I first encountered Joel Potrykus’ Ape (2012) when I was a jury member for the Filmmakers of the Present competition at Locarno. As it was the sole American narrative film in the selection, my curiosity was piqued before the festival even began. Ape was a revelation, and the jury agreed: we awarded Joel the Best New Director prize. It was an easy decision: the film spoke to the multinational jury as a deeply political work about class and socio-economic issues in the American middle class. Potrykus’ new film Buzzard, which premiered at South by Southwest, continues that exploration, looking at Americans for whom, to quote Buzzard, the grand sum of $2,000 is “the real deal.” Potrykus represents a valuable commodity in the world of independent film, being somebody who works outside the system that those who work outside the system have built. His work should function as a response to those who find contemporary American independent cinema to be too navel-gazing, unconcerned with anything other than the personal follies and romantic foibles of affluent white people living in major cities.—Alex Ross Perry
Not a fan of navel-gazing cinema, I was skeptical of Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel (2011), which at first seems like little more than a bickering, neurotic road trip misadventure. But gutsy and completely unapologetic, it dares you to keep up, going to a place that even cinema’s boldest artists rarely reach. Not said lightly, I was amazed. I couldn’t stop talking about it. Likewise, quick comparisons to John Cassevetes’ cramped ’70s New York or Woody Allen’s jaded wordplay would be accurate but uninformed with respects to his follow-up, Listen Up Philip, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance. As much a writer as a director, Alex’s portrait of a selfish novelist on the cusp of greatness seems like a chapter from his own life. Jason Schwartzman’s Philip is a nitpicking misanthrope who embodies much of Alex’s style and mannerisms. It’s an honest and revealing character study that goes much deeper than just a snapshot of success or a love letter to author Philip Roth. The film shows how the inevitable marriage between art and commerce is painful and sometimes embarrassing. Part of me wanted to get into a fight with him for this article.—Joel Potrykus
Alex Ross Perry: I want to begin this conversation at a logical starting point for both of us: discussing what it feels like to be plucked from the ranks of the American independent cinema with which we could easily be pigeonholed and given a chance to present The Color Wheel and Ape in the Filmmakers of the Present competition at Locarno. For me, this was a major turning point and a validation of sorts that the work I had been making was likely to reach audiences far and wide, and that the stamp of approval from a festival like that would force others to look at the film itself differently.
Joel Potrykus: It was absolutely the stamp of approval I’d waited so long to get. The day the announcement was made, I went from a being a Michigan filmmaker to an international filmmaker. Absolute validation. Not only to the people who often considered what my gang did as a hobby or “fun,” but to myself and the people that had my back for so long. Still, even after the success of that world premiere, most people in Michigan had no idea of the importance of Locarno, and it wasn’t until we played a crummy festival in our home state that people started to take notice. Silly, but true.
I felt like we were an oddity there, though. We were so much smaller and unknown, as we came out of nowhere. Still, everyone was welcoming, and our 1,000-seat screenings were nearly sold out. It was pretty rad. Were you at all intimidated by the scope of Locarno? Did you ever feel like you needed to defend your film’s purpose for being there?
Perry: I was told at a party, upon revealing my budget to some European producer, “For this much money, you cannot make a film that plays at Locarno.” The way I always phrased it is that when we played anywhere, be it Vienna, Lisbon, Ljubljana, every film and every poster had ten or 15 company logos for international co-productions and The Color Wheel of course had zero, same with Ape. In that sense, it becomes peculiar to be a presence at international festivals (such as we were lucky enough to enjoy) and almost invariably be “the American film” since very few of them end up with that level of exposure to the rest of the world. So in a sense, it isn’t about defending why we are there, but more about debunking the likely very dim, and occasionally justified opinion international film connoisseurs have about what you get when you go to see “the American film,” this often being shorthand for “the bad, expensive movie with actors that are famous to other people but not to you.” Did you feel, to the extent that I did, that you inadvertently became a part-time ambassador for American low-budget film culture when you travelled with Ape?
Potrykus: Those damn company logos look so pro. I still have none.
I don’t think I’ve really gotten much backlash because I’m from the US, at least not to my face. Normally, if there was any eye-rolling when it came to Ape, it came after I’d describe the film’s premise. A film about a stand-up comedian who’s secretly a pyromaniac probably sounds very “American.” Or even like some bad/good Troma schlock. I just think that, universally, people struggle with the concept that it’s not what a movie’s about, but how it’s about it. To me, sometimes the actual story isn’t as important as the mood and feeling you’re trying to convey. And I can’t imagine ever constructing a “plot.” But, yeah, I’m sure behind my back I got some heat for being a low-budget American director trying to hack it overseas.
Growing up, European cinema was always exotic and incredibly distant. I wasn’t prepared for the tables to turn. Suddenly, I felt like we were the ambassadors of not so much American independent cinema, but of the Midwest as a landscape. Ape’s empty city streets and mundane convenience-store bureaucracies were now the exotic. Locarno as a whole quickly picked up on the politics of the film that are normally overlooked in the US, the subtle racial commentary and economic issues. To them, it became a full-blown political film. As a result, while writing Buzzard I was much more aware of the European perspective and even had to scale back some of the economic politics of the story. They were just too obvious in the early drafts.
And still, even now at US festivals, filmmakers and audiences are surprised that I still live in Michigan, and somehow make films there. I would have no idea how to make our small films in Los Angeles or New York. Michigan provides, or requires, autonomy for filmmakers. I feel like that next big step is inevitable, but I’m not sure how to navigate it yet. Your transition from The Color Wheel to a large crew and recognizable talent on Listen Up Philip must’ve introduced a whole new set of headaches. Or maybe it made your job easier, since you now had an actual budget and were able to delegate responsibilities to professionals.
Perry: I found much of the same, showing a black-and-white road trip through unidentified American locations. People abroad and people at home were equally in touch with The Color Wheel’s sense of displaced nowhere America, except it was nostalgic here and as fake and cinematic over there as my visions of Paris in the ’60s are. It’s ultimately just perception, I suppose.
I’m very excited to see how Listen Up Philip plays abroad. We do have a few nice logos this time, but still only three. I kept saying to my cinematographer Sean Williams, who has shot all of my movies, how different and complicated this movie would be. His answer was, “This is people sitting around talking. It’s not different at all from anything we’ve done before.” But I was able to maintain a strong sense of the adamant independence that we taught ourselves making movies with our friends. That was why the film was very understandable for me to make. Same cinematographer, a handful of the same actors, and so on. Both of the leads of my first film, Impolex (2009), appear in Listen Up Philip in one capacity or another. There’s something honest about that which goes beyond artistic credibility and is simply about being a decent human with some idea of loyalty. Are you ready to turn your back on Michigan filmmaking or do you want to exploit their robust tax incentives, bring a large production there, and cast your same actors opposite well-known people? It’s absurd that people would be surprised that you live in Michigan considering everybody from Jim Jarmusch to Arnaud Desplechin goes there to make their films now.
Potrykus: Well, I’m sure the motivating factor for Jarmusch to film in Detroit was for that tax incentive you mentioned. I know he’s into the history of the city and the music culture, but ultimately, I think it’s mainly cost reasons. We’ve never come anywhere close to qualifying for these incentives, because our budgets have always been so low. If I stay here making my films, it’s because I love working with my film band Sob Noisse, and not much else. We can get away with a lot here, too, I suppose. Permits, or even permission in general, insurance, lawyers—these are things we don’t have to think about while filming. And my rent is so cheap.
I plan on sticking around Michigan as long as I can. I think it’s important to stick with the people who understand you and have been there since the early days. Ideally, I’d keep making my movies in Michigan with Sob Noisse, and like you said, casting a few stars opposite my usual suspects. And that’s the odd position I’m in at this exact moment. After Buzzard’s success at SXSW and getting picked up by Oscilloscope before it premiered, people took notice. So I now have people in Los Angeles wanting to set up meetings and hear what I want to do next. They’ve told me that I should move there, too. A filmmaker once told me, “Don’t move to LA until they want you there.” That was less than a year ago, and I wouldn’t have foreseen them knocking on my door so quickly. But still, I’m resisting and I don’t think it’s necessary for a director to be out there, unless you’re looking to get sucked up into the system. Which I’m not. And, almost as predicted, the first thing they wanted from me was a TV show. I’ve never pitched for television, and I’m probably in over my head right now. I know you had, or are still having, a strange experience with television, after making The Traditions. Not much is known about that series, and I’ve even read bogus rumors about its existence on the internet. If nothing else comes of it, you’ve built a mystique. What can and can’t you say about its future and how that came to happen?
Perry: I can say this, and I want to keep this all focused on generalities that appeal to all readers of Cinema Scope and not just those trying to navigate breaking out of the American independent film box, is that everybody I’ve met, spoken with, hung out with at festivals all over the world has the same exact problems. Filmmakers who have premiered their films at Cannes say they can’t get enough money. Legends and heroes of mine can’t get financing for their dream projects. So when us Americans romanticize this European mold of “the state finances films” I want to remember my conversations with amazing international filmmakers who have the same “they don’t want me” problems from time to time, no matter how many logos their films have.
An interesting thing I’ve learned with regards to this is that you and I are likely to have a film play at a festival in Los Angeles, take a few meetings, perhaps get representation. But we covet the respect and feelings of pride that come with being accepted at world-class international festivals, as we were just saying. But the international filmmakers I’ve befriended are so mystified by the Hollywood system, they are so interested in having some small understanding of it or a relationship with it. Strangely, this seems somewhat limited to or focused on television, as you’ve said. I have no idea how your average, well-regarded, state-funded European filmmaker feels about having to have two or three television shows to pitch at all times, but I imagine they think it’s somewhat silly. Film artists and creators of cinema are, at the very least, taken more seriously outside America and given the breathing room to be respected for what they do, rather than trying to multi-hyphenate as soon as possible.
I’ll explain this, for the first time, because I think Cinema Scope is the safest place to streamline my little adventure in television land. What happened to me is not at all uncommon in Hollywood, which in this case means Hollywood television. In fact, it is just a smaller, less high- profile version of what seems to have happened to Noah Baumbach with his television version of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Take you and me making Ape and The Color Wheel. No bosses, no money on the line, no corporate agenda. So now take a filmmaker who mostly has learned to work in their own idiosyncratic way, and try to put that square peg in a round hole where there are agendas and grand plans in place for the content being produced. It is a potentially hazardous situation, and when you have those overlords, there are a dozen things that could change at a moment’s notice. It’s tough, and while I think we did the best we could and produced work everybody was proud of, all of a sudden you wake up one day and somebody “upstairs” has changed their mind about something, and, just like that, one year of work has vanished into the void. At the very least, I take pride in knowing that in this day and age, making work that is absolutely unavailable is incredibly difficult. Even a failed feature can be given away on Vimeo or something. So, if I’ve added some mystique to the world with this, that’s less appealing than my original goal of “giving filmmakers hope that you too could be validated not just by international arbiters of taste but also corporations who exist primarily to make content to make money,” but at least I accomplished something. If there were still video stores, I’d mail them DVD-Rs for treasure hunters to stumble upon. I believe in the characters and hope that some day, somehow, they can rise again.
But so here’s something that I’ve talked about with every filmmaker I’ve met over the last five years all over the world, which is do you even want to bother with work that has any risk of being part of some agenda? When people say how hard it is to get a personal project going, it raises the question, “Why not just get hired?” For us, “getting hired” on a Hollywood job, even an independent job, is virtually impossible. But do you want Buzzard to move you closer to that, or is the goal complete self-reliance, if not indefinitely, then at least for the time being?
Potrykus: I almost think that’s a rite of passage you’ve gone through. It’s practically an archetype—getting beaten down by the machine, and learning how it operates from the inside. Then rising again to make a Sundance favourite. That’s the classic Hollywood tale. Kind of. But I’m sure it was really cool for a while, and a good learning tool, at least. I have very little idea how that corporate Hollywood world works. I’ve intentionally stayed as far from it as possible. People often ask what kind of films I’d make if I were given $5 million. And as stupid as it may sound, I always say I’d make the same kind of small films. I really have no idea how to spend $5 million. It sounds like a joke, but pocketing four-and a-half and spending $500,000 on production would be my only idea. Of course, I’d then have to figure out how to spend $500,000.
I don’t ever want my work to be deemed “slick.” My lo-fi aesthetic mostly comes naturally because I work with small budgets. There is so much to cinematically shoplift in Michigan, because we’re so under the radar. A crew of six, with no lighting equipment or dollies and tracks can be sneaky. We can film inside a 7-11 quickly, without people even realizing. Those are my favourite locations—fast-food and convenience stores. It’s that beautiful high-art low-art world. I want to show that there is pathos in Doritos. Presenting Buzzard’s junk-food culture at the Lincoln Center and the MoMA as part of New Directors/New Films this year was an incredible honour. It still feels like a surreal daydream.
The Ramones made the same song over and over, no matter how popular they became. I’d like to follow that ethic. Not to say I wouldn’t take a bunch of money. I’d love a bunch of money. One critic noted that I don’t make “calling card” films. I’m not doing this to show Hollywood that I can be a player in their league. Ideally, it’d be the opposite. To show them there’s a different way. A less destructive, wasteful way. But I’d take their money, for sure. That’s the ultimate subversive act for an indie filmmaker. In reality, I’d much rather work with money coming from overseas. Europe has embraced my films in a way that America just can’t. They see things through a lens of “cinema,” which is hard to understand at home when Burger King is shoving XL commemorative Captain America cups down your throat.
Sometimes I feel incredibly lucky to be in this position knowing how many indies are made each year and go nowhere. Then sometimes I feel like I’ve pushed so hard to be where I am today, and I totally deserve it. It’s probably a little of both. People have been saying there are too many features being made now, because technology has made it so much easier. However, I’ve never heard anyone complain that there are too many bands and too many albums. I don’t think too many books exist. Ultimately, distributors are the ones to regulate the traffic. If they’re still making money, then people are still watching all these films. I wouldn’t be where I am now if it weren’t for DSLR cameras and cheap editing software. You’re one of the last indie purists, still shooting on film. Do you feel like audiences or critics respect the fact that you shoot on film, or even realize it? Are there too many indies being made?
Perry: Quickly, I’ll say this about being at the helm of a production that “has” more money than you can imagine: you’d be surprised at how easy it is to make it all vanish. We always said about The Color Wheel, and I can guarantee you this applies to both Ape and Buzzard, that if you made the film the normal way, and paid everybody a low but fair day rate, they’d cost about $200,000. You get a 7-11 in Michigan for free or as a favour, whereas in New York, we wanted to shoot in a bodega and the cost was $5,000 for eight hours. And on a film with nonsense like insurance, you’ll have a hard time convincing producers that stealing locations consistently is responsible. You may have a $500,000 budget, but the cost of paying an experienced line producer to make a spreadsheet or whatever of how to spend that money will cost more than your two films combined.
I can say with confidence now, four months after my film was unveiled to essentially universal praise at Sundance, that apparently I don’t make calling-card films either. There is an ineffable “do not hire” quality to Listen Up Philip, apparently, that shows experienced manufacturers of entertainment that whomever made this film is most likely hard to work with. The film, and your films as well, certainly reflect the sensibility of somebody who likely took very little advice from anybody else. This is great for playing world-class festivals and being highly regarded in the pages of worthy publications, which honestly is all I ever really dreamt of anyway. Neither you nor I are going to be in the running to direct any script off the Hollywood Black List. But we get to do what the heroes do, which is return over and over to our favourite festivals that have supported and nurtured us from nascent stages.
So for me at Sundance, and for you likely at South by Southwest for your premiere, we were both regarded as basically new filmmakers. The majority of people had never heard of us or seen our other movies. When we return to countries or festivals that embraced us, I’ll be excited to interact with journalists or even local cinema lovers who saw and enjoyed my previous film and are excited for the new one. I assume it will go well; if European film culture could embrace The Color Wheel and Ape, certainly they can embrace our newer, bigger, better films. They do seem to like American movies shot on film in Europe, but it seems less peculiar to them than it does here. It’s still viable over there, maybe.
I do agree that there is an absurd overabundance of product out there, and you using yourself as an example doesn’t quite work because your films are actually interesting and worth supporting and watching. That’s not true for everybody with access to a DSLR, remember. Ask any festival programmer. I think there’s a validity to actually earning the right to call yourself a filmmaker. I watch a lot of Top Chef, and on that show the contestants use the term “chef” with extreme reverence for accomplished chefs with whom they interact. I think filmmaking should be the same. Just because you can boil water and throw in pasta doesn’t mean you get to be called “chef.”
And so this is what I’ve been living with since Sundance: Do I play a game and try to get a job and essentially go on the filmmaker equivalent of open casting calls, trying to force my limited abilities on producers who always have their sights set on somebody else, or retreat and make movies my own way until I crack the code wherein that becomes financially stable? I think I can assume which you’d rather do.
Potrykus: I’m kind of stuck too. But I’m willing to try just about anything these days. I just want to make films that I want to see. I love films that take chances and totally go off the rails at times. Hollywood hasn’t gone off the rails in a long time. Locarno and the Viennale embrace everything that I love, and they look at my work as important and necessary. I’ll take that over a taxable paycheck any day. Europe embraces the uncomfortable, the angry, and the unlikeable. As great as the reactions have been to Listen Up Philip and Buzzard in the US so far, I think they’ll have a longer shelf-life overseas. The “new release” and Netflix mentality doesn’t exist there. Good films don’t just expire after six months. I’ve been pitching a new feature to a few Los Angeles people and producers in New York. I’m so naïve on how it works, that I usually end my pitch with saying I just need $100,000, thinking they’ll see it as a low risk and jump at the chance. But like you said, line producers, insurance, locations would zap that budget in a week if I had to go through the standard moviemaking machine with their money. I can live very cheap. That has always been my modus operandi: live cheap, make cheap films. But give everything soul. To me, a film has to have soul. American History X (1998) has no soul. Made in Britain (1982) has soul. I’m not sure who to blame, the filmmakers or the system. But somewhere along the line, someone is trying to squeeze out the soul and replace it with redemptive characters and conventional structures. Hollywood wants its audiences to feel comfortable. I don’t think either of us want that. I would cautiously jump at the chance to direct a hot Black List script, but it would absolutely be for the money. I’ve never had a fear of selling out. Selling out means making money, and making money means you can make your own films with that money. Steve Buscemi says that he acts in blockbusters so he can add credibility to his friends’ small films. I get that. In a perfect world, I’d direct a Fast & Furious sequel one year and make another of my weirdo animal films the next year. Not that I would have any clue on how to direct a car chase.
In the end, I just want to hammer out a weird little shack in the forest with my friends, not construct a tacky skyscraper with a bunch of strangers.
Alex Ross Perry, Film Production, Joel Potrykus