Ben Sachs: I’ve noticed that the viewers (and reviewers) who go into The Color Wheel possessing some familiarity with Philip Roth’s fiction tend to be less shocked by it than the viewers who haven’t read him. It’s a reminder that literature is often ahead of cinema in terms of narrative innovation—like how the major experiments of Last Year at Marienbad (1961) were happening in novels 40 or 50 years earlier.
Alex Ross Perry: Roth’s innovations have always posed a challenge for filmmakers. How do you get this much dialogue and this much sex onscreen and have people be OK with it? That’s why his books are unadaptable and the film adaptations are unsuccessful. But in a way, it’s easier to write a novel than it is to make a movie. Movies need investors and crews and actors. When you’re writing a book, you don’t need anyone to help you; you don’t need anyone to say yes. You just write it and it’s done.
I thought it would be interesting to capture a certain sensibility that his characters have—the solipsism, the self-absorption. In the books, [Roth] conveys it through writing their internal monologue; but in a movie, you obviously couldn’t do that. So, I tried to do that by making the characters, like, ragingly narcissistic, just completely unable to see that there are people in the world other than themselves. It’s a literal, even farcical way to treat that sort of behavior, but I think it conveys it just as directly to an audience.
When I read Roth, I’m moved by the fluidity of the dialogue and the sensitivity to the ways that people interact. I think we captured that by having the dialogue move at a pace that’s somewhat unfamiliar to American independent film audiences.
The characters speak so quickly that the movie often sounds like a 1930s comedy.
I love those movies. I wondered, Can you still do this? Is there a reason this isn’t done anymore? Also, I thought making the dialogue this way would be a great way to show that this brother and sister are not like other people. When they’re communicating, they’re communicating, basically, in a language that only they speak.
That’s something you pick up in [Roth’s] novels, that the reason why some of his characters wind up together is because they’re the only people who can get along with one another. That’s another important theme of his books—especially Sabbath’s Theater and Professor of Desire—these people who can’t get along with other people. So they have to get along with people they kind of hate, because they have no other choice.
This also ties back to the comedy of his books, which is very hard to nail down. I wanted to make a similarly comedic film—take something that would otherwise be harrowing, depressing, and hard to watch and lubricate the situation with some jokes. The humor allows you to have a good time before you confront something that might make you uncomfortable and question what has come before in the narrative.
Are there any other movies you’d describe as Rothian?
Last year I saw a French film at a festival called Belle Épine, which really reminded me of When She Was Good. I met the director of the film [Rebecca Zlotowski] and told her that, and she said, “He’s my favorite author; I’ve read every one of his books!” So we bonded because I got what she was going for.
I’m having trouble coming up with other titles because I haven’t gotten to see many movies lately. I think a lot of Maurice Pialat’s films have the same quality that I love about Roth. They’re personal but unsentimental and generally about cruel people acting as negatively towards one another as possible. But maybe [Pialat’s] just on my mind because I’m trying to find time to see a new print of We Will Not Grow Old Together that’s playing in New York right now.
I understand you’ve been traveling a lot lately. Where were you most recently?
The movie just opened in San Francisco, so I went there. The following weekend it opened in Los Angeles, so I was there as well. I spent five days in each city.
Do you like traveling?
I did, like, last year. I don’t dislike it, but I don’t like it as much as not disrupting my life . . . . Obviously, it’s humbling to be given a free plane ticket to fly [across] the country or the world by people who support an idea you came up with. But it can also give you a warped sense of self-importance, and it’s important not to let that get ahead of you.
Pretty much. On Saturday night, Carlen [Altman] and I were doing a Q&A in Los Angeles, and [we knew] that this was our last Q&A together for sure, because nobody else is going to bring us out at the same time. The theatrical release is pretty much on its own now. I have one festival [to attend] next month in Germany, which I committed to in August of last year. That’s an 11-month commitment, so I can’t back out of it. Foreign festivals are much different from supporting a theatrical run. I can see four movies a day and wander around a new city.
But that’s the end of that. We shot the movie two years ago, which is a long time to spend on a single thing.
Do you feel like a different person now than when you made the movie?
I think I’d feel like a different person than I was two years ago even if nothing [extraordinary] happened. In the important ways, nothing has changed. I don’t live anywhere different; I don’t have more stuff. I don’t have . . . all these crazy opportunities. But lots of little things have made me feel like a different person. Doing well in a bunch of year-end polls after struggling to connect with audiences made me feel pretty successful [ed: The Color Wheel topped IndieWire’s critics' poll for the best undistributed films of 2011]; so did getting interviewed in the New York Times. All these things make a difference, but they don’t actually make me feel different.
One of the things that Color Wheel has going for it is that it feels like it came out of nowhere; it blindsides the audience. But now that you have a higher profile than you did two years ago, do you worry that you won’t be able to sneak up on an audience again?
That’s probably true. I think I anticipated [the impact] when I was making the movie, that this was my one and only chance to really get in there and do something sneaky. That’s a fun thing to do at a certain point [in your career], but I know you can’t get away with it forever. It’s nice to feel like you’re “getting away with it,” and I was always excited about that. I even feel like we exceeded my expectations for the sneak attack we could make on an audience. But now I have to move forward and not repeat the same tricks.
Your situation is similar to the one Philip Roth found himself in after the notoriety of Portnoy’s Complaint, albeit on a much smaller scale, not knowing how to follow up a book that shocked so many people.
Well, I will not be writing Our Gang. I will not be making a slight, satirical comedy, although that would be the appropriate tribute. That would really prove my dedication to mimic his work.
Do you know if Roth has seen the movie? You’ve talked about his influence in most of the interviews you've done.
I’m certain that he has not, unless he snuck into one of the screenings in New York. We were thinking of holding it over at a small theater on the Upper West Side for one or two screenings a day, and I thought, “Maybe if we booked it there . . . ” But we never ended up getting [the film] to play there. I don’t think he travels down to Brooklyn to see independent movies.
My hope is just that Roth or Vincent Gallo, who I also mention a lot, are aware that their work is very important to somebody, even if they don’t want to see my work. I hope that at some point a publicist for Roth lets him know, like, “Hey, there’s a film out and every time the director does an interview he talks about you.” It would be nice if he said, “Oh, that’s OK.”