’s a particularly likable character until you see her be made miserable by five different people.

I disagree with you. I think her sweetness is that she’s just not complex. Your character says that she’s always been a pervert magnet, and she says, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. And she doesn’t say that with any sarcasm! She just says that genuinely, as if she thinks being attractive is all she can offer.

She just wants a compliment.

She’s just, that’s cool that I’m attractive. It doesn’t come across as a smart person playing a dumb character or dumb person playing a smart character without understanding her. It’s just straightforward, and kind of refreshing. And that idea of taking a successful woman and humiliating her so that men aren’t intimidated…That’s very fascinating, but I don’t see that happening here. You don’t need to do that with her.

She’s not successful…

She’s not successful. She’s not complex, she’s not intimidating. In those humiliating moments it’s not that you feel bad for her, she just realizes what was already obvious to the audience. So those reveals are easy. But what ends up being sweet in that character are the scenes when she gets to be the big sister, protective of Colin. You realize that as an adult she may be a total failure, but at some point she was a hero to someone, even just Colin.

A lot of that comes through in the complexities of Colin’s reactions. You said you thought you could play it better than you could explain it. Was that because so much of it was intuitive?

Yeah, it was a lot of intuition my part of what the opposing viewpoint had to be to Carlen’s character. And I really didn’t feel up to the task of conveying to someone else how to do that, but I felt like I could so that very quickly and very easily.

In that scene where she brings you a birthday hamburger, that complexity really comes out. Your reaction is so good, so layered…

Why thank you. I mean, that’s a thirty second shot of my face with people singing “Happy Birthday” and I feel like there’s a lot of anger there. I wanted to just let this anger that I carry inside me towards various people in my life out towards Carlen’s character. And I didn’t want someone to act like an angry person, I just wanted someone who was full of anger, and that was me. And there was a mixed layer there that would be very difficult to explain to someone, the right way to just stare furiously at someone for thirty seconds.

So, this is the second film you’ve made with the DP Sean Wiliams. Tell me about what that collaboration is like. Is he essential for the way that you work?

100%, my most essential collaborator. He read both scripts right away, and then when we’re having the conversation about what this film is going look like, he asks the most specific, incisive questions that force me to go on the defensive and answer for myself.

About the visuals or about the whole story?

Everything. Every idea that I don’t have fifteen reasons for, he forces me to admit is not a well-realized idea. Like with this one, he first said, I kind of like the idea of you and Carlen playing it, because you’re both kind of obnoxious people, and we’re going to shoot this one on film again, like the last one, right? And I said, well I don’t know, I’ve never acted before and I don’t want to waste tons of film while I’m learning how to act. So I said I think we should maybe shoot this on video. But he got me to admit the visual references of what I wanted the film to look like.

Like what?

I had just seen this exhibit of these Robert Frank photographs, The Americans, with these grainy black-and-white pictures of rest stops and diners, and just tiny little pieces of a completely vague America. So he said there’s no reason why your film shouldn’t be grainy black-and-white, because that’s what you feel spiritually the project is. And he was right. Because we have scenes in motels, scenes in diners, scenes on the highway. If we shoot a chrome diner in color it would terrible. But if you put it in black-and-white, all of the sudden it’s an image people recognize, it’s a tone people understand.

Having it represent these archetypal images, was that necessary since you were subverting these genres, as you mentioned? Was it necessary to have it be familiar so then you could then play with it?

It was necessary for me, to just touch the spirit of what I wanted.

Did Sean’s questions help with the tone, too?

Yes, because Sean has no tolerance for anything that’s fake or anything that’s conceited. He doesn’t want to shoot it, he doesn’t want to see it, and he doesn’t want to hear it. So if we’re dong something and he thinks it seems like a fake scenario, then he’ll force me to deal with that and we’ll shoot it in a way where it becomes much less ridiculous and phony, and becomes very natural. And he’s like a one man crew; he did not have anyone loading the film for him or doing the lights. So he’s always going to ask me, why don’t you want something in one really nice take instead of four eight second shots? You need to have someone who is both willing and able, both creatively and visually, to make your movie as efficiently as possible. And he can definitely make a three-week shoot, or a one-week shoot in the case of my first movie, happen, because of the speed of which he works and the speed at which his mind works in relationship to holding a camera.

So is Sean the secret ingredient to so many films that he’s shot then?

I think so. I mean, Sean and I will watch previews for movies or see things at festivals and he’ll say, that looks like a commercial man, anyone could have shot that. The high production values, the framing, the composition, the camera movements—people are so stuck on what they can already watch in movies and he’s so disinterested in that. He’s so unwilling to commit anything to film that’s just basic or boring.

So his grumpy no bullshit personality is keeping things honest?

It definitely keeps me honest. As I was saying if I say I have an idea, he’ll say, why? And I don’t have an answer, you’re right. I don’t have an answer of why I wanted to do this in five shots, I just though it would be neat. And he’ll say, it wouldn’t be, that would be the most obvious way to do it, why would you want to do that. And he’s right. So we sit down and come up with the least obvious.

What were the film references that you and Sean discussed?

Well, narratively and spiritually, the biggest influence on me for the script was Philip Roth, my favorite author. Nothing influenced the tone and the pulse of the movie at the script stage more than him.

But I’m less interested in the script stage…

Right, so Sean said, I don’t care about that. But visually then, the only two directors that we ever mentioned were Jerry Lewis and Vincent Gallo.

So, Cracking Up and The Brown Bunny?

Exactly. And those are two men who say, if you’re going to watch my movie, you’re going to watch my face. Those two directors told me it was OK to subject people to a completely unchained expression of your own emotions and opinions, and them make them stare at your face while you’re doing that.

It’s unrelenting.

It’s absolutely unrelenting. So aggressive and completely unrestrained. Just ideas and id. Any ideas. A million ideas. I mean those two directors, especially Jerry Lewis, they’re just so unrelenting, so much content in the movies. There is no pause, no break from the insanity.

About “a million ideas,” I think that comes across especially in the party scene.

Right, there’s a lot different dialogue going on. The day before we shot that I was watching Metropolitan.


Yeah, I was trying to see how you shoot a room with just characters sitting on a couch. What is the right way to do that? There are more people in that scene than in my entire first movie. And I think those scenes do reach a real rock bottom of comedy or relatability, because they become almost abstract, in the sense of making us wonder what the fuck did these two characters just walk into. It’s like a broken record of just these fifty-second scenes of just characters we’ve never met before, all of a sudden being introduced an hour into the movie. What is this? Why is this happening? Like with The Bellboy, they’re not delivering jokes, their presence is the joke. This parallel universe of this party of all these WASPy, New England people that these two Jews—me and Carlen—walk into.

But instead of setting it up for a visual gag, like it does with Jerry Lewis, or setting it up for a one-liner, like it does with Metropolitan, you get to that same abstraction, but it just kinds of stays there, and flatlines. It’s all set-ups. Not that it’s not funny, it is very funny, but it’s also kind of disturbing.

I think maybe I’m a little bit more afraid of people than Jerry Lewis or Whit Stillman are. I think my writing perspective probably reflects my anxiety about being in a room with people who I don’t relate to and don’t want to talk to. When I’m in a situation like that, it just becomes this painful abstract nightmare of, how soon can I get out of this room, and what am I doing here?

I really like that line in the party scene where the character talks about his crippling polio. It was delivered with such anti-comedy, though, that it took the second viewing for me to find it hilarious.

I like that. Like with The Brown Bunny, after I saw it the fourth or fifth time, I realized that every line is hilarious.

I had that with Bringing Up Baby, which I’ve seen a bunch of times. But I only recently caught the line where Cary Grant says “Is that zoo? Nobody’s talking baby talk” and realized it’s the funniest line.

When I see something like that, I just think that it must have felt so good to write that line. A line that’s not funny, but when you see it read and performed by a talented actor for the fiftieth time and you realize it is funny…The writer must have felt so good when he thought of that line.

Life-Shifting Moviegoing by Alex Ross Perry

The Last Movie1. The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971); Anthology, August 20th, 2006: This is when I was finally no longer obligated to go to school a few days a week, and could now focus on keeping a calendar full of screening times. Thus, I view this moment as the start of my real life in New York. The Last Movie was the first ethereal experience I had after this reawakening. Watching a new print of this lost masterpiece was like falling into another dimension of cinema, one where I was no longer limited to the canonical classics. The unbridled imagination and vision on display in this film was motivation enough to see six more films a week, always hoping for that next tear in the space time continuum for me to slip through, briefly, and emerge changed.

2. Out 1 (Jacques Rivette, 1971); Museum of Moving Image, December 9th/10th, 2006: A total immersion in every pleasure that cinema going affords us. A rare-as-holy-grail screening, a commitment to two full days in the same chair, pre-packaged lunch and snacks. Sitting there for 13 hours was like nothing less than taking a day trip to another place in time, a place where every rule of what films can be that I thought I believed in is turned on its head, inverted, then spit back out. To witness the complete experience was life-changing for everybody who saw it.

3. White Dog/La Luna double feature (Samuel Fuller, 1982 and Bernardo Bertolucci, 1979); Film Forum, Ennio Morricone Series, February 20th, 2007: An unbeatable exercise in double feature programming. Films united by their composer and not much else. Neither available in any proper home video format (at the time), yet presented in the most beautifully pristine 35mm prints. Pure joy, loosely connected at the time but forever joined afterward in my memory. This will always remind me that sometimes the most exciting times you can have at the movies are also those which make the least sense on paper.

4. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980); MoMA, April 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 2007: It defies comprehension how different this experience was from seeing Out 1. It should have been similar, but instead of crisp December afternoons in Queens, it was rainy April nights in Midtown. If Out 1 was a day trip, Berlin Alexanderplatz was a prison sentence, but the inmates were all full of a lifetime of broken, haunted disenfranchisement. Simply imagining how much film passed through the projector made my mind squiggle with joy as I sat there for four straight nights.

5. The Letter Never Sent (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1959); Walter Reade, February 6th, 2008: A better film in every way than I Am Cuba. Stark, beautiful black-and-white images as a forest burns and sad Russians wander, lost and within easy reach of death. A sad metaphor for what it feels like sometimes to be sitting in a theater, cold, alone and hungry.

6. Busting (Peter Hyams, 1974); BAM, August 10th, 2008: So, so rarely do I find a film that I never even heard the title of. It’s inclusion in a series is the only reason you would consider caring about it. (In this case, it was the Elliot Gould retrospective.) This film is, simply put, the best discovery I have ever stumbled upon at the movies. It is like digging in the beach and finding a treasure chest full of diamonds, but instead of diamonds it is the grainiest, grimiest, funniest, most elegantly shot ’70s cop movie that exists.

7. Cracking Up a.k.a. Smorgasbord (Jerry Lewis, 1983); BAM, May 5th, 2009: This is the year of Return of the Jedi. Bill Murray was around. The comedy and entertainment landscape in America was inching towards what I remember it being like when I was growing up. To find something like Cracking Up and realize it actually comes from the same era in which you were born is like being told that the vikings are still alive, and you should be afraid because they might come to rape and pillage your suburban American town any day now.

8. Dark of the Sun a.k.a. The Mercenaries (Jack Cardiff, 1968); Anthology, August 19th, 2010: Look, I am not a highfalutin person. Experimental installation films, arduous slogs…I appreciate the aesthetic and I see a good amount of stuff like that, but I like movies. What I really look to cinema for is to entertain me, to dazzle me, to make me feel alive and excited about the medium with which I have fallen in love, and to whom I want to devote my life. That is why, ten times out of ten, every single day of every week, every year, I would rather watch a film like Dark of the Sun than anything else. To find something like this is to be reminded of every reason cinema exists, and why I spend so much time and energy seeking out as much of it as I can. Films are rarely as alive as this, every shot, every cut, every action-packed set piece reminding me, more and more so as the film torpedoes towards its unfathomably exciting conclusion, of what is possible with cinema. Every once in a while, I get to take the subway to a wonderful theater in New York and remind myself what it is that has engaged me about film for my entire life. This happened with Dark of the Sun, and with the other films on this list. I hope it happens many more times.


Dark of the Sun

Miriam Bale is a film curator and writer with interests in feminism and ephemera.