Don’t let the name fool you: The Color Wheel is shot on gritty-beautiful black and white 16mm film, set against a bleak New England background of diners and shoddy motels. A boundary-breaking dark comedy about two dysfunctional, twenty-something siblings on a road trip, the film uniquely captures rising brother and sister tension until it reaches the ultimate level—far off the beaten path. Interestingly enough, the stars co-wrote the film: JR, the brazen, aspiring news anchor sister is played by Carlen Altman, and Colin, and the sheepish, loser young brother is played by Alex Ross Perry, who also directed the film. ELLE sat down with the stylish Altman to talk Weekend at Bernie’s character inspiration, vintage shopping, and her new jewelry collection.
ELLE: This was your first time writing a feature film. What was the most fun and the challenging part?
Carlen Altman: The most fun is that I had ideas for jokes for years, and it was nice to have somewhere to put them and personalize them to a made-up character. What was challenging was working with someone else who had different ideas and trying to feel like the script was an equal combination of both our ideas and aesthetics, but in a seamless way.
ELLE: How did you build your character? Who is it based on?
CA: When I went to summer camp, there was this tomboy named JR who was really scrappy. She borrowed a shirt from me, and I was really flattered because I thought she was really cool, and she gave it back to me covered in mud. I was really annoyed, but somehow she was the inspiration in a very weird way. I always liked the name JR—it’s so asexual. And in terms of character building, I drew from not specific people but caricatures of people, like I went to an art high school—the Fame school; I was a visual arts major, and we were segregated by major (the drama majors were in the basement, the vocal majors were on the 5th floor). My school seemed to consist of loud annoying “theatrical” people—Jennifer Aniston and Nicki Minaj graduated from my high school—who just assumed they would “succeed” by networking without actually working hard. It was gross because I hate “theatrical” types, you know what I mean? I have never seen Fame or Rent because I am pretty sure I would throw up. It was just me drawing from that kind of caricature of a girl who thinks she will get what she wants just by “networking,” without having any talent.
ELLE: Were there any female characters in film you were inspired by?
CA: Maybe Elaine Benes in Seinfeld—kind of her obliviousness, her selfishness. And that’s a very remote reference; it’s not like I thought of her as a muse. I love Seinfeld, and I love her character. I don’t have any female “role models” unfortunately, though I admire Ellen DeGeneres for her quick wit and vegan outreach work.
ELLE: Any male characters you pulled from in terms of comedy?
CA: The main two characters in Weekend in Bernie’s are these two friends that are really oblivious, and Jonathan Silverman’s character tries to make Andrew McCarthy’s character seem cooler. I feel like Colin, my brother’s character, was trying to make my character seem less embarrassing, but they’re both really embarrassing. And they don’t really work for each other. They’re each others’ other side.
ELLE: Did you do your character’s costumes? How did you work out her style?
CA: Yeah! For the movie, the overall aesthetic was we wanted it to be vague—like from some weird decade where you couldn’t place it… like another world. I just wanted to wear a lot of vintage clothing. My friend Stella Greenspan is a stylist and really funny and nice, and she helped me pick out stuff. She brought me some things after I described the character: kind of tomboyish, but kind of feminine, and kind of bohemian, but like “suburban bohemian,” where she thinks she’s an individual—I guess she’s kind of an individual—but it’s not that she’s any more worldly than anyone else. That’s why she says, “Should I keep my bangs so I can seem artsy and an individual?” But it’s very calculated. So she’ll give these impressions that she’s an individual, but not that she herself is an individual.
ELLE: I know you make jewelry as well, Jewish Rosaries. I spotted some of your pieces in the movie. Have you been working on anything new?
CA: I made a new bead count for the Jewish rosary—which is based on a prayer that’s about being productive in your life. It’s for 49 days. You make a project for each day count, and every day you have to do something productive for that to finish your goal by the 49th day. I thought because I’m not super religious, what would actually be useful? And I think getting stuff done is. Not, “What would a Jewish person want?” but “What would I want?” Because it will resonate with other people who identify as Jewish, but aren’t super religious. My new collection, titled Jew La Ree, will be available on my website shortly.
ELLE: So this movie has been playing all over the US, and while you’re not on a road trip, you’ve traveled to a lot of places. What have been some of your favorite things you’ve seen?
CA: I got to go parasailing at the Sarasota Film Festival, and there were all these dolphins below me. In Denver, there is a place called Jump Street that is a room full of trampolines. It’s mostly for children, but me and my co-writer Alex and two people involved with the Denver theater were like, “Do you want to go to this trampoline place?” It’s seriously so fun because you feel like you’re flying. Also coming to San Francisco has been so nice because I think I really want to move here. I should have come here before picking out costumes—I’m sure I could have found really good stuff to wear because there’s great vintage shopping. And I’m vegan, and there’s a lot of good restaurants here. I’m staying with some really nice people I met through the Roxie Theater.
ELLE: What vintage did you pick up?
CA: A perfect denim shirt that’s L.L. Bean. I got this hat which is made by the San Diego Hat Company; I used to have a hat by this company, but my friend sat on it and then tried to wash it. And then I got a long green suede coat that’s very Alexa Chung and has a fur collar—even though I’m vegan, I still wear vintage fur—how hypocritical am I? And then I got this leopard-print silk anorak. And then I got this really worn-in Harley Davidson sweatshirt that I really like, that’s black and not too cheesy or “fake rock and roll Ed Hardy loser-y,” if you know what I mean.
ELLE: Do you have any advice to give to aspiring filmmakers?
CA: I’m really glad I teamed up with someone whose very knowledgeable about film—what festivals to apply to and what theaters to show at and even how to ship film. Let’s say you write a screenplay, you should try to team up with someone who has interests in things that maybe you don’t. Producing, getting people casted, you should have a yin and a yang. But if you can’t do that, you can always go on Craigslist and find people to act in things or people to edit things or people to be the cinematographer. All you really need is a cinematographer, an editor, a sound person, and a lighting person. And you can always rent equipment, too. You don’t need more than $1,000, technically, to make a movie. Our budget was not big at all, it was way less than $50,000. We spent a lot of it on film, because we shot on 16mm film, which is pretty expensive, but we didn’t have to. We could have done a digital camera and that would have made it like, free. So I think if I can do it anyone can do it.
ELLE: What other projects do you have coming up?
CA: I’m attempting to make a documentary about Lionhead rabbits. They are a crazy type of rabbit that looks like a little lion. I have one, and he is the smartest, most beautiful pet I have ever had (and I also have 5 guinea pigs! Sorry guinea pigs if you are reading this!). Also, I am writing a new script about a girl who is 28 and doesn’t want to age. She lives with her mom and always wears a big hat and sunglasses, and she signs up for this new age class she reads about in one of those free newspapers. But most of it takes place on the subway and [is about] all the crazy people she meets. As I mentioned, I’m making my new Jewish Rosaries collection. I recently signed with CAA. And I’m helping my mom put together a script about an elderly gypsy that smuggles a tortoise into an old age home. And I’m writing a zine about nutrition. Hopefully, I will finish all these things. If I can do it, so can you!
The Color Wheel opens tonight, June 8th, at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles.