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Monday, June 25, 2012

Hitting the books with writer-director Alex Ross Perry

Posted By on 06.25.12 at 12:30 PM

Perry stars opposite Carlen Altman (center) in The Color Wheel.
  • Perry stars opposite Carlen Altman (center) in The Color Wheel.
To begin with a disclosure: even if Alex Ross Perry weren’t the friend of a friend, I’d still have trouble maintaining critical distance from his work. We both come from middle-class Jewish backgrounds, spent our college and postcollege years voraciously taking in movies, gravitated towards obscurantist video stores (he worked at the now-defunct Kim’s Video in New York City; I at Bucktown’s Odd Obsession), and, crucially, we both revere the novels of Philip Roth. Perry has described his second feature, The Color Wheel (playing through Thursday at Facets), as a tribute to Roth’s fiction, and one can sense the connection in the movie’s central themes—frustrated family relationships, sexual humiliation, middle-class angst—as well as its vitriolic humor, which is so unrelenting as to be a deal breaker for some viewers. I spoke with Perry a couple weeks ago about translating Roth to film, making the transition from moviegoer to moviemaker, and the challenges of producing an independent film. The first part of our lengthy conversation follows the jump; I’ll post the second part tomorrow.

Ben Sachs: After I first learned that Philip Roth was a major influence on The Color Wheel, I thought of something he said about Portnoy’s Complaint, that when it first came out people were shocked that Jewish family life could be so brutal. I think the movie taps into a similar kind of brutality.

Alex Ross Perry: I hope so. But the thing is that’s part of the fabric now—people can’t conceive of a Jewish family [in literature] not being like that. There’s a set of expectations because of that book; people know that’s how things work.

You never reveal the ethnic or religious background of the main characters in your film.

There were explicit references in earlier drafts of the script—the characters were saying Jewish this and Jewish that—but it sounded so clunky. It can’t be more obvious to me that the characters are Jewish, but I can’t even say how many times I’ve been asked about it. I’ll say, “Yeah, they’re Jewish,” and I’ll hear, “Oh, I didn’t get that. Are you Jewish?” “Yes, I am.” “I never would have thought that.” So I don’t know. The characters are kvetchy and acerbic. Twenty years ago, people would have said that’s obviously Jewish comedy, but now they just assume that’s how comedy is.

In its look and its overall Jewish vibe, The Color Wheel reminded me a bit of The Plot Against Harry, another New York independent movie. Did that influence you at all?

Unfortunately no, but you can say that it did! Sean [Price Williams], my cinematographer, and I worked together at Kim’s Video; we’ve both seen tons of movies. For a while, we watched at least 200 films a year in the theaters—sometimes more like 300. But when we were finally making our own, we didn’t sit around talking movies. When we got there, we kept [our influences] down to just one or two things. We didn’t want to be on set referencing other stuff, because that would give no clear sense of direction [to the other people we’re working with].

When you come from a cinephilic background, it seems important that you really assimilate your influences so you’re not just recycling them.

Yeah. Naming 100 influences on your work is such a film-school exercise. Certainly, I’m guilty of having done it, but I don’t think that attitude leads to anything very important. It makes anything you do seem like a never-ending pastiche. So, when we were filming [The Color Wheel], we only thought about Jerry Lewis and Vincent Gallo; and when I was writing the script, I only thought about Roth. I wanted to absorb them, then funnel them back out through our own sensibilities.

I haven’t seen any of the movies based on Roth’s books, since I’ve assumed that they’re terrible...

They are all quite bad.

But I’m curious about what you thought you could take from his work.

An ad for the movie was inspired by the first-edition paperback of Portnoys Complaint.
  • An ad for the movie was inspired by the first-edition paperback of Portnoy's Complaint.
Here’s why his books don’t make good films: they’re full of incredibly long passages of internal monologue and reprehensible sex. You know, the Zuckerman Bound books are each four chapters [long], and usually one of those chapters is a 50-page conversation between two people. So, I knew you couldn’t make a movie of that. But I thought, OK, I can make a different movie that has long dialogue scenes, confessional monologues, and reprehensible sex—I just had to do them in a different way than they appear in the books. Those were the things I wanted to get away with.

I couldn’t re-create, like, the 50-page conversation from The Ghost Writer, which comprises 25 percent of the book. But I could do a ten-minute conversation that comprises one-eighth of the movie and achieves the same sort of effect, something that just puts you inside two people’s interaction... We could play with the same ideas that he played with and use them in a different way. It wasn’t about telling his stories; it was about asking what made his stories important and how would our story feel if we borrowed some of his techniques, which filmmakers seem to be afraid of. A lot of filmmakers wouldn’t think that a ten-minute conversation in one shot is a good idea, just like a lot of authors wouldn’t think that a 50-page conversation is a good idea.

Have you seen any of the films that Norman Mailer made in the 1960s?

No.

They’re amazing. And part of it’s that he’s really the only egomaniac author of the postwar period who actually picked up a camera and made his own films. So we have this record of him and his personality and how he related to cinema. What I hoped to do was not adapt Roth or even copy his storytelling methods but make something that would look like the movie Roth would have made in 1975. I like to think that, had he written an original screenplay around then, he might have tried out some of these ideas. That’s how I wanted to honor him and his work.

I imagine that gave you a lot of direction when you were writing. If you ever felt stumped, you didn’t have to rely on your own ideas; you could imagine how Roth might have written.

And I was reading so many of his books when I was working on the script that I didn’t have trouble thinking that way. It’s similar to what I did with my first film [Impolex, which was inspired by a section of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow]. I thought about how [Pynchon] might have made a movie about themes I know he was obsessed with. [I asked,] How would he have approached filmmaking? What rules of camera placement and editing would he not have cared about, since he’s an author and not a filmmaker? What sort of elliptical storytelling techniques and comedy and mystery would he have put into a film?

So, I’ve spent four to five years grappling with these two influential bodies of work, but from a filmmaking perspective—which is a more personal way for me to process their themes. And taking ideas from novel writing and putting them on a movie screen reveals certain things about the work that I don’t think I’d give if I were writing research papers.

Were there any particular Roth novels that you thought about more than others when you were writing the script?

The big one was The Professor of Desire. I’m really fond of that one. It’s incredibly funny, but I’m also kind of turned off by the central relationship between Kepesh and Claire. I thought of The Color Wheel as an inversion of that story, looking at that horrible, broken dynamic between an older lothario with no manners and a young girl. The book—and later The Dying Animal—deal with that relationship from his perspective; but I thought if you looked at it from the girl’s perspective it would be quite sad.

I also looked at When She Was Good, because I was interested in reading his only book with a female protagonist. That was important in terms of character. But the ones I was thinking about in terms of comedy and tone were Sabbath’s Theater—which is funny, but also uses these disgusting sexual things to get at astute psychological observations—and Portnoy’s Complaint. I’ll have to use my love of the Zuckerman books and My Life as a Man later.

The Color Wheel actually reminded me most of My Life as a Man.

That book’s huge, sure, but I think it has more to do with his later stuff. It relates to a lot of aggravating things that Roth [himself] had to deal with. It may be one of [his] most frustrating books, in that the main character’s going through this humiliating and bizarre series of circumstances. But I can see where it’s closer to The Color Wheel than some of his other books because it’s about how complicated and horrible everybody [in the novel] is.

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