Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman In Conversation

At just 27 years old, Alex Ross Perry could be viewed as the cinematic arm of the “artisanal” movement that has been occupying Brooklyn with its homemade pickles and beef jerky, locally brewed beer and independently roasted coffee.

The artisanal nature of Alex’s process is evident in the “head-to-tail” approach he takes to filmmaking––he co-wrote, directed and starred in his recently debuted second feature film The Color Wheel—as well as his philosophical leanings, which demonstrate a desire to break the established mould. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he declared, “I see so many opportunities to do things in movies, and I don’t see them taken very often.” To Dossier, he repeatedly mentioned his disenchantment with the drive of creative contemporaries. His co-writer and -star Carlen Altman seemingly shares these sentiments, referring to her and Alex’s mutual alienation from friends who have given up on their dreams as well as her alternative personal goals: to create a television or web show about “weird” animals and help her mom produce a film about an elderly gypsy woman in a nursing home, amongst others.

Touted as a “comedy about disappointment and forgiveness” and shot on 16mm black-and-white film, The Color Wheel in many ways challenges conventional notions of modern cinema as it follows a grown brother and sister on a road trip. The duo, played by Alex and Carlen, is often times dislikable and their relationship believably dysfunctional—the life lessons, meanwhile, are oblique, like so much of real life but so little of Hollywood tends to be.

Erin Dixon: How and when did you and guys meet?

Carlen Altman: Alex and I met at a standup comedy show where we were both performing.

Alex Ross Perry: This is true. The show is called “Giggles” and it is hosted by our mutual friend Don Stahl. I was also aware of Carlen’s work in Ry Russo-Young’s great film You Wont Miss Me.

Erin: How and where was the idea for The Color Wheel born and to what does the name refer?

Alex: It came from me making one movie that I was real proud of and basically reaching what I considered a plateau of success at the age of 24 and then wondering what had happened to all the other dreamers I had once shared this recklessly optimistic vision for the future with.

Carlen: The Color Wheel idea was born on a basic level from Alex and I being told we looked like brother and sister, and us becoming friends and feeling a shared alienation from the people we grew up with; we still feel like we have held onto our dreams whereas many people our age have given up on their creative pursuits. We wanted to explore this sense of alienation further!

Erin: Tell us about the collaborative writing process…

Carlen Altman. (Top image) Alex Ross Perry. Images by Benedict Brink.

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Alex: I had never written anything with anybody else before, so I found it actually really valuable to have somebody else to provide a second viewpoint/opposition to the lines I was coming up with for Colin. I think a movie based in such fundamental disagreements really benefited from having two voices writing two characters.

Carlen: Alex would come over to my apartment once or twice a week in Greenpoint, where I had a creepy landlord who wouldn’t let me have friends over so I’d have to sneak Alex in! Or we would take walks together around the city and get vegetarian food. Once we knew we wanted to make a film about a brother and sister, we then talked about who these characters were and what they wanted for their lives. Alex wrote out a professional looking script from our scribbles of notes, and we both nit-picked the dialogue til we felt it was as good as it could get!

Erin: Where do the characters Colin and J.R. come from? Are they based on actual people?

Alex: I like to think that they are both representative of two halves of the same person, and that person is equally Carlen and myself. J.R. is loud, confident and maybe too hopeful about her future, while Colin is timid, shy, nervous and unadventurous. I think she represents the way we both are afraid of being perceived and he represents the way we are afraid we should be.

Carlen: Agreed.

Erin: What are some of your most significant road-trip memories?

Alex: I don’t have any. Certain members of my family who shall remain nameless are incapable of sitting in cars for long periods of time, so even if a place was like a seven hour drive, we would have to fly.

Carlen: Once driving home from college in Ohio, I got lost and found an abandoned steel mill that was covered with ivy. Inside it were huge steel sculptures or chickens and robots. It was insane! I have tried to go back to this steel mill but have never been able to find it. If anyone reading this knows what I am talking about, get in touch with me! Another memorable road trip was when I threw up on my friend’s dad while he was driving. Whoops!

Erin: If you could depart on a road trip today, where would you go and who would you go with?

At home with Alex

Alex: I do not know. I would force my girlfriend, Anna, to come but I am not sure where we would want to go. I am pretty happy right where I am.

Carlen: First I would have to learn how to drive. If this happened, I would want to go to the Badlands of South Dakota by myself and listen to the song “What is Love” by Haddaway the whole time, while wearing a diaper.

Erin: Why did you select to shoot in black-and-white film, as opposed to color?

Alex: Because I really admired the old black-and-white photographs that Robert Frank took in his series “The Americans” and I wanted our movie to look as much like that as possible.

Carlen: It was Alex’s suggestion to shoot in black-and-white and at first I was opposed to it because I thought it would make the movie too artsy-fartsy, but Alex was very confident it was the right choice. I think it worked better than color because we wanted the movie to seem like it was from a vague decade that doesn’t really exist yet, and had it been in color it would have seemed very “now” (and my teeth would have looked yellower).

Erin: If there is a “life lesson” about relationships within The Color Wheel, what is it?

Alex: People are consistently disappointing and horrible to one another, but maybe someday, somehow you can see through that pain and understand that some people, not everybody, are capable of opening up and acting like decent human beings.

Carlen: The “life lesson” is don’t ever compare yourself anyone, especially to “popular” people. Nobody is keeping track of how “cool” you are, and popular people usually don’t age well, anyway!

Erin: The Color Wheel’s poster touts it as “a comedy about disappointment and forgiveness.” What has been the biggest disappointment in each of your lives? What has been your most grandiose act of forgiveness?

Alex: My life is littered with too many disappointments to name even just five, so I will rapid fire list a bunch as they occur to me: certain high school friends who chose to stop being interesting people after high school, certain ex-girlfriends/best friends who did the same, certain film school comrades who I wasted years of my life with believing in creatively, family members who are too selfish and petty to see past themselves and the time I wasted investing in relationships with them, missing a screening of Death Wish on 35mm in New York in 2008, thinking that certain achievements or personal and professional milestones would change my life, chasing them and then wasting days feeling depressed when they did not pan out and lastly believing in others and not putting myself first for several years. These are all disappointments and making this movie has taught me that forgiveness is kind of a myth and also a rare thing and it shouldn’t be treated lightly like it is just some emotion everybody is capable of feeling.

Carlen: My biggest disappointment? Not giving up gluten, refined sugar, meat or dairy sooner in my life. Only in the last year have I had any clarity in my thought process, and I think I owe it all to a change in my diet. I recommend anyone who is having trouble finishing projects or thinking clearly should give up dairy, meat, gluten and wheat, and start taking a vitamin B12 supplement. I mean it! My most grandiose act of forgivenesss? Hmm… Forgiving myself for not being perfect. Perfect is boring and unrealistic.

Erin: What is the next creative project on your respective and/or shared lists?

Alex: I am hoping to get a screenplay that I have written produced within the next year or so. It is mostly about all of the things I list above, and how having tiny scraps of success exacerbates the anger and jealousy that people feel towards one another. It is a comedy as well.

Carlen: 1) Finish my newest collection for my jewelry line Jewish Rosaries, which I have been working on for over three years! 2) Create a funny television show or web show about weird animals that shows people how many amazing, wonderful animals exist on the planet! Google “pygmy marmoset” or “monkey orchid” to see just two of my favorite weird animals that deserve our respect and protection! 3) Helping my mom make a movie. She wrote a screenplay for about an elderly gypsy woman who smuggles her pet tortoise into an old-age home! 4) Learn how to drive so I can actually go to South Dakota and listen to “What is Love” by Haddaway the whole way there and back!

At home with Carlen

One Trackback

  1. By David Matthews » The Color Wheel: a movie on June 11, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    [...] Perry made a film he had to produce himself, “finding locations, getting transportation, arranging for food” (Steve Erickson, An Interview With Alex Ross Perry, Writer, Director, Star of The Color Wheel, The Village Voice, 5/9/2012). Altman traces the film’s genesis to their personal relationship and shared feeling of alienation to …Alex and I being told we looked like brother and sister, and us becoming friends and feeling a shared alienation from the people we grew up with; we still feel like we have held onto our dreams whereas many people our age have given up on their creative pursuits. We wanted to explore this sense of alienation further! (Dossier, In Conversation with Alex Ross Perry and Carlen Altman) [...]

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