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.
JP: I’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 spend ten-million dollars, so I said “I could do this movie for two-hundred thousand…” And it seemed odd to me. They know I could make this movie that would look like it was made for ten million, maybe, like, five-hundred thousand—squeeze that dollar a lot further. I think there’s so much waste in film-making that we just assume that ten-million equates to A Good Movie People Will Like. I just don’t have that math. I’ll make one-hundred movies for ten-million.
JP: O Lucky Man! Man, that movie is just… no rules. It goes everywhere. And then this guy, Alan Clarke, who did Made in Britain. Scum. Tim Roth is this angry skin-head. Just totally nihilist. With those movies, it’s just cheap, angry, raw; they really got me going.…
366: Swinging toward Relaxer in particular, there was that 1999 Pac-Man challenge from Billy Mitchell. Now, before that came to your attention did you have an idea for this kind of story?
JP: No, not really. Now the seed of the story— because I really am a lazy film-maker—I just like to make it easier on myself, so the idea of shooting in one space, controlling the light, was really what I wanted to do. I was called by a distributor friend of mine who said, I have a bunch of money from a European company that wants to make series of features about the seven deadly sins. Which I thought was a really stupid idea, like schlock—straight for TV. But he said, you can pick the sin. So I immediately thought of “sloth.” Like, what is the most lazy—a guy who literally spends the whole movie on the couch. That’s kind of where that started. That was all I had. No video games. I didn’t know what he was gonna do; maybe at one point, he was going to turn into the couch, just melt into it. And what would you be doing the whole time there? I was thinking video game. Video game. Video game.
And it just kind of went from there. I don’t know why the whole “Y-2K” thing played into it; maybe I just wanted to deal with Y-2K because there aren’t enough movies that do that. I think it’s a really weird, fascinating thing.
366: I imagine we’re similar in age, because I also remember the Y-2K thing.
JP: It was scary, man, for awhile. It was crazy. My parents, they were like, “This is it! This is the end of the times that your grandparents always talk about! The Bible’s predicted it.” The computers were in control of the power-grid, and so everything — communication — was going to collapse. Flights, traffic. In my head, it was going to be beautiful.
366: Now, the “challenges” thing that’s the foundation of the movie: is that drawn from your own experiences?
JP: Yeah, we used to do—it’s one of the special features on the DVD—there’d be, like, ten people, and we’d all show up with a gallon of milk, and everybody would throw five-dollars into a bucket, and someone would regulate, say, three minutes per glass, and the last person to throw up would get the pot. So we have a video, and I’m the second guy to go. The last guy to go was amazing: a total rush of milk, literally a whole gallon coming out of him, just blasting and blasting.
366:, the lead actor, you’ve worked with him quite a bit. Have you known him a very long time, or just professionally?
JP: We actually went to college together, he’s a musician. He was the guy who was at the coffee shop playing acoustic guitar and he kind of had Bob Dylan “rap,” that was his thing. Turtle-neck, this blazer, and a harmonica around his neck, and he was kind of in his own time and place and he did not fit in on a college campus when he was our age. And we run into each-other once in a while. He formed a band, and I was a big fan of his band. Watching him on stage… on stage, he’s a very charismatic performer, always shucking around and doing Motown moves up there. Pretty wild. And I thought, I’d love to put that—whatever he’s got—in front of a camera, there might be a movie there.
The first movie we shot, “Coyote”, was in Super-8, and I intentionally shot it with no dialogue because I didn’t know if he could act. I just wanted to capture his physicality. And he kind of turned out to be theI’d always been looking for. He’s my go-to guy, and lives in Grand Rapids still, and he’s just, like a friend. Making movies with friends. He’s somebody who gets what I’m going for, and I get what he’s going for.
366: Considering how he comes across in Relaxer, it’s sort of difficult to imagine him the way you describe him.
JP: Yeah, there are videos of him online that I’ve shot—he’s a wild character. Like Tom Waits, tearing the place up. “Chance Jones”, that’s the name of the band. They play once in a while. Our production designer, Mike, is the keyboard player. It’s a small world in Grand Rapids.
366: Now the actor who plays the brother, Cam, is an “outsider”. Was there anyone else you didn’t —
JP: That’s David Dastmalchian, he’s here now. He’s in Ant-Man, he’s in Blade Runner. And I met him at SXSW, and I went to see him in Animals, and I thought, “That’s the dude! That’s Joker’s henchman!” And as soon as I saw him, I said that’s a guy that’s got something that I want to work with. He’s kind of similar to Josh, they have this unique face… But anyway, I walked up to him at SXSW and said, “I gotta make a movie with you one day”; he said, “I just saw Buzzard. I gotta make a movie with you, too.” So from there we started talking and figuring things out. Once I got the idea for the brother in [Relaxer], he was the obvious choice.
And Andre Hyland, who played the character Dallas, he made a short film, “Funnel,” that played before Buzzard, and I saw that guy and thought, that guy knows my world, that guy will get it. He’s an improv artist and he just riffs like crazy. And he’s a perfect fit for the movie.
366: It looks like we’re getting to the close of this, but there’s one question I like to pose to film-makers when I can, a final one: is there a home-town restaurant you could recommend?
JP: “Yester-Dog”. The hot-dog place that American Pie called “Yester-Years.” The writer from that is from Grand Rapids, so it’s all secretly taking place in Grand Rapids though they had to change the names of everything. I don’t eat meat any more, but if I do go back, if Y2K happens and I start eating meat again, I’m going to “Yester-Dog”.
366: Well thank you very kindly for your recommendation and your time, Joel, it was a pleasure speaking with you.
JP: Thank you!