Sundance Preview: 'Color Wheel' Director Alex Ross Perry Promises More 'Painfully Awkward Stuations' in New Film

LISTEN UP PHILIP Moss Scwhartzman Still - H 2013
Sean Price Williams

LISTEN UP PHILIP Moss Scwhartzman Still - H 2013

Jason Schwartzman and Elisabeth Moss give "Listen Up Philip" a higher profile -- but the director says it's "no less radical" a film from his previous efforts.

The Sundance Film Festival is a mecca for independent cinema and a pool of fresh filmmaking talent. But with nearly 200 films selected for exhibition, it can be a dizzying game of catch up. So this year, THR decided to do a bit of prep work for you; Here's the who/what/where/when/why on a film worth putting on your radar.

While everyone and their mother is picking up a digital camera to shoot their no-budget features, Alex Ross Perry has always been and remains a classicist. His first two features were talky dramas that dabbled in the absurd, shot for pennies while managing to afford 16-millimeter film. There's an emphasis on story and character that's rare for its level, compared to similar attempts that lean on the improvised antics of mumblecore. Perry loves cinema --and intends to make his own.

The writer/director promises his latest, Listen Up Philip, keeps his sensibilities intact while upping the production value and the star power. Jason Schwarztman stars as the title character, a wayward writer, along with Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Jonathan Pryce, and Eric Bogosian as the narrator (automatic cool points). In anticipation of its Sundance premiere on Jan 20 at the Library Theatre, Perry tells us about mounting his most ambitious project to date:

Background: After graduating from NYU with a film degree, Perry spent three years working at New York's cineaste heaven, Kim's Video (which he told the New York Times was “the more formative experience”). In 2009, he shot his first feature, Impolex, a $15,000 comedy loosely based on Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Though rejected by Sundance and SXSW, his second feature The Color Wheel (a film THR called “a road trip about stagnation, fueled by anger and post-mumblecore irony but also an unexpected vulnerability”) earned rave reviews during its lengthy festival tour, going on to earn a nomination for the Independent Spirit Awards' John Cassavetes Award and distribution through the indie-minded start-up Cinema Conservancy.

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From Color Wheel to Listen Up Philips: “If you had asked me four years ago, when Color Wheel was just a glimmer, 'Do you ever want to make a New York movie?' I would have said, 'Yeah, I have all these notes and ideas that aren't connected to anything, it's just long notes about the people I've met or the way people treat me differently.' I just had all these notes about a New York story. And then Color Wheel was at festivals in 2011, and all of a sudden, having a movie that did well in festivals meant I'm not at home anymore, away for weeks at a time. Something that was an objective success became a complete disconnect for me, from my life. If I could even come between festivals, I would come home for two days, during which I would do nothing and see no one because I would catch up on sleep. So I started thinking a lot about how success means being absent from people around you. I saw my girlfriend less. I saw my friends less. People I became friends with when Color Wheel took off, I didn't become friends with. This became a very interesting thing to me. I was very happy with how the film was doing, but the result was that I left town on Oct. 20 and as of Dec. 6 I had spent four nights in my own bed. So I realized the New York movie should be about a guy who passes through over the span of our story and the film focuses on how his absence affects people to whom he is close. I started definitively writing it in Dec. 2011, when I had a break from Color Wheel festivals. Finished the first draft on Jan. 1, 2012.”

Getting the Film Off the Ground: “You would be incorrect in assuming that people were asking me to make another movie. I assumed that as well. 'I will be at festivals and people will ask me that.' I made Color Wheel with five people. And I heard, 'Oh I showed my first movie at festivals and met producers there and they made my next movie.' And for a year that didn't happen. At all. So 2011 ends, Color Wheel has played at a couple dozen festivals and I just had the draft. I didn't know what to do with it. In December, I would have said, 'This movie can't be made. The movie I wrote can't be done for $50,000. I can't pull it off.' And sometime in the middle of 2012, the guys from Sailor Bear Productions, who were in aggressive pre-production on Ain't Them Bodies Saints, around May 2012-ish, they were gearing up to shoot and I had been running into them because James Johnson and David Lowery are both vegan and so am I. So at festivals with those guys, we'd be eating together. When we were in New York together, they asked what I was working on and I sent them Listen Up, Philips, they said they wanted it to be their project for 2013. They shot in the summer and came back to New York to do editing, and we were officially making the movie. We got a partner in New York, Washington Square Film, because they had never made a movie in New York, I had never made a movie in New York, and it really wasn't about someone seeing Color Wheel. That still hasn't happened. Maybe it'll happen with this.”

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When It All Seemed to Click: “On a micro-budget film, you have to be resourceful to get things done. On a proper budget, you don't have to be resourceful, you have to use your resources. We have a guy on set who is the property manager. He's in charge of everything the actors touch. We can use that resource to be constantly improvising, throwing challenges at him during the filming. He can make something or buy something. If we want to add a joke where there's a sign, it's not like 'Can we find some marker and paper? If we can't, forget it.' Here it's like, 'You have 10 minutes to do this.' And it's his only job. The movie is full of moments that would be possible if you were doing it yourself.”

Perry's Mission for Listen Up Philip: “In my opinion, we have a film made with infinitely more resources, with infinitely more successful people in front of the camera, but I don't really think it's a compromise or in any way a less radical piece of filmmaking. I think it's unique and personal and doesn't reflect any of the changes I think a filmmaker might have to exhibit in order to be accepted by a festival that rejected their earlier work. I think it has all the bad things people said about Color Wheel: unlikable characters, unpleasant, unfunny, painfully awkward situations -- we have that. It's just 35 minutes longer and full of famous people. I think it's a radical slight of hand I've pulled rather than a triumphant victory.”