ND/NF Interview: Joel Potrykus
Buzzard opens this Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. FILM COMMENT spoke with director Joel Potrykus last year during New Directors / New Films.
Buzzard, the new feature from Joel Potrykus (Coyote, 10; Ape, 12), follows Marty, a dead-eyed bank temp with a penchant for small-time scams. When he's not bilking businesses out of their cash, Marty (Joshua Burge, haunting and charismatic) subsists on a diet of pizza, heavy metal music, and retro video games. After one of his schemes backfires, he hightails it to the home of his equally maladjusted co-worker Derek (Potrykus).
Friendless and effectively invisible, he wanders around in a purgatorial state of mind somewhat between adolescent recklessness and the unfair realities of adulthood. Potrykus’s unflinching approach to the subject matter and his sincere respect for his aging slacker antihero make Buzzard an affecting character study. It’s a fearless and moving exploration of a man whose smug ambivalence masks an inner rage, a disdain for a larger system that seems content to swallow him whole.
FILM COMMENT chatted with Potrykus, whose film screened in New Directors / New Films, about geek rage, slacker rebellion, and the cathartic power of spaghetti.
This is one of the most sincere meditations on loserhood that I've seen in a while. On the one hand, Marty’s a glazed-over underachiever, but he's also almost admirably committed to the scams he pulls. He seems to want to be a winner, even if it’s on a very minor scale.
A lot of people put my last film, Ape, in the category of slacker life—that he was just a wandering loser—and a lot of people say the same thing about Buzzard: that he’s just this aimless drifter. But for me, I totally relate to Marty. I see him more as a petty idealist. He has his set of codes: they might not be lofty goals and he’s not out to change the world, but he’s out to change his world in any way he can. He doesn’t care if he steps on other people on the way. There’s that scene where he gets quick-changed by the cashier in the gas station, and he’s so confused and upset because he’s like: “Hey, you’re violating the code of the little guy. Don’t do that.” Marty’s got aspirations for something different. I wouldn’t say he’s a loser, he’s just totally misdirected in his anger and all of his little scams, as silly and small as they are. But I know those guys.
Buzzard isn’t a movie about self-loathing. Marty’s not a happy guy, but he doesn’t hate himself. Was it always an active decision to avoid indicting the character? Were you ever in a situation where you felt you were running the risk that people wouldn’t relate to him at all?
There are a lot of different guidelines that people follow when they’re writing a script or making a film. A lot of times it’s that they have to see the lead character as likable. You want to root for him. And for me, it’s never been about making a nice guy or a likable guy. I can understand if people don’t like Marty, and I can understand if people do like Marty. I get both sides. But I just want to make a character that people know. I want people to empathize. Why would I want to make a movie about someone that I don’t like and that I don’t understand and that I don’t empathize with? That just seems kind of cold to me. When you’re making a film, you put your heart into it. I understand Marty. I know his world.
You're willing to show him as he is—eating spaghetti with his mouth open and spilling it all over himself. It’s not flattering, but you're never mocking him.
For me, that’s like the opposite of mockery. That’s Marty at his only happy moment. Truly, he’s so happy. [Laughs] He’s in a clean bathrobe, he’s smiling. When we shot that, the scene in the script just says: “Marty eats the best plate of spaghetti he’s ever had.” While we were filming, Josh [Burge] started eating, and he just started shoveling it in, and I was mesmerized watching. The crew was all looking at me to say cut, and I was like: “No. What’s happening right now is amazing. You can’t script this. Look how happy Marty is! He’s loving this. This isn’t Joshua, this is Marty right here.” It’s a very polarizing scene, but for me it’s super-critical that we enjoy this spaghetti with Marty and have a laugh and see him happy for once.
There are also these moments when he’s talking to his mom where he’s almost lying for someone else’s sake—not for himself or for any idealistic goal. And you don’t hear the other end of the conversation.
I always intentionally do not put the other person’s voice on the phone because I think it’s a lot stronger just to listen. We’re seeing Marty’s world from his perspective. With him speaking on his phone to his mom, everything’s not filled in. He’s filling it in for us, giving us little clues about his childhood. That’s where the underlying sadness is. In these phone calls, you’re not sure if he’s lying just to make her proud of him, because he’s ashamed of himself, or because he doesn’t know how to tell the truth anymore. I like those scenes. I think they’re some of the more emotionally complicated stuff I’ve ever done. And Joshua did a good job speaking to himself on the phone.
There's a strong feeling of what you might call “nerd rage” flowing through the film. It's present in the heavy-metal soundtrack and in some of the particularly obscure gadgets—the Nintendo Power Glove plays a major role, for example. Are you someone who’s immersed in retro game culture? Did that inform the writing process?
None of that is really intentional. As silly as it sounds, I’m just making movies that I want to see that don’t exist out there. A lot of the time, it’s just totally subconscious. When we decorated Marty’s apartment, some of the crew came over the next day to see what we had done, and they were like: “So, you just moved your bedroom into this other bedroom.” [Laughs] I don’t profess to be some kind of retro geek, but I have all of the video-game stuff. I know that scene and I know that culture. I just assume that every teenager spent his formative years in the basement chugging Mountain Dew and eating pizzas and playing video games. In Buzzard, these guys are obviously in some kind of absurd state of arrested development that they’re still living 15-year-old lives well into adulthood. I guess that’s my world. I go to horror conventions. I’m all about that.
Buzzard also offers a different take on what you might call the white-collar revenge fantasy. I'm thinking of movies like Falling Down or Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America or even something like Brazil. Movies about drones rising up against the system. Where do you think your movie fits in with this subgenre? This and Ape both cultivate this very specific kind of doomed slacker rage.
I’m not into the faceless villain. Never in my life have I ever met a villain. No one has ever been after me with a mask on. As much as I love Friday the 13th, for me the best villain to me is “the system.” That’s what we’re all fighting—we’re all fighting AT&T, our cable bills, the power company. That’s the villain. That’s the most fascinating rebellion: fighting against this faceless system that’s always been there.
At the same time, Marty doesn’t seem to understand what the system is to a large extent.
[Laughs] He is so far gone. Especially at the end, he’s lashing out against the mom-and-pops. The hotel is owned by a family, probably this nice family. And then at the end, he says “this whole corporate system” and the other guy says “Corporate? I own this place.” He’s so far gone from his revenge ideals that he’s essentially lashing out against one of his own. His motivations and his sense of reality are completely shot by the third act.
Can you talk about working with Joshua Burge? You guys share a lot of time on screen together, and much of it is spent either bickering or shooting the shit or both. Did you guys ad-lib a lot?
One of the reasons I work with Joshua is because he has a presence about him that you can’t teach. He has a look, a persona. Actually, for the character of Derek, we auditioned several good actors, really funny actors. But they were all playing it for funny, making a comedic character. They stuck to the script. Whereas Joshua and I just know each other so well. We rehearsed for eight months on this thing, so when it came time to shoot, we could just ad-lib it. We knew the reason for every scene, what was important and what wasn’t important. We could just goof around. Basically, it was just me trying to make him laugh in every scene. So I’d change the lines every single take. Even if the line was “I’m eating a little chocolate,” I would change what I’m eating and say “It’s a little Bon-Bon Treat Treat” or “Milky Way Num-Num.” And Joshua was stone cold—he would not crack up. He’s a performer—he’s a musician by trade—so he knows how to turn it on and turn it off at the right time.
The Michigan locales are key. The trip to Detroit is a kind of descent into madness. What is it about this city that turns Marty’s paranoia into a reality?
Detroit represents what Marty’s lashing out against: this decay, the mortgages have crumbled, it’s just falling apart. There’s this one important shot that I think only people from Detroit will really understand. When he gets off the bus, the very first shot is him walking in front of the old Tiger Stadium that’s been torn down. It’s now just barred up. And in the background, there’s a huge high-rise casino. And for me, that’s the movie. The old is gone, and all the sentiment is torn out. The good old days are gone, and they’re being crushed by casinos and capitalism and places that are just trying to steal from blue collar folks. It’s really important that the third act took place there. That’s the story we’re telling through the eyes of Marty.
There’s a divide in the film between idle, detached moments and pretty graphic content. How do you negotiate the gap between these very quiet moments and the more extreme situations?
My whole theory of making films is that I want to lull audiences to sleep—I almost want to bore them—and then right before they fall asleep, kick them in the balls. That probably comes from, subconsciously, a lot of my influences. I love The Terminator just as much as I love Down by Law. Those kind of just work their way together. I just love mixing low art with high art. Getting out of all of these genres, mixing tones up, confusing the audience, and surprising them. A lot of people are like: “What is this? This guy’s got his face slashed, and then there’s another scene where a guy is just eating spaghetti?” It’s like Film Comment meets Fangoria.