August 28, 2012 | 3:00 PM
Carlen Altman speaks in torrents. The 29-year old comedian, writer, and jewelry designer pours forth when she gets going, which is funny because her new film, The Color Wheel, revels in long, uncomfortable silences. The movie is a collaboration between Carlen and the writer and director Alex Ross Perry. Together, the two filmmakers tell the story of a brother-and-sister team who travel through gray, rainy New England. Sibling rivalry and the desultory pull of the past draw the two into a feature-length standoff.
The movie was a lo-fi endeavor, shot on 16 mm film over the course of a rambling month of traveling from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. But having the right technological tools helped the two filmmakers collaborate throughout their creative process, from writing the script together to editing the film once it was shot. And the end result was an astonishing success.
As A.O. Scott of The New York Times wrote, the movie is "sly, daring, genuinely original and at times perversely brilliant." Scott's praise is heavily qualified. The film has some truly excruciating moments. As the filmmakers themselves declare, it's "an objectionable comedy about disappointment and forgiveness."
The Color Wheel was also Carlen's first attempt at writing a feature. She spoke to The Ultrabook™ Experience team over the phone from her apartment in Brooklyn. Here's her take on the triumphs and tribulations of collaboration, the challenges of being on the road, and how having the right tools can help inspire and enable bold choices.
The Ultrabook™ Experience team: Hey Carlen. Are you excited about the reception to The Color Wheel?
Carlen Altman: Well, it's the first film that I've ever made beyond acting, so I am very sincerely surprised that it's done so well.
How did you and the film's co-writer, co-star, and director get the project going?
It was an interesting situation. We were both doing standup at a comedy club in Brooklyn, and Alex recognized me from a film I was in, You Won't Miss Me. He said that he liked my standup, and that he liked my blog, which nobody reads. So he asked "do you want to write a film together." And I said yes, Alex had the ambition and drive to actually make it happen, and so I thought, why not?
At what point did you two decide to play brother and sister?
Someone once said that we looked alike, so we decided early on that we should make a movie where we play brother and sister.
We wanted to make a movie about how we both felt really alienated from the people growing up around us. Everyone was becoming real people, but Alex and I felt like we were not grown ups. In that way we felt like siblings.
You guys co-wrote the movie together. What was that process like?
We meet twice a week for a year at my house and brainstormed and wrote the film. Alex would go home and format the screenplay and email it back to me for comments that we'd go over at our next meeting. We built it from that process.
When we set out to make the movie, I was adamant about not making an artsy movie. I like lowbrow movies like Weekend at Bernie's or the Drew Barrymore movie Never Been Kissed. Alex said he agreed. We wanted to make something of a lowbrow film with a bit more emotional complexity. So that even though the topics are alienation, we followed a very Conventional Hollywood format and structure.
How did you two squeeze comedy into a movie about feeling alienated?
Well, we started out from a place of comedy. Comedy came naturally. It definitely helped to have script structure in mind.
Were there moments of disagreement between you and Alex?
In the editing process Alex wanted to cut out things that I wanted to keep as a comedian, things that I thought were funny. We shot the movie on film, so we didn't have access to the footage until we wrapped shooting. At one point I had to threaten to take my name off the film as a writer. But Alex kept a lot of things in, so it worked out.
So you guys quarreled like the siblings you portrayed?
How did you stay connected while you were on the road shooting? Did having access to technology help your creativity?
We shot the movie on film, so it wasn't like we could see daily footage of what we were shooting. So we had to make sure the script was solid and the story held together while we were driving from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. Being connected to all our files and pre-production work gave us the confidence to take chances out there. We stuck to the script, but we were also able to be bold and let the story evolve.It seems like having hard deadlines and someone pushing you to get things done really helped make the film possible.
Yeah, I was happy to work with a "real filmmaker" who set deadlines and didn't overthink things to the point of paralysis.
So a contest like Four Stories would be one way to give aspiring filmmakers a way to structure a story and a hard deadline?
Well, sure. We had a firm story structure in mind when we set out to write The Color Wheel, and Four Stories gives people a solid form to write in any genre really. Plus, it's always valuable to have the opportunity to work with talented people like Roman Coppola and The Directors Bureau.
Would you collaborate on making a movie again?
I would. I didn't have confidence in myself as a filmmaker before making this movie. But I found out that it's not so daunting a task. It's possible. I'm hoping to do another film again this time with my mom. It's about an elderly woman who has a tortoise.