Whether his characters are doing stand-up comedy, eating spaghetti in fancy hotels, or devoting their lives to conjuring the Devil himself, Grand Rapids native and filmmaker Joel Potrykus has no trouble making sure it gets really, really weird. Through three features, including last year’s critically acclaimed Buzzard, Potrykus has given audiences a peek at a certain kind of American that is rarely encountered on the average day. Like one of Austin’s wanderers in Slacker who’s read one too many Bret Easton Ellis novel, Potrykus captures a certain shocking, toxic masculinity that’s as subversively hilarious as it is alarmingly relevant. I had a chance to talk to Joel about his latest film, The Alchemist Cookbook, about a forest-dweller named Sean who really wants to get possessed by Satan.
Josef: Your previous films, Buzzard and Ape, have flirted with elements of horror, but your most recent work, The Alchemist Cookbook, is the closest thing you’ve ever made to a genre film. At what point did you realize you were capable of tackling something that may have required a lot more precision in execution than some of your previous work? On the other hand, do you think your previous work has always had a pacing and tone that feels unrehearsed but is, in fact, extremely precise?
Joel: Buzzard was very precise. Every tiny exchange between characters and prop was thought over for months and months. Sometimes, the more you prep, the more it looks improvised. With Cookbook I certainly wasn’t setting out to make a horror movie. It was black magic and a demon, but I still would never call it horror. I’m just trying to make movies that I would want to see. I’d want to see Cookbook even if I hadn’t directed it.
I’m definitely not here to impose a political agenda on you or your films, but with more noticeable diversity campaigns online (#OscarsSoWhite for instance), did you make a conscious decision to cast people of color in the two lead roles, or was that something that came to you naturally during writing and pre-production?
It was a choice from the start. I didn’t want to get pegged as the guy making movies about angry white guys in the suburbs. So I intentionally brought this one out into the woods with black guys. There were so many great movies I loved growing up that focused on black characters and rarely did they get the chance to mess around with the Devil and chemistry, even. I never want to tell a story that is predictable or cliched in any way at all. Ty Hickson, who plays Sean, said he’s never been offered a role like this. He was just as excited as I was to shake things up.
Another really striking aspect of this film is its subtle comments on the nature of mental illness and how sometimes it can feel like you’re being possessed by some kind of invading force. The way it’s portrayed in the film seems like it came from a very personal place. Exploring mental illness through horror has surfaced to the mainstream in a big but ultimately disappointing way this year, with films like Lights Out seeming more exploitative than empathetic. How did you maintain that balance between entertainment, empathy, and realism in your portrayal of Sean’s mental state as it fluctuates throughout the film?
My goodness, was Lights Out a disappointment. Love the short, but it’s a simple concept stretched way too far. To be honest, the movie is about a mental illness that overcame my grandfather when I was a kid. That type of paranoia is a lot scarier to the person suffering than it is to us. Most people could never imagine the waking nightmare of schizophrenia. I’ll never make a film about just one thing, or a film that lives in one mood or tone. Our everyday lives are full of drama, humor, and even horror. This type of mental illness is a straight up horror most of the time. It was important to try to get inside Sean’s head. The camera never strays from his perspective for a reason. I want the audience to question everything.
Moving away from the thematics of the film and more into technical aspects, what was it like shooting on an Alexa? If I’m not mistaken Buzzard was shot on a Mark III so this is a huge step up in terms of the range of images you’re able to capture. I noticed a lot more night scenes in this film that were confidently lit using dim candles, campfires, and other sources of natural or visible lighting.
For the first week I hated the Alexa. It was heavy, bulky, and slowed my process down. But DP Adam J. Minnick is about the only guy I’d trust to see the scene the same as I do. So I was totally confident. The only artificial light used were blasting into the trailer in order to maintain consistent daylight effect throughout the long shooting day. Otherwise, all exteriors are natural light, which is important to Adam and me. I never want my movies to look like a movie. At night, in the woods, it’s dark. Really dark. I wanted no fake blasting full moon. I wanted the audience to strain to see things. We actually darkened night scenes to make them even blacker.
I can imagine that you and the actor who played Sean, Ty Hickman, got very close over the course of this production. Tell me a bit about the casting process, and what it was like to spend all that time focusing mostly on one actor. Specifically, did it ever cross your mind to cast someone who was right for the role as well as being someone you wouldn’t mind spending a month alone in the woods with?
Personality is important to me. Ty first got my attention after a scene in Gimme the Loot when he leaves a basement and hits a punching bag on the way out. One of the first things I asked him about is whether or not that was scripted. It wasn’t. He said, “who wouldn’t punch that?” Exactly. That’s the kind of actor I want to work with. Someone with instincts. On Cookbook I’d let the scene play out as scripted, then just let the camera linger and see what Ty would do. It threw him off for the first day or two, but once he understood that I was messing with him a little, he got into it. Those are my favorite moments – the unscripted ones, where I’m surprised. Even better if the actor can surprise himself. I hate sticking to the page and feeling like it’s a construction site. I want mistakes and surprises.
Touching again on the intimacy of it all, how big was your crew on a day-to-day basis, and what was the lodging situation like while on-set? I remember you going dark on Facebook pretty much the entire time you were shooting, and I was scared you guys had run into a Blair Witch Project scenario.
I wish we’d run into a real life witch or demon. Total bummer that those woods weren’t actually haunted. This was our biggest crew – around 20, I’d say. Not my usual style. Most of us crashed in a huge 10 room house that acted as our production headquarters, and a few stayed with friendly residents in Allegan, Michigan, where we filmed. I’m stoked to someday go back to the old set and look for the “pay up” tree and some props we hid around the woods.
What was your relationship like with horror films growing up and into your adulthood? One of my favorite things about Sean is that he so desperately wants to be possessed by the Devil, while most characters in scary movies do everything they can to avoid such a fate. Was there any part of you that wrote that character with the meta elements in mind?
Yeah, it’s rare to see a character actively pursuing evil. The original Evil Dead inspired me to make films at an early age. I’ve always been obsessed with horror and it’ll always be present in my work one way or another. An American Werewolf in London may be my favorite movie ever. Its tonal shifts are perfect. Just last night I watched Halloween III and the shitty new Ouija movie.
During our last interview I remember you talking briefly about the spaghetti scene in Buzzard, which has since become something of a legend amongst indie film buffs. But it seems like you just love to film people eating. Is there something that you feel is captured when the audience watches a character eat that can’t be conveyed any other way, or am I reading far too much into what’s ultimately just a nifty coincidence?
Eating is one of the most private things we do. It’s something we need to do and something we love to do. I’m fascinated by watching people eating when they think no one is watching. I’m a sloppy eater, with no manners. I never really consciously thought that I need an eating scene in my movies, they just appear on the page. But some of my favorite scenes are when a character eats – I want to join Zack and Jack at the table during that Italian feast in Down by Law.
I read somewhere that you’re currently not going to divulge whether or not the possum in the film is real. That’s fine! My only question is, whether or not it was real, that scene could not have been easy to shoot. Was it a scene that you had already planned out in your head or was it something you knew you’d have to figure out down the line?
Well, magic happened and we got the shot in the first take. The evil spirits of cinema were on my side that night. I watched in fascination as the camera rolled.
I’d like to know a little bit about your life as a teacher, and how your own experiences inform your lessons, or if any students have come to you as fans of your work and if that can actually help establish a connection with them without necessarily having to “prove yourself.”
I try not to talk about myself or own work much, but generally students know who I am and sometimes ask direct questions about my movies. I think it lends some credibility to watch me talk about it in class. I like to cut through the textbooks and get to the reality of the industry, especially the indie world which is in constant motion. It’s great to expose film students to work that I consider important, like Aguirre, 8 1/2, Gummo, or even Wendy and Lucy. I also think it’s just as important to learn from others’ mistakes, so occasionally we dive into Birdemic or bad commercials.
You’re obviously responsible for launching Joshua Burge’s career, and he went from Buzzard to The Revenant in just a year’s time. Have you guys stayed in regular contact since making the film? I know if there’s anyone who’s going to keep his head from getting too big it’s going to be you.
Well, I wouldn’t say I’m responsible for launching his career. And if I am, then he’s responsible for launching my career. It’s a total blast to see him get the recognition he deserves. The dude’s just got it. Hoping we work together on the next one. He still lives only a few minutes away from me, so I see him whenever he’s not in a far off land acting with the big shots. He’s still just Josh to me.
Lastly, I feel almost obligated to ask what you’re working on next since that’s the question that ends most interviews, but I’d really like to know what your day-to-day is like when you aren’t actively working on a movie. A lot of aspiring directors forget to account for the downtime in between projects, and I’m curious how you keep your mind active when you aren’t talking to producers or actors or reading over budgets and rewriting drafts.
I’m always working on at least one feature script. I’ve got three finished right now, but focusing on one to shoot next summer. Just looking for the money, as usual. Normally, I start my day looking at emails and Facebook in bed, oatmeal breakfast, then get to writing for a few hours, lunch, grade papers, read a chapter or two from whatever stuffy film theory book I’m into at the moment on my bus ride to the university, teach for a couple hours, watch some Howard Stern clips on YouTube, write for a little longer, dinner, watch an episode of Shark Tank, write, end the night with a movie in my office. I get set in my routines.
**The Alchemist Cookbook is available for purchase on any website where movies are sold, including a pay-what-you-want option on BitTorrent**