Go backBack to selection

“We Had a Real Permit For Once in Our Lives”: Joel Potrykus on His Tribeca-Premiering Vulcanizadora


Vulcanizadora, the latest film from Grand Rapids-based guerilla filmmaker Joel Potrykus, is predicated on a conceit that’s faithful to his overarching artistic interests. Two volatile buddies (Potrykus muse Joshua Burge and Potrykus himself) embark on an extended hike to a remote beach, where they plan to execute a plan fit for a Faces of Deathsequel (indeed, the film’s newly-released poster even emphasizes this parallel).

While the complicated lives they’ve seemingly fled—a pending jail sentence and the crushing weight of having lost child custody—suggest warranted comeuppance, the men nevertheless retreat into childishness. They set off snake fireworks, gorge themselves on convenience store junk food and mock each other with adolescent zeal. Evidently, this juvenile regression is merely a symptom of a broader psychotic quest to avoid any and all responsibility for their actions. Regret isn’t always possible to repress, though, a personal fixation of Potrykus, who considers himself an innately “guilty dude.” Vulcanizadora marks the first of his films to explicitly grapple with the severity of adult negligence, provoked in no small part by Potrykus’s relatively new role as a father, with his 5-year-old son, Solo, even appearing in the film as his character’s child.

I spoke to Potrykus—who Zoomed from his car between meetings, Solo’s carseat in plain view—ahead of Vulcanizadora’s Tribeca premiere. Below, our extended conversation touches on the director’s aspirations as a father, the women-centered narratives of his recent short films and the process behind producers Dweck and Factory 25 jumping on board.

Filmmaker: Something that surprised me about Vulcanizadora is that it’s essentially a sequel to Buzzard, with you and Joshua playing the same characters. That film turns 10 this year, and I’m curious what factors led to you revisiting it?

Potrykus: We’ve tried to keep that as secret as possible. We don’t want to tell people that it’s a follow-up to a movie that most people haven’t seen. It’ll turn people off, like, “Oh, why bother? I don’t know the first one.” You don’t need to have seen Buzzard at all for this to work, it’s a standalone thing. If you have seen Buzzard, then it’s just a really great little surprise that you get during the first couple of minutes.

And you’re right—we shot this movie just a few months shy of exactly 10 years from Buzzard. The story originally did not involve Marty and Derek. I didn’t know who the two guys would be. I didn’t know if they’d be brothers, friends, father and son. But there’s always a straight man and a goofball in my movies. That’s how I eliminate getting too close to melodrama, I think subconsciously. After I started thinking about it, I realized that this is going to get really serious very fast. I was thinking of who I could cast as the goofball, and everybody I thought of I’d already had in a different movie. I never try to have overlap, like I can’t have Andre Hyland, who is in Relaxer, also be in this movie with Josh. That’s confusing. So I just thought, “What if it’s Marty and Derek? It would be exactly 10 years later. What are they doing?” It was perfect, I put no more thought into it. Once I had that, everything just totally made sense and fell into place. I got super stoked. So the idea came first, then Marty and Derek came second as the guys that would carry out the story.

Filmmaker: You and Joshua rehearsed for eight months before shooting Buzzard. How much did you rehearse for this project, and how did you rediscover or possibly recalibrate these characters?

Potrykus: We barely rehearsed. After living Buzzard for so long, we just know those two guys. We read it through a few times together, but I even said to Josh, “I’m not going to go full Derek. I just don’t want to.” I didn’t want to suck any life out of it and then do something really great during rehearsal that we’re not going to be able to get in front of the camera. I would just kind of riff and see what Josh does as a reaction, so I’d try not to spoil a lot of the things I was going to do.

We talked a lot about where they were at in their lives and what the purpose of them going to the beach was for them individually. Once we had that figured out, we just bounced off of each other. I just basically told Josh, “You’re not going to say much for the first half of this movie. Just let me carry this and go off of what I’m doing. Let me lead this one.” I think this is Derek’s little mission for the first half of the movie.

Filmmaker: Something I noticed is that Dweck and Factory 25 are producers on Vulcanizadora. How did they get on board?

Potrykus: Do you know Dweck?

Filmmaker: I know Ted Schaeffer.

Potrykus: Cool. Yeah, I didn’t know them before all of this. I was really just looking for the money [laughs]. I like it to be as clean as possible. I don’t like to ask for a lot of money. Once you ask for a lot of money, it usually gets a lot of people involved, which means waiting around for them to all negotiate their part of it. It is just maddening. So I just needed a little bit of money, and [Oscilloscope,] my usual investors, had their money tied up in something else. I could have continued to wait for them and have a nice clean, confident deal. But I just didn’t want to wait. So I just reached out to the very few people I know in this business. One of them is Matt Grady at Factory 25, who gets me. I knew that would be really fun and easy, and it meant I could work with a friend. He put me in touch with Hannah and Ted and man, was that so easy. He sent them the treatment and Ted, or maybe both of them, had a familiarity with me. There was probably some bad communication, but I interpreted that as, “Yep, they’re on board.” I Zoomed with them thinking that the deal was already done, which made it super cool because I didn’t have to pitch. After the call, Matt was like, “Okay, they’re going to talk and then maybe it might happen.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, I thought it was already happening!” But it was great because I was just relaxed. I’m never relaxed during a pitch. Like an hour later, the deal was done. Not to sound so corny, but I just couldn’t ask for a cooler, easier partnership with two people who get it, let me do my thing and give me full trust. I’m a big Dweck dude now.

Filmmaker: The film’s title is really fascinating to me. The English translation is obviously “vulcanizer,” which is someone who improves the strength of rubber, namely tires, by, well, vulcanizing them. What does this occupation symbolize here, and why go with the Spanish word?

Potrykus: There’s a tire repair shop near my house, and it just says “vulcanizadora” on the side of it. For 10 or15 years, I’d drive by and be like, “that is the most beautiful word.” That is the best Pixies or Smashing Pumpkins album title that has yet to happen. I love a movie title that sounds like an album title, so I’ve been trying to make a movie called Vulcanizadora forever. On this one, I just decided to go for it. I don’t care if people know what it is. I don’t care if it’s hard for people to remember or pronounce, or if they want to even look it up in advance. So yeah, it’s like a tire repair shop, but it’s so much more beautiful than that. I don’t want to put any meaning into the story with the title. I don’t want to [title it], like, Fateful Beach — you know, something fucking corny that’s going to put any intention into this thing. So I intentionally wanted a title that sounds beautiful. You don’t know what it means, you don’t know what it’s about, and the movie’s not beautiful like that. It’s a good balance.

There’s a little mention of why tires and repair shops relate to the movie, but man, it’s just one of my favorite words that I never had heard before until I started seeing it on the Mexican tire repair shops around Grand Rapids.

Filmmaker: As someone who speaks Spanish but doesn’t drive, I was also like, “What the hell does this mean?”

Potrykus: I have students who are native Spanish speakers, and some of them had never heard of that word either. I’m like, even better!

Filmmaker: You’ve previously said that a huge boon of shooting in Michigan is that permits aren’t really necessary, allowing you to shoot in a 7-11 or McDonald’s in a truly guerrilla fashion. The bulk of Vulcanizadora takes place in nature, with a notable exception being a police precinct. I notice you even had a police consultant during the credits! What made you settle on these shooting locations, which kind of divert from your filmic interest in urban landscapes or chamber pieces?

Potrykus: Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to make movies in the woods. That’s my first favorite place, just because The Evil Dead was shot there. That was the movie that made me want to make movies. For this, we wanted a very intentional half-and-half. It’s like half The Alchemist Cookbook, which is all in the woods, and then half Buzzard, which is in cities.

With the police station, I was actually talking to Matt Grady [on the phone], and I was just driving by a precinct. I was like, “Hold on dude, I’m just going to run into this police station.” It was the main one in downtown [Grand Rapids], and I just wanted to see if they’d let me film there for the hell of it, just for some authenticity. We usually just fake things, but I realized that I don’t really know what a police station looks like. So we went through the process of getting the permit. We shot in an actual police station at like midnight and there were two people there. One was this really nice, young, helpful woman [police consultant] who would just tell us if [the cops] would have a pencil in their shirt, how they would speak, if they should wear a bulletproof vest and all of that stuff. The other older guy on duty was a dick, man. Just like, “Get out of here. I don’t want anything to do with you. Don’t put my name in the credits, I don’t want to look at you.” It was really intense, but [the woman] was super helpful and kind of walked us through it. The ironic thing that some people in the crew have noted is that when you watch the movie, you can’t tell that we’re even in a real police station [laughs]. Maybe it’s because we don’t shoot big wide shots, but it was a temptation there. It’s a huge, beautiful cinematic space. But it felt corny, like we’re just going, “Look, everybody, it’s a real police station!” So we shoot so close[-up] that it could have been, I don’t know, a box office somewhere. But we went through the proper channels just for the hell of it to see if we could do it, and it worked. We had a real permit for once in our lives.

Filmmaker: Another divergence in this film is that Marty, who feels no remorse for his actions in Buzzard, is completely consumed with guilt and a need to atone by the third act. Can you go into the psychology of that?

Potrykus: You make a movie and whether you know it or not, it’s just about you. I realized that the thought or fear of Marty going back to jail was just an extension of his story in Buzzard. He’s probably been to jail because of what happened in that movie, and now he’s getting ready to go back and he hates it. Straight up ten minutes ago I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s because one of my biggest fears is going to prison for some reason.” I had to drive somewhere for a print and there was an abandoned prison, and it just made me think, “Fuck, look at that razor wire.” Derek’s biggest fear is that he lost custody of his child, and I have a kid now, too. Those are my two biggest fears.

I’m just a guilty dude. I don’t know what it is. I felt guilty about pushing this interview back a little bit! I’ve just got guilt about every fucking decision I make in my life. I’m sure the reviews are gonna say it’s a film about survivor’s guilt. That’s fine, you can say that. I’m not here to tell you what it’s about. But it was cool, though, to put Marty in that place, if you knew Marty from Buzzard, to really see what his shitty life is like. He’s a person who has this dad and this weird life, and getting to see that gives you a little more understanding to why he behaved the way he did in Buzzard. I was just really stoked to get kind of super emo with this one—not to go crying or anything like that—but to just have this ugly, sad backstory. It just felt like that’s exactly where Marty would be 10 years from now.

Filmmaker: The props in your films always feel so faithfully homemade—the glove in Buzzard, tripod contraption in Relaxer, explosive headpiece in Vulcanizadora—how do you visualize these inventions and create them for the shoot?

Potrykus: It is important that they are actually homemade, that nobody in the audience has ever seen them. There’s got to be one character in every movie we make where somebody could dress up like them for Halloween. They’ve got to have something that they couldn’t go buy on Amazon, they would have to literally make it by hand. That’s our goal. It’s usually my brother, Charles, who takes that and kind of runs with it. He’s the arts and crafts guy, he’s always been a little bit of a builder. For Vulcan, my idea was just to buy a ball gag mask off Amazon and stick an M-80 in there. He was like, “No, no, we can do better than that.” So he really did make all of that stuff from hand, tarnish it and screw everything in.

I love when fans, very rarely, try to make their own version of [these props] with nuts and bolts and things like that. I always feel like there needs to be one super cool thing that you can latch onto that’s a little bit dangerous.

Filmmaker: It’s my dream to see a Joel Potrykus Halloween costume out in the wild.

Potrykus: Sometimes people send me pictures on Twitter.

Filmmaker: In an interview about Relaxer, you said that “I’m obsessed with the…difference between today’s generation and your dad’s. I’ll never be the same kind of man that my dad is.” Considering that this film meditates on your relatively new role as a father, how do you think that your and Solo’s definition of “manhood” might differ over the years? Sorry if that’s a heavy question.

Potrykus: That is a heavy question, but something I think about a lot. I’ve got to be careful about what I say, because I don’t want him to read this someday and feel like this is the box I put him in. It’s weird because my dad is so much more of a man than me. I don’t feel like a man, I feel like a dude, so I wonder what being raised by a dude will mean. Maybe you’ll be even more removed from masculinity or the idea of gender. What does that look like in 20 years? I don’t know. I felt like when I was growing up, maybe it wasn’t my dad, but people had expectations for me. I want my son to have no expectations. Whoever he wants to be, he should go for it. I still picture the future, even 20 years, as this stupid vision of everybody in silver suits, you know?

I think he’ll be a much more compassionate, loving, emotionally secure person than I will be. I’m trying to raise him without guilt, but I don’t know if I’m doing a good job. Oh, there’s my guilt [laughs]. It’s really interesting though, because I feel like even subconsciously when it comes to the next generation of people in our lives, we try to impart the things that we’re passionate about to them.

Filmmaker: Especially since you included him in this film, are you trying to develop his relationship to film at all?

Potrykus: I was always super excited to introduce him to all these cool movies at young ages—not Friday the 13th, but The NeverEnding Story or something—but he is so not interested in movies. I’m not going to say it breaks my heart, it’s totally okay. But I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I’ll take him to the movie theater and he’s kind of into that. But if I’m like, “Hey, dude, you want to watch Back to the Future or something?” He’s like, “No, I don’t want to watch anything.” Which is cool. He doesn’t like TV, he’s done after 10 minutes. I don’t think it’s an attention span thing. I think he’s just full of so many other cool things that he’d rather be doing, and he knows that a movie is long, and he’d rather do a million other things besides that. He’s seen all the first Star Wars movies, but it’s not something he loves. He likes my music, which is cool because that’s more of a casual experience. You can just be driving and listening to music. One thing that drives me crazy about movies is that you have to be focused and put aside time whereas music is just so much more easy to just have in the background.

Filmmaker: Thing from the Factory by the Field and Unemployees, the two short films you’ve made since Relaxer, your previous feature, were helmed as part of the “Summer Film Project” course you oversee at Grand Valley State University. Has working on those shorts with students impacted your continued film practice in a palpable way, particularly as you venture back into feature filmmaking with Vulcanizadora?

Potrykus: Yeah, it has. I bring my cinematographer, Adam J. Minnick, and my sound guy, Sasa Slogar. All summer with those short films, stories typically about women, we’re trying out different formal things. We shot one last summer that’s coming out soon called Pear, and it’s very conventional. I was like, what does it look like if we just go conventional coverage? For me, that was a weird experiment. Then if something works, we bring it into the features. What we find is that most of the time, the features just have their own voice and rhythm. We very rarely go, “Let’s bring that into a feature.” It’s really just practice for us to try out different things and it reassures us that our feature style feels like our voice. That said, we’re shooting another one next week, which is going to be all close-ups and a lot of cuts, which is different for us too.

Filmmaker: I want to dig into that a little more and ask how the students influence how the final short film projects turn out? They do largely feel like a Joel Potrykus film in a certain sense—the obsession with lonerism and breaking from societal conventions—but there’s something about them that does feel outside of your overarching filmography.

Potrykus: For the most part, they’re kind of subjected to exactly what I want to do. Thing from the Factory, specifically, is about four kids. In the original draft, it was four guys and one girl. And a woman in the class said, “Why don’t you just reverse that?” And it was like, “Oh yeah, you’re right. Let’s try that out.” I rely on them to keep me honest. When we do table reads of the script, I’m like, “Does a woman behave this way, say this thing?” It’s outside of my personal experience. It’s weird to have like 25 faces looking at you after you read a script, as opposed to the six that I’m used to. There’s a weird subconscious pressure, not to make them all happy, but to give them something to be invested in. So absolutely, the characters are sometimes changing based on them calling me out after a read. Like, “No woman would ever say that, Joel.” It’s like, “Okay, this is why you’re here. Help me!” It’s super cool to get their insight, because most of them are seniors and we’ve developed a really trusting relationship where they can just lay into me if they want to. They know that I’m taking this very seriously, this is not just some class. Like, dudes, this is going to be seen by a lot of people, so don’t screw this up. We’re doing it for real. It’s really cool for them to take something really seriously and have that input for the story.

Filmmaker: I remember seeing Relaxer in theaters and being the only woman at that screening. It was kind of awesome because I felt like my presence actually made some people be like, “Whoa, am I laughing too hard at this?” With these short films, I did immediately notice the focus on women, which I thought was really fascinating. It’s cool to see you delve into that, because I know that filmmaking is something very personal for you and that you use it to meditate on themes in your life.

Potrykus: My big experiment when I was writing these shorts was, can I write them as Steven and Jared, but then at the last minute just cast women? What would that be like, to have them just speak exactly like that? Then we read them, and [the students] are like, “Why would she say that?” So it does take a little tweaking.

Filmmaker: To your earlier point about gender, I do think that sometimes when we’re trying to think outside of the box, we unintentionally put ourselves back in them. Like, “a woman would never say this.” I’m sure some women would! As a fan of your films, I’ve always wondered why I feel like an outsider in this space when the humor is hitting with me, the filmmaking is fabulous, the acting is cool. I don’t understand why a Joel Potrykus movie is seen as a singularly masculine preference.

Potrykus: You’re right. I mean, that is such a broad generalization, “No woman would ever say that.” But a lot of times when I read the room and 90% of women are agreeing, I’m like, “Okay, this is where I start to stretch my muscles a little bit.” But for the features, we’re just going for it no matter what. The characters are going to say what they say, and if it feels unnatural, I don’t care. This is the world we’re creating here.

Filmmaker: Something I love in Relaxer is that woman character who comes in and asks this man, “Do you think about sex every time you look at a woman?” It’s a really uncomfortable moment that confronts homophobia and masculinity. I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s really cool,” especially as the only woman in that theater [laughs].

Potrykus: They say about Fight Club, “Oh, it’s actually a breakdown and a dissection of masculinity,” which I do believe. That’s kind of what I’m doing, but you don’t have to take it as that. You can just enjoy the dude silliness, like, “Cool, I’ve got a Freddy glove!” But really what I’m trying to do—and that was a little more of an overt moment in that movie—is just be direct about it.

Filmmaker: Finally, I want to ask if any music guided or grounded you during the making of this film?

Potrykus: Usually those songs kind of make it into the movie somewhere. I write that stuff into the script. When I first saw Bill and Ted in the movie theater, and the Extreme song “Play With Me” plays during that montage, I think it was the first time I heard metal guitar in a movie. It just melted my brain and was the most amazing marriage. Any time I see a movie and a heavy guitar comes on, I’m just like, “This is the greatest thing ever.” Every time I put music in my movies like that, I’m just like, “This is gonna kick my ass when I see it.”

A lot of the time I take them out, too. I would have loved to just pound the audience with some metal during the scene on the beach, but it’s me just fighting myself. Instead I put in a scene where there’s just two guys walking. Nothing is happening, but you’re feeling something. It’s usually the heavier, the better. That contrasts the emotion of the scene, or whatever.

Filmmaker: Very Haneke, very Funny Games.

Potrykus: When I first saw that movie in the theater, there were like, eight people there. By the end of the movie, literally everyone had left. There were a lot of couples, I don’t know. Michael Pitt stares into the camera and the music comes on, and I just stood up and was like, “Oh my gosh.” I texted my friends like, “Where are you guys?” They were like, “At Tina’s party.” I drove there and was telling them about the end of this movie, then I was just like, “I’m going to go home. I’ve got to write a movie right now.” I’d never seen the original. I’m a critic, actually. Or used to be. I was assigned to go review this movie and that’s why I saw it.

Filmmaker: Did being a critic influence you as a filmmaker at all? Do you feel like you have this invisible critic living in your head or anything?

Potrykus: It sounds corny, but I’d write movie reviews for my high school newspaper. I couldn’t afford to go to a university and the community college only had journalism classes. I was like, “Yep, I’m gonna write movie reviews for the community college newspaper.”

When my friends ask me, “Who is this movie for?” I’m like, “Just for me and film critics.” I very much love people who take movies seriously and treat it like the art form that it is. I try to teach my film students to embrace film criticism. It is not there to say if something is good or not, it’s there to help people who don’t have a deeper understanding of cinema understand the intention behind the movie. It’s there as a helpful thing for mass audiences to dissect why that piece of art moves that way. It’s super important and I love criticism—good criticism.

Filmmaker: The last thing I’d like to know is if you can tease anything about the forthcoming projects you’ve mentioned?

Potrykus: Like I said, it’s another short film with the students, my DP and sound person. It’s a short about two women on vacation together. They’re a couple, but it’s really about me and my wife. It’s a relationship dynamic story where one person’s super anxious and the other person is mad because they’re ruining the vacation. The idea of the movie is like, “Will you fucking relax?” Which is so counterintuitive to help somebody relax. Then one of their anxieties comes true and it fucks up our perspective of this person being paranoid about something that clearly is never gonna happen, but it does actually happen.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting that so many of your characters are borderline asexual, but these recent shorts have these moments of tenderness and romantic partnerships. Does casting women bring that out?

Potrykus: I never think about it, but I think you’re right. Tenderness seems like the right word.  If I’m making a movie with two guys, I just want them to fight. If I’m making a movie with two women, I want to have the other side of that. It just feels natural to me. Again, it’s really just about me and my wife masked through two women. I think because I’m heterosexual, I look at a relationship with a woman as a tender, gentle thing. So even if it’s two women, they’re gonna then both be tender and gentle to each other. Maybe someday there’ll be a Fight Club with two women, but I’m just not there yet. I’m still exploring the feminine side of these films and I haven’t conquered it. Once I feel like I’ve done as much as I wanna do, then maybe we’ll go further with a different mode. But yeah, you’re right. Typically with my characters, there’s no romance or expression of sexuality at all.

Filmmaker: Aside from like, homophobic tears, which is in itself interesting and feeds into this masculine conception of sexuality in its own way.

Potrykus: Because they’re all supposed to be 15 years old at heart and mind—there’s no there’s no drinking, no drugs, no talk of sex—it’s all weirdly PG, but with blood. I was just telling my students the other day—because we’re trying to figure out one of the characters in this new movie I’m making called Pets—that every human being is stunted. Some people evolve until they’re 70 years old, they’re listening to modern music and they’re embracing gender politics. They’re gonna get stunted maybe next year. Some people are stunted when they’re 15, due to abuse or maybe it was the greatest year of their life, so they’re just trying to hold on to that. Some people are stunted in their 30s. My characters are usually stunted when they’re 15. I’ll allude to it sometimes, like something happened when they were 15 and that’s why they’re stuck that way. Sometimes you’re just trying to figure out when a character got stuck.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham