Alex Ross Perry doesn’t lack ambition. The Brooklyn-based director’s first film, 2009’s Impolex, riffed on Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. His second film, The Color Wheel, which opens for a week-long run at BAM next week, mashes up Philip Roth novels and iconic ’70s road movies.
A hardcore cinephile who says he sees a film almost every day, Perry wrote the script for The Color Wheel with Carlen Altman, and the two star in it as a pair of bickering siblings who go on a road trip to move her belongings out of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment. Perhaps as a result of Perry’s deep investment—acting in, co-writing, and directing the film—it feels uniquely, even uncomfortably personal. Although he didn’t draw on his own family in creating the characters, Perry does suggest that there’s something autobiographical in Colin, whom he plays. “He’s the underside of me and Carlen,” he says. “He wants to play it safe; he’s very nervous and afraid. Her character is the other side of us. She’s very proud and sure of herself and her own ideas and creative impulses. Both characters are different parts of ourselves. We thought of them as the id and ego of one person.”
Perry graduated from NYU film school in 2006, but he credits his 2005-to-2007 stint at the legendary, now-shuttered Kim’s Video with molding him as a filmmaker. “My experience of film school was hit or miss,” he says. The video store turned out to be “better exposure to more relevant and interesting films than I got anywhere else. That was the foundation of what came later. My cinematographer, Sean Williams, worked on the rental floor for six years and could turn you on to lots of great stuff any time you asked.”
Paradoxically, Perry’s commitment to shooting on film deepened during his time at Kim’s. Although the vast majority of independent filmmakers have long since reconciled themselves to working on digital video, Perry continues to shoot on 16mm. “We wanted to do a small film on 16mm with as small a crew as possible,” he says of himself and his Kim’s pals. “That method of production is as out of date as working in a video-rental store. I had dreamt of making a 16mm film since the ’90s. I would sacrifice for it and make sure it’s possible financially. For me and Sean, it’s not a casual choice. That’s what we wanted the film to look like.”
Indeed, the film, shot in black-and-white, has a raw look that’s completely different from video. The visuals match the tenor: The Color Wheel is funny, but it has a dark streak that takes it into increasingly creepy territory as the siblings face down a procession of people who are even more screwed-up than they are. Perry balances the two tones brilliantly, perhaps because he doesn’t see any tension between humor and unpleasantness. “I feel like [the tone] is exactly where it is for me every day,” he says. “The comedy is very honest and genuine to the experiences I have. The darker elements are slightly exaggerated versions of my experiences as well. Those two things exist hand in hand in my life.” Making The Color Wheel, Perry says, helped him to understand something specific about the way he handles challenges. “Not everyone deals with so many frustrating experiences every day and then finds comedy in them.”
Perry found directing himself a real challenge—not necessarily the funny kind, and one that he would only repeat out of necessity. DIY filmmaking has its downsides. “I didn’t have a producer on either film,” he says. “I was finding locations, getting transportation, arranging for food, and those are all things I don’t want to do again. In the future, I want to focus on writing and directing and doing them as perfectly as I can.”
Specifically, Perry has a finished script and is now working on getting producers and investors to sign on. “It is a New York story,” he says, “an intimate epic about success, betrayal, and the way people hurt anybody foolish enough to care about them.”