It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment where Joel Potrykus decided to blow off the Hollywood studio projects sent his way and instead make wacky movies like “Relaxer,” which takes place in a living room and revolves around a guy playing “Pacman” on the brink of Y2K. But it might have been around the time that time someone suggested he direct a sequel to the found footage party movie “Project X.” He’d reached a breaking point.
“I was offered all these scripts for, like, sequels to mid-level successful movies, and I was like, ‘Why?’” Potrykus said in an interview with IndieWire at the SXSW Film Festival in March. “It’s like painting something and then handing off to someone so they can paint over it. Why spend all that time? I have a job that pays well, so I’m not making movies for money.”
Potrykus teaches film production at Michigan State University, and launched the production company Sob Noisse out of his native Grand Rapids in 2005. Needless to say, he’s not your average breakout story. His anarchic black comedies — including the acclaimed capitalist satire “Buzzard” — have screened at festivals around the world, from SXSW to Locarno. Rather than leveraging that attention to attract big stars and budgets, Potrykus has retreated further into his homegrown world.
For “Relaxer,” which makes its New York premiere at BAMcinemeaFest this week ahead of a release by Oscilloscope Laboratories next year, Potrykus re-teamed with perennial collaborator Joshua Burge as a man glued to a Nintendo 64 for weeks and weeks, fighting to defeat an impossible level of “Pacman” before 1999 reaches an end — and possibly the world as well. A hilarious dose of surrealism and outlandish apocalyptic humor, the movie builds to a wry statement on the end of the analog era, and the 20th century along with it.
Potrykus described the character as “this manchild focused on a goal that’s so absurd,” and reflected on the setting, which he recalled with vivid memories from his college days. “Why are there no Y2K movies?” he said. “Like, why hadn’t anyone made a movie about that paranoia?” He compared the plot of “Relaxer” to the 1988 thriller “Miracle Mile,” which stars Anthony Edwards facing the prospects of nuclear war breaking out in a single Los Angeles neighborhood over the course of a day. “I love those movies where there’s a ticking clock,” he said. “On our New Years’ Eve party in 1999, I wanted to turn off all the lights and turn them back on just to see what was working.”
Potrykus modeled the set on his college dorm room, and spent four months building it from scratch in the garage of a home owned by production designer Mike Saunders’ parents. “We’re like two dudes who don’t know how to make a set,” Potrykus said, grinning. “We had no idea how to fix a shelf.” He spent the bulk of his budget on a single, violent practical effect that arrives in the movie’s closing minutes, rejecting suggestions from filmmaking peers that he should just use CGI. “It’s the most money I’ve ever spent on one thing ever,” he said.
He modeled the movie’s premise on Luis Buñuel’s classic 1962 film “The Exterminating Angel,” which follows a group of affluent dinner guests unable to leave the party for inexplicable reasons. “Not enough people steal from Buñuel,” Potrykus said. “He’s the original weirdo filmmaker, but it doesn’t seem like he’s had enough of an impact on modern day stuff.” (Potrykus acknowledged that Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” also tipped its hat to “The Exterminating Angel.”)
Needless to say, he doesn’t expect to do another round in Hollywood. “I consider this my big movie,” he said, with utter seriousness. “The camera is the most control it’s ever been in one of my movies.” The conversation turned back to his reservations about working in L.A. “Everyone wants to know what you want to do next,” he said, recalling how several producers suggested turning his ideas into series. “I just realized really quickly that this is not my game, and they don’t want what I have,” he said. “When I say I want to make little movies with my friends for under $100,000, that instantly signals to them that this is not a guy we can ever make money off. I get it. There’s nothing in it for them, and nothing in it for me.”
He’s an object of fascination to his filmmaking students, many of whom harbor ambitions outside of the Grand Rapids area. Recently, he recalled one coming up to him and asking: “How come you haven’t gone out to Hollywood?” Potrykus laughed. “He wasn’t accusing me of chickening out,” Potrykus said. “But I’ve been offered some pretty weird Hollywood movies and realized, if I’m going to spend two years making a movie, I want it to be my movie.”
He has decided he knows his audience better than any agent or manager. “I found my niche,” he said. “All I want is, like 20 years from now, a bunch of weirdo 15-year-olds discover this somewhere in the dustbin of Netflix or iTunes. That’s my audience.”
“Relaxer” screens June 29 at BAMcinemaFest. Check out an exclusive look at the new poster below: