Raw audio of G. Smalley‘s interview with director Joel Potrykus at the 2016 Fantasia Film Festival. Topics include the Michigan-based low-budget director’s latest, the forest-bound occult horror The Alchemist Cookbook, and how many movies Potrykus would make if given a million-dollar budget. (Not included in this clip: Potrykus confuses Smalley with unidentified blogger “Creepy Greg”).
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.
PLOT: After his latest con goes bad, a slacker and small-time scam artist goes on the run, taking along his homemade Freddy Kruger glove.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not that weird, although it is an outside-the-box indie with a unique slacking-class take on American society.
COMMENTS: “You’re just trying to cheat the system?” asks an exasperated bank clerk when Marty Jackitansky takes advantage of a loophole to get a bonus for opening a new checking account. “Absolutely,” he responds. “For fifty dollars?,” the clerk continues, incredulously. “Absolutely!” replies Buzzard, with pride. (Although Marty is never explicitly referred to by that avian moniker in the film, the name is perfect for this scavenger). Marty’s completely clueless, utterly unmerited self-esteem is hilarious, and tragic; it seems the smaller the stakes of the scam, the more jazzed he gets. You might conclude Marty’s self-worth is wrapped up in his ability to get by on his wits, but isn’t really self-conscious enough for such vanities. It’s just that Buzzard has little interest in anything beyond video games, junk food, splatter flicks, metal, and the minor adrenaline rush he gets from seeing a two-figure check made out in his name. Lying simply comes as second nature to him. Gaunt and rumpled, with a slouchy swagger, Joshua Burge plays the character as a young man perfectly confident in his own indifference to his social status. Director Potrykus plays cubicle-mate Derek, the Beavis to Burge’s Butthead. He’s a corporate drone whose equally blind to his own beta-male status; he has the temerity to call his basement apartment “the Party Zone” and has such meager social prospects that he longs for approval from big brother figure Buzzard.
The style might be described as “minimalist punk,” with long takes (the already-notorious five-minute spaghetti eating scene) punctuated by bursts of senseless vandalism scored to death metal riffs. The DIY aesthetic is authentic, and the film is as unpretentious and brash as Buzzard himself. Buzzard mixes a bemused, clear-eyed disdain for its title character with a gentle touch of affection for his adolescent antics. Marty scorns the system, but he doesn’t actually oppose it; he just is disinterested in playing the game, and so tries to skate by under the authorities’ radar. Buzzard understands the psychology and sociology of pathologically shortcut-obsessed losers; it also sympathizes with his plight, without endorsing his behavior. Watching Buzzard, we feel some measure of compassion for this blatant con dude, even while he’s staring us in the face with disdain and thinking up ways to rip us off. That’s some scam to pull.
This is the third in an unofficial “animal” trilogy by Potrykus, all starring Burge. The first was the werewolf (!) short “Coyote,” followed by the 2012 feature Ape (about a pyromaniac comic). Buzzard is the best-received and distributed of the three. Both Potrykus and Burge are talents to keep an eye on.