Painter (2020) - Review & Interview with Director Cory Wexler Grant
"The art world is huge... It’s beautiful, ridiculous, pure, righteous, and full of diverse, outrageous personalities."
With Painter, writer/director Cory Wexler Grant presents the story of a wealthy art collector's obsession with a young painter, and weaves a web of deceit, jealousy, lust and the all-consuming desire to be rich and famous.
We begin by following a shadowy woman around a busy gallery show, while a voiceover introduces us to the bonkers industry in which the movie is set. The voice belongs to art enthusiast and benefactor Joanne (Betsy Randal), and it’s a monologue that’s part narration, part confession.
Joanne makes up one half of the film’s central relationship, and our titular artist Aldis (Eric Ladin) the other. Their interdependent dynamic is at once exciting and deeply creepy. She is intense and controlling, he is driven, and the pair have designs on the art world that get messy, fast. Especially when Aldis’ childhood-bully-turned-professional-rival gets in the way.
The movie zips along, and looks and sounds great, with crisp cinematography, inventive sound design, and an imaginative use of editing and montage. Some of the satire is a little on the nose, and for a psychosexual thriller, I’d have liked to have seen more sex, but I had a lot of fun with Painter. It’s like a mashup of Velvet Buzzsaw (2019), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and Greta (2018).
I was lucky to have a conversation with Cory Wexler Grant to find out more about the film. He’s an actor, writer, director and producer who studied at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and started a theater production company in 2001. Grant completed Painter in 2019, and it’s out now on VOD.
Hi Cory, it’s nice to ‘virtually’ meet you! Thank you for answering these questions for me and the readers at FilmBusters. I enjoyed Painter and I’m excited to learn more about you and the making of the film.
Hi Becky! Nice to meet you as well, and thanks for having me. So happy to hear you enjoyed PAINTER. It took a lot of time, and a lot of underpaid, generous, passionate, talented people to pull it off. So, I’m thrilled people can see it now.
So to kick things off, I’m interested to know: with your background being in acting and theatre, what have you personally found the biggest difference between writing and directing for the screen rather than the stage?
Becky! Coming at me with a tough question right off the bat… I’m no expert in either field. But, I will say, for me different stories require different mediums. Some stories I want to tell are going to work best on stage, live, right in front of the audience – that is how that particular story will be most effectively told and experienced. And some stories can’t be on stage. Some stories need to be communicated through many curated images in a way you can only do on screen. I love both theater and film. But it is sweet to have a movie you can show and show and show. Theater lives in the ephemera. That being said, I have a musical I wrote with some good friends that is going to make an excellent film. You’re gonna cry when you see it. It’s very beautiful and sad.
Thanks for the heads-up!
Have you learnt anything through making Painter that you’re taking back to the theatre with you?
No. In fact, I’m trying to unlearn some things that theater taught me in order to be a better film writer and director.
Why did you decide to focus your first feature on the art world?
The art world is huge, and it’s an ideal world for me to set a small existential, psychosexual drama. It’s a great world to use to discuss jealousy, delusions of granduer, obsession, sex, and success. It’s beautiful, ridiculous, pure, righteous, and full of diverse, outrageous personalities. I love the art world, particularly because I’m not directly involved with it. I can just be observant. As well, my father is a sculptor, my brother is a photographer, my great uncle was a celebrated cinematographer, my cousins are painters, and drawers, and shoe designers. My best friends are artists and work in galleries. I’m comfy stealing all their great stories for my own personal use.
The paintings are so important in this story, with Aldis’ talent and style being a driving force for Joanne. How did you choose what kind of painter he should be and what the art should look like?
I love the abstract expressionist painters. I gravitated toward them and their paintings as a kid, oblivious, obviously, that they were called abstract expressionists. (I do know how bougie that sounds.) My grandmother collected art, and that’s the kind of art she loved. Aldis’s paintings needed to be very subjective – the kind of art that someone can easily fall in love with, and just as easily dismiss. Joanne, I think grew up in love with those abstract expressionists as well. Which is why Aldis’s work is so arousing to her.
Did you base the character of Aldis on any artist(s) in particular?
I didn’t. I think he’s more based on a dramatic archetype. Painter is a Faust story. Aldis is like the husband in Rosemary’s Baby. He will do anything to become great, to become successful. He will literally sell his soul. Or is that Joanne…? In some ways, the characters are interchangeable... Am I getting too weird here?
Not at all! I love it.
One of the things that Aldis admits he struggles with is the ability to do the networking side of the business, while his rival Ryan West sees it as a key part of his work. Did you include this as a theme in the film because balancing creativity with ‘schmoozing’ is something you’ve personally had to learn? Or does it come naturally to you?
That precise war is absolutely based on me and my painful experience; and I have not learned to balance it. I like people. I love working with people. But, I’m a natural introvert. I’d rather be working than do anything else on this damn earth. I’m not happy if I don’t make something everyday. But, for instance: I cannot get a good agent or manager to save my damn life. That part of the business alludes me, like it alludes Aldis.
Painter is a psychosexual thriller; what are your favourite films from the genre?
Hmmm. Fatal Attraction, of course. Every Almodovar film. Hitchcock. The Shining is my favourite movie of all time. Reversal of Fortune - gorgeous. And most recently, Gaspar Noe’s Climax – I don’t know if it’s technically a psychosexual thriller, but it’s definitely psycho and brutally sexual… Holy shit that film is fantastic. Have you seen that!?
Yes! What an amazing choice. I love Climax so much, and I can see that it’s both psycho and sexual! I’ve added Reversal of Fortune to my watchlist.
One of the things in Painter that I found really interesting was Joanna’s voiceover; who is she speaking to in her monologues?
She is speaking to you, Becky. No question about it.
Ah cool, I thought so!
The cinematography in Painter is beautiful; what inspiration did you and Pierluigi Malavasi work with in terms of how you wanted the shots to look?
Damn that guy is good, right? We just fell in love, cinematically speaking - he’s straight. We like all the same films and all the same cinematographers. And when I showed him my look book for PAINTER, filled with shots from Shame and Hunger by Steve McQueen, and stills from Birth by Jonathan Glazer, also Funny Games by Michael Haneke, he was like, “Yeah. Let’s do this.” (I’m paraphrasing.) We only had 16 days to shoot - which is INSANE - and a very small budget for my grand vision. I had to be over-prepared. I had done some 800 storyboards. (I can paint, but I am a shitty drawer.) Pierluigi “Gigi” Malavasi took my awful drawings and turned them into what was in my head. He made our digital look so filmic. He’s pretty fuckin’ great. I’m really happy you enjoyed the look of our film.
I did! And I love those visual touch points you’ve mentioned - I can definitely see some of that in there.
Finally Cory, what’s next for you?
I have been writing like a maniac. I’ve written one play and nine screenplays since finishing production on PAINTER. I want to make all of them immediately. Anybody who wants to help should call me.