G-Sync: Potrykus and me

Filmmaker Joel Potrykus sits down with Rapid Growth's publisher and lifestyle editor Tommy Allen to talk about his new film world premier at the 2016 SXSW; on getting it done in Michigan; and the lines we all draw in our work.
I seem to recall from my days as a filmmaker in Grand Rapids that the more achievable film is the one for which the locations are few and the story is kept within reasonable reach: something set in the present instead of trying to achieve a historical drama or a  science fiction/fantasy flick. And over the years, a few have attempted it here with a degree of results. One filmmaker who has successfully married those founding principles above with a local community of artists and the democratization of the tools to make a series of films that are getting international acclaim is Joel Potrykus.

No longer can one say you cannot make it from here when we talk about the contributions of Potrykus’s Animal Trilogy: Coyote (2010), Ape (2012), and Buzzard (2014). Below is an excerpt from our time spent musing over making a film in Grand Rapids, the wish for local a shift in our appreciation of film, and how he landed Ape and Buzzard on so many best of indie film lists. 

Potrykus's latest, The Alchemist Cookbook (2016) is a story set in an isolated location and far from the “urban wasteland” that has inhabited many of his previous works. In addition, it is the filmmaker's first film with an all non-white cast. The Alchemist Cookbook will have its world premiere at the 2016 SXSW Festival in Austin, TX next month.

Potrykus and Burge in Buzzard.Tommy: The list of articles and awards Ape and Buzzard have received are too many to list here, but I think we can agree it is your final film in your animal trilogy, Buzzard, that really tapped into some vein with the critics and public. And yet upon watching it again, I am reminded of the power of keeping the story tight and locations manageable. 

Joel Potrykus: Yeah, that was my goal to keep things manageable, which is in line with Robert Rodríguez’s book, “Rebel Without a Crew.” I have long considered “Rebel” to be a filmmaker’s Bible that I still like follow to this day.

Tommy: Rodríguez is really advocating for a term we toss around in business classes these days on the need to be bootstrapping. 

Joel: Exactly. In making a film, you have to know how to do everything on a set because you might end up doing more than just one thing at any given point of the day. One day, as director, you may have to get behind the camera and then run the sound or lighting the next.

Tommy: And that is the realities of any indie set from my experience, too. So do you find there is an advantage to working here with our community to make a film happen?

Joel: It's great to work with friends and other filmmakers since everyone's, like, honest, and no one’s going to be a dick and not show up. But we do have some challenges that are quickly remedied here I believe faster than other communities where films are typically known to be made. 

Tommy: Give me an example of one.

Joel: It’s like when we secure a location in advance, only to discover when we arrive that the contact who approved it is not there or they simply forgot. We can run into a little bit of panic, but, in this example, when it did happen, I said to my crew and actors, “Just give me 10 minutes.” After I drive around, I am often able to find replacement store location on the fly, with the most I’ve tossed a clerk is a 50 to gain access.

Tommy: Which is so different than my experiences in New York or L.A.

Joel:  Yeah, I mean that’s half the reason why I'm staying here making the movies. Because it's easy, and no one's going to bug you for a permit or insurance because when you are starting out your crews are very small so you are seen as a hobby. But if we had said we were making a very serious film then that's when the fingers start pointing and questions start getting asked. 

Tommy: Any other skills?

Joel:  My filmmaking education has roots at GVSU, where I studied film. I'd cut 16mm film and assemble my cut by splicing in the various scenes before syncing up the audio tracks. 

Tommy: But when did you leap to digital?

From the Alchemist Cookbook.Joel: I was never into video or digital video during those years because I really hated how video made everything look. That lasted until about 2010, when, after watching a friend's footage I asked, “This is video? Really?” So I said, “Alright, maybe things have changed,” and I began my switch to digital filmmaking by purchasing a DSLR and started shooting immediately. 

Tommy: We faced the same stigma of digital in the mid-1990’s, when, after making our film, we ran out of money and could not afford to cut the film for an important screening in NY. So we rolled the dice and ordered a film print made from the digital master. While Robert Hawke stormed out of our IFFM premiere, it did not stop us from getting invited to the first L.A. Film Festival. It is nice to finally see attitudes have changed towards digital.

Joel:  The way I see it is that the French New Wave filmmakers like [Jean-Luc] Godard were shooting with the cutting edge (and very portable tools) of their day, like handheld 16mm cameras. It enabled them to free up their vision. Had they been born in our time, they would most certainly be experimenting and shooting with DSLRs.

Tommy: But your new film that world premieres at SXSW, The Alchemist Cookbook, is not shot on a DSLR. 

Joel: For the The Alchemist Cookbook we went with an Alexa, which I hated the first week because it was huge, heavy and no longer could I just pick it up and say to our crew, “Hey, let’s go shoot this scene over here.” The camera takes two people to haul the camera from location to location and has to be assembled. It is not at all what I was used to using with Buzzard or Ape.

Tommy: So now your production schedule and budget get more sizable as a result.

Joel: Yeah, yeah, right. But then after seeing the Alexa’s footage I was like, “OK, I'm sold.”

Tommy: Much like you were after seeing what a DSLR could do after years of using film. Do you feel this is a good community to be in as filmmaker or do you think that are things you would love to change?

Joel: I’ve said before that it is good to be in a place where you can learn to do everything yourself. I am also fortunate enough that my heroes who influence me are people like Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, Only Lovers Left Alive) and Harmony Korine (Kids, Gummo), and not Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon). So I can easily make a film I want here. 

Tommy: Those early influences, combined with having a place to test them like a college, worked for me as I was really influenced by Woody Allen’s smallish works where serious topics were dealt with a variety of devices like writing or comic wit in a performance. This is the line of education that all creative people often refer to when addressing our scope of influence. 

Joel: For me, I go back to high school, where I remember seeing Michigan filmmaker (and MSU student) Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. Watching that film showed me what was possible here and that I can do this too. In researching the film, I knew that they were all Raimi’s friends from Michigan who helped make The Evil Dead. Suddenly it became clear that if Raimi could do it, then so could I do this in Michigan with my friends. 

Tommy: Any immediate results? 

Joel: Well, from that moment it really changed my life. I’d even go on long after trying to replicate — albeit unsuccessfully — many of Raimi’s filmmaking techniques.

Tommy: Good artists copy, great artists steal? (both laugh) 

Joel: Even as I moved through college, mimicking others’ work as I studied their films enabled me to form a foundation from where my own style has begun to emerge.

Tommy: I am in love with the opening scene of Buzzard much like I am in love with Woody Allen’s monologue in Annie Hall

BuzzardJoel: In Q and A’s, I’m very upfront about my influences. I say every single shot in Buzzard was stolen from another movie. And I say this not to sound pretentious, but it is kind of a post-modern thing in that I’m taking other people’s things and just using them in different ways.

Tommy: Even my favorite opening scene?

Joel: Yes. That is the craziest steal in the whole movie in that is lifted from a movie trailer to The Master and is a scene only used in the promotion of the film. It never made the theatrical version and yet here is this wonderfully composed shot of just Joaquin Phoenix’s face.  I knew immediately when I saw it that this was how Buzzard was going to open.

Tommy: And Joshua Burge is a thrill to watch in everything.

Joel: Josh has one of those faces you just watch. Even when he is not saying anything on screen, he is saying the most. I really enjoy writing scenes things around his face.

Tommy: Final two questions. If you had a wish, what would you change here?

Joel: I don’t know. I do tell my students to go to UICA to see a film because they have great programming. And yet, when I often go, there is only like 10 people at a screening. So I’ve been trying to start a film society here to raise our community’s  appreciation of film.

Tommy: You’ve lived in so many places from Alpena to New York to San Francisco, from Chicago to Prague, and then back to Grand Rapids. Any final positive highlights or observations on this particular region of the country as an artist?

Joel:  I mean, things can happen here, but you have to get outside your comfort zone. This means getting out of the city and getting your work seen by others on the outside, like bigger cities or film festivals, if you are making a film here. You need to meet people to get your work seen and considered.

I learned a while ago that for me Grand Rapids has everything that I need, like it’s cool to go to other big cities, museums and stuff like that. Sure, there are times I wish I had daily access to places like L.A.’s New Beverly Cinema, but we have the UICA so I can still view indie films. 

But I believe that the access to time and what we can create with the time given to us in our city is something we often miss. 

Tommy: I realize this every time I travel to a larger market. When we factor in this gift, if you will, of extra time, the equation, multiplied throughout our creative community, enables us to make the things we know we are born to produce.

Joel: Exactly. What is really important is that locally as artists we get to hear and see all these different stories through the work we create. 


About The Alchemist Cookbook: 

Young outcast Sean has isolated himself in a trailer in the woods, setting out on alchemic pursuits, with his cat Kaspar as his sole companion. Filled with disdain for authority, he’s fled the daily grind and holed up in the wilderness, escaping a society that has no place for him. But when he turns from chemistry to black magic to crack nature’s secret, things go awry and he awakens something far more sinister and dangerous. (http://www.oscilloscope.net/ )

To follow the adventurers of Potrykus’ new film premiering at the 2016 SXSW, search the hashtags #sxsw #alchemistcookbook
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