Joel Potrykus is a master craftsman of bizarro cinema. Whether it’s Buzzard, where a weirdo loner builds a Freddy Kruger glove using knives and a Nintento Power Glove, or his newest feature Relaxer, where a weirdo loner stays glued to a couch playing Pacman on a Nintendo 64. The film is actually a lot more complex than that, being a (very) loose adaptation of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. I got on the horn with Potrykus to ask him about his favorite actor, teaching filmmaking and punk rock.
Chris Aitkens for Nightmare on Film Street: So how are feeling about Relaxer coming out to the grand public?
Joel Potrykus: I’m feeling pretty good. We never had a dud screening at a festival yet. But of course, that’s the festival crowd, so they’re a little more amped up and ready to be challenged with something odd. But I’m stoked to see what the other people have to say about it. It’s kind of why you make movies; to have strangers see it and react to it. So I’ll be following along, on Letterboxd probably.
NOFS: I was pleasantly surprised by Relaxer. I didn’t know too much about it, but when I started watching it, I said “Oh, it’s the same guy from Buzzard!”
JP: That’s Joshua Burge. He did my first feature Ape and a short before that. He’s just been my guy. I’ve only made one movie without him, the Alchemist Cookbook. That movie is one I have the most distance from because of that reason. I watch that movie and I don’t see my best friend and I don’t see people that I know as well as the people who are usually in my movies. So I’m able to watch that movie with the perspective of an audience. The other ones I have a heard time judging. I just see my friends in them and think “Oh yeah, those three weeks that we played make-believe in a garage. That’s what Relaxer is.”
NOFS: How did Josh he react when you pitched him Relaxer?
JP: He was into it. He’s always eager to shoot whatever I got. There’s never any pushback about how things aren’t going to work or if it seems too weird. We trust each other, and that’s what’s really awesome about working with him, is that I know he’s going to surprise me in the right ways. I assume he knows that I’m going to surprise him in the right ways. It was more like “how are we going to keep people’s attention for 90 minutes when it’s just a dude on a couch?” That was the biggest challenge for this. It comes down to the cinematographer Adam Minnick being able to create slightly different environments for every scene with lighting and with the way the camera is positioned and moves.
But otherwise, as far as the story goes, it just got crazier and crazier with every new table read and every new draft of the script. I would always introduce one more insane element. They’re all used to that, the whole team, so they were all stoked. I was really stoked to shoot something where we didn’t have to travel around and get a bunch of location permits and deal with weather. It was a completely controlled environment. That’s the kind of filmmaking I like, when you can make it night and day with the click of a couple switches. And that’s kind of where the idea started. I was just sick of driving all around town to make a movie. I just wanted to be in one place and be as lazy as possible.
“How are we going to keep people’s attention for 90 minutes when it’s just a dude on a couch?”
NOFS: I really got the impression that you and Josh trust each other. You can just leave the camera on him and let him do his thing, like in that spaghetti scene in Buzzard and many scenes in Relaxer as well.
JP: He just has that face that I feel you can watch when nothing is happening. It’s not really something you can learn, he’s just born with a face that says things without him saying a word. Those are my favorite scenes in any of these movies, when he’s not saying anything, but you can just look at his face.
NOFS: So you designed the room where this entire movie takes place. What were the essentials for this room?
JP: There were very strict rules that I came up with when I started designing it. I knew it was going to be a set, we weren’t going to shoot in an actual apartment. I wanted to make sure that we can never move the walls. It’s not like the camera can cheat and be position 30 feet away from [Josh] and get this wideshot, or anything like that. And we can never go behind him. So we always had to be in front of Josh and always in the room, not outside in the hallway.
But otherwise, the essentials are just the couch, the window next to him, the TV in front of him and the refrigerator behind him. I had just written in some funny moments with the refrigerator. I designed the room based on one of the apartments that the cinematographer and I had during college. I wrote the script with that layout in my head, so when it came down to building it, I knew where everything was. The living room and kitchen had to be separated by a half-wall, so that things can be set down behind him. I had to draw up the blueprints before we started building to make sure the story could be told the right way.
NOFS: How many days did it take to film?
JP: Because it was so easy to control the light, I think it we scheduled for 14 days and we got it done in 13 days. We never ran over schedule. I really don’t enjoy the process of shooting a movie, so I don’t want to spend anymore time doing it than I have to. Everything was really efficient. A lot of that comes down to the rehearsal. Josh and I rehearsed for months before the shoot, so we didn’t have to spend time with the actors as much as the more technical things, like the camera and the sound is what really takes up most of the time.
NOFS: It’s funny that you said that you don’t enjoy the process. Is there anything else involved with filmmaking that you live for?
JP: Yeah, I mean, I love the writing and I love the editing. But the shooting is just an unfortunate evil that I have to suffer through to get to the edit. But to have a final cut film put together is the greatest feeling in the world. So I am okay with suffering during the shooting. It’s really bad. It’s anxiety and I always end up losing weight during it, I have no appetite. It never gets easier, it actually gets worse with every new production. I think it’s because at first, there were no expectations, no one’s going to see these movies, it was no big deal. But now I know certain festivals are going to be asking for it. There’s people expecting things. And that’s what causes this awful pressure. I’m still trying to figure out why I hate it so much.
“..to have a final cut film put together is the greatest feeling in the world.”
NOFS: I want to talk about the elements of punk rock in most of your films. Like the Minor Threat shirt in the Alchemist’s Cookbook or the Black Flag posters in the back of Relaxer. What’s your relationship with punk rock?
JP: I just make movies that I would want to see. And I like movies with punk music and punk dudes. In Relaxer, the character Cam (played by David Dastmalchian) is wearing a FEAR shirt. FEAR was my introduction to punk when I saw a rerun of FEAR on SNL. I was a kid, and I saw that on Comedy Central. At first I thought it was a sketch because it was just so crazy, but no, this is a band and these are real songs and these are real dudes. I recorded it on VHS and watched it over and over and over. That was a huge moment in my life. I just get excited when I hear that music and I get excited when I see that stuff in a movie or on TV. And it excites me when I put it in my movies. I love seeing stuff like that.
I wish I had more connections to those bands so I could just fill up those movies with their music, I wouldn’t have to worry about licensing. I actually feel like I’ve been pretty fortunate with the music I’ve landed. It’s always been music that I really want in the movies. There’s a Freaks and Geeks episode where James Franco gets into punk and as much as I want to love that episode, some of it feels artificial to me. It’s too on the nose. James Franco is getting into Black Flag through “Rise Above.” For me, punk is never the single that everyone associates a band with. It’s never “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols, it’s “Holiday in the Sun,” the first song off the record, that’s your real introduction. It’s important to me not to fill it with stuff that people will expect, but it’s the things you don’t expect that get you into any kind of music.
NOFS: I want to talk about your teaching. Do you come across any of your students who want to be big-shot Hollywood directors?
JP: Maybe? But they never say it to me. I feel like I ran into more of that when I was in film school. I lot of the students I was with wanted to make movies like Transformers and go out to LA. But there’s a disconnect now. If they have Hollywood ambitions, they want to do special effects for a superhero movie or they want to work for Pixar or Dreamworks. For whatever reason, I don’t feel like they have big aspirations to direct a tent pole film. They just want to be involved in some other way. And the ones that do want to direct are still trying to find their voice, which is what film school is for. But maybe they don’t want to say it around me, because most of them know what I’m up to.
NOFS: Do any students actively seek out your class because they’ve seen your films?
JP: Yeah, they do. They’re usually the ones who annoy everyone else in class because they’re constantly referencing my movies. I love that, because first and foremost, I know the student wants to be in the class. I have their attention right away. Most students by the end of the semester will have seen at least one of my movies because all the students who are into my work would say “You haven’t seen Buzzard? You’re crazy!” And then when they do see it, they’ll say “That was weird and gross and boring” or something.
NOFS: Going back to LA and Hollywood, I understand that you were offered some big budget films but you turned them down.
JP: That’s a little bit skewed. I know there was one article that came out that talked a lot about that. I wouldn’t say that a lot of them are big budget, I’d say they’re bigger indie films and some sequels. But things I’m not interested in doing because, like I said, I don’t enjoy the process of directing a movie. If I’m going to spend the anxiety directing something, I want it to be just my idea. I have to feel like I’m doing it for a reason, like I’m saying something. I’ve never been interested in going to LA and being a director for hire. There’s really no money you can pay me to go through the shooting process. It’s really just a labor of love, as silly as that sounds. I teach for money. I love teaching, that’s something I really enjoy and feel fulfilled with. But shooting a movie is not how I want to spend my life as a career. Saying no to big budget offers is very easy to do.
NOFS: This will be the part of the interview where I ask you what you’re doing next.
JP: For the last eight or so years, every other summer, I would direct a feature. So this coming summer, I would be shooting, but it’s going to be the first time in a long time that I’m not going to shoot something. During the pre-production of Relaxer, I told my producer, who’s also my girlfriend, that I need a break and I’m just fried right now. And then three days after, she told me she was pregnant. That’s another reason to take a break. I don’t know how long that is going to last because I’ve already got two scripts that really want to shoot. Both ideas are not too far from the things I’ve done in the past. Although, one of them has a love story. It’s a perverse and unexpected love story, not your usual love story. I’m excited about shooting that one next. It would be my version of a romantic film.
NOFS: Do you imagine Josh in these roles when you’re writing?
JP: No, I never do, because I don’t want to feel like I’m writing for his personality or his voice in my head. I’d rather write something totally out of left field and then challenge him to play this character that is never anything near his personality. So I just think of some imaginary person when I write these, and then Josh will breathe life into it. Then I will tweak the dialogue or tweak the scenes to fit his rhythms.
NOFS: I’m down to my last question: do you remember where you were on Y2K?
JP: Yeah, of course. I was one of the dudes who telling people this might happen. Better be careful, stock up on food. But we had a massive New Year’s Eve party that night and I was in the basement with a friend and I said “I’m going to flip the breaker and make it seem like the power went out.” My friend refused to let me do it because there were so many people who were intoxicated at that party that it might get dangerous very quickly if they start panicking with that much alcohol in their system. But you had seen the New Year’s Eve from around the world before we celebrated ours, like in China and other places. I knew it wasn’t happening, so I was really disappointed all day because I was super excited at the faint possibility that this might actually go down.
Relaxer hits select theaters on Friday, March 22nd. Read Nightmare on Film Street’s own Stephanie Cole’s thoughts on the film in her review, here. Then, join the conversation with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, our Official Subreddit, or the Fiend Club Horror Group on Facebook!