“We Were Begging and Borrowing and Stealing To Make the Film Happen”: Colin West on Linoleum
Continuing his string of against-type performances for independent filmmakers, Jim Gaffigan stars in writer-director Colin West’s SXSW 2022 premiere Linoleum as Cameron, a Ohio-based family man who hosts a children’s science program from his garag; he always wanted to become an astronaut, but this adolescent show will have to suffice). One day, a car unexpectedly crashes down from the sky, its driver revealed to be Cameron’s doppelgänger who—as we will find out in later scenes—has moved in across the street and is taking over hosting duties for Cameron’s television program. Understandably deflated and confused, Cameron arrives home one evening to discover that an old space rocket has crash-landed in his family’s background (“they’re calling it ‘Sputnik in suburbia,’” the local news hyperbolizes), forcing his family to relocate to a relative’s home. If that’s not enough, Cameron’s father (Roger Hendricks Simon) is in a nursing home suffering from what appears to be dementia. How each of these seemingly unconnected dramatic events coalesce is best not explained here (although some spoilers follow in the discussion below), but, in its sincere approach to awe and the fantastic, the film turns out to be much more self-contained than initially anticipated.
Linoleum marks Colin West’s second feature directorial effort, for which he reunited with two friends from Ohio, producers Chadd Harbold and Chad Simpson. Shortly after the film began its theatrical run (still in progress) courtesy of Shout! Studios, I spoke with West about his Ohio roots, going into production at the height of the pandemic, obtaining a rocket engine built by NASA, and more. The film will be available on VOD platforms in April.
Filmmaker: You grew up in Ohio, in Upper Arlington [part of the Columbus metropolitan area with Chadd Harbold and Chad Simpson [two of the producers of Linoleum]?
West: With both Chads, exactly. [The three friends graduated from Upper Arlington High School together].
Filmmaker: I was curious about Ohio’s relationship to aviation and if its history was something prominent in your youth.
West: Ohio is somewhat obsessed with aviation and yes, that was always [felt by me] growing up. It’s even in the motto of all Ohio license plates—we’re the “Birthplace of Aviation”—and something someone growing up in Ohio couldn’t forget. Knowing my interest in this stuff, my dad even took me to the [Armstrong] Air and Space Museum near Dayton. I think people in Ohio have a special affinity or are attuned to aviation history in a way different [than most]. I don’t know why Ohio is such a hotbed for people like this but it definitely seems to have a self-fulfilling prophecy [as the forefathers of aviation, Wilbur and Orville Wright lived, for much of their lives, in Dayton]. The more Ohio talks about their [aviation history], the more it’s seeded there.
Filmmaker: I know you had an artistic sense early on, but growing up in Ohio, was meeting people who would “grow up” to become collaborators of yours apparent? People tend to go their separate ways after high school, but did you always feel that two of your friends would become two of your producers?
West: No, but to be honest, I had always looked up to Chadd Harbold. He was doing really big things, even back in high school, and was very serious about film. Chad Simpson and I were a bit more interested in film for the joy or goofiness of getting behind a camera and playing and having fun. Chadd Harbold, meanwhile, was out there making serious films and submitting them to festivals! It was inspiring in a lot of ways and I’ve always looked up to him for the way he treated filmmaking as a real artform. Linoleum is actually the first film Chadd Harbold and I have collaborated on and, for me, it felt like I was working with one of my heroes. [An accomplished director in his own right, Harbold was recently hired as Head of Production for Post Film.]
Filmmaker: While you began writing the screenplay for Linoleum in 2015, you directed your first feature, Double Walker, before going into production on Linoleum. Could you describe Linoleum’s long journey from pen to paper and then to production?
West: I started work on Linoleum in 2015, getting the first draft down and revising it over the next five years until we shot it [in the fall of 2020]. In the meantime, I was writing other scripts, features that mostly came and went. I would write them and then stop thinking about them. Linoleum was one that just kept knocking at my door, like, “Hey, keep working on me,” and I felt I had to as it encapsulated a lot of what I was going through at the time. In 2015, I had just started graduate school for film at USC and had big aspirations for [working in] the industry. I had a lot of hopes and dreams to really shoot for the stars, aspirations that can be found in Linoleum’s screenplay, which I wrote in between classes (but I wasn’t writing the script for a class assignment). To make a movie, you have to have an extreme amount of passion for that one topic which will, hopefully, see you through the lengthy process to come, and Linoleum was one of those for me.
Filmmaker: Another inspiration for the script was the key role your grandfather had on your life. Was his influence on the script apparent in those early drafts?
West: I wanted to tell a kind of love story. While there are a lot of sci-fi [elements] sprinkled all over the narrative and it’s a big ensemble movie, at its heart, it’s really a love story between [these two characters]. That certainly was inspired by my grandparents and, more specifically, my grandfather who had dementia in his later years. His condition affected the storytelling [structure] in my script as it begun taking shape, at least in terms of all of the layered events and characters talking to themselves through different time periods and things of that nature. He was certainly an inspiration, and, at this point, [he’s] just built into who I am as a person. We as filmmakers look for ways to get our lives up on screen or figure out a way to talk about the aspects of life that are most important to us. For me, this was one of them. My dad will even ask me from time to time, “Why do you always make films about old people? You don’t know what it’s like to be old.” Maybe I don’t know what it’s like to be in my 60s or 70s or 80s, but I do know what it’s like to be older than I was, and I think there’s wisdom that comes with that. This story is an exploration of that for me, to project what my grandparents were going through and then take the story further, through their later years.
Filmmaker: The film begins with the surprising visual of a car carrying our lead character’s doppelgänger inside abruptly crashing down to Earth in a peaceful suburban town. It’s a shocking moment that comes out of nowhere and sets the plot into motion. I didn’t expect to witness that special effect, however you pulled it off, on a film of this size. Throughout the writing process, how conscious are you of budgeting and including or discarding of elements that might seem economically out of reach? Does the fear of certain financial realities ever seep into your writing process? Or do you say to yourself, “No, I don’t want to put any limitations on myself, at least as it pertains to this stage?”
West: That’s something I’m always conscious of. My undergraduate degree is in fine arts, painting and sculpture and things like that, and a medium that doesn’t require nearly as many resources or money as filmmaking does. With painting, you can buy a canvas, spend a hundred bucks on paints and just go for it. Filmmaking isn’t [like that]. It would be a little silly to write a $200 million movie at this point in my career, as that [budget range] is so out of reach and I don’t think at that scale. Maybe at some point that will change, but I like building up to things, little by little, and seeing how to add to what I’ve already done. I think my filmmaking process is to continue the thought process from whatever I made last [laughs]. I just keep going and allow concepts and themes to bleed from one film into the next.
As far as budget goes, we were lucky to get an incredible producer, Dennis Masel [of film production and financing company Storm City], who took a chance on us and ended up financing the film. It’s a weird movie, one that everybody has a hard time trying to put into words, but I think the script, in a lot of ways, ends up speaking for itself. We found someone, Dennis, who really believed in it and wanted to put in the additional resources. Whenever I write, I’m very aware of budget, and including the “car dropping from the sky” was a bold move for a script of this budget level. It was a challenge and something we were exploring other analog ways of pulling off, whether via miniatures or CG. We had to find room for it, because we wanted that moment to be real and it serves as a key marquee moment that needed to be in there.
Filmmaker: I’m assuming you were planning to shoot before the pandemic hit, but of course everything went to hell once that arrived. When did you know that you really were in the final stages of pre-production and were going to be able to finally shoot this movie?
West: I’d been pushing the script as much as possible, to get it made anywhere, starting in 2017 when I thought it was ready. I was submitting to a bunch of labs and made it a fair distance. For a long time, there was a full court press to try to get this thing made. Of course, we had plans to try to make the film before the pandemic happened, but when it arrived, we ended up going from a green-light to a red light. It was an extremely sad time and the world was going through a lot, but thankfully, I had another movie [Double Walker] that I had just shot on a very low budget back in my hometown, and it served as something creative to keep me going and not make me feel completely devastated. When that film wrapped post-production, it was September of 2020 and we found it feasible to greenlight Linoleum again with the same financier. This time out, there would be a ton of [COVID] restrictions in place [more than 700 PCR COVID tests were administered during the shoot] and it was a different way of filmmaking, but artists are very adaptable and we found our way through.
Filmmaker: You shot mostly in Kingston, New York. I know that, during production, your cast and crew resided in a self-made “bubble” at a Best Western Plus hotel located a short distance from each of the film’s shooting locations. What was the experience like of staying confined to a hotel and then going out into a community to make a film while the pandemic was at a high point?
West: It was a kind of ghost town during COVID, as everyone was staying inside and all the restaurants and storefronts were closed. In this incredible way, the town of Kingston felt like a town built [specifically] for me to film in. We’d walk around the town and be like, “We can shoot here, we could shoot there,” etc. Everything felt like a [ready made] film set. In that respect, it was an amazing opportunity for the production, as now we could consider, “Oh, let’s go shoot in the parking lot of the grocery store over there,” or “Let’s go shoot on the train tracks by this train where tourists [visit].” The COVID [restrictions] presented as many advantages as disadvantages for the shoot, but, as a filmmaker, [the area] felt like a playground full of film sets.
Filmmaker: I know Jim Gaffigan came aboard the film very down to the wire after another actor had fallen through, but what was it like falling into this great opportunity of getting to work with Jim?
West: It’s funny, as now I can’t imagine the movie with anybody but Jim; I think he’s the character through and through. Sure, we had some casting emergencies towards the end, but I always felt OK because the movie was officially moving [forward]. The movie was going to happen, I believed in the script and the way that character was written, and I had a good feeling about it. Thankfully, Jim came on and sparked a slew of other people to join the project as well. When his name was brought up, coming up in a way like, “Hey, Jim is excited about this, he’s passionate about it,” I had a call with him about four hours or so after we initially heard that he was interested. The passion he had for the role, as well as the creative feedback and personal input he provided, was exciting to hear as a director. The collaborative way in which he spoke about the character made me feel like everything had fallen into place in this magical way. I think films often do that. It’s a miracle when anything gets made, and in our case, it was a miracle that Jim found us.
Filmmaker: As he plays two characters in the film, you have a few scenes where Jim’s scene partner is…himself. Did you study the way [cinematographer Lance Acord] shot Nicolas Cage’s dual performance in Adaptation.?
West: It was a fun challenge to take on. We used all kinds of stuff, including a body double, split screens, a greenscreen once or twice and other camera trickery. Jim was excited to do that. I think for an actor, it’s like, “What? I get to play both sides of this? How exciting is that?” To be honest, it wasn’t as hard as you’d think. We were pretty safe about the way in which we approached shooting those scenes in that we used pretty typical coverage and just included a shot or two [of them together in a two-shot] to make it more believable. The two characters shake hands at one point and you’re like, “Okay, so they are in the same scene.” You can be a little more simple about it once you sell it in a big way. After that, everything’s okay. It was a fun OK, and I really like that kind of Spike Jonze/Michel Gondry in-camera work.
Filmmaker: I was curious about the design elements of the television program Cameron hosts for local public broadcasting. There’s a no-budget, bargain bin feel to its aesthetic that serves as a nice contrast to the film’s loftier ideas, and I suspect that the televison program was a fun piece to put your personal stamp on.
West: A lot of that credit goes to our production designer, Mollie Wartelle, and our team in the art department. We filmed all of the TV stuff on the first day of our shoot and it was an enjoyable process to get everyone involved in, to get Jim loose and in his element a bit more. He did a lot of improv-y stuff with the goofier sides of the show and that got the crew laughing and created a bonding [experience] between us on that first day. But yes, I would love to direct a children’s science TV show one day (it would make me happy for the rest of my career), so I was really excited to build out that set.
We also attempted to thematically represent different parts of the film through the television show and the show turned out to be a great way to transition [between scenes]. The show served as a thread that held everything together by introducing scientific concepts that are clearly speaking towards the human relationships and human dynamics apparent in the actual plot of the film. It was really fun to use scientific concepts to illustrate those things and it made the film feel whole. That idea, of [having the television program complement the film’s narrative] came to us a little later, but I think it’s the glue of the story that keeps everything together. Speaking of no-budget, I ended up doing all of the show’s animation by myself in my garage in post-production, accomplishing this by cutting out lots of paper and things like that. I’d previously made a few animated music videos in that style, so I had some experience going in, and it felt like I was able to put something into the show that felt nostalgic but not Stranger Things nostalgic. It was more my own grounded version of what the early ’90s were like.
Filmmaker: The rocket engine that lands on Cameron’s property that he subsequently works on and repurposes was a legitimate piece of a functioning rocket, How were you able to receive permission to incorporate it into the film?
West: It was a legitimate rocket engine built by NASA. What the characters describe in the movie is exactly what it was: a backup engine made for the Apollo missions which was was never actually used. Its purpose was to be the last engine that gets the actual capsule to the moon and back. A lot of the NASA [equipment] was built in Los Angeles back in the day, so there’s still a lot of rocket refuse left over in warehouses in the Valley. Through the years, I’ve befriended a man named Carlos [Guzman], who runs a place up in the Valley called Norton Sales [“the only prop house in America specializing in vintage aerospace and industrial props from the atomic and space age”] and I’ve worked with him on a few short films. He has this massive warehouse that’s packed with dusty old space crap and I always feel like a kid in a candy store when I visit [laughs]. Carlos knows everything that’s stored in there, what it’s used for and why. I’ll often just go to poke around and have fun.
One of Carlos’s all-star pieces is this rocket engine that I asked to use. We talked it through and I was able to [use it]. I ended up buying a box truck here in Los Angeles, packed it with a bunch of rocket stuff from Carlos’s warehouse, then drove it across the country to upstate New York by myself where we shot the film. A few months later, I drove all the stuff back in the box truck, dropped it off to Carlos, then sold the truck for about a thousand dollars more than I had originally paid for it. As this was an indie movie, that was the kind of thing that all of our cast and crew were doing. We were trying the best we could to make the film appear as realistic as possible, but in a way that wouldn’t require us to buy everything outright. We were begging and borrowing and stealing to make the film happen.
Filmmaker: Given that the film is toggling between three different decades—something only made clear late in the film—what were your conversations like with your cinematographer, Ed Wu? After I saw the film for the first time, I replayed certain key moments in my head in an attempt to detect any visual cues you may have left the viewer, i.e. “It feels a bit more golden and laced with orange hues in the 1960s and extremely white and blindingly bright in the scenes set in 2022.” I believe you had to find some creative ways to cover up modern cars that were parked on the street while filming on location, but I was curious as to the visual identity you wanted to create that lets us in on the fact that we’re toggling amongst three different time periods.
West: I would often say, especially early on with our HODs, that “we’re not setting this film in a time period, we’re setting it in a tone.” That was a helpful way to begin the conversation: “We’re not looking to make a realistic world here. This is a very subjective world for this one character who’s going through this one event in his life.” That gave us a lot of room to play with and, as there are scenes where [we’re dealing with] three different time periods at once, the question became “How can we pull this off?” I mean, we have a 1968 Corvette [mixed in] with a Game Boy from the 1990s [mixed in] with modern clothing and there’s a real disconnect of time that happens throughout the film. Nonetheless, it was exciting for everyone to try their best to pull off.
As far as the coloring goes, Ed Wu, and our colorist, Alastor Arnold, at FotoKem were incredible. We already knew that we were going to push the colors so, in our production design, all of our colors were deliberately bold. We went for highly saturated colors, sticking around purple and yellow. The purples and yellows were big for us and we even color-coded certain characters so that, by the time we reached color correction, we could push those colors even further. As the film progresses, it gets more and more saturated until, bang, we cut to the big reveal where you end up going into a “pure” version of 2022 that is basically camera raw and almost completely un-color-corrected. It’s very gray and has a raw feeling to it as if we’re just pointing and shooting and not doing anything to the image in post. I think that [change] almost slaps you in the face, as the image is so raw by that point, and then we cross-cut between a Technicolor world and this almost black-and-white world. Once we give the twist away, we push it even further. I think that’s partly the reason why a lot of the crew enjoyed working on the movie, as there were more things to play with. This wasn’t just a kind of grounded drama. There was some more levity to it.
Filmmaker: I know you were looking to meet Bill Nye, clearly an inspiration [for Linoleum’s lead character], since making the film. Have you been able to?
West: No, but I’ve been trying to get a hold of that man for the longest time!
Filmmaker: The film was picked up for distribution shortly following its SXSW premiere by Shout! Studios, and the company has given the film a 45-day theatrical window, an increasingly rare opportunity for a film of this size. Has it been helpful to have this extended window?
West: I’ve been thrilled with Shout!, as they’ve really gotten behind the film and believed in it enough to give us the 45-day window. The film came out last week and we’ve already expanded to more theaters this week and are hoping [to see] that trend continue. I’ve gotten to attend a lot of these screenings in person and meet the audience afterwards and, as a filmmaker, that’s a joy, something you don’t get to experience as much with the streamers. To be able to sit in these rooms and actually feel the feels with people has been something I’ve been thrilled with. It’s another stage of the process where another group of people start believing in this crazy movie that we made and, through and through, I’ve been really satisfied with how it’s starting to further get out into the world.