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Brit McAdams had an idea, one best explained by a couple of questions.
“What if an artist, someone like a Bob Ross, had a lot of power but didn’t use that power for good? What if that person, seemingly the nicest, most polite person on TV, maybe even the world, was not what they seemed when cameras stopped rolling?” the writer-director explained to The Hollywood Reporter while standing on the red carpet outside L.A.’s Theatre at Ace Hotel on Thursday night.
That served as the blueprint for his “silly, fun” new film Paint starring Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle, a wig-wearing, Bob Ross-inspired painter who unravels when a younger artist turns up, charms his circle and threatens his run as the No. 1 painter on public television in Vermont.
The IFC Films release — co-starring Stephen Root, Michaela Watkins, Wendi McClendon-Covey, Lucy Freyer and Ciara Renée — hits theaters on April 7, a big moment for McAdams who started fleshing out the idea more than a decade ago with the script landing on the Black List way back in 2010.
“I’ve been saying 13 years, but if we’re being honest, it’s about 14 years now by this point,” said the filmmaker, who turned up to his premiere wearing paint-splattered Nikes that he purchased on a rush order from Etsy. “I was talking to Mike White about it a long time ago, and he said something great: ‘The movie will happen when it should happen.’ And he was right, that’s ultimately what happened with it. It found its voice and just got better.”
All the creatives who spoke with THR last night heaped praise on one person they said was key to helping the movie find its voice and creative juice — Owen Wilson, who spent years collaborating with McAdams and fine-tuning the script. “He’s been amazing,” offered manager-producer Sam Maydew. “A lot of comedic actors are funny and great but they’re not real character actors and that’s what Owen brought to this. He really committed himself to make this a great character-driven story by diving in and doing the work. There’s, of course, the wig and all of this stuff but he really did the work to find out how to hold the paint brush and make it as authentic as possible.”
McAdams described Wilson as “a gift” to the production. He could have added “the muscle.”
“He’s just a good, smart person,” McAdams said. “He just does things better than I do in life. He drinks nice water while I drink junky Gatorade. He reads and I’m on my iPhone. He’s really good with words and scripts. We spent months going through it and talking through all the beats. He’s also just a good guy.” About those guns, McAdams explained that they saved money by renting cars on Craigslist for filming and some vehicles needed tune-ups. Wilson wasn’t above shouldering the weight.
“Owen helped push the cars,” McAdams noted. “That’s the level of camaraderie he delivered and ultimately, it’s someone like that who helps set the tone for the whole world.”
It’s a world Wilson said he instantly understood thanks in large part to his father, who used to run a PBS station in Dallas. “When I first read the script, I just thought it was funny and all of it felt kind of familiar even though it’s set in Vermont. There’s something universal about PBS and the pledge drives and everything,” Wilson told THR. As for when he knew he’d zeroed in on playing Carl Nargle, the actor and producer credited the brown fluffy wig.
“I did like a little painting before to just see what it felt like. But one of the big things for me came when they got the look dialed in with the wardrobe. And, I mean, let’s be honest, the wig does a lot of the heavy lifting for me in terms of feeling not like myself.”
The voice helped, too.
“When you watch those Bob Ross shows, there’s just something very attractive and welcoming about the way he sounds and the stuff he’s saying. Carl Nargle, you know, had the No. 1 painting show for 22 years in Vermont, so he had something that people enjoyed as well. He was very comfortable and confident until everything sort of gets shaken up.”
Renée’s character, rival painter Ambrosia Long, is the one who helps stir the pot as does the head of the PBS station, played by Root. The prolific actor praised all of his costars, from the actresses to Wilson, with whom he had worked on another film. “I really liked to get into it with him on this one,” Root said with a smile. “When you’ve known people and you’ve been on camera with them before, you don’t have to worry about anything except reacting. It’s great — you want to work with friends, always.”
Watkins hadn’t worked with Wilson before, but after the Paint collaboration, she understands why he’s a comedy superstar. “I’ve worked with really incredible actors who are A-listy, and there’s always this one moment where I realize, oh, that’s why you’re the guy. That’s why you’re the guy for everything that you do and why you’re so great at it. There’s this little magic spark that goes pop and you can see how they capture magic in a bottle in a way that nobody else can. It can be so subtle and complex and nuanced and all of the things all at once, everything everywhere. Owen has that.”
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