“Owen Wilson Channels Bob Ross in Paint Trailer,” say dozens of recent headlines, except here at MovieMaker. Because we spoke at length with Owen Wilson and Paint writer-director Brit McAdams for our new cover story, and can promise you: Paint — which is in theaters now — is not about Bob Ross.
And no, Wilson’s character isn’t a thinly veiled dramatization of Bob Ross, like Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep) was a stand-in for Anna Wintour in The Devil Wears Prada.
Yes, Carl Nargle, the middle-aged public television painter Wilson plays in Paint, has some superficial similarities to Bob Ross, the beloved PBS painter whose death in 1995 set off a fight over his legacy. And McAdams was inspired to write Paint in part because he grew up watching Bob Ross on TV, when PBS was one of the only things he was sometimes allowed to watch.
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And yes, Owen Wilson has a perm in Paint like Bob Ross did, and dresses in hippie, AM-gold throwback gear that at least for Bob Ross was contemporary, not throwback, for much of his esteemed career.
And yes, Carl Nargle and Bob Ross are nature-loving painters.
But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. All the recent attention on Ross because of the Netflix documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed came years after Brit McAdams completed the screenplay for Paint, which was on the annual taste-making screenwriting colllection The Black List way back in 2010. The film has been in the works since.
“It’s funny,” says McAdams. “When I wrote it, Bob Ross really wasn’t a thing… Bob Ross wasn’t sort of part of the Zeitgeist or anything. So it’s been really odd to see him have this resurgence.”
Does Owen Wilson Play Bob Ross in Paint? No!
Wilson’s Carl Nargle is a self-satisfied TV painter living sometime in the 2000s (we know this because someone in the movie calls an Uber), though he himself may as well have stayed in the 1970s. He still wears his tastefully flared jeans, comfy sandals, and cowboy-style shirts, and cruises around in an old van listening to singer-songwriter masterpieces.
In fact, it was a 1970s singer-songwriter, and not Bob Ross, who most influenced Nargle’s look.
“Gordon Lightfoot,” says McAdams. “That’s who Owen and I looked at in terms of who Carl Nargle would be — based on feel — Gordon Lightfoot. Even just the album cover where he’s sitting in a barn. That became the clearest representation of who he was.”
He is referring, of course, to this 1974 Gordon Lightfoot album:
More About the Gordon Lightfoot Influence on Owen Wilson in Paint
Lightfoot is known for perfect songs like “Sundown,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and, perhaps most of all. “If You Could Read My Mind.” Though we didn’t get to share it in our cover story, Owen Wilson spoke with us a bit about what Gordon Lightfoot means to him:
“You know, I love those songs. You know, the ones that everybody knows, especially ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ —that one has really great lyrics…. When you hear Gordon Lightfoot song, you just don’t want it to end,” Wilson said. “It’s funny, I’ll sometimes talk with Rick Rubin about those lyrics, just because some of them are so good.”
Lightfoot also influenced the look and feel of Carl Nargle, Wilson said; “His look, a little bit kind of sort of denim look — I think that might have been kind of a touchstone you know.”
Carl also has a politeness that feels a bit, well, Canadian. Lightfoot, who is now 84, grew up in Ontario.
“I know it’s a cliche, but it does tend to be true,” Wilson said, noting that Canadians are known for being “kind of more polite and civilized sometimes than than us.”
Paint is set in Vermont, which is for our money the most Canadian of U.S. states.
The film places Carl — easygoing, denim-clad, calm, Canadian polite — in a suddenly stressful situation. When he refuses to change his routine, the station brings in a dynamic new painter, Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) who quickly captures the audience’s imagination in a way Carl once did.
Brit McAdams on Growing Up With Bob Ross
While Ross’s life story — and the subsequent fight over his estate — had no impact on Paint, McAdams was drawn to the quiet power that Ross wielded with his brush.
During his 1970s and ’80s childhood, when he wasn’t supposed to watch TV, he would wait for General Hospital to end so he could sneakily change the dial on the TV. This was before remote controls arrived in the McAdams household.
“So you’d start flipping the dial, and every tick of the dial was like a bomb about to go off. As my mom’s saying, ‘Okay, guys, let’s go do homework.’ And so you would get to PBS, and Bob Ross. And you would start by being like, ‘Oh, look at his hair!’ Or, you know, ‘Who is this guy?,’ or ‘What’s he doing?,'” McAdams recalls.
“And then he would just take this brush stroke, so quietly… just this brush stroke down, and the next strokes, and all of the sudden, you’d have like a mighty oak, or an evergreen. You would go from sort of laughing at this… and then by the end, you’d be so transfixed, and everything would be so quiet, and the power that he had over us was all encompassing.
“And then the credits would roll and the world would get loud. And you’d snap out of it, and sadly have to go do homework. But you just so loved the place he had taken you. And so I love the idea of someone who had that power over people.”
He was also intrigued by the idea of someone who became successful in life very early on, and so never had to change.
“What would that person evolve into if he was never forced to change the what he thought when he was 22? I mean, if his jeans still fit, why wouldn’t his thoughts?”
Paint, directed by Brit McAdams, is in theaters now.
Main image: Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle, photographed by Gokay Sarioz.
This story was originally published on March 20 and has been updated throughout to mark the theatrical release of Paint.