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CineVegas ‘09 Interview: “Impolex" Writer/Director Alex Ross Perry

by Erik Childress

The “Impolex" Pitch: At the end of WWII, a United States soldier finds himself on a mission to find undetonated German V-2 rockets.

You set the tone for your film pretty early once you introduce a talking octopus into the mix within the first 15 minutes. From the flaming bush of The Ten Commandments to the singing bush of Three Amigos, audiences have had to make leaps of faith of fantasy and reality with objects that talk back to their protagonists. How do you describe the tone of Impolex, much ocf which takes place within the mind of its lost hero?

I would describe it as an aimlessly obfuscating journey into nonsensical frustration. I think a lot of the tone comes from what I personally think of as inherent mental reactions to lonely situations. The tone is less a 'state of mind' and more the 'state of the mind.' In 75 minutes we see a lot happen to and around Tyrone, but I think it is representative of the amount of thoughts I would have if I went for a 75 minute walk by myself in the middle of the forest.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?

I tried to avoid the cliche of approaching the crafting of the film by thinking of it as 'this meets that' but when we were about five months away from shooting, right in the thick of pre-production, figuring out the look of the film and whatnot, I saw 'The Letter Never Sent' which is the film Mikhail Kalatazov made in 1959, right before he directed 'I Am Cuba.' It is superior in every way. It is about a group of soldiers lost in the woods in Siberia. The cinematography had a lot to do with what I wanted. I already knew that before seeing the film, but then I could give it a name. All handheld, following the soldiers from the back with branches and twigs falling all over the lens. It is amazing.

In your notes you mention Impolex as having roots in both John Ford and Abbott & Costello. You jokingly mention that’s because you have their DVDs on your shelf, but how do you sell that to audiences who may feel you have overshot with those comparisons. What elements do you as a filmmaker and a film lover take away from both Ford and the comedy duo?

The Ford thing is basically my frame of reference for what World War II looks like. It's all anybody my age knows about the War, really. When I think of the battlefield, I realized how much I was thinking of documentaries I had seen. These were just guys with 16mm cameras, running around shooting footage. No artificial lights, I assume. So that is what I needed. This has a lot to do with shooting on film as opposed to video, and also with having the aspect ratio of the movie be 4:3. To me, that is how you make an 'authentic' World War II movie, whatever that means. The Abbott and Costello thing is kind of a little 'marketing' joke, because I looked at that sentence and could not imagine somebody not being intrigued by where I was unjustifiably claiming to find common ground between the two, hence your question. But I think the film is very funny. I think of Abbott and Costello and I think of circuitous, frustrating linguistic scenarios mixed with physical comedy. I think of my film and I think about the breakdown of communication between the characters - there are a lot of instances where something is misheard and then discussed, or characters really focus on and scrutinize what one another is saying. To me that is funny and also true. Then there are a bunch of times where Riley loses his footing and falls down a hill, which happens twice, or slips on a rock and nearly falls or gets his boot stuck in a tree stump. This sort of physical comedy mixed with the WWII documentary style is I guess where I tried to get off comparing my film to those two things.

Who’s an actor you’d kill to work with?

I really love Jeremy Davies right now. His role on Lost blew my mind every time he was on screen. Also from Lost is Henry Ian Cusick, who plays Desmond. He does not seem to have been in very many films but I can imagine many scenarios that he could just destroy. They are both on that list.

At one point, Impolex was designed as a silent film. Describe your motivations for planning it that way and how it eventually became more of a talkie.

The first thing I had was just an image of a soldier carrying a miniature V-2 rocket through the woods, and I felt that this would make for an entertaining 75 minute film. Just walking, muttering to himself, and maybe singing some songs out loud. That was all I had, really for a while. So not silent, just no dialogue. Then I started adding more things that I wanted to see, just a girl appearing every now and again and an octopus and things. A lot of images I was inspired by from reading Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. Then I got deeper into research of actual V-2 history and started adding dialogue and facts and the rest pretty much wrote itself.

Are there any films you’ve seen recently that have used silence to longer and more lasting effect than its dialogue?

A big thing for me was the first five or so minutes of There Will Be Blood. It is all silent and pretty much every cut is discontinuous. In a few minutes of this it set things up pretty much perfectly tone, environment and character and then sustains them for nearly three hours.

The final image recall a certain subset of a Kubrick title. Were you ultimately looking to make some kind of statement about men and our relationship to war or is that just the makings of one interpretation?

That's just one interpretation, I guess. I've never been to war and don't know very much about it so any representation of it by me is strictly invented. But Kubrick's films do depict a tense relationship between man and machine that I find very interesting, and obviously there is a lot of that in Impolex. It is in all of his films, really, but I guess you might be thinking more of Paths of Glory with this question. There is an idea of hopelessness in that film that I hope mine does not have, but it probably does. There is this book by Manuel de Landa called War in the Age of Intelligent Machines that has a lot to do with the relationship between soldiers and bombs and mechanized weaponry and such. Kubrick has this stuff all over Dr. Strangelove, as well. I think that is an interesting relationship to explore. Why do we act different in the presence of weapons that are more superior than our bare fists?

By the end of the film I certainly had a hankering for bananas. Can you qualify them as some sort of leitmotif in your film instead of just what the soldier seemed to have a gorilla’s ration of?

ALEX: I think bananas are funny. I resisted having Tyrone slipping on banana peels he had discarded, because that would have implied too implicitly that he was walking in circles. This is something else that, about nine months after putting down the novel, I had a flash of memory from Gravity's Rainbow that there was something towards the beginning about bananas. I never picked the book back up to scrutinize this, I just ran with it. Also the weird thing about bananas, and you can see this in old films where people are eating them, is that the bananas we eat today are not the bananas eaten decades ago. Somehow, the species has changed. Unfortunately, this is a major continuity goof in my movie because all the bananas consumed are modern bananas.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to adapt a current television show to the big screen. What project would you want to tackle? (or TV show)

ALEX: I bet I could make a very good version of the Prisoner. I see that a TV network has a mini-series of it on later this year and I am afraid they will foul it up in some way. I do not think they shot in Portmerion, the original location. I love that original show and I think there is a lot of the Prisoner in Impolex. I was re-watching it the month before shooting. Lost I truly think is the greatest television show ever so I do not think it, or anything I already consider brilliant, would be better if I somehow scammed my way into it. I thought about Lost a lot while writing and shooting Impolex. I think about it a lot anyway, but now I had something to channel that into.

Do you have any favorite (or least favorite) film critics? And how important do you believe film critics are nowadays?

ALEX: I really like Jonathan Rosenbaum. In a weird way, the very first seed of this film was planted because of a remark he made at a screening of Jacques Rivette's L'amour fou that I attended. Peter Bogdanovich is a fantastic critic, one of the best really. His early writings and even some of his more recent stuff is pretty much perfect film criticism.

I guess critics are probably more important today than they have been in a long time, in a strange backwards sort of way. I guess a lot of them might contend that, but there is so much product out there right now and from an audience perspective, it is pretty daunting to know what to see and what to ignore. There are so many damn festivals too. So I think it is important that there are enough critics and also bloggers to cover all this stuff, so that good word can spread on movies that might only play at one or two festivals but really have an audience out there, hungry for something to connect to. On the other hand a lot of critics or especially bloggers seem to only have their own self-interest in mind. They are hesitant to throw their support behind something because then if it turns out that everybody else hates it, they will look like a fool. I think most of them tend to take a wait-and-see approach to promoting new, festival films and that is poisonous and not helpful to anybody. This is why we often see near-universal praise for the same few movies and dozens of others are difficult to hear or learn about.

What would mean more to you? A full-on rave from an anonymous junketeer or an average, but critically constructive review from a respected print or online journalist?

ALEX: Full on rave from an anonymous person, definitely. I am not sure who I made this film for and I am not sure who or where the audience for something like this is, but if some crazy person with some lunatic blog goes crazy for the film and tells their crazy person friends, that is a best case scenario for me.

How much of your cast and crew is going to make the trek to CineVegas for the screenings?

ALEX: None of the cast, unfortunately. Kate, who plays Katje, has her birthday on the Friday of the festival and Riley, who plays Tyrone, has left New York and kind of wandered south, maybe permanently. I have not seen him since early March. Sean Williams, my cinematographer, will be there because he also shot Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, which is playing in the documentary section and is excellent. Fortunately for me, my production designer/girlfriend Anna will also be making the trip. With the exception of the sound guy, that is just about the entire crew.

What are you looking forward to most during your CineVegas experience?

ALEX: I have never been to Las Vegas before, though I have felt it calling me in a Randal Flagg sort of way, if you know what I mean. I have also never been at a festival where I have access to things that are actually what people want to be doing, so I am excited to be able to see as many films as I have time for.

Any films, besides your own, that you’re hoping to get a chance to see while at the festival?

ALEX: There is a lot of stuff on the schedule that I have wanted to see anyway, just from reading about other recent festivals. Moon is one I am very interested in. Also Bronson sounds good. I saw a video online for the movie Redland and think it looks pretty neat.

During your Q&A after your screenings, if you could replace the inevitable "what was the budget?" question with something more serious and probing about your film, what are you hoping would be asked?

ALEX: I would love to talk about shooting on film, why anybody would make such a foolish decision and what on earth was I thinking? Because a lot of people want to have that discussion and talk only about dollars and cents, but rarely do people talk about the aesthetic aspect of this whole debate. I mean, I wasn't going to present a WWII story on video. That is cheating, and also strange. That is not what WWII looks like when you see it on screen. I would love to force people to explore the nature of their own memory and kind of goad them into connecting the dots in the film. Because I think the film is kind of confusing and nonsensical, at first, but I truly believe that under scrutiny all the pieces are there and I would really like to see people come to terms with the realization that, maybe this stuff is not so random after all.

What kind of discussion are you hoping will be making the rounds of the festival specific to the story of your film? Other than how much they liked it, of course.

ALEX: I shot a feature film on 16mm in seven days. The last day of shooting was my 24th birthday. That in and of itself is something, and I am proud of that. If I was nineteen and looking for examples of independent film making being done by some young jerk, quickly, for basically no money and on film no less, I might be very interested in that side of my story.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?

ALEX: Make a movie using the resources you have and only those resources. Don't want to pay for lights? Don't use them, just shoot outside. Don't want to shoot on video? Find a 16mm camera you can borrow and use it for zero dollars. Also do not ever shoot in a major city. I shot a student film in New York once and it cost $150 dollars per night to park the damn truck in a guarded lot. That is about $1000 for the whole shoot, just to park the stupid thing. We shot in the middle of nowhere in Vermont. We didn't even lock the vans, or the house with all the equipment in it. My lesson was figure out what you cannot avoid paying for and only pay for that. I was surprised by just how little that is.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?

ALEX: My talking octopus looks better than 99% of the other talking octopi out there.


Alex Ross Perry's Impolex will have its world premiere at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival from June 10-15. It will screen at the Palms’ Brendan Theatres on Thursday, June 11 at 12:30 PM and again on Friday, June 12 at 10:00 PM.

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originally posted: 05/15/09 23:31:24
last updated: 05/15/09 23:34:31
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