«Give us $20,000 and we’ll make the best
Fast & Furious movie ever»
Interview with Joel Potrykus
by Roberto Rippa
Director Joel Potrykus began his filmmaking career making low-budgets shorts in high school. He went on to pursue film in college where he received grants to shoot both 16mm and super 9 shorts. Still to this day, super 8 is his true love. After college he moved to Prague to soak up the Bohemian culture, returning to the US the following year to begin writing his first feature length screenplay, “Easton, Take a Bow.” A stint as a stand-up comic in NYC eventually lead to the inspiration for Ape. Along with writing scripts and bad jokes, Potrykus is a film critic for an annually published reference guide. The thriving film community of Grand Rapids, MI, is his home, where he shoots music, rides bicycles and launches bottle rockets.
JOEL POTRYKUS in Rapporto Confidenziale
Ape (2012) / Review
Gordon (2007) / Cineteca
Coyote (2010) / Cineteca
I’ve never been to LA – Interview with Joshua Burge
Roberto Rippa: First of all, tell me a little about your background. All I know is that you are from Michigan, that you still live there, and that you started making films during high school.
Joel Potrykus: My younger brother and I were the kids who snuck out of our bedrooms to watch horror movies. No matter what kind of films I make, the characters will always be sneaking out of their comfort zone to get a little horrific. College was going to happen no matter what. There was no avoiding the fact that I still had to go to class after high school. I didn’t have the money for NYU or UCLA, so I never thought I’d have the chance to go actually study film. During my freshman year at a small community college in my hometown I was flipping through a catalog of universities majors and saw that schools in Michigan actually taught film. There was no question after that. I was finally excited for college. I went to a school that let me use all their 16mm cameras and editing suites for nothing, and for days on end. It was awesome. That school hasn’t supported me once after I paid my tuition and left, but it was good at the time.
RR: What were the movies you grew up with? I know that you are also a critic.
JP: Again, I was into horror movies. And had a special affinity for really cheap junk. The VHS distributor Prism was a favorite. It was great to be into movies before the internet because certain films were so mysterious and impossible to find. I’d spent hours as a kid in the library reading about Caligula, A Clockwork Orange, and Evil Dead. If they weren’t at the video store in town, then you couldn’t see them. You had to search the backpages of Fangoria or just pray they came on late night cable. I was really into the “video nasties”. Eraserhead was like the Holy Grail. I obsessed over it for six years before a friend finally found a third generation Japanese bootleg VHS. That was a pretty good day.
All that library time made me want to write about movies too. I like writing and making movies. And I like shoving my opinions on people.
RR: Tell me about your fascination with Super 8, the format you also chose to film your 2007 Gordon and 2010 Coyote with.
JP: Super 8 has the grain quality of a cheap ‘80s movie. No amount of digital effects can fake true grimey super 8.
RR: I found Coyote a wonderful short film. According to me, it also looks like a preparatory work for Ape. Are you (or were you already) aware of this?
JP: I never thought there was any connection between Coyote and Ape, stylistically or thematically, other than it’s Mike, Josh, and myself making a movie together. But people note the similarities often, so there must be something there.
RR: Coyote is about an average man who discovers he is a werewolf so he turns to drugs to stand his condition. Joshua told me that the starting point was all about you being both pissed off by the way drugs are depicted in movies. Is this right?
JP: Well, I wouldn’t say we were pissed off about drug depiction, because there’s a lot of movies that get it right. Bad Lieutenant with Keitel is one of my favorite “drug movies”. It’s not melodramatic and it’s not a big party. It’s haphazard and has consequences. I just wondered what real people would do to cope with the pain of being a uncontrollable animalistic killer. I just assumed a real person would turn to hard drugs.
RR: This marks also the first time you worked with Joshua Burge (apart from the Chance Jones’ videos and “Goldenboy”, which – as Joshua told me – is made with extracts from Coyote and is a birthday present), one of the most amazing actors I’ve seen in a long time. How did you two meet and what brought you together?
JP: Joshua fronts an incredible Motown-folk band called Chance Jones. They’re popular here in Michigan, and especially our hometown of Grand Rapids. His stage persona is like Tom Waits meets Michael Jackson. I thought if I could channel some of that manic energy into a film, we’d have something important. Joshua is an intuitive performer. He has the ability to simply exist as that character. It looks effortless, and I still don’t understand it. We click, and that’s the most important part of the director-actor relationship. We get it.
RR: I find your films very personal and peculiar and I wonder how is it to work with an actor playing such personal material.
JP: Again, Joshua and I understand each other, and I trust him completely with my words. We work together and craft the character as we go. I give him full freedom, and I think he appreciates that.
RR: I know about your experience – a not very pleasant one, apparently – as a comedian in New York. Can you tell me something about it and how this affected your work for Ape?
JP: Well, I was doing what I’d call “anti-comedy” in Michigan. A friend would be at the back of the club trigging applause and laughter sound effects on a sampler, while I’d be on stage telling nonsensical jokes. It was confusing and funny at the same time.
After awhile people just starting laughing overtop of the sound effects, so we had to cut it out of the routine. The weird, off kilter jokes worked on their own oddly enough. I was bored and decided to take the act on the road, so I moved to the East Coast.
Trying to survive as a working comedian anywhere is difficult, and a near nightmare in NYC. My days consisted of driving an hour to work at a print shop, from eight in morning until five at night, Monday through Friday, and two nights a week taking an hour subway ride after work to Manhattan to perform comedy. In NYC that means first logging hours at open mic nights, for which you have to pay. I got lucky and a club owner liked my act. I was then “awarded” the opportunity to hand out flyers to tourists in Times Square. I’d stand out in the cold for 2 hours shoving flyers disguised as coupons then walk back to the club and perform five minutes of material. New comics repeat this cycle for 6 hours. If you’re lucky, you get paid. You get paid approximately one dollar for every person who comes through the door using your flyer, which has your initials on it. I’d feel successful if it covered my subway fare.
It’s the most unglamorous profession in showbiz. I thought it would make for a backdrop to the story about someone angry with the world.
And yes, all the jokes in the film are the actual jokes I’d tell on stage.
RR: Ape was awarded in Locarno with a special mention as best first feature and you also got the prize as best director in the Filmmakers of the present section. Dennis Lim introduced the award to the film using the adjectives: remarkable, brave and uncompromising. Are those adjectives that defines you well, according to you, or are there others that fits you better?
JP: No. I’m more of a chicken who’s willing to sellout at any minute. Luckily, since I make films far outside the Hollywood system, I can afford to be brave. But Dennis is great, and if he sees the film or any of us making it as remarkable, I’ll that it, for sure. It’s rare to get that kind of praise from a jaded industry.
RR: Did the awards help you in finding financial support for your next film or do you plan to work again with a small budget? And would you be able to work differently now?
JP: The award has certainly branded us with credibility, and has given people confidence to help us financially, but we still prefer to work with very low budgets and small crews. Afterall, the less you spend, the more you keep. (That’s my advice for all you kids out there.)
RR: You said that Ape was filmed on a shoestring budget, mainly shot during weekends. But small budget also means total freedom of expression, with no interferences. But what happens later, with distribution for example?
JP: With distribution you have to start to pay for music. Or cut out all your stolen music and hope you can find something as good for free. Luckily, we had alternate music ready to go if The Ramones wouldn’t approve. Our new soundtrack is better than our original thanks to the music of S.O.D., Worshit, The Amoebas, and Crack Abraham.
RR: How was the crew composed?
JP: The crew was kept small, because often times we didn’t have permission to film at a location, so a smaller crew helped us stay inconspicuous. I ran the camera, and we didn’t bring in artificial lighting. Very natural. Our friends ran sound if they could, otherwise, if an actor was out of the shot, he or she would hold the boom mic. This is all very stripped down. Traditional filmmaking is the most wasteful and unnecessary art form imaginable. Even low-budget productions 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 Dardenne 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.
RR: In both Coyote and Ape (but also in Gordon) realism has a great role. Is it a natural consequence of budget limitations which cause to work in real places or is it a precise choice?
JP: Aesthetic choice. If a film opens with a handheld shot of a guy working on a lawnmower, no score, no sweeping crane shots, no obnoxious color saturation, I’m hooked. I’m infinitely more excited about a shot like that, rather than Spiderman jumping off a skyscraper. And for that I feel lucky. I’m glad that aesthetic appeals to me. Harmony Korine made it cool to use natural lighting, in the same way Nirvana made it cool to shop at thrift stores. Worn-out jeans are much cheaper than leather pants.
RR: What is usually the starting point for you in writing a story?
JP: An image of a person. For Ape it was an image of a guy telling bad jokes in front of his bathroom mirror. From there I just throw in whatever I want. I like to cram a lot into my stories.
RR: How are your screenplays, very precise or do you leave room for improvisation on set? Are you open to suggestions from your actors and crew?
JP: Normally by scripts are very precise. I’m a control freak about my work, but I’m always open to improvisation or suggestions. During rehearsals the scenes altered and improved. This is where the actors usually contribute the most.
RR: You mentioned David Lynch, John Cassavetes, Alan Clarke and Lindsay Anderson as sources of inspiration. But both in Coyote and Ape I found the same anarchy of Godard, the same beautiful freedom in telling a story and in brilliantly mixing genres. But I think there were other influences, from music, to name one. In fact, when I first saw Ape, I remember that I said that it was a punk film, in the musical sense of the term. For the writing, the editing. Tell me about your relation with music and how do you work with it in your films.
JP: I played in a garage band through high school and into my twenties. Music drives the character in Ape. Trevor is angry and oppressed in his own way, and his headphones dictate his mood at the time. There’s no score whatsoever in Coyote and Ape, it’s all diegetic. Whatever the characters are listening, we listen along. I want the audience to experience the world the same way at the characters. Music and film are best friends. All my favorite directors have great taste. It doesn’t take much to realize I lift the openings to all my films from Clarke’s Made in Britain and Haneke’s Funny Games. The opening to those films make me want to punch someone in happiness. I want anarchy in character motivations and story structure, but it’s almost impossible to fully escape a three-act structure, in the same way that punk bands all still played verse-chorus-verse. My punk rock is more about turning my back on tracks, cranes, 3-point lighting, coverage, all those outdated techniques that aren’t necessary anymore. And romance. Romance is dead to me.
RR: In a moment when we can see all the worst you could imagine coming from Hollywood, the independent scene is bursting with ideas and new languages. What prevents it to take over, according to you?
JP: The indie world took over a long time ago, it just got watered-down once Hollywood embraced the revolution. Most indie films are worse than what Hollywood puts out. Seven-five percent of Hollywood movies are formulaic and stale, eighty percent of indie movies are formulaic and stale. It’s just that we are subjected to everything Hollywood puts out, whereas maybe only 20 percent of indie films get any attention. People will never stop making formulaic and stale movies. It’s in our DNA to make more bad things than good things.
RR: Do you think the industry is able to detect the new independent talents or would they try to use them for their “safe” projects?
JP: Yes and yes. Nicolas Winding Refn was just hired to direct the remake of Logan’s Run. The industry detected the talent and assigned him the safest project they could imagine. I hope he gives them something nasty and offensive.
RR: Is it bad for you being so far away from the industry, geographically speaking?
JP: No, it’s much better. I get no interference when trying to make my films. I don’t waste my days in meetings with executives. The type of film I can make in Michigan for $10,000, would cost a director in LA $100,000. No question. I can get away with much more here. No permits, no insurance, no waivers, no unions. I can still make movies with people I want to hang out with.
RR: And is there interest in the independent scene in the US? Do people look for independent films in theaters or is it all about Netflix, Mubi, etc…?
JP: I think NYC still has a vibrant culture of cinephiles who seek out the new and independent releases in small theatres. Not where I live, though. It’s tough for cool films to get much attention here. I’m guilty of the same, though. I download all my movies, and don’t get to the indie theatre in my town enough. I’m just too lazy, really.
RR: Do you think those would be the right way to watch your film?
JP: Ape doesn’t need to be seen on a big screen in a loud, dark room with strangers, but it’s a hell of a lot better that way.
RR: All your films were produced by Sob Noisse, the production company based in Grand Rapids formed by you and a bunch of friends such as Ashley Young, Mike Saunders, Kevin Clancy. How do you work? And are you planning to produce other people’s films in the future?
JP: Yes, I prefer to work with friends and people that get me. Right now, Sob Noisse only works on its own films. We shoot music videos, and normally pass on a project if the musicians isn’t into our concept. There’s really no point in working for someone else. That’s why the company was formed – to explore our own ideas. Unless, or course, we’re getting paid a lot of money. Give us $20,000 and we’d make the best Fast & Furious movie ever. It would focus on a guy who works at a factory and drives a ’74 Oldsmobile Cutlass. Seriously.
RR: The film has been around at festivals all over the world for a few months now: What were the reactions? And have you noticed any differences between the reactions in Europe and the US?
JP: Big differences in reaction, for sure. Because they’re removed from the society in which it was filmed, European audiences tends to see the political and social issues much clearer. Which makes sense. They tend to laugh at moments of terror, too. The US audiences sometimes laugh at Trevor’s jokes. That has never happened overseas. In its native language, some of Trevor’s jokes are actually quite absurd and poignant. Stand-up comedy doesn’t translate well.
RR: What happened back in the US after Locarno, do you think that the prizes you won helped you in gaining attention from distributors?
JP: Without a doubt. Some very astute distributors were interested when we got home. We shopped around for awhile and finally settled on a distributor that understood the film and put out a catalog that we respected. I was comfortable and honored to for Ape to be released alongside films I very much respected and were similar in attitude as Ape.
RR: Tell me some filmmakers or cinematographers or producers you would like to work with, with no limitations, if you could.
JP: I’d love to spend a day watching Rick Alverson on set. But he walked out of Ape, so I don’t think I’ll be getting the invite from him any time soon. I’d like to resurrect Edward Furlong’s career. Maybe as a John Connor that chickened out and didn’t lead the revolution.
RR: I know that you are currently working on a new film. I even read the title – Buzzard. Can you tell me about it? By reading the plot it seems like a new rebellion story from a different perspective.
JP: Yes, it’s called Buzzard. It’s about a guy who out to cheat the system. He feels like the banks and big corporations owe him. He’s got a bad temper and it eventually gets him in trouble. It’s about Americans today, their discontent and their grievances. It’s my 99% vs the 1% fable, with homages to Freddy Krueger.
RR: What do you think it has changed for you in terms of filmmaking since Ape?
JP: People take me seriously. ■
(1) Joel Potrykus / courtesy of Yann Houlberg Andersen
(2) Gordon (still)
(3) Coyote (still)
(4) Ape (still)
(5) Joel Potrykus & Joshua Burge / Photo: Tim Saunders
(6) Joel Potrykus, Ashley Young, Mike Saunders and Joshua Burge / Photo: Locarno Film Festival
(7) Joel Potrykus / courtesy of Sob Noisse Films
(8) Joel Potrykus – Unknown
(9) Joel Potrykus & Joshua Burge – courtesy of Katy Batdorff