Yesterday, I wrote that Joel Potrykus seemed like the “regularest of regular guys,” an impression that was only confirmed when I met him on the terrace of the Le Nouvel Hotel for a scheduled interview. The filmmaker from Grand Rapids, MI, known for his low-budget character studies of society’s outcasts (Ape and Buzzard, both starring Joshua Bruge) originally mistook me for a blogger named “Creepy Greg.” (I’m not sure who “Creepy Greg” is, or if he really exists, but I’m considering using the handle for my OK Cupid profile). He didn’t have a canned opening statement about his latest movie, the minimalist one-man horror show Alchemist Cookbook, so I suggested he use a tagline “as if Jim Jarmsuch does the Evil Dead” (the two influences he had cited in the previous night’s Q&A) for the film. That launched a conversation about Cookbook‘s influences, and how Sam Raimi‘s Evil Dead was the first film he saw that made him believe he could make a movie. “I love Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, but as a kid watching those I never thought that was attainable.” We talk about the difference between inspirations and influences, and Potrykus makes the analogy of a heavy metal guitarist who loves listening to opera: it might inspire him to make music, but he wouldn’t be able to adapt the actual vocal techniques into his own licks. That’s how the director feels about movies like Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark; they inspired him as a child to want to make movies, but it was Jarmusch and Raimi who actually influenced him.
Potrykus is happy making low-budget films in Michigan and shows no interest in “moving up” in the industry. I pose as a hypothetical producer offering him one million dollars with the stipulation he must spend it making movies, and ask how he will use it: one big movie, or many smaller movies? He starts off saying he’d make ten $100,000 movies, then decides he’ll shoot for one hundred $10,000 movies. (Since his first feature, Ape, was made for $2,500, he even fantasizes about making four hundred movies). “I don’t even know how to spend a million dollars”, he admits. But he does have a thought: “I’d love to put Leonardo di Caprio in a small movie like mine, and just see what would happen… it would be almost an a experimental movie for me, take a big actor and put him in a small, grungy movie.”
“Alchemist Cookbook was doing something much different than I had done before,” he responded when asked if this latest film reflected a new direction. “I feel like every filmmaker has a moment when they need to tell a poem instead of a story. That’s what Alchemist Cookbook was for me.” He says his next two scripts are already written and are very different. When asked if future movies would continue to focus on society’s misfits, he answers “It’s unconscious, I never think about writing a movie about an outsider.” He’s simply drawn to characters like A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex DeLarge or Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle.
The Alchemist Cookbook stars Ty Hickson, who is required to be on screen for almost every shot. I ask him how much Hickson improvised for his part, and he answered that they finally came to an understanding when he described the script as like “playing jazz. You know all the notes, now just mess with those notes, play them in different order.”
Potrykus is not ready to plug next project, which, if he keeps up his current schedule, will be two years away, He ended our conversation with a friendly “thanks, dude”—see, like I told you, a regular guy.
After getting my first interview under my belt, I was starting to feel like an actual member of the Fantasia community, a sense that was only bolstered when I walked to that evening’s screening with two newly-arrived industry representatives I met in the hotel elevator and was able to direct them to the VIP line. They were going to see the Korean zombie hit Train to Busan at the Alumni Hall theater, but I was headed to the smaller J.A. de Sève theater for the world premier of Michael Reich’s She’s Allergic to Cats. In line, I spotted Pat Tremblay, recognizing him from his emailed wardrobe description (black cap with “Darkthrone” patch), and spent a few minutes setting up a meeting after the screening. These few minutes almost cost me, because the line was long, and the line for industry and press was actually longer than the line of ticket holders. As the freeloaders like me trudged in, they periodically stopped the line to make sure all the paying customers got in first, and the usher stopped our line’s progress right at me to let in more late-arriving ticketholders.
I did manage to get in as one of the last admittees, however, and it’s a good thing. She’s Allergic to Cats is my first actual “discovery” of Fantasia Fest 2016. Although the other films I’d seen were all of high quality, and the killer mermaid musical The Lure has potential to make the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made, Cats is the first left-field, off-the-chain surprise of the Festival. An absurd, shame-based comic nightmare set in the seedy side of L.A., the (admittedly thin) story involves sad sack dog groomer Mike Pinkney (played by Mike Pinkney), an aspiring video artist planning an all-cat remake of Carrie. Improbably, a beautiful but surpassingly strange woman (Sonja Kinski, daughter of Natasha, granddaughter of Klaus) shows interest in him, but Mike has issues beyond mere lack of confidence. Musician Honey Davis, as Pinkney’s cheapskate landlord, and Flula Borg, as a macho German best friend who feeds his own ego by putting Mike down, provide additional comic relief. Director Michael Reich breaks up the quirky shenanigans with frequent bursts of glitchy experimental video montages, with overlapping images full of recurring symbols like cats, rats, rotting bananas, and naked women. The surreal pop aesthetic of these segments is a lot like that seen in Doggiewogiez! Poochiewoochiez! (a resemblance that another member of the audience caught as well and pointed out in the post-screening Q&A). The final hellish/funny montage goes on for about twelve glorious minutes. Reich and Pinkney worked together in Los Angeles as music video directors struggling to create commercially viable narrative films with salable weirdness, so Cats has authentic underground cred. It’s an absurd, nightmarishly funny evocation of the life of a creative schlub trying to grind out a living in an indifferent L.A. It’s like catching a spastic case of the giggles just as a panic attack is coming on.
Presenter Mitch Davis, who has been curating some of my favorite smaller films at the festival, claims that weird is “in” now, but that Reich and Pinkney are the real deal in a sea of poseurs. I’m not so sure about the first part—where’s this site’s competition for weird movie coverage?—but I wholeheartedly concur with the second part.
Relatively brief at 74 minutes, She’s Allergic to Cats was paired with a longish short, the 19-minute F*** BUDDIES (asterisks not in original). BUDDIES tells the story of a couple of roommates compelled to mate by various “triggers” (including public domain Vincent Price movies), who discover a mysterious entity is controlling their behavior for his own ends. Technically impressive, with gross effects near the climax (pun intended), the short is also highly sympathetic to the pressures of young sexually active people caught between competing desires for intimacy and independence. Most impressively, director Nate Wison was a mere 19 years old when he made this—if he keeps improving, this kid has one hell of a future ahead of him.
After the Cats screening I walked with Pat Tremblay down to the Irish Embassy Bar, the Fest’s official pub, and grabbed a Guinness while he helped prepare me for the experience of watching his Atmo HorroX next Monday. From what follows, you’ll see that a little bit of preparation may be necessary, as Atmo is sure to be a divisive, not-for-everyone work. Atmo‘s provisional tagline is “engineering the strings of your mind puzzle,” which Tremblay says deals with the themes of the movie: overconsumption of pharmaceutical drugs and the (metaphorical) “weird forces” controlling our minds and spying on us. “It’s more of an experience movie than a typical narrative storyline, although there is one… you have to wait until the end of the movie to see some things connecting with the first scenes that are seen as just vignettes.”
The movie’s genesis was from a photoshoot idea with a B-movie monster character Tremblay thought up; he and star Laurent Lacompte collaborated on the creature design, using household objects like balloons and ladies’ shoes. After another project fell through, Tremblay decided he wanted to use this character who originally just appeared for a “trippy photoshoot” and had to build a story around it. He shot some more crazy sequences but eventually his “rational, logical side” took over and he made all the scenes click (while leaving in some stuff that was just “weird for fun”). He does warn that there’s “not a lot of creature action in this movie” and—in an even stronger warning—there’s almost no dialogue, and what is there is in a “mysterious dialect.” It is an “experimental satire,” so Tremblay promises some laughs, although he (again) warns that there is “slow humor”—gags shown in the beginning that “take a long while to build up.”
The conversation wanders to the point where Tremblay proposes, “You probably get this all the time… but I say, ‘This is a weird movie’ and people say to me, ‘Ah, I’m OK with weird movies’…”—at which point I started to laugh—-“but then you show them the weird movie and they’re like ‘ahhh… I didn’t get anything,’ and they’re completely confused and they hate the thing, and I’m like, ‘Ah, I knew it.'” I do indeed know that feeling.
After we had finished with the discussion about Atmo HorroX, Tremblay solved a couple of mysteries of the Festival for me. The people applauding at the Ramen noodle commercial is, apparently, just an in-joke about how bad the commercial is—it’s apparently been playing here for a couple of years. The meowing in the darkened theater is not a Canadian tradition, or a Quebec tradition, or a Montreal tradition, but strictly a Fantasia Festival thing.
Also, since Tremblay had given us a “top ten weird movies” list way back in 2011, I asked him if he would have any additions to that list in the subsequent 5 years. He had a quick answer: Beyond the Black Rainbow, a film he says he’s now seen nine times.
Tremblay invited me to stick around and share drinks with the other carousing festival-goers, but it was already after 1 AM, so I declined (twenty years ago, I would have been keen to shut the bar down; now, at 48, the thought of an extra hour or two of sleep is much more appealing). I should have taken up the invitation, though, because as I left it started to sprinkle, a shower that turned into a torrential downpour before I reached the corner. Onto every Festival a little rain must fall. On to tomorrow, when The Greasy Strangler shares the spotlight with interviews with Michael Reich and Michael Pinkney of She’s Allergic to Cats and “Birdboy” animator Pedro Rivero, in town to promote his latest, Psychonauts, the Forgotten Children.