Paint – Interview with Writer/Director Brit McAdams

Paint - Interview with Director Brit McAdams
IFC Films
Director Brit McAdams is the man behind the film Paint. A story about Vermont’s number one public access television persona, Carl Nargle. Played by Owen Wilson, Carl’s world begins to unravel as he learns he has some competition in enticing audiences with his paintbrush through a camera lens. In our interview with the film's director, McAdams tells us about the location scouting for the film, creating the character with Owen Wilson, the iconic van Carl drives, and the similarities between a certain famous painter and the film's main character.
Paint is currently showing in theaters.

Watch the interview, listen, or read the transcript below — edited and condensed for clarity:

All right, Brit, let's kick things off here. I just want to start by saying congratulations on getting this film made. It's great to watch. You've stated that Paint took you 13 years to get made That's an incredible commitment to the craft. Take me back to just a light bulb moment years ago when you thought of this, and crafting the overall premise of the movie.

So basically, as a kid, we weren't allowed to watch TV. And so my mom and my sister would watch General Hospital, which meant I watched General Hospital, which means I know a tremendous amount about General Hospital from the 80s. So if there's anything you need to know about the Ice Princess or Robert Scorpio or Luca Lower, I'm your guy. But so when that show would end, we were so cheap. And I'm also of the age where we didn't have a remote control, so I would sit in front of the TV and there was a dial on top of the TV. And the whole goal at that age was to just keep that TV on. And so you would turn the knob on top of the TV and it was basically like a ticking time bomb with each channel that you went past. And so you would click and just hope to have my mom say not say, Go do your homework.

And you would get to Bob Ross And they go, this guy with his whisper and his hair and stuff. And then there'd be a brown brushstroke and that brushstroke would turn into a branch and turn into a tree. And the tree would become a forest and the forest would become a mountainscape. And you would go from being like, who is this guy? To just be quiet and so immersed in this world. And then he would finish the painting, you would marvel at it, and then the show would end and the world would get loud and you'd have to go to homework and you would just miss this place that he had taken you.

And it was a truly magical place. I always loved those moments and what he could do to you in thinking about that I always imagined him to be just the best person in the world. And from all accounts, he was a great, great guy. But the idea that I really liked was what if someone who had this power over people didn't use that power for good? And the idea of loving the art without loving the artist. And that combined with an idea of if you are a rock star the way Carl Nargle is that's Owen's character in the film, and if you've had the number one painting show on PBS in Burlington, Vermont since you were 22 years old, would you ever grow beyond who you were at 22 years old? And if the world changed, would you be able to change with it or would you get trapped in that, would that pass be your present? And what would that mean to you if, effectively, the world's passing you by? That's Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and a little bit of Deuteronomy to do to comedy. Man, I haven't said that in a long time. Let's get to the New Testament.


Good one. Good one. Well, I just want to ask you about the decision-making process for the film's visual style. I thought some of the music cues in this movie were great. What did you bring to the table? Or your cinematographer, even with crafting the overall look of the movie?

So Patrick Katie is a cinematographer, and so he's an old, old friend. He and I shot our first things together. We did a documentary together called Trivia Town. So he's off being a fancy director for JJ. Abrams right now, but I tricked him into working on this, so it's just an absolute gift to have him involved. And so we shot the film in 20 days, which is really really tight, and we shot it during COVID which is just a real money suck and just makes things harder. So what we tried to do was the Carl Nargle character is really trapped in the past. And so along with Todd Jeffrey, the production designer, and Ali Pierce, who did costume design, we tried to keep him in the past. There's never been a reason for him to change. So everything around him hasn't changed. His van, his CB, his pants, his whole look. We tried to have a timelessness to the film that sort of resonates from him not needing to change. Vermont is also a state that doesn't really change that much. So, setting at Vermont also sort of was part of that world.

In terms of visual look. Aside from it being really trapped in the past, we really looked to rip off the Coen brothers as much as possible, and also Wes Anderson. So with Wes, really fought for symmetry anytime we could get it, which is hard to do when you're sort of moving pretty quickly. I think at our best, we're at Wes Anderson's lower-grade shots. I mean, look, every shot that Wes shoots is just I mean, I gasp when I watch his movies. They're so beautiful. And then the other thing we really tried to do is, in terms of the Coen brothers, we needed to shoot really pretty quickly. And the way we did that was we had clean singles, which means that we would just see one person in a shot at a time, and that means that it's easier to cut around other action. And we filmed it, for the most part, with a 27-millimeter and a 32-millimeter lens.

But at 27 for the most part, which you can really feel people's hands and stuff, so it's a little bit more comedic. And the Coen brothers do a lot of that. So we really stuck to one lens, the 27, which we called the Nargle while shooting. So we try to rip off the best and keep Carl in a timeless place.


Okay, I do want to ask you, in terms of production design or props, even — the van — was this molded by the production team, or did you find this somewhere in prep and just picked it up and put it in the movie? I was just so intrigued by how cool that van was.

Yeah, Vantastic. No, Vantastic, which I own now, it's sitting in a barn in Rutland, Vermont. It is registered and properly plated and everything else. So, no, the van, we really searched for that van, and we only got it to set about two days before, so there's a wrap. So, Todd Jeffrey, the production designer — we had an artist do the whole painting for the mountainscape on it of Mount Mansfield, so that came together. It came together really last minute. It was amazing how it was in New York. We were shooting in upstate New York, hours away, and it was like, the day before, and it was still getting wrapped in downtown, like, Brooklyn. That was amazing how it came together. And then the whole inside there's a sofa bed, a custom sofa bed that was built. Parts of it were built to fit in there. Todd Jeffrey is just a genius designer, so that was just incredible work on his part.


Okay, I have to ask about Owen Wilson. What made you think he was right for the fit, in this lead role?

What would be wrong about him in this role?

I agree.

He's just such a gift. It's like in terms of he's someone who's been a star for such a long period of time. So in a lot of ways, his understanding of the character really mirrors a lot of what Carl Nargle has been through, where he's seen people be stars at early ages and seen them maybe not evolve. So the script, I think, really spoke to him that way.

His dad ran a PBS station in Dallas, Texas. His mom is an artist, he's an art collector. He's a really funny guy who's a great actor, who is also an Oscar-nominated writer. So that's a sextuple threat, I think, is how deep we're going. I think the script really resonated for him in a lot of ways and the world did, and he and I are the same age, so a lot we have a very like we have a shorthand in terms of sense of humor and understanding and our perspective on the world.

So for all of those things to line up, for him to do it and then for him to actually step out. Talking about the cinematographer, Patrick, Katie, and I, when Owen spent months talking to about it and stuff and spending time with but when he stepped in front of that lens as Carl Nargle. It was one of those we said holy cow to each other and then just sort of realized it was going to work, which was a remarkable moment. So having Owen on board for this has just been amazing every step of the way. Because he's also a really good guy. So that's super helpful. In this type of movie.


I can't talk about the cast without talking about the great ensemble you got for all the women in the film. Talk about putting that team together of characters as well.

Well, Michaela Watkins, we're just so lucky to get. She comedically has such good chops and she's also a writer and smart, and she's from the East Coast and wanted to play the movie small and grounded, which I think makes it that much funnier, everything she goes through. So she was an absolute get.

And then Wendi McLendon-Covey is a comedic icon. That she would take time off from being the star of gigantic shows and doing other stuff to do our film and to kill every scene. It's really fun. She's the one who really gets Michaela to break in places. So she sort of got Michaela's number, which is really fun, but just an absolute gift comedically. Ciara Renée is a Broadway star who I didn't know before, but she's between Wicked and Waitress and Frozen and stuff. She's headlined huge Broadway productions and she's just an absolute monster when it comes to, as a performer and even just something as simple as we messed up one day and didn't give her an entire page of dialogue. It was separate dialogue. And she memorized an entire page of dialogue in about five minutes. Like, that could have shut down the whole day of shooting, basically. And she was like, okay. And it was one of the most one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen, just from a pure brain power perspective.

So she is, I mean, she's so incredibly skilled. Lusia Strus has been in, like Adam Sandler movies, and she's sort of this chameleon who, when you realize all the things she's been in, she really pops through a lot of scenes. Like, she's the most forward of our characters. And I think it's amazing to watch what she can do to a crowd, like, watching this play in front of a crowd. People erupt with her. And then Lucy Freyer, who's straight out of Juilliard, and this is her first big project, and she's going to be an absolute star. She is just so good. And I think she's about two weeks away from never talking to me again because she's going to be such a gigantic star. She's great. Yeah, just such a great cast.


Okay, last question, if I got time. So Paint is a very funny film, but it seems to have a lot of serious messages to it. What do you think are those messages? And are these messages and themes or subjects? Do they always interest you as a filmmaker?

I think anytime you could move a story forward and have a perspective and also tell a joke, you're doing something right. So that's the goal in scenes. The overall idea is, basically, if you're always trying to paint the perfect picture, you're going to miss the best parts of life. And so, for Owen's character, that's what he's been trying to do his whole life, is really be this persona, more so than a person.

And so I think, for me, that's a lot of our world today is really trying to paint a perfect a picture of who you are. It's an Instagram filter. It’s everything is trying to be a better version of yourself. And just this idea that you should accept yourself for who you are and the people around you for who they are and love people for all of the flaws that make them interesting and just a happier life if you can do that. So that's the basic idea, is sort of happiness lies in the frayed edges of life.