Below Alex Ross Perry shares an exclusive scene from his sophomore feature “The Color Wheel,” which topped Indiewire’s 2011 end-of-year poll for best undistributed film. The film got picked up by Cinema Conservancy after topping that chart and opens Friday at BAMcinematek in New York. Co-staring and co-written by Perry and Carlen Altman (“You Wont Miss Me”), “The Color Wheel” is an odd, funny story of a slacker brother and ambitious sister on a mission to move her things from her ex-lover/ex-professor’s home. Check out our profile of Perry HERE.
This scene occurs early in the film, like within the first twenty minutes or so. Colin and JR are beginning day two of their trek to move her stuff out of professor/scorned lover Neil Chadwick’s (Bob Byington) house. It immediately follows a sequence in a motel, where they are told only married couples can share a room. This was part of a series of circumstances that I felt was important to establish as early as possible in the film, which was that everything had to be as difficult and irritating as possible for these characters. So when Colin and JR go to this diner, poor Colin can’t just eat lunch without his sister humiliating him. One of my favorite pranks has always been to tell a waiter that it is somebody’s birthday even though it is not, so I wanted to be sure to get that into the movie.
BEHIND THE SCENE
I selected this scene for several reasons. People always ask if the film was improvised, which I guess is understandable because it was made by lazy looking people in their 20s who seem like maybe we forgot to write a script before filming began. But really I don’t see how you can look at a scene like this one and think it was improvised. Filming a shot-reverse-shot conversation like this where the dialogue is incredibly fast paced and every line from one character immediately sets up a response from the other would be impossible to improvise, and even if you did, it would be impossible to re-create the lines for the other angle. I hope that if you look at this exchange, it will help clear up the extent to which Carlen and myself worked on this dialogue and the rigidity of my and cinematographer Sean Price Williams’ deceptively simple, fully functional shot structure.
From a story perspective, I also wanted to highlight the function of this scene as it appears relatively early in the narrative. In making every step of this journey infuriatingly challenging for Colin and JR, it was important to remember that the focus of the film and the narrative momentum should remain squarely on them. As shot and first edited, this scene also included a nearly 70-second discussion between JR and a waitress, who was giving her a hard time about ordering lunch food when it was not yet lunch time. A problem I myself have faced many times and find quite irritating. Turns out it was not very fun to watch, and a lengthy scene between JR and a character we never see again proved pretty useless narratively speaking. Plus it was apparent that even without the set up, the meat of the scene is their bickering and the final punch line, and in fact both worked better with less preamble.
This scene was filmed on day sixteen of an eighteen-day shoot. We were all very tired of one another and tensions were running high, etc. By this point it was very easy for Carlen and myself to turn on our ‘angry, yelling’ personas. I actually forgot to turn mine off when we encountered several complications in this scene. It seemed like it would be easy to just nail the shots, since they were unmoving and relatively simple. But the added factors of a) shooting in a diner that was open and serving customers and b) choreographing the sparklers gag at the end made this incredibly difficult and unpleasant. I am told I screamed at people this day, refusing to accept the suggestion that we abandon sparklers for candles as the sparklers were proving nigh-impossible to light. I had no interest in doing this. Candles are simply not funny at all, I reasoned loudly while flailing my arms about. Ultimately we got those damn sparklers lit and the scene is pretty much perfect in my opinion. It never fails to get a good laugh from audiences and I do not regret losing my temper in order to do this properly. I wouldn’t have thought that a 3.5 page scene with two characters sitting still would have taken something like eight hours to film, but for some reason it did, though I am very pleased with the results and think the editing and performances in this scene are indicative of what I had hoped to accomplish with the tone and spirit of the film.