Coyote, Ape, Buzzard: Joel Potrykus on Film

Grand Rapids' Joel Potrykus is a filmmaker whose work demands attention. His first feature, Ape, won Best New Director at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival, and has since been screened at festivals around the world. Prior to Ape, Potrykus directed a handful of short films including “Coyote” and “Gordon.” Along with film production, Potrykus also writes film reviews for a national publication.

Ape tells the story of stand-up comedian and pyromaniac Trevor Newandyke, who makes a deal with the devil and reaps the consequences in the most brutal and beautiful way. It’s an animalistic character piece filled with a plethora of anti-comedic jokes, failure, hope, and a haunting confrontation with life itself. Shot in Grand Rapids, Potrykus reveals an American landscape unlike any other: gritty, stark, lonely, and wild.

On the benefits of shooting in Grand Rapids, Potrykus says, "To make the film we made in Grand Rapids cost under $5000. To make the same film in L.A. would cost $200,000, easy. No question. We don't need permits, roads blocked off, and most of our locations are at businesses with owners we know. People are cool here, not jaded from some lame industry that stomps its feet all over town. People want to help here, not squeeze you for money. Of course, very often in a smaller area like West Michigan, people don't take you seriously when you say you're making a movie. Normally, the reaction is, 'That sounds fun.' It's not fun. It's work. We're not playing pretend in our backyard."

Upon viewing the film, one immediately notices the tightly crafted world Potrykus has captured and the intimacy of character and world that feel, at once, intimate and real.

He says, "The crew was kept small, because oftentimes, we didn't have permission to film at a location, so a smaller crew helped us stay inconspicuous. This is all very stripped down, even for a local production. Traditional filmmaking is the most wasteful and unnecessary artform imaginable. Even low-budget films have too many people standing around wasting time and money. You don't need four grips to help with camera anymore. And I certainly would never use tracks or a crane. That's outdated methodology in my eyes. If you're trying to emulate Spielberg with a $20,000 budget, your film is going to look cheap. But if you're trying to emulate the Dardan brothers for $20,000, your film is going to look great. Of course, if you trying to emulate another director, it's probably going to fail."

With numerous film festival appearances across Europe and the U.S., Ape has been twisting its way into the minds of viewers, one screening at a time. Potrykus says, "Well, we've done pretty well on the festival circuit. Europe certainly loves it. They see the West Michigan backdrop almost as something exotic. The social and racial issues are much clearer overseas. And it's strange, but I don't think they see their European influence as much. I assume they are so much more familiar with, say, the French New Wave, and to them, it's not as radical anymore. Whereas, I think, compared to current U.S. films, ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ is still radical. The jokes don't translate well, either. But that's fine. Our stand-up comic isn't supposed to be very funny. Russia's a big fan."

Currently, Potrykus is working on a new production in the Grand Rapids area, one that will complete his “Animal Trilogy” (Ape and “Coyote” being its predecessors).

He says, “Buzzard is the final chapter of the trilogy. Once again, Joshua Burge will be back to play the lead, Marty Jackitansky. Marty's a schemer, cheating big corporations in small ways. He feels like he's a hero, fighting for the rest of a timid society. His cheats, combined with a bad temper, eventually get him in trouble. It's about Americans today, their discontent, and their grievances. It's my 99 precent vs. the 1 percent fable.”

Potrykus' directorial style is hard to pin down and speaks with a voice of its own. Ape moves from long shots of quiet, the cameraman following behind the main character, tracking him, following him as he ignites a Molotov cocktail or rides the city bus to his dingy apartment. On inspirations, Potrykus says, "I'm inspired by most anything, but if you're asking about direct influence to my filmmaking, I'd say Alan Clarke is number one. Lindsay Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Haneke, Vincent Gallo, Kelly Reichardt, and Godard are a few others. I don't really like his movies, but Ed Burns has a great approach to low budget production. A long time ago Sam Raimi that got me thinking I could do all moviemaking stuff, though."

 Ape makes its return to West Michigan on Aug. 9, 7:30pm at a one-time screening at the Wealthy Theatre. If you are a Grand Rapidian, you are sure to notice spots around the city that you may frequent -- spots that, after viewing the film, may linger in your mind. You may just happen to see a man in an ape suit stalking the streets behind you. If you see the film, you will know what I mean.

You can follow its progress, as well as the progress of Buzzard here

Photography by Adam Bird
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