Joshua Burge, Joel Potrykus, Mike Saunders
Nothing worse than dishonesty in storytelling.
Interview with Joel Potrykus and Mike Saunders about Buzzard (and so much more)
Roberto Rippa: First of all – this is not a question – I loved your acting and your character is so funny. He is kind of ugly but he becomes lovable in a weird sort of way.
Joel Potrykus: I know people like that. We rehearsed the film for almost 8 months – which is a luxury for any film – and we hadn’t cast anyone to play Derek so I would read his part during the rehearsals and after a couple of months Mike was like: “You’re Derek! You need to play Derek”.
RR: So this was your idea, Mike. Why did you think that the couple could work so well?
Mike Saunders: Knowing Joel’s sense of humor, I knew he could play Derek. He would try to make Joshua laugh, break character and crack up, which he never did because he’s insanely professional. There’s a couple of times when this happened. There was one original person that Derek’s character was based on, the same character’s name in the film Tower (Kazik Radwanski, 2011. Ed.). We also asked the actor to play the role but he wasn’t comfortable with it, and in my head there wasn’t another actor in the world who could play this character other than Joel.
I’m sure Joshua could have responded to another actor in that role but it’s hard to imagine it being as natural as with Joel. Also, most of those games they play in the basement were the kind of things we used to do when we were younger. It was called The Loser Olympics and sometimes we still do that stuff. The other weekend Joel and our friend Mike Hart were throwing a frisbee at each others heads while wearing an inflatable helmet. I also wanted Joel to get in front of the camera for his own sake, he’s a good actor! I’d love to see him take on more roles.
JP: This is also because me and Joshua know each other so well, and we are comfortable in goofing around.
RR: So it didn’t work with the actor from Tower?
JP: No, but after a while it was obvious that Joshua and I had the best chemistry together. Since I wrote the script, I kinda knew Derek better than anybody we could have auditioned, so it came out just naturally. It’s my big screen debut (laughs).
RR: You make a great couple.
JP: Yeah, you feel the chemistry, and that was the most important thing. People felt that these two guys really knew each other, that there weren’t two actors, but two actual co-workers.
RR: In a few films you drew very different portraits of guys trying to escape from something, or trying to change something in their lives or around them. What was the inspiration for Marty?
JP: I just don’t even know! Honestly I just kind of take my experiences and my feelings and try to amplify them, try to make them bigger. Marty is a temp employee at a mortgage company…I did that! I was a temp in a mortgage company. And I was in charge of ordering office supplies. I had no responsibilities and there were too many bosses, and they weren’t able to keep track of what was going on. So, sometimes I was so bored that it seemed fun to make things like: “What if I take this stapler”. And nobody would notice. After a while I was like: “What if I take all these office supplies that I ordered and return them without anybody noticing.” It just turned into a game, it was a silly job, so unnecessary. It went out of control: I would spend more time doing this than working. I would goof around taking things. The cinematographer and I worked for this mortgage company together. We’d go on break for three hours…just ridiculous. I just kind of take these experiences: being a guy in his thirties who doesn’t like having a job and who’s more lazy than professional. You put this in the script what you feel and kind of make it bigger. I just try to make a criticism of the world around me without shoving it down your throat. Make it entertaining and not pretentious, like a kind of hardcore, straight forward art house film.
RR: Last time you were here in Locarno with Ape you were already thinking about Buzzard.
JP: Yeah, we flew from Locarno, and then we had to drive back 12 hours from New York to Michigan. During the way back, especially after seeing Tower, Mike, Ashley, Joshua and I started talking about the ideas that we had and what could be funny. ‘Cause I had the idea of Marty working at a mortgage company and I wanted to introduce this Derek character. It all started to come along.
MS: We wanted the film to be about fear and paranoia. Initially, that was the idea. I never forget I used to work in bar as a bartender and Joshua came in one day and he was so excited. He said something like: “In the first scene it’s like I go in and…”. It was a little more heavy-handed political criticism with a longer shot of the scene where he goes into the bank and hold the scam and basically he performed that scene at the bar for me. He was so excited. I remember that time this happened. Ultimately it all came together. I worked at a mortgage company at a time. I started off as a temp but wasn’t hired in (laughs).
RR: I saw Marty as a sort of a romantic hero. He doesn’t turn on his computer at work, he seems not to care about anything there, and then, when he pulls the scam with the cheques, he doesn’t even realize it’s going to be easy to discover what he did by comparing the signatures. He seems like a man out of his time.
JP: He’s kind of naive about how this system works. The thing with Marty is that he’s fighting the system and the men in the corporate world, but he doesn’t understand the corporate world. He doesn’t even understand what he’s fighting against. He feels that somebody owes him something but… The fact that he doesn’t understand that the cheques can be traced is what makes him naive. I mean, he and Derek are in their thirties but their mentality is more like that of a fifteen-year-old boy. The idea of being able to cash one cheque without anyone noticing makes us understand that he doesn’t look long term, he doesn’t realize the consequences of what he does. Whatever he can get at the moment is what is real for him.
RR: In fact, at the end, when he thinks that all is over, he’s happy, he think he’s going to be free.
JP: Exactly, this is the exact capitalization of his naïveté. He may have committed major crimes, and all he keeps thinking about are the stupid cheques for maybe 2’000 dollars. He is so far gone, so out of touch from reality at that point. Completely out of touch with what’s happening around him.
RR: You always film with very, very low budgets. Two years ago you told me: “Give us $20’000 and we will give you the best Fast and Furious film”…
JP … Totally true…
RR: Do you ever feel the need to work with higher budgets or does this not matter to you?
JP: I think the most important thing is control. I think budget isn’t as important as control. Bigger budgets could mean less control, more hands in the pot, more people telling what to do and making decisions for us. If they gave us bigger budgets and let us do what we want to do it’d be the perfect world. With a bigger budget, we could make more money. We could get paid and do what we want. We wouldn’t worry about needing to work for a mortgage company. At this point, we are fortunate enough to make a living out of filmmaking and production, but this hans’t always been the case. Our hope is for higher budgets, and being able to retain control and make a living out of it. If you gave us $20’000 we could give you an awesome Fast and Furious film.
RR: Sob Noisse is kind of a factory, like the ones we know from the sixties or seventies. It’s a different way of thinking about cinema…
JP: Yeah, that’s what we want.
RR: Because you really work all together, in close contact at every step of the production.
JP: Yeah. We all put ideas together in very much in our films: people who are there for pre-production, then are on set and make decisions after the film has been shot. There’s no bad blood or drama between anybody. We’re all friends.
MS: At the Q&A for Listen Up Philip (at Locarno Film festival 2014. Ed.) I asked director Alex Ross Perry, who did The Color Wheel beforehand (which was a small film), what it was like to work with a bigger budget and he said that he was fortunate on that film because everybody got along. That’s what we have with Sob Noisse: we are kind of quick and we get along. It’d be nice to work with bigger budgets, and actually have actors who are really professionals who can sit down and show us on set what they can do without having a 20 or 30 year relationship beforehand, and they can just understand the role.
JP: That would be for supporting roles… This means going against the system, not hiring a huge crew of people from LA or New York. We tried a new way of doing it and so far, so good. We’ve been doing this for 3 or 4 films now. So, why change what’s working so well? We are not ready to do a Michael Bay Transformers movie with a crew of 300 strangers. I don’t wanna do it.
RR: Ape was about a standup comedian, Buzzard about a temp in a mortgage company. You were both, in the past. We can safely say you have an autobiographical approach to you characters. So, what’s next? Because I know you already have something in mind…
JP: Yeah…we do, we actually do. I could describe it – and I will – but it won’t sound autobiographical at first but I think the most important part of the autobiographical aspect is what the feeling is. Because the next film will about a modern day alchemist, someone who’s living out in a swamp, trying to bring back the ancient science of turning lead into gold. So, I’ve never tried to turn lead into gold, I’ve never lived in a swamp, I’m not an alchemist. But this is superficially what it is about. We’ll see the sacrifices he goes through to achieve his unattainable – or possibly attainable – goal. Like a struggling artist. It’s pretty exciting to see where this goes.
RR: Are you going to shoot this soon?
JP: We are still trying to figure it out. We are still working on the script. We are still trying to figure out what the next move will be. And anything in between can happen. I just ended the animal trilogy and after that film we are kind of almost thinking about another trilogy. So, this will be a film on its own. Kind of something different. The animal trilogy was set in kind of an urban mid-western environment. With the next one, we are trying to do something completely different while keeping the same gang involved.
MS: The setting will still be midwestern, just a different part of it.
JP: A different kind of decay…instead of cement decay we are thinking about trees decay. It’s just a different feeling. Different colors, in every sense of the word…
RR: How do you usually write a film? Do you have a schedule or a method?
JP: I really have no method. It’s always different. Buzzard was carefully outlined for months, because there was money and checks and very specific motivations that needed to be covered. But I normally don’t outline as much. For Ape, I just kind of starting writing it and wasn’t sure where it was going. That’s the most fun way to write, to surprise yourself and take the trip with the characters. And I just wrote a horror script that started as a dense 10-page synopsis, then fleshed it out into a screenplay. The screenplay I’m currently writing is all on notecards. If I come up with an idea for a scene, it goes on a notecard. From there, I write out one scene at a time in Final Draft. I never have a set structure for my writing schedule, either. Some days I write nothing, and then go on a four-day bender, staying up all night writing. There’s nothing worse than forcing yourself to write. But sometimes, you just have to jumpstart the process. I’m always writing ideas in my phone or my notebook. So I always have at least one solid idea to build from. Watching movies is normally where most of my ideas come from. I tend to steal a lot, and then reshape it into my worldview.
I’d get way more done if it weren’t for the Internet.
RR: When you write, do you accept suggestions on the script by people you work with? And does it happen to you to dramatically change the script during rehearsals?
JP: I always run my ideas and drafts through Sob Noisse first. They are my closest collaborators, and my film band. We talk about everything, from the script to costumes to cameras to what flavor of Doritos would be best for the scene. From there, I normally run my early drafts through a handful of people I trust. If too many people are giving feedback, sometimes it gets messy and it’s difficult to find the helpful notes.
Rehearsing is another phase in the writing process for me. I like to improv during rehearsals and change things up to see if a certain scene could go in a different direction. I’m completely open to hearing everyone’s opinion in the room, even if I’m guilty of sometimes being a control freak, thinking my way is the best. But Joshua and I came up with a lot of new ideas and rhythms during Buzzard’s long, 8-month rehearsal period. It’s where the film really started to come to life. I can only write it, from there it’s up to Joshua to breathe life into it. I need an actor like that; someone with soul and humanity and the ability to understand what I’m trying to say.
RR: You used Joshua Burge as the lead actor for a few films now. When you write a film, do you write already thinking about him or you try to challenge him with different characters?
JP: I never, ever write for Joshua. If I did, I would be afraid it would be too easy for him. I would be thinking about his voice, about how he behaves. It wouldn’t be a challenge for him, it wouldn’t be cinematic. The voices of my characters are usually voices in my head. I love that. In my head I know how this character looks like, sounds like, feels like. And then I give it to Joshua and he interprets him, and what comes out is kind of a hybrid of what’s in his head and what’s in my head. He embodies the voice of what we are trying to do. He is not your stereotypical leading man, dashingly good looking like Brad Pitt, but I think I would cast Joshua over Tom Cruise any day. Because not only for his unique look, his unique appearance, his unique mannerisms…
MS: He has lots of physical subtleties. He consciously does that. He nails it.
JP: Yeah, when I write a character and give it to him, he brings something completely new to it. Something exciting that I can never write or even imagine. So, he’s perfect.
RR: I was asking this because of the spaghetti scene in the film. It’s very different from what he has done in your films before. That made me wonder about how much room for improvisation you leave, if any?
JP: The story is that we were filming and we knew that the spaghetti scene was up next and something on the bed.
So we took a break for dinner before filming it, and Joshua had fish and chips. Full dinner. And in the script it says: Marty has his best bowl of spaghetti he has ever had, and he loves it. This was very vague, so I said to Joshua: “Ok, put the plate in front of and take a bite… that we’ll be it”. He took a bigger bite than I expected and and he kept taking bigger bites, and looked at me like to say: “Cut?”. And I would go: “Maybe another bite”. I wanted to see where this was going and Joshua – this is why he is our guy, he’s committed – he just kept waiting for me to say: “Cut!”, and I wasn’t. He kept shoveling in the spaghetti and the meatballs, and four or five minutes later I was thinking how to end the scene and I said: “Joshua laugh!”. We gave him a big hug. It was completely not in the script. And, after he had a huge dinner, I asked him to jump up and down on the bed. The fun part is torturing him a little bit ’cause he’s a good sport, he never complains. It was amazing watching it in person. I thought: “I don’t care if people like it or not, this is going in the film because this is the best scene in the movie”.
RR: It’s a joyful scene.
RR: I didn’t know about the early dinner. Sounds funny…and cruel at the same time.
JP: Maybe it wasn’t so joyful for him, but I think it’s one of the most important scenes in the movie because it’s the only time that Marty is clean. He’s wearing an expensive, clean robe, he’s in a luxury hotel and he’s happy; he’s laughing. It’s the only time where he’s happy. It’s a bridge for the film before it gets dark. We wanted to see Marty happy, in an element that is foreign to him. It’s a very important scene that isn’t scripted quite that way.
RR: You keep an affectionate look on both your main characters, Derek and Marty, as you did with the characters of your previous films. What kind of position do you put yourself into when you write a character?
JP: I think I’m able to see every single character’s perspective, and understand their motivations. I understand why Marty is upset and lashing out. I understand why he sneaks into a motel room in the middle of the night. I also understand why a motel owner would be angry if someone ripped him off like that. You just need to put yourself in their position for a moment. You don’t have to agree with their view, but you absolutely need to understand it. If you can’t understand them, then you’re not being honest. Nothing worse than dishonesty in storytelling.
RR: In your film, the system appears to win at the end. Is there a way to win against it even without being a hero?
JP: Well, I kept it ambiguous. I never want to tell the audience exactly how to feel or show them something false. In reality, there’s usually not closure. No one wins or loses definitively. There’s always consequence or another chapter to the story. Star Wars ends with triumphant fanfare and the heroes getting medals. That’s a different universe from ours, literally. I want my characters to keep fighting, even after the credits. Their story should never be resolved. That’s not honest to the audience. There are no true heroes and there are no true villains. I love EC comics, and those tales are very black and white about who’s good and who’s bad. Again, that’s just a different world.
RR: Do you remember when exactly did you realize that you wanted to write and direct films?
JP: Growing up as a horror kid, I never really saw the mechanics behind a movie. There’s not much cinema in horror normally. It wasn’t until I saw the original The Evil Dead at age 16, that I was able to see what a director did. It felt handmade and gritty, like something I could do. And Sam Raimi was from Michigan, too. Totally inspiring. It changed my whole state of mind. And it wasn’t until I started making my own little movies in high school that I realized the ingenuity of his camera. I spent years trying to emulate his style. That is, until I discovered Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise in college. It was just so cool and minimal. The opposite of Raimi. I started making little 16mm and Super 8 films that subconsciously blended Raimi and Jarmusch. There’s still probably some of that in what I’m doing now.
RR: When I wrote about your previous films, I used the adjective punk to define their freedom, their rage and irreverence against the world around its characters. What would be your definition of punk culture today?
JP: Well, once punk music and fashion was adopted by the mainstream, people wondered what “punk” even meant, and started saying ‘’punk is dead”. As clichéd as it may sound, it’s not about the music or a look, it’s just about going against the norm for me. Even the world of indie films seems homogenized so often. People have said that I work outside a system that is outside of the system already. I accept that. I don’t want to make movies the traditional way or feel like I have to inject a love interest in order to sell the “product” to a bigger audience. Punk filmmaking is just giving a middle finger to expensive grip trucks, trends, and sentimentality. I think there’s a new wave of punk filmmaking happening again. I hope, at least.
RR: Up until now, you took reality, you amplified – but not too much – some of its aspects and inject it with a peculiar sense of humor. Do you intend to keep this point of view on future films after the trilogy?
JP: It’s just what I do. I never sit down and think about the tone or character traits when I start writing. All that just comes naturally. However, I’m always conscious of what I call “the 99%” when making a film. Often a scene would work perfectly if I did what came easiest, a direction that maybe 99% of filmmakers would go. But I always want to challenge myself and do something different. Most of the time, if a scene or idea can be resolved traditionally, it’s likely phony. I look for ways to avoid the easy way out of a scene. I assume I’ll keep that style until someone starts seeing something different in my work. The audience will see Buzzard in a way completely unique from how I see it. I can’t control that. It’s all part of the process.
RR: You studied cinema and journalism. What do you think about film critics? Are they important for you? Do you think they add something to cinema?
JP: I think criticism is completely necessary. You sometimes need educated people to point a finger at bullshit. It’s sometimes painful to get negative feedback from an important critic, but it’s part of the cycle. Of course, it feels great if they praise what you’re doing. No matter how tough and cool an artist claims to be, they’re affected by criticism. I would never make a film to appease a critic, but it’s subconsciously in the back of my head, wondering how critics will react to certain ideas I’m putting on the screen. I appreciate criticism as its own artform, almost. Of course, there’s a big difference between Roger Ebert and Perez Hilton.
RR: A major studio gives you all you need for a remake or a new chapter of a franchise film. I’m thinking about something like Halloween or Friday 13th. Complete freedom, even if I know this is quite impossible. Would you accept? And what film would you choose?
JP: Of course. There’s no better way to subvert a system, than to infiltrate it and work from the inside. I’m writing a script that follows Jason Voorhees in his daily routine, through each of the four seasons. Very minimal, very melancholy and savage. I think it’d be amazing. But it’d be something a studio would never greenlight. I don’t think my stories would ever translate to a studio project. And I doubt anyone will take me serious about my neorealist take on a family of Tusken Raiders.
RR: There’s something new. Something huge: the film has distribution.
JP: The film was bought before its premiere at SXSW. It’s a really big deal for us. It’s exciting because it’s the first time that we have a sales agent, a company that tries to sell it for the rest of the world instead of me writing to distributors. We have actual professionals handling it. One of the most exciting moments after shooting is when you don’t know if the film will succeed with critics, distributors.
Now we’ll see what happens.
RR: Do you feel attention around you now?
JP: I hope so. I think people are starting to understand we are trying to do something different. Ideally they would kind of learn from our model, hopefully, and be inspired in doing their own thing with their friends without going through the industry norms and hiring huge crews. I think people are starting to notice Sob Noisse and what we are doing.
RR: I think that there is now a recognizable “American Independent film style” and you are totally different.
JP: Somebody said that we are not only different from the studios system in Hollywood, but we are working outside the system that is working outside of that too. We are going against what normally independent filmmakers do. And that’s great. Part of that is because we are so far from New York and Los Angeles that we just do it the way we think it should be done. We are not looking at anyone else; we are not trying to emulate anyone else. We just do things the way we know how to do it and want to do it. There’s nobody saying: “You’re doing it wrong or right”.
RR: So the idea of making Michigan the ideal place for your cinema succeeded. It gave you all the freedom you needed.
MS: Michigan is a very inexpensive place. It’s very inexpensive to make a film there. You don’t have to worry about getting permits so much. People are usually very generous. For example: the locksmith where Marty goes to have the keys duplicated was just a company that I called to ask if we could film there. And they were just excited. They just answered: “Yeah, come on in!”. And they didn’t charge us any money. We were supposed to just shoot the scene and the guys kept asking: “Do you actually want to make the key?” They were just excited about people going there to film. So, you have that benefit but you also have people who don’t get what you are doing. Overall, if you are cool and know how to talk to people, they are just friendly. It’s a great place. People are just more down to earth, or just friendly.
RR: As I told you before, I’m absolutely sure that your films would be loved in Europe. You had a taste of this beginning from Ape. In what way do the reactions between European and US audiences differ – if they do – from your point of view?
JP: It’s taken me a long time to get my work to Europe. I’ve always thought my type of films would play well overseas. The audiences are much different. Europe seems to appreciate the more surreal aspects of my films and laugh at different things. Sometimes, audiences in the US expect more of a plot and wait for the love interest to be introduced. I don’t work that way. But actually, Buzzard seems to be the first film I’ve done that feels like it translates both at home and overseas in almost the same way. People in Locarno laughed at the same scenes at the audiences at SXSW. However, some of the more dark and violent scenes come off as abstract and bizarre to European audiences. They tend to laugh or applaud at Marty’s violence. In the US, people are shocked more easily and sometimes even get upset with me. And that’s exactly how art should work. It should challenge people and be completely open to different reactions. I never want to tell an audience how to feel.
RR: Let’s go back to the drive-ins era. What other director’s film would you chose for a double-bill with Buzzard, if you had to?
JP: That’s a tricky question. A part of me would naturally pair it with something similar, like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or even Rick Alverson’s The Comedy, but that would be too easy and safe. So I’d like to screen it alongside something like Lindsay Anderson’s If… or maybe Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer or Mahakaal (Shyam Ramsay and Tulsi Ramsay, 1993. Ed.). Definitely Mahakaal!
RR: I badly need to know where the posters in Marty’s room come from.
JP: We found an empty apartment and a friend – actually the lead actor in our first short film, Gordon – came over to say hi. He walked in and saw Marty’s bedroom and said: “So, Joel, you just moved your bedroom into Marty’s bedroom?”. Those are all my posters, the ones I have in my bedroom. That’s were a lot of the things come from. I like those movies and that’s what Marty is going to like, so…
RR: You have the French poster of Return of the Living Dead!
JP: Yeah, yeah…I have all that (laughs). I’ll give you another exclusive I haven’t told to anyone before: when Ape was on tour for the festivals, the film that was getting all the awards was Leviathan (by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel). So, in 1988 there was a horror movie called Leviathan with Peter Weller from Robocop. If you carefully watch the scene where Marty is wearing the devil’s mask, you will see the poster for Leviathan – the American one – with four slashes on it—the ones from Marty’s glove.
RR: Mike, you’ve been working as an associate producer since Gordon (2007) and as a producer from Buzzard. Tell me about those experiences and how this all started.
MS: Gordon was definitely the start of something with Joel and his filmmaking that went beyond student work. My involvement with working with Joel creatively started before Gordon though, I believe it was 1996 or 1997 when I first met Joel at school. He was editing a 16mm project he was working on with my Brother Tim. Tim and Joel had done a few projects together that Tim showed me, one of which they intentionally broke every rule of continuity editing to show they understood the concepts of conventional filmmaking. I eventually became friends with Joel and his roommates because we lived in a student apartment complex and he and his roommates would stand on their porch wearing a giant Gizmo mask (Gizmo from Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Ed.) and wave at everyone and yell at students who were obviously returning from class if they were going to class. My roommates and I thought that was hilarious and they had a really cool The Deer Hunter poster that was visible from the outside. Adam Minnick the Director of Photography for Buzzard lived in that apartment with Joel. Eventually we became friends and we were generally pretty dorky guys and a lot of the scenes of Marty and Derek in the party zone was pretty much how we were living.
It was also at this time I met Joshua, he was playing folk songs at the student coffee shop Afterwards. His song writing was a million miles ahead of everyone at this time. Everybody called him the next Bob Dylan. J.P. Sniadecki was his roommate.
Joel and our good friend John Curtis had a band called Poodle Metal which was heavily inspired by early Ween and was very funny and very bizarre. They had recorded 2 albums on cassette tape and we eventually started a 5 piece band around the project, I played keyboards under the Outo Bol a name I am credited under with Sob Noisse projects. We played some shows around town and made some videos as well, they were very much in the style of The Office. Around this time Joel was recording music under a solo project called Zoozersadd, which is some really cool sample based stuff. The videos he shot for those songs are absolutely great minimalistic stuff. I was playing as Mister Squid and we would play shows together and jam, it was a ton of fun.
Over time Joel wrote a novel, taught English in the Czech Republic, tried to be a stand up comic in New York and bounced around the country working at baseball stadiums. I graduated, started a video production company doing mostly commercial work and taping so many bands. Joshua had bounced around as well, singing in New York, living in South Bend trying his hand at being a vagabond singer songwriter. All the while writing great songs.
In 2005 I got married in Alpena to my wife Sarah, she is from Alpena and we had a cool hippie wedding in the woods and Joshua played music for us. A lot of the guest who were up from Grand Rapids camped at Joel’s place.
Around 2006 I started playing with Joshua in the band Chance Jones under the name Outo Bol. Joshua had developed an amazing wild man persona while performing. At this time we had all more or less settled in Grand Rapids and Joel wanted to make a super 8 film. He organized the whole thing, I offered to help because it was always fun, my wife Sarah and I did the music. I honestly remember very little about the production of that film. It was very loose, Joel took on most of the responsibility, I remember it being cold when we shot. I was really happy with the film and wanted to do more to help on the next project. Joel financed the whole thing and everyone who was involved did it because it was fun.
After Gordon, Joel wrote Coyote, I was a definitely more involved with the production of Coyote. I took it more serious because I really liked Gordon and perhaps because Joshua and Joel were working together and I thought it was a great collaboration and it felt very much like a jam session. It was still very much organized by Joel. I did help with some location scouting and had a couple of ideas that made it in the film. I am still really proud of that film, seeing two of my good friends who are super talented excel in such a way was great.
RR: Seven years have passed between Gordon and Buzzard. Can you tell me – as a direct witness – what changed from your point of view and what changed for the other people you work with?
MS: When Ape came around that seemed like a whole insanely complicated project. Joel again managed most of it, I helped with some casting and basic crew type stuff. I actually had a speaking role in a sub plot that got cut. My character’s name was Martin Short. I like Bicycle Thief better though. At this point Joel began sharing the script beforehand, asking for input and guiding the whole process. This is when Kevin Clancy and Ashely Young became involved. I was more involved in the soundtrack in that there was more Hip Hop involved. I DJ and book Hip Hop shows and love the culture so that was very fun to do, I have to thank my friend Justin Weeks for providing some extra rare tracks for Ape’s soundtrack.
After the success of Ape, we all started taking what we were doing much more seriously. We still kept it fun and we were all super excited about the new script, so much of what Joel wrote was very very close to home for us. The day I got the script I broke down all the characters and locations. We almost immediately started rehearsing, with the rehearsing came rewrites, getting together and jamming on the script was great, it really did feel like a band. We were operating at a much more professional level. Joel became better at delegating some of the tasks he had been taking on, Ashley is super organized and helped keep us on task. I was able to get a bunch or locations and organize auditions, it was kind of amazing to us that people actually wanted to audition and were taking the project seriously. It was far more easy to find investors. Joshua was taking his acting very seriously and it shows, such subtle nuance in his facial expressions. It was a blast to the set design, I think Marty’s apartment looks cool as hell, and Derek’s Party Zone was just hilarious. It was so fun to think of what Derek’s world would be. Adam Minnick signed on as Director of Photography which was a huge step up from Ape. He believed in the project tremendously and sacrificed a lot of time and money moving from Austin, Texas to Grand Rapids, Michigan for a month. This may seem a little long of an answer but I’m certain I’ve left out a lot.
RR: What’s your contribution in the creative area?
MS: My work in the creative area is kind of hard to pin down, I do offer a lot of feed back on the scripts, I like to insert large amounts of madness. I’m pretty proud of the Party Zone, I spent a lot of time making my parents basement look like it was Derek’s. I also pushed Joel pretty hard that he should play Derek, that character was so much in Joel’s comedic voice and I knew he could handle the sadness of that character too. I was also really happy that we could include TRPL BLK as the locksmith and Dopehead and Zelooperz at the Hip Hop show. Those guys belong to a Hip Hop crew out of Detroit called The Bruiser Brigade and I book shows for them in Grand Rapids, having any of their creative energy in the project is exciting to me. I feel like I’m working best in sob noise when I make Joel’s job easier and I can throw something in the script with some real essence.
RR: The other producers are Ashley Young and Kevin Clancy. What are the differences between you in contributing to the projects?
MS: Kevin signed on as a friend of Joshua’s who recognized his talent, he helped fund Ape, acted in Ape and was on the crew. Same deal with Buzzard, Kevin also provided feedback on the script, found locations, he was our stand by if we had actor no shows. Also Kevin is a great problem solver and very positive person to be around. Ashley helps keep the production on schedule, the information organized, keeps us all reminded of what we have and what we need.
RR: What were the films you loved the most growing up? Or the films you think contributed the most to your cinematic culture.
MS: The films I loved the most growing up as a child, I loved Star Wars, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, The Terminator, Ghostbusters, The Jerk. We would also rent the classic monster films, Dracula (1931) Frankenstein (1931), Creature From The Black Lagoon. My Mom would watch films like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, I always liked those. I absolute love It’s a Wonderful Life.
As I got older and wanted to study film, of course Pulp Fiction was huge but it caused a movement of young guys in film school who wanted to act like they were Quentin Tarantino, fast talking 20 year old dickheads, nothing worse. I loved Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange especially. Scorsese I’ve watched Taxi Driver a million times, Paul Schrader is from Grand Rapids and he came to speak one time and it was amazing. John Carpenter’s films are great. George Romero, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Living Dead and Day of the Living Dead are great, so is Martin. I like the A Nightmare on Elm Street, the whole series, I hated the new one though. I love the French New Wave, Weekend is one of my favorites. I got way into Ingmar Bergman and wrote a number of papers on Wild Strawberries. I got way into Sergei Eisenstein through my brother, I like heavy handed political stuff in general. Throne of Blood by Kurosawa is awesome. American Movie is a very realistic portrait of weirdo midwesterners that I totally relate to. Joel put me on to the films of Alan Clarke: Scum, Elephant and Made in Britain are just amazing. I really like The Holy Mountain by Alejandro Jodorowski. I like other weird stuff too like The Beaver Trilogy, Basket Case, Deadbeat at Dawn. I just saw Il Demonio and it blew my mind.
As far as contemporary stuff I loved Tower by Kazik Radwinski, The Last Time I Saw Macao By João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues. See You Next Tuesday by Drew Tobia is fantastic. The Iron Ministry by J.P. Sniadecki is fantastic. I loved The Color Wheel by Alex Ross Perry.
RR: What was the reaction to the film at SXSW?
MS: Buzzard was really well received at SXSW, it was a good mix of art film folks and metal head stoners. I think the film can appeal to both audiences, a lot of metal heads really love films. It’s a little bit of a hard festival to gauge because so much is going on there, playing at MoMA and The Lincoln Center was a really amazing follow up because it was a much more high art older crowd and they sat through all this really loud metal music and moronic behavior and really got the film, it was really amazing.
RR: You said that you like to work with low budgets but also that you’d like to have some more money to be invested for distribution. Now, with Buzzard, something big has changed in terms of distribution. Can you tell me what’s happening?
MS: Quite honestly the whole distribution aspect I have almost no knowledge about to offer a really informed opinion. I know it’s slow and that is kind of frustrating. It’s great that Oscilloscope has picked up Buzzard for North America. It will be coming out in Winter 2015. Those guys get the film and have a great catalog to be associated with. We have a sales agent for worldwide distribution, Media Luna. They get the film and we feel really comfortable with them. Factory 25 has been great for Ape as well, again a great catalog of films to be associated with. I feel pretty grateful that anyone takes any interest our films. I’m not mad at any particular person or distributor, it just sucks that for independent filmmakers its economically hard in general. It’s a long process and we have had tons of great press, we’ve won some awards but it’s been pretty disillusioning as far as how long it takes to make any money. Perhaps in my mind a positive review from A.O. Scott should immediately come with a big paycheck.
RR: Would you work – with Sob Noisse – to other people’s projects? And – if yes – do you think you would be able to keep the same approach you have with Joel’s films?
MS: I would totally work with other people, I would have to believe in what they are doing. As far as Sob Noisse producing a film that wasn’t Joel’s I would love that too. It’s kind of difficult though being based in Grand Rapids. Joel and Joshua have been great about reaching out to filmmakers in Grand Rapids and working on their projects. I always offer to first read and give notes on scripts, which I’ll do for anyone, just because I like hearing peoples ideas. The only people who has ever taken me up is J.P. Sniadecki and Nony Geffen, I’m really looking forward to Nony’s next project Y Elephant. It’s just not possible for me to be involved in any other way on that project, it’s being shot in Tel Aviv and other than my notes on the script I doubt Nony needs me for too much else, he knows what he’s doing. J.P., Joshua and I have been working on a project. I can’t say too much about it but its something that we really believe in, it will take some time to finish and it feels like a Sob Noisse production in that we all jam our ideas out. Joel has been there too giving his feedback but it’s J.P.’s project. I’d love to work on a film with João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues or Drew Tobia.