Every Friday, Indiewire’s new Springboard column will profile an up-and-comer in the indie world who made a mark that deserves your attention. Select profiles will include photography by Daniel Bergeron, exclusive to Indiewire. Today we talk to writer-director Joel Potrykus.
Some people design their first few movies as calling cards. Judging by his first two features, “Ape” and “Buzzard,” Joel Potrykus is not one of those people. Potrykus’ savage comedies are distinctly offbeat and unapologetically subversive. But that’s exactly what makes them stand out: “Ape,” which won the prize for best first feature at the Locarno Film Festival in 2012, starred newcomer Joshua Burge as a terrible comedian at wit’s end; “Buzzard,” which premiered at the SXSW Film Festival ahead of its New York premiere last weekend at New Directors/New Films, finds Burge playing a disgruntled bank worker who steals and cons his way through life — until his antics catch up to him, with darkly hilarious results. The movie has already found plenty of critical acclaim and shown signs of cult potential, which means that you might be hearing a lot more from Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Potrykus in the near future. Read on for his insight into the experience of making movies with minimal expectations and suddenly facing a new world of decisions.
“Ape” gave me a lot of minor league cred in the industry. So when I bugged programmers to watch “Buzzard,” they weren’t like, “Who’s this guy?” This time around, I’m getting phone calls from agents, which is a weird thing. But as far as making the movie, it was still very guerrilla, like “Ape.” Winning best new director at Locarno didn’t changed my life; studios weren’t breathing down my neck. I’m still very much on the outskirts of all that in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I was nervous making “Buzzard.” I didn’t want to hit that sophomore slump, you know, put out that really crappy second album. I was very nervous about putting it out there. When we got positive feedback, once other people started digging it, it felt pretty good.
I knew when we were shooting that we had something good. You just have those days on set — meaning someone’s apartment we’re using for free — where you shoot a shot, and I always halfheartedly joke around and say something like, “Oh, that was pure cinema.” As if I’m, like, a pompous Italian director or something. But I really felt that way this time, seeing it play out in real time. All I care about is making movies that I want to watch. I just wanted to see “Buzzard” really, really badly, so I guess I had to make it.
I think my voice is much stronger now. I’m doing the same things, but I’m doing them better. I want to put the audience to sleep and then kick them in the balls. I finally nailed that rhythm with “Buzzard.” It really does follow my rhythm and get closer to what I’m setting out to say.
To me, it’s all about tonal shifts. I don’t want to make genre movies, but I’m into making the audience surprised and also confused — it can be funny one minute and nightmarish the next. When I was first writing “Buzzard,” I was saying, this is so overtly political, just one big social commentary.
I temped at mortgage company for a full year. I absolutely fess up to sleeping in my car for three hours and nobody noticed. I had like five different bosses and nobody knew what to say. I’d show up late, leave early, and there was no accountability. It was horrible. So I know this character really well. I’m definitely coming from that world, being in your early twenties and scraping by. A lot of “Buzzard” is about two 14-year-olds trapped inside adult bodies. I wish I still had a party zone in my basement like they do.
We had to turn down a big New York festival just to get SXSW. Having to decide where the world premiere was going to be and having the movie picked up before the premiere — that’s the dream. Places would email me. I had to start rejecting festivals. That was a pretty sweet little moment, when I started to tell them, “I have to pass on your festival.” I’m much further along in my film career than I thought I would be two years ago. Things are happening the way I want them to happen at a good pace.
I’m getting a lot of requests to come out to L.A. now. That’s the big dilemma. I guess I just want L.A. money and stay in Grand Rapids. As much as I like visiting L.A., I’m not sure it’s my scene.
I’m pitching a lot of scripts. I have three more that I’ve written. I don’t know if anyone likes them, but I don’t really see the point of compromising on them, unless they want to give me $20 million.