DE: So I want to start off by talking about The Color Wheel first, because that’s the first of your films that I ever saw. One of the things that really struck me was how it resists the tendency of an enormous amount of contemporary independent film to either be overly cutesy and kitschy or overly maudlin. In that way, it’s really special—subversive, even. When you set out to make it, was it your goal to make a rebellious film?
ARP: Well, I made it after I had been at film festivals with my first movie for the first time. I had never been at festivals before that, and I spent a lot of that year seeing movies that I thought were so maudlin and sappy, and they were being given really special treatment. I was very interested in that. I had no real desire to combat it, but I just wondered what it would be like to take some of the things in those movies that I thought were positive, and then sort of strip them of the things that I viewed as overly negative, and then see what was left and do the thing that I liked, which was a bickering family movie, but do it without being really cute or sweet, and just see what that movie turned into.
DE: It’s so funny, and also intensely vitriolic.
ARP: It was important that there was a comedy element, just because I felt like I wanted it to be fairly unpleasant and confrontational in some ways, confronting the idea that a lot of the movies that were even remotely like it were really limp and weak. I knew that if The Color Wheel was funny, I could probably string people along for most of the movie. If it were just a confrontational movie with no humor, then it would be a really different thing. I thought that some sort of jokes would lighten the mood.
DE: Another thing that makes differentiates The Color Wheel from a lot of the movies in its genre is the way in which it encourages the audiences to approach sympathizing with the characters. The two main characters are remarkably unlikeable—unmotivated and casually racist, basically—but then, by the party about two-thirds of the way through the film, I found myself sympathizing deeply with both of them. How do you decide when and how you want the viewer to sympathize with your characters? Are there specific directorial techniques that you employ to get there?
ARP: The instance that you mentioned was very intentionally the point where you should switch from having felt this way about this character. This scene is the final indignity that each of those characters suffers. I’d never thought about it as specifically as I thought about it for that movie, because I thought the movie did need a moment that you could single out as the moment where someone goes from being obnoxious and insulting to becoming really pitiful, when you realize that they were sort of pitiful all along. To have your perception of them at minute zero not be your perception of them at minute 70 was necessary in order to have the audience go on a journey with them. I decided that the only way to do that was through pity. I think that’s a good trick. If you want people to care about whoever’s on-screen, to have them be totally mocked and brutalized is a great way to make people sort of embrace them.
DE: On paper, it seems like a pretty bizarre movie: two main characters who are abrasive by design, and also incestuous. Did you have trouble getting distribution for a movie like that as it was only your second feature?
ARP: I had problems in that, in 2011, there was no real infrastructure in place for movies like that being released. At that time, the victory was just getting it seen at all. I view the year of film festivals [that The Color Wheel played at] as distribution. But then, my friend who runs this place released the movie, because one of his other ventures is a distribution company. I still don’t know what you would do with a $25,000 movie with no famous people in it. But, yeah, Jake [Perlin, artistic director at Metrograph] really supported it and put it out. So it was sort of a challenge. It was years of doing whatever it took to get in front of people and have conversations about the movie. I was really everywhere — anywhere that people wanted me to do Q&A’s, you know, for six, seven people. When the movie opened in 2012, I took it to Denver, and for the 9 o’clock show, there were zero people. Not a single person came, and they played the movie anyway. I remember just sitting in a completely empty theater—and this was, like, year two, at this point I’ve been to so many huge screenings, and still there’s screenings with zero people. It was a long, long process of getting that movie out there, and I really prioritized being anywhere that people wanted to me. Any Q&A, any city—anything I could do for it, I was there.
DE: I’m sorry to have to ask this question because I’m sure people ask you this constantly. All four of your features are shot on film—why do you prefer film to digital?
ARP: Well, for my first two movies, it was just an ingrained part of the whole idea that I’d had for 15 years about what I wanted to do. I sort of learned that in the tiny world where my movies were finding festival audiences, any little thing, including just shooting on 16, helped. And it did really set the movies apart from anything else playing at any given festival. It gave people a very easy way to immediately know what the entire spirit of the movie is instantly: very classical-looking and rough and cobbled-together. It’s really economical. I mean, it costs money, but it’s an economical way to have a huge sweeping feeling that you just cast over the entire project. As the opportunities grew and I began to have access to more money, it just became a non-issue to have to find a way to shoot on film. Now, I sort of view it as my responsibility to continue to be an advocate for something that I believed in for years. I believed in it aesthetically and practically. Now, I feel like it would be irresponsible to have the opportunities that I do to talk to people and not be the person who says that this is entirely possible. It’s really up to me and a few others to continue to bang the drill for something that we really do believe in. Now, it’s just not even a decision.
DE: One thing about your movies that has really impressed me is your use of extraordinarily long—like, ten-minute—takes, in both The Color Wheel and Queen of Earth. When you’re shooting on Super 16, have you ever had prohibitive technical difficulties doing a shot like that?
ARP: That happened once during that shot in Queen of Earth. On the first take, it just ran out. But when you’re dedicated to doing it and everybody kind of understands why you’re doing it, that becomes part of it. It’s in the realm of live theater. The film could run out right now, and we’re going to have to start over, or we could wrap this up and then you’ll hear it run out and it will just feel so perfect and so exciting. But that’s kind of the point of doing something that pushes the 9-minute barrier: take one roll of film, which is like ten minutes, and let’s see if we can transform that into this ten-minute thing that goes into the movie. It’s a creative, aesthetic decision of what it would feel like to watch this scene without any editing. If you’re seeing this movie at a film festival, and it’s your third movie of the day, not a single other movie’s going to do this. It’s just one more thing that’s kind of a freebie. When you have no money, there are so many things you can’t do. You can’t build sets, you can’t knock down a wall. But there are a very small number of things that anyone can do, one of which is just not cutting. It’s totally free, and in the movie it becomes this special moment that people are talking about.
DE: I get the sense from your movies that you’re a cinephile. Queen of Earth, specifically, strikes me as being really packed with references, like to Persona and Fassbinder’s Petra von Kant. Having seen so many movies, when you’re writing and directing, do you find that these influences just kind of seep into your work subconsciously, or is it always deliberate?
ARP: In that movie, it was. That was sort of the fun of that: seeking out every little reference point that we could and creating a bouillabaisse of everything. You could program a thirty-film series of movies that are, in one way or another, basically just like [Queen of Earth]. And that’s part of the fun. But generally it’s just more casual. Queen of Earth was really the only time that there was an overwhelming amount of referential material. And, even then, on set or while we were actually doing it, we were still only really talking about or looking at one or two things. You can’t get to the starting line with that big of a backpack. You have to eventually decide what you’re taking with you, and then put it in your toolbox and go. On the other non genre-ish movies, like Listen Up Phillip and my new one, you’re just sort of talking about whatever the thing feels like.
DE: So, this new one you mentioned—Golden Exits—premieres at Sundance this year. Would you mind talking a bit about what that’s about?
ARP: Yeah! I don’t really have a shortcut to talking about it yet, because we’re still just kind of in the process of it. The benefit of these last three movies is that they have the same cinematographer, production designer, editor, and composer, so I’m now able to say to people, we’re going to do another movie, but here’s all the things about it that will be different. Each thing kind of becomes a response to the last thing based on what you want to see these great collaborators do. Listen Up Phillip is 99% handheld. And in Queen of Earth, I was like, let’s go half-and-half, and let’s put a nine-minute shot in this movie that’s not handheld. We’ll challenge everybody, and we’ll stick to all these different rules. And on [Golden Exits], again, the rules are all there. This new movie is entirely set in Brooklyn, where Listen Up Phillip was half in Brooklyn, I was like, here’s every way we can differentiate this. The score for Listen Up Philip is a lot of brass horns; we can’t use any brass on this. There’s one restriction. And this new movie has no handheld. It becomes a fun exercise, and I think we took that to a pretty big extreme on this movie. It’s very low budget, and we can’t afford so many things, but what we can afford is a fun game that is like a series of restrictions. So that’s sort of what the new movie is all about: creating a series of aesthetic challenges that are appropriate for the movie itself, which is a very downbeat ensemble drama with very few comedic elements set in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. There are seven main characters, and no one is in more than half of the movie. It feels very patchwork—I think it feels very familiar.
DE: Do you know yet when it’s going to premiere in New York?
ARP: We’re talking about doing something fun with it here. Like, having it only play here, but for like a month. That requires whoever buys it feeling like it’s a good idea, but I think that would be neat. If you want to see the movie you have to come to this theater and you have to sit in a movie theater and watch it. That would be sort of a dream for me.
DE: That would be a dream. I first watched all of your movies on Amazon Prime in my basement. Hypothetically, I could watch them on my phone. As a director, how do you reconcile that? How do you make your work appropriate for this newly mobile format?
ARP: I mean, I don’t really think about it. I don’t know. There’s really no way to be in control of that. I love videos so much, and I loved watching videos at home by myself in my basement. The winter of 1998—I’m from Philadelphia, it was snowing all the time. It was also the first winter that I knew about eBay. I made it one of my early eBay goals to purchase a videotape of every Alfred Hitchcock movie. And that doesn’t create a compromised relationship with those movies for me, it just was the way I discovered those and thousands of other movies, and it worked. There are certain movies that I think suffer greatly from being watched in a compromised manner, but most movies don’t, and if I could develop this really passionate love and curiosity for movies by buying them on videotape, I really don’t think there’s a way to not have the right movie connect with people the right way. I grew up as such a fan of home media that I think any sort of at-home consumption as a gateway to film is totally viable.
DE: Was there a specific film that you saw when you were younger that provoked this interest? Can you pinpoint the moment when it became something you wanted to do as a career?
ARP: Around that time, the bookstore in my town had a giveaway checklist of the AFI Top 100, which came out like 100 years after Lumèire, 1998 or something. At that time I’d probably seen 10 or 15 of the great movies. It was because of that list that I saw A Clockwork Orange and Blue Velvet, which became incredibly important premium favorite movies of mine. I remember that list being a very seminal and important thing that I studied; it really acted as a great gateway into where movies were going for me.
DE: Do you find yourself gravitating towards re-watching the same movies repeatedly?
ARP: It depends. I think the last three movies I’ve seen here have all been things I’ve seen before, but mostly because they’re playing great stuff that I love, and if I’m going to revisit stuff I’ve seen half a dozen times, I’d like to revisit it in theaters. On New Years, I came here to see Punch Drunk Love, which I’ve seen countless times but it hasn’t screened in New York in years. So when it finally turned up here on 35, I had to come. At this point, I’m perfectly happy to come revisit something I’ve seen a bunch of times. I’m more apt to do that than to take a risk on something that might be interesting.
DE: You went to NYU film school. Do you think school really prepared you for the realities of working on these incredibly small-budget, ensemble cast sort of films, or did it seem like it was trying to groom you for a role in Hollywood?
ARP: It did gravitate towards preparing people for a system that doesn’t really exist anymore. I don’t know what it would be like if I had that exact same curriculum but I wasn’t in New York. There are ten other places like [Metrograph] where I spent all of my time. And I think that aspect of being around here was much more valuable to me. It certainly prepared me for very little of what I do now. I think the only thing that makes making these movies easier is that I’ve made a bunch of them now. But it got me to New York, and it got me all situated. I’m pretty much still going to the same places, the same movie theaters.
Alex Ross Perry is the director of The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip. His newest film, Golden Exits, premiered this January at the Sundance Film Festival.