Colin West: Linoleum (2022) | featured image
Jim Gaffigan and Rhea Seehorn in Linoleum (2022) | courtesy of Falco Ink Publicity

SXSW 2022: ‘Linoleum’ Director Colin West on the Mirrors in His Film and His Mind

Director Colin West talks with PopMatters at the SXSW world premiere of Linoleum about how the film’s chaotic tall tales and morals are a mirror image of his own mind.

Colin West
12 March 2022 (SXSW)

As one character in director Colin West’s Linoleum (2022) says, you can either look at the stars or swim amongst them. West’s third feature, following drama-mystery, So It Was With Us (2012), and horror-mystery, Double Walker (2021), stars Jim Gaffigan as Cameron Edwin, a science television host who dreamt of being an astronaut.

When a satellite crashes in his yard, he begins rebuilding it as a way to reconnect with his past dreams. A car falling from the sky is followed by other strange occurrences that haunt Cameron. Then his new neighbour, who looks a lot like him, replaces him on his television show. Meanwhile, his relationship with his wife Erin (Rhea Seehorn) has become distant, the dreams they once shared gone, and plans to separate mark the end of their marriage. They try to be discreet about their failing relationship to protect their daughter Nora (Katelyn Nacon) and son Marc (Gabriel Rush).

No film is the same on a second viewing, but it’s especially true of Linoleum. The way in which the story unfolds and turns in on itself is a sensitive exploration of ageing and memory. A beautiful and modest film, its themes and ideas are ones that each of us must confront. We dare to aspire and dream, but a life story is an uncertain journey. We may never reach the stars or swim amongst them, and perhaps Linloeum’s touching thought is that the journey and the creation of memories and human connections are more important than touching this uncertain dream. West’s film celebrates the power of the imagination and the mind as a source of sublime joy and angst.

In conversation with PopMatters, West discusses bringing the emphasis on process from his fine arts background to film, and creating a cosmic universe grounded in an intergenerational love story.

Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

When I was fifteen, I tried out for the soccer team with all my friends in high school. I was the only one that didn’t make the team. I didn’t know what to do with my time, and my mum said to go down to the library and get some books to read. I quickly discovered the film and video section, which was more interesting to me than the book section.

I started pulling random films and one of those films happened to be the movie Pi (1998), which was Darren Aronofsky’s first movie, a very down and dirty indie film.

I had no idea what it was, but I liked math and science. I watched it and my mind was blown because I realised that film could say something beyond the bigger budget, Hollywood films that I saw at the local cinema. It was the first time I clocked the credits and realised that there were human beings making these things, and it was a career path you could go down.

This was 2000, in the early days of the internet. I looked up Darren Aronofsky, and this is before he was famous, right before Requiem for a Dream (2000) came out. His email address was on his website and I emailed him saying, “I’m a teenager and I want to make film. How do you do it?” He replied and we corresponded a little. I ended up writing my first screenplay when I was 16 and it was a rip-off of Pi.

This was a defining moment, and going back to your first question, I feel I’m best able to communicate using the medium of film rather than the written word, which I don’t feel confident in, or the spoken word. Somehow the medium of film, the mix of visuals and sound was the way I could express myself. Whether I know what I’m trying to say or not, it’s the most comfortable way of doing that.

With Linoleum, did you know what you were trying to communicate?

I come from a fine arts background – I studied painting and sculpture in undergraduate college, and I was in the arts world doing art and gallery shows for a while. The fine art process and the conversations in the art world are different to the film world. In the art world it’s always about process. Everybody’s work is about a lifetime of work, and I aim to do the same with my films.

I know what I’m saying individually with each film, and there are themes I’m interested in talking about. There’s the way in which it circles in on itself and becomes a capsule of a part of myself. I’m interested to see in 30 or 40 years from now if I’ve made more films, how they’re all speaking to something larger, because there’s a quality that can be deliberately put into your films, and that’s what we do as filmmakers.

I’ve an intention when making these movies, but overall that can’t be pinned down. It’s more about intuition and gut and illustrating yourself as a human being. It sounds big and cosmic, but that’s what this body of work we build as artists and filmmakers is. All the individual pieces lead to a larger whole.

Reading Linoleum‘s synopsis beforehand, I imagined it would be bigger in scope, leaning more into the fantastical. Instead, you ground it in the family drama, and the angst of adolescence, childhood, and memory.

When you distill it down there’s this sci-fi sprinkle to it and these fantastical elements. A car falls from the sky in the first two minutes of the film, but when you distill it down, it’s a love story between two people over the course of their lives.

This idea of an intergenerational love story at its core was what we’d always come back to emotionally, and that’s what grounded the story in the relationship between these two people. The fantastic and sci-fi side is a fun sandbox to play in, but the important thing is the emotion.

I was talking to my production designer yesterday, who’s here in Austin with me at the festival, and she and her team handmade a lot of these props that [stand-up comedian] Jim Gaffigan supposedly made in his garage for his science TV show for children. There’s a care to his profession and there’s so much compassion in those rocket pieces and planets hanging from the set. Instead of them being computer-generated, somebody made those, and this handmade quality adds to the character. The grounded sci-fi aspect of it is truly a character expression, rather than it being the icing on the cake. I’m not trying to make Avatar (Cameron, 2009) necessarily, it’s more grounded.

There’s a beautiful line in Linoleum about looking at the stars or swimming amongst them, an idea that will resonate with many in the audience. As we move through life, our opportunities narrow, and we risk “looking at” more than “swimming amongst” the stars.

It has these layers that reveal themselves as the film progresses, and you start to realise what’s going on under the surface. You end up realising that these characters are talking to themselves at different time periods of their lives. We don’t do it in a literal way, but I often look back at my younger self and wonder what they’d think of me now. Or, I think about where I’m heading in the future, or what I want to strive for, and how great it would be if we could spend the day conversing with those people.

What I like about it is these characters are talking to themselves, but giving themselves inspiration. It’s about looking inside of yourself to see beyond the moment, and see where you’ve come. Yes, there’s a narrowing of options as life moves forward, but that means we’re becoming a master of one thing. Albert Einstein had a very specific field and the world needed that. It was his contribution. We all have our own contribution and it comes in different ways. It’s not as simple as they say it is in the movie – what you want it to be, and it can be.

With an optimistic spirit, the film warns the audience about becoming lost in hopes and dreams. There’s value in appreciating what you’ve got and the successes you’ve experienced. The problem in the aspirational society is, how do you measure success? It sometimes devalues rather than empowers. I admired the characters in Linoleum because even if they did not come to have everything they wanted, they raised a family and created memories together.

Going back to what you were asking initially, about what are you trying to say with your films, it’s this type of stuff. The measuring of success, being happy with what you’ve accomplished so far, and appreciating where we are, is a huge theme of the film. As a human being, it’s something I of course think about all the time, and so it’s going to work its way into the movie.

It’s a film that presents questions without necessarily answering every aspect of them, and that’s okay. I’ve heard from many people who say that days later they were still talking to their wife about the film, and it would bring up all these conversations about their own relationship. The best art examines and holds up a mirror. If there’s a mirror involved in this story, the messy chaos of the movie is reflecting what my own brain is like. You can walk a few blocks daydreaming the whole way, and be somewhere else – illustrating that was fun.

Someone who looks a lot like Cameron waltzes in and takes over his television show. His relationship with his son is contemptuous and he’s xenophobic. It opens up a biblical reading of the film, echoing the ideas in the parables that someone unfortunate may be richer in spirit than the person they compare themselves to.

There are morals to the film and it has these quotable lines. There are these things in it that are borne out of this TV show quality. We always come back to this TV show motif in the movie, that threads its way through the movie, illustrating what’s going on via these scientific terms that they’re talking about. I like that aspect of it circling back in on itself, and being its own little cosmic universe. The whole movie is not reality, per say, it has its own tall tales and morals and so forth. I see what you mean in terms of it being biblical in that sense.

Has the process of making Linoleum changed you?

The film is dedicated to my grandfather. He and I were close, and it was a way for me to process my loss. It gave me a creative outlet with which to express that, and I feel the hope that the film presents inside me. So it was a good way to move on in that way.


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