Tag Archives: Joel Potrykus

INTERVIEWING JOEL POTRYKUS: THE MAN BEHIND THE COUCH

A lazy man with a movie-making mission, Joel Potrykus continues to tap the deep creative vein of Grand Rapids, MI with his fourth feature, Relaxer. We sat down together, perched high above the SGWU mezzanine.

366: I’m here with Joel Potrykus whose movie Relaxer debuted at Fantasia to much laughter and applause. I’ll admit from the get-go that I’m not well prepared, so if you’re feeling chatty about anything, feel free to continue talking at me.

JPI’m never prepared, so we’re on the same page.

366: Then I’ll start with an easy question: other than the promise of fame and riches, what was it that got you into filmmaking?

JP: Shoot, well, it was really all about the fame and riches… I was a “VHS kid,” and there was one summer, when I was ten, I broke my leg playing baseball, so I had to spend the whole summer in a cast up to my hip in the basement. It was so hot, and nothing to do, and we didn’t have cable in the basement, so my dad would bring me five movies every day from the video store, whatever he picked, so I just spent a whole summer watching, like, two-hundred movies. And in there was American Werewolf in London, and that kind of changed a lot of things for me. Seeing that kind of blend of horror and comedy, and [director John] Landis going whatever direction he wanted.

Then when I was fourteen, I was really into the Doors, and I was at a birthday party where they rented that movie and ‘s at the beach saying, “Yeah, I’m going to film school right now!” When I was fourteen, I had never heard those two words connected to each-other: film cchool. And I was like, “That’s where I’m going to go.”

366: You’re from Grand Rapids, Michigan. Do you have much to recommend about that part of the world?

JP: Yeah, dude, if you want to make a feature film, and don’t want to spend a lot of money for permits, and are asking the police if it’s okay to close off the street, go to Grand Rapids, Michigan. We still make the movies there because it’s really the only place… I have a manager in LA, who’s like, “What are you doing? Come to LA and direct TV, and pitch your big ideas…”. So I guess maybe it’s not fame and fortune I was after, because then I’d be out in LA. But I prefer to just hide out, that’s the only place I know how to make films.

366: Well, maybe the fame and fortune will hunt you down. Your rep said you had big ideas to pitch. What are your big ideas?

JP: In my head they’re big ideas, but I was recently tracked down by Amazon and I pitched the ideas, and I don’t think they were very big. They’re weird and small. [Amazon had] a specific budget range they need to hit, and it was ten-million dollars. I had no idea how to Continue reading INTERVIEWING JOEL POTRYKUS: THE MAN BEHIND THE COUCH

LIST CANDIDATE: RELAXER (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , David Dastmalchian, Andre Hyland, Arin Bechdel,

PLOT: Abbie is a perennial failure at life, but he makes one final attempt to turn things around by accepting his brother’s challenge to beat the unbeatable Pac-Man score, all while never moving from his seat on the couch.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Starting with a “gallon challenge” and ending not-quite-apocalyptically, the ordeals of a seated young man unspool without him ever leaving the couch, nor us ever leaving the room. All the thirst, sweat, and odors pile on as our entrapment goes on. And on. And on. Until something cosmically mystical occurs.

COMMENTS: It seems almost a rule that the most mild-mannered directors are the ones that come up with the most eccentric movies. has his very British affability; has been a Midwestern swell-guy since childhood; and now there’s rising star Joel Potrykus with his laid-back hipster self, who is somehow responsible for the giddily grinding post-slacker comedy, Relaxer. “Gross-out comedy,” now that’s a genre I’m familiar with. But a “charming gross-out transcendental comedy”? I can only presume that Relaxer is the first of that ground-breaking genre.

Oh my dear Abbie (Joshua Burge). We only ever see him covered with sweat (and more) cowering on a couch. From the start, he’s enduring a sickening challenge, one of many put to him by his brother, which soon becomes literally sickening. The boy fails to keep the gallon of milk he’s consumed inside after a… well, best not say what he added to the mix in a bit of bathroom desperation. His brother Cam (a wonderfully nasty David Dastmalchian) leaves in disgust, but not before giving Abbie one last ultimate challenge: the Pac-Man thing. The impossible Pac-Man thing. Abbie cannot—and does not—leave his greasy spot on the leather couch during a six month ordeal in which things grow as strange as they grow unhygienic.

Among the venerable sources Potrykus hijacks ideas from are Buñuel, Kubrick, and, I swear, even the New Testament. The first is obvious, and the director even admitted to ripping off a lot of The Exterminating Angel in his remarks to the audience after the screening. Unlike our heroes therein, however, Abbie makes the wrong choice of what pipe to burst open for water—wonderfully fusing gross-out with the surrealism. 2001: A Space Odyssey  necessarily comes to mind toward the end, as Abbie breaks the sequence and rises to a higher plane as the masses outside seemingly cheer him on. As for the third reference, I’m possibly stretching things, but over his ordeal Abbie grows to look like a shaggy Jesus, and Simon of Cyrene makes a cameo in the form of Arin (Adina Howard), a friend who helps Abbie on his path toward the divine. What locked it for me was the final scene when Abbie-Jesus seemingly rises from the dead to be greeted by his long-sought Father.

Potrykus stated without shame that he made Relaxer for himself, but its elements suggest that this bizarre slice of late ’90s throw-back might reach more than expected. There’s comedy, there’s cinematic dexterity (the camera stretches to most every available piece of the room without looking like it’s trying too hard), and even an epic feel to Abbie’s journey from Novice couch potato to Master couch potato. Skipping surreptitiously from Clerks-style comedy to an outer-zone of awareness, Relaxer reaches for the impossible—typically with the aid of a grabber-arm.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film takes on an element of magical realism as the days and months pass, framing Abbie as a martyr with superhuman endurance … That Relaxer is structured as a countdown to Y2K suggests that Potrykus is offering a period-specific diagnosis of technologically dependent delusion, of the hallucinations of omnipotence that spring in the minds of marathon gamers. Fuzzy as this hodgepodge of signifiers may seem, there’s a pronounced critique at the heart of Relaxer clearly aimed at young people who are perilously glued to their screens, though it’s one that feels somewhat passé alongside the meaty class commentary of Buzzard.–Carson Lund, Slant Magazine (festival screening)

RAW AUDIO: JOEL POTRYKUS “ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK” INTERVIEW

Raw audio of G. Smalley‘s interview with director 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”).

Interview highlights

Mini-review of The Alchemist Cookbook

Other Fantasia 2106 interviews:

Pat Tremblay of Atmo HorroX

Michael Reich and Mike Pinkney of She’s Allergic to Cats

Pedro Rivero of Psychonauts

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/21/2016 (JOEL POTRYKUS, SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS, PAT TREMBLAY)

Yesterday, I wrote that 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  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 Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/21/2016 (JOEL POTRYKUS, SHE’S ALLERGIC TO CATS, PAT TREMBLAY)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/20/2016 (MOMOTARO, SACRED SAILORS & THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK)

A relatively uneventful Wednesday (which began with me buying a band-aid for my injured finger at the local pharmacy—I still have not located a corkscrew) featured two oddball pictures guaranteed not to play at your local multiplex.

When I saw the description for Momotaro, Sacred Sailors on the Fantasia schedule, I knew I wanted to prioritize it if at all possible. Only a bizarrely dedicated movie fan would consider a Japanese animated propaganda film from 1945 a “must see,” and as I expected, this was the most lightly-attended event of the festival so far—the lower part of the Alumni Hall auditorium was about two-thirds full. The challenge of watching an indie or foreign fantasy film is one thing; a relic from seventy years ago, espousing a political view that no living person on the planet now shares, presented in a visual style that vanished long ago, is not the biggest entertainment draw. It was encouraging to see a couple of hundred curiosity seekers show up to experience visions of the world through the eyes of another time and place. Ironically, Momotaro was never properly screened in its homeland, since Japan had already lost the war before the film was ready to be shown.

Scene from Momotaro, Sacred Sailors (1945)Intended to inspire patriotism in the imperial young, Momataro features anthropomorphic monkeys, bears, rabbits, birds and other creatures, all led by a cherubic human commanding officer (Momataro himself, a legendary Japanese figure whose name translates as “peach boy”). The opening scenes are idyllic and dull, as sailors return to their home village on furlough and are greeted by adoring friends and family. A youngster falls into the river and the entire village demonstrates the value of teamwork by pulling together to rescue them. Later, a village pitches in to build airplane hangars (the elephants sing “sweat is my only joy” while hauling timber). The animal antics provide Disney-style comic relief throughout, and much of this black and white cartoon mimics the feel of an early Mickey Mouse short, although other parts are much more ambitious, and darker (a cloud of dandelion spores evokes paratroopers in flight).

Since cavorting animated animals are no longer a novelty, the early reels are boring to modern sensibilities. The propaganda is actually fairly innocuous, pushing a generic “everyone pulls together and does their part” message of social responsibility. I was wondering if the movie was ever going to mention the actual war and the enemy; fortunately, when it does in the last act, things become a lot more interesting. In shadow-play flashback, a “large-nosed” white man comes to a Pacific island posing as a merchant, but he’s actually the leader of a band of pirates who massacre the islanders. Before dying, Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/20/2016 (MOMOTARO, SACRED SAILORS & THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK)

CAPSULE: BUZZARD (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Joel Potrykus

FEATURING: Joshua Burge, Joel Potrykus

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.

Still from Buzzard (2014)

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.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The dark, weird and hilarious ‘Buzzard’ is definitely a great slacker movie.”–Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive (contemporaneous)