Gavin Schmitt Interviews Joel Potrykus
Joel Potrykus is an American film director and screenwriter. Potrykus was born and raised in Alpena, Michigan, then moved to Grand Rapids to study film at Grand Valley State University. A stint as a stand-up comedian in New York City led to the inspiration for his first feature film, “Ape”, which won the Best New Director prize at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival. His second feature film “Buzzard”, (affiliate link) starring Joshua Burge as an angry temp worker, made its world premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, singled out by Janet Pierson as the stand-out in its field.
I had the distinct pleasure of talking with Joel on March 4, 2015, days before “Buzzard” (affiliate link) was to be unleashed upon a wider American audience.
GS: You’re from Michigan and are currently fighting calls to move to LA. I’m in Wisconsin, so we’re not far removed.
JP: No way, I might be moving to Wisconsin in a few months. I applied to grad school at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. I don’t know if I’ll get in or not, but yeah, I’m Midwest through-and-through.
GS: Does being from the Midwest make you look at filming differently?
JP: Well, you know, in the Midwest you can get away with a lot more because there aren’t studios making movies on every street corner. It’s more affordable, you don’t have to pay for permits or close down the street. In that sense we can get away with a lot. And being from the Midwest is really all I know. I’ve moved around a little bit, but I always come back to Michigan. It’s just where all my friends are that are willing to help me out in making these movies. What’s interesting is when you go overseas and show people these movies, they think it’s such a weird, foreign landscape because it’s not New York or LA. It’s this America that they’ve never seen. So Michigan has this weird exoticism to it that I never would have thought of.
GS: You could argue that “foreign” look benefits the film more than anything else.
JP: Oh, for sure. This is my world. That long canal that people have long car chases through in LA? That’s played out. I’m more about shooting scenes in a 7-Eleven than a skyscraper.
GS: In “Buzzard”, there are so many clever moments, it almost comes across as a series of vignettes more than a continuous film; do you find yourself just jotting notes throughout the day?
JP: You know, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m taking notes on my phone or scrap pieces of paper. And I’m only just now figuring out what the movie is doing differently, because people are pointing it out to me. It’s not something I really think about. But you’re right. It’s all over the place. And I think that’s because when I get an idea for a scene or a character or whatever, I’m never like “that’s going to be great for a horror movie in a couple years”. It’s always going to be shoved into whatever I’m doing at the time. I’ll make any idea work. So “Buzzard” (affiliate link) is full of so many different ideas and different tones. Some things are funny, some are violent. But that’s what I like. I mess with conventions a little bit, keeping the audience guessing. I feel like any crazy idea can be put into a script; you just have to figure out how to connect it scene to scene. That’s basically what “Buzzard” is.
GS: And it works. The treadmill scene, for example. It does absolutely nothing to advance the plot, but it’s memorable and something people will talk about.
JP: Right. And that was one of the few things that was not in the script. We shot that scene in our producer’s parents’ basement. His mom happened to have a treadmill and I thought we could goof around with it. And yeah, I’m absolutely into not advancing any plot or pushing story forward with every line of dialogue. I’d rather just hang out with the characters. Observe them, get to know them. I don’t need them to tell the audience what will happen next, or any of that junk. I like to just have these movies in their own world far removed from any sort of plot.
GS: I found the film to be very reminiscent of early Richard Linklater, particularly “Slacker”. I have also heard rumors you are inspired by Troma and Lloyd Kaufman.
JP: You know, the weirdest thing is that I saw “Slacker” (affiliate link) in high school. This is probably sacrilege to say, but oh well. I saw it in high school because it was at the video store and we would go and rent every movie. We didn’t have Netflix or unlimited choices, so we’d just go and rent everything. And when I saw “Slacker”, I thought it was the worst movie ever made. It had no story. I thought the filmmaker had no clue what he was doing. But, I hated it so much that it made me say “I can do this!” So, along with the DP from “Buzzard” (affiliate link) [Adam J. Minnick], who went to high school with me, we made our first feature called “jerk”, which is based off “Slacker”. We followed people around from scene to scene with them talking about weird things, just like “Slacker”. So, as much as I thought I hated it, it was one of my earliest influences. And now, watching it as someone much more educated in my film experience, I understand what he was doing.
As far as Troma, that was another thing in high school. I got obsessed with “The Toxic Avenger” (affiliate link) and watching Lloyd Kaufman being able to crank out these movies for so cheap, so quickly. That inspired me to think, “Yeah, I can do it.” If “The Toxic Avenger” can be made for that low of a budget ($500,000) then I can make a movie and maybe get it in a video store someday. I’m definitely inspired by things that are kind of cheap, not necessarily high quality, and make me feel like I can do that as well.
GS: Some people will identify with Marty, some won’t. He’s definitely not a role model. To you, is Marty a hero, anti-hero or…?
JP: All I really want the audience to do is understand where he’s coming from. I know in watching it they’re going to label him, but I never thought of him in terms of a hero, a villain or anti-hero. Just because I don’t know any villains or heroes. To me, those things just exist in movies. But I had a feeling that some people would root for him and appreciate what he was doing, and others would see him as a real asshole. It depends who the audience is and where they’re coming from. I love Marty and I understand him, but I hope he’s a complex character that doesn’t easily fit a label or conventional movie role. I’m just trying to make a guy that I know and understand. He has part of my personality, only amplified and heightened. But it’s up to the audience to decide if he’s likable or not. I didn’t set out to make him likable.
GS: Whether likable or not, he’s definitely entertaining.
JP: Yeah, and that’s important. You want the audience to have a good time watching these characters doing what they do, whether they’re good or bad things.
GS: You’ve said “Buzzard” exists in a world with a “junk food culture”. Can you expand on that?
JP: I think that just kind of plays into my ultimate goal for everything I’m doing. Low culture infiltrating high art… somehow. So when “Buzzard” (affiliate link) played New Directors / New Films last year, that was an achievement. It played at MOMA, at Lincoln Center, this movie about Totino’s pizza, Mountain Dew, Hot Pockets and video games. We’re bringing this low class culture to the art world, and that’s all I really want to do. But that’s also just the world I’m coming from. Growing up as Midwestern kids, our dinner was fish sticks or Totino’s pizza. It’s all I know, fortunately or unfortunately.
GS: An artist has to start with what he knows.
JP: Exactly. I never had sushi until I was 21. I’m just a low class kid trying to make it in the big world, I guess.
GS: As a champion of the low budget, independent film… if Harvey Weinstein puts $20 million under your nose, would you take it?
JP: Of course. I’d pocket $19,700,000 of it and then go make a movie. Or I’d use it to make fifty features rather than one. I honestly have no idea what that world is like, even the idea of making a $1 million feature. So I think it would be more of a headache. If you have too much money, and fewer restrictions, I’m afraid it just gets bloated and you’d use money rather than creativity to solve problems. But, who am I? Some broke kid in the Midwest. I’d sell out. Yeah, I’d sell out for sure.
GS: Of the so-called “animal trilogy”, this one is getting the most exposure. Has it caused more people to look at your other work?
JP: Yeah, I think so. Even just tonight, they’re showing the entire trilogy at BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It will be my first unofficial retrospective, so it’s already happening with people taking interest in what I’ve done in the past. Which is cool, but just like any other filmmaker or musician who looks back, I see things I wish were different and always like the newest project so much better. I’m hypercritical of my other stuff, and it’s always what’s next or what’s current that I’m most excited about, excited to have people see. But I’m sure the distributor of “Ape” is happy with the new interest in their film. As many film festivals as “Ape” played at, it never broke out or got much exposure beyond New York theaters. So this will be a good opportunity to show where I’m coming from, and maybe even influence some other Midwestern kid. “Ape” was made for $2000 and got to play the world, traveling around. If anything, that’s the story of that movie: how much we got to travel over something so small. You don’t have to go to New York or LA to make a movie.
GS: I don’t know if this is true, but I saw it on the Internet, so it must be…
JP: Indeed, it must!
GS: You’re making a video game?
JP: That is absolutely true. It seemed like the only natural extension to “Buzzard” (affiliate link) was a video game, because Marty’s living his own fantasy video game. I’m almost more excited to tell people about the video game than I am to tell people about the movie, because it’s so cool. We’re doing a Kickstarter. It’s completely retro. No zombies, no snipers. Just Doritos, frozen pizzas and check scams. Odd things to put in a video game that hopefully will take our “Buzzard” universe in a weird new direction.
GS: When you say “retro”, I assume you mean 8-bit?
JP: Yeah. Fully 8-bit. Like old Nintendo. No 3D or Xbox graphics.
GS: Let’s get some people to check out the link. Thank you so much!
JP: Thanks, Gavin! Let’s hope it warms up soon!