'Color Wheel' creator spins unsettling comedy

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It's not exactly the sort of thing that turns up on a movie poster.

No laughing till crying, no sugary superlatives, no exclamation marks, no cliches. Filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, coming to Pittsburgh this weekend, describes his micro-budget movie, "The Color Wheel," as "a mean-spirited comedy about a mean-spirited road trip about siblings who hate each other."

He should know because he co-wrote, produced and directed it and appears on camera. "The Color Wheel" stars Carlen Altman as JR, an aspiring news anchor whose train wreck of a life takes even more twisted, humiliating turns when she asks her brother, Colin (Mr. Perry), for help.

Her live-in boyfriend, one of her college professors, is kicking her out of his house. She's dropped out of school, and that oddball "vision board" she's made with symbols of her hopes and dreams is looking more like a far-fetched fantasy although fellow miscreant and misfit Colin has plenty of issues of his own.

"The Color Wheel" builds to a scene that sometimes provokes gasps, involuntary "Oh my God!" responses, moviegoers stumbling toward the exit or no visible or audible response.

Mr. Perry will be witness to Pittsburghers' reactions when the movie opens tonight at the Regent Square Theater, 1035 S. Braddock Ave. It will play through Thursday.

He will introduce the film before its 8 p.m. start today and field questions afterward. On Saturday, he will appear before and after the 6 p.m. show and welcome the 8 p.m. screening. (Turning 28 on Saturday, Mr. Perry needs to squeeze in some time with friends, including "Cold Weather" filmmaker Aaron Katz.)

"The Color Wheel," shot on grainy 16mm black-and-white film, was celebrated as "the best undistributed film of 2011" by the Village Voice and IndieWire critics' poll. Mixed blessing or hipster cachet?

"Obviously it would be better to be the highest-grossing distributed independent film, but it was pretty wild. When we did get distribution, it really helped getting us some bookings. It's an impressive little handle to just hang up on the door when you're trying to just get people to come in," he said of the top spot on those polls.

"The funny thing is, we've never won an award, really, at any film festival. If you put five people in a room and they're assessing the movie, three of them might think it's the best movie of the festival and two of them might think it's the worst."

Cinema Conservancy, a nonprofit organization committed to sustaining the integrity of American indie film, started distributing the movie in May. Until it stepped in, Mr. Perry was creating his own press kits and toting them to the post office two or three times a week.

An admirer of novelist Philip Roth, director Vincent Gallo and multi-hyphenate Jerry Lewis, the filmmaker made the movie for roughly $40,000. Asked how he saved money, he said, "I think a better question is, 'How do you spend money?' Figure that out and then remove everything else."

Cinematographer Sean Price Williams shot "The Color Wheel" with his own camera, which meant the production had to pay only for the raw stock and developing.

"Most of the shoot, we were all staying in my grandma's house in Vermont, that doesn't cost anything. We were barbecuing every night for dinner and everyone was grazing for lunch. With everyone just under one roof, the only costs were food and transportation," Mr. Perry said.

"We had to pay for gas to drive two vehicles from New York to Boston to Philadelphia and then back to New York and we had to pay to keep people fed," he said. Businesses in Vermont were accommodating about opening their doors to the movie shoot. "Yeah, come right in," they typically said.

The actors, all friends, worked for free on "The Color Wheel," a title that springs from a false memory. His parents had told him that was the name of the first movie he ever saw, but that didn't turn out to be true.

"I've taken it and now turned it into something more important," he said, and moviegoers may think it emphasizes colors or characters that clash or contrast or exist in natural harmony. The siblings, after all, spend most of their time slinging insults or bickering.

The director figured black and white better suited a "nostalgic nowhere American road trip with diners and motels and highways," and would provide instant clues to the movie's mood and atmosphere.

Mr. Perry and Ms. Altman, who co-wrote the script, started outlining it in June 2009 and shot it a year later. He was inspired by visual images he wanted to capture -- driving through beautiful East Coast towns and locations -- along with observations about the direction of his life and those of others.

"Then just kind of personally and emotionally, feelings I had been having about my life or what has happened to friends of mine, people I had grown apart from since high school or since college. And that was really the starting point for the story, what happens to people when you lose touch with them or they lose touch with themselves."

Asked if he's heard from friends since The New York Times called his film "a singularly unpleasant movie" but one that is also "sly, daring, genuinely original and at times perversely brilliant," his answer is as startling as the movie's near conclusion.

"I've heard from some enemies. I mean, ever since the movie started doing well, all sorts of people have been coming out of the woodwork, accusing me of being a [jerk] and mistreating myself and mistreating what they perceived as our relationship. It's a good way to find out who actually cares about you at all and who just perceives themselves as being the most important part of your life."

In some cases, it wasn't so much the movie as comments in interviews that left people feeling insulted and coming at him, with claws bared.

All of which leads to the next natural and potentially explosive question: Does he have siblings in real life? "My answer to that is no," he said, which sounds like it might really be yes. "That is the answer I will give."


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.


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