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Film : Interview

Joel Potrykus

by Nicholas Elliott

Buzzard, Potrykus's new film, is a funny and uncomfortable tale of a video game addict’s passion for screwing the system.


Joshua Burge as Marty in Buzzard, 2014. All images courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Buzzard is the disturbing tale of Marty (Joshua Burge), a resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan whose sole passion outside of video games and horror movies is screwing the system through a series of increasingly pathetic con jobs, with stakes ranging from a free frozen pizza to twenty-three dollars and change. Though there is something unpleasant about watching an able-bodied young man abuse the passive stupidity of low-on-the-ladder employees to score his loot, one can’t deny the political charge of a film that coolly sets out the options faced by many Americans: be a vulture or rot in a cubicle.

Buzzard is the second feature by the resolutely independent writer-director Joel Potrykus, winner of the Best New Director award at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival for his debut feature Ape, which also starred the incredible Joshua Burge, a Buster Keaton for the 99%. Here, in addition to writing and directing, Potrykus plays Derek, Marty’s office colleague and fellow video game maniac. Potrykus knows what he’s talking about: he has worked the cubicles, played the video games, and is committed to producing films in his hometown of Grand Rapids. Most importantly, he recognizes that making a movie can be the greatest con job of all. But he also brings a sophisticated sensibility to the table, filming in long static shots that reinforce the ambiguity of Marty’s actions. If Marty is a hero, he is a hero for an era past decadence and into decay.

After creating a buzz at SXSW, Buzzard screens in New York on March 23 and 24 at New Directors/New Films.

Nicholas Elliott I associate the style of Buzzard—long static shots often lasting a whole scene—with auteurist European cinema, not with the representation of contemporary American video game culture, which I imagine as fast-paced and disjunctive. But your characters actually have incredible focus when they’re looking at a screen, which makes me think that your style is very appropriate.

Joel Potrykus I think what you’re talking about is looking at the American junk food culture through the eyes of someone taking more influence from European cinema, and that’s my aim. To kind of disguise this world of video games and dorks with a different approach, something that’s a little more “arty.” Approaching the low culture with the high culture, that’s my ultimate goal.

I’m obsessed with the whole “you grow up and you still play video games,” and the difference between today’s generation and your dad’s. I’ll never be the same kind of man that my dad is. My dad didn’t grow up playing video games and I think with our generation, whatever it’s called or whatever it is, we’ll never be the guy who split wood and fixed the windows in the winter; we’re the guys that know how to get to level twenty-four on Donkey Kong.

Unfortunately we’ve been kind of perverted and I’m just trying to show the world what I know, through the eyes that I know. These guys focus so intently on a video game, and in that moment, that’s the only thing. They’re never going to focus on raising a child the way they can focus on playing Nintendo. That’s their world.

Alan Clarke is one of my biggest influences, because his work feels more raw and real. There’s nothing I like less than three-point lighting and cranes and stuff. That’s all just phony to me. I’m just representing who I am, I just do what I want to, I guess. That’s the advantage of not having a studio breathing down your neck.


On the set of Buzzard. Photo by Jon Clay.

NE At the same time, the film opens with a very long shot of the lead character, Marty, sitting at someone’s desk. You never see the person he’s talking to, you’re just on Marty’s face, which makes the audience more aware of the cinematic apparatus because it’s so different from what we’re used to in film, and particularly what we’re used to in representations of young people, junk food culture, etcetera.

JP I’m sure ten years ago the term “MTV-style editing” was relevant—I don’t know if it is anymore, but I see Marty’s world of fast food and flashy video game sounds and explosions and car wrecks through a different lens. The movie is about Marty. In every single scene, Marty is there. The film starts with just Marty’s face in order to tell the audience that it’s just about him, to just be patient and follow him. It’s not about any gimmicks with the camera and it’s not about CGI, it’s about the camera watching Marty—ergo the audience watching Marty—and that’s the most important thing. The bank teller is not important, all the side characters are not important. They’re just obstacles for Marty. As Cassavetes says “The face is the best landscape.” It’s showing the audience that even though the movie is about video games, it’s not going to be spastic, ADD-style filmmaking aping video games.

NE The point I was making initially was that I don’t play video games, but that I had assumptions regarding their depiction that match what you just said—ADD, spastic. Watching Buzzard and seeing those guys in their basement party room, their focus doesn’t look like ADD at all. They seem to be deeply zoned, in a long-term way.

JP I think that’s all they have going on in their lives at that moment. They have no worries of adulthood over their shoulders; the only concern in their life is getting to the next level on that video game. These guys, this is what is important to them. Unfortunately or maybe luckily for them they don’t have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Here they are in their thirties and they have never achieved adulthood in the way that you are supposed to and their escape is in these video games where they can just sort of turn off their heads and enter that world.

NE One weight on their shoulders is financial. You’re very forthright about money: where it comes from, how to get it, what a wage is. We know the character you play, Derek, gets paid $9 an hour. These issues seem to be important to you.

JP Some people might call me cheap but truth be told I have a lot of Marty in me. I’m that guy that’s always trying to cheat the big guys. I get off on that. I’ve been a temp at a mortgage agency. That was my life for a year. I spent so much of my early twenties like that and after a while it’s just disgusting because you get to a point where you’re not anywhere near interested in this life of mortgage work and you start to ask questions like, How do I make a buck in this world? How do I get by? You weasel your way out of paying a cell phone bill and that’s a major achievement right there, it’s like you just got one up on the man! And that’s kind of how this all started, like Marty’s obsession—it isn’t a $20,000 scheme, it’s more like 200 bucks! That’s Marty’s life right there, he’s not out for the big caper, he’s out for “How am I going to eat at Burger King this week? Maybe I can get some gift cards.” I don’t know if that comes from being from the Midwest where it’s a different kind of life. We’re so near Detroit, and where I’m from, abandoned houses don’t last long before someone scraps all the metal and cuts all the insulation in the pipes. I’m so detached from my world as far as how other people see it, they see the Midwest differently and I know my Midwest. People just scraping to get by and just fighting. We don’t have surfing, we’re not going to the coffee shop, it’s a different experience here and I guess I bring that voice to the world of indie cinema. Sometimes I don’t even realize where I’m coming from with my story.


On the set of Buzzard.Photo by Adam J Minnick

NE It seems the picture you paint goes beyond the regional to a very disturbing portrait of what’s available to a young generation, which is, either to screw the system, or work for $9 and hope for a really cool rec room in which to play video games.

JP Yeah. And if you want to dive deep, it’s also an allegory for how I make my films: I want to show Hollywood that there’s a different way, that we can compete. Granted, we can’t compete with your 200 million dollar budgets but we can reach audiences in a different way. I’m going to do it a different way. I’m going to try to cheat everything that you know and break all of your rules and try to reach the same people and maybe a different audience than you could ever try to reach. I think of these guys who are working at the mortgage company—getting paid by the mortgage company and also taking from the mortgage company and cheating them—and I guess as a filmmaker I’m cheating as well because I’m doing things that the studios can’t do and not getting permission and working outside of unions and not bringing in big cranes or lights and all those things that I think are unnecessary that the studios are still bogged down in. They’re stuck 30 years in the past. Digital filmmaking has opened up a whole other way of doing things and they still haven’t caught up to the present day.

NE There are three categories of people that Marty interacts with in Buzzard: one I would call the suckers, the people who just follow the system and are frequently shown to be, more or less, idiots such as a bank teller who will cash all these clearly fraudulent checks because she’s just robotically following the system she’s been taught to follow. Then we have the faceless corporations that Marty is screwing. Interestingly enough, the only “non-suckers” that Marty interacts with are the small business owners, like the guy who has the check-cashing place and the motel owner, both of whom catch onto his scam and won’t stand for it.

JP That’s exactly where the tables turn, in the third act. Marty feels like he’s getting one up on the man and the corporations are paying and he’s out for blood, but he gets so delusional that he strays from his original idea. He’s not staying in a Holiday Inn or trying to cash these checks at Chase Bank, he’s trying to rip off small business owners. He’s gone from someone who basically steals from the rich to someone who’s ripping off people like him and they’re not going to put up with it, just like he wouldn’t. By that third act, he’s so far gone from his big mission and big Robin Hood mind-state that yeah, it’s the small business owners who are fighting back the way that he fights back against the Walmarts and the McDonalds. He doesn’t realize that he’s kind of playing against himself, literally and figuratively.

NE From a political or social point of view, would it be fair to say that at the beginning of the film Marty is a rebel whose actions you admire?

JP I would not admire his actions. I would admire his actions if he were a sort of Robin Hood and would give back, but he’s like the Robin Hood who just keeps for himself. I hate to get too heavy, but when I first started writing, I said, This is the most political thing I’ve witnessed since the post-recession nightmare began—all the mortgages falling apart and people losing their retirement income and everything. This is the crumbling, and people have kind of lost sight of what they were doing. They were taken advantage of by the big banks and the big companies, and now they’re just trying to get by and would love to get back at the banks and screw them out of their mortgages. The film starts with Marty as one of the people, but by the end of it he’s one of the bad guys and he’s on the run. He’s just slashed a guy’s face and he’s walking around in public with this Freddie Krueger glove and he’s getting this rush of ecstasy because his former boss got fired and they’re not going to find out about the checks and he’s just so far gone from anything at that point.

NE It’s very disturbing because he has no moral compass whatsoever. He’s realized he’s not going to get in trouble so it doesn’t matter that he may have killed someone. Not to be a fuddy-duddy, but I wonder if that’s the kind of ethic we have when we spend our days playing video games, shooting people on a screen.

JP Exactly. It’s a different reality. When Marty and Derek are down there, playing those video games, that’s their reality. They’re 32 though, they’re not 14. They’re stuck in this suspended state of adolescence and Marty doesn’t understand the consequences of anything at the end. He’s slashing a guy’s face and he says to him “This corporate world is shit” And the guy says, “Corporate? I own this place!’ And Marty’s like “Oh, that’s even worse!” By his own code, he should not be fighting back against this guy, he should not literally be out for blood. But he draws blood from this small business owner and not the corporations, and he doesn’t really feel the consequences. In the next shot he’s outside in public, living this weird fantasy-nightmare life in which nothing can go wrong. He’s in his own video game, basically.


Joshua Burge as Marty in Buzzard, 2014.

NE What is your own relationship with video games?

JP I grew up on the Atari 2600 and then graduated to Nintendo and then Sega Genesis. I’m not like a modern day video game guy with Halo or anything like that. I still have my Genesis! Unfortunately, I can relate to Derek and Marty and other people who sit alone in their room eating hot pockets in their thirties more than I can relate to a lot of other people. I feel like I’m stuck in the past a lot of the time; I don’t have kids and I don’t have a wife and there’s that fear that that’s how it’s going to be when I’m fifty or sixty! I really wonder if I’m going to be sixty years old in my living room playing Gold Max and eating Doritos! That’s a real concern, and it’s very bizarre for someone to think that, but you have to move forward at some point and here I am, I’m making movies about guys playing video games, because that’s what I want to do!

NE The relationship between Derek and Marty is keenly observed. It’s this relationship between these two guys who are antagonistic and yet clearly rely on each other and even have a kind of erotic tension. How did you develop that relationship and why did you choose to play Derek yourself?

JP I know Derek and I know Marty; I know that guy who will find someone who’s almost like a sycophant who will do anything for him and he will bully him. Marty is just a bully to Derek, but there’s one point where Derek is like, “Well, you told me because we’re friends—“ and Marty says “We’re work friends,” and Derek says “I know.” So Derek is not as stupid as he may come off in the film, he knows that they’re not real friends and that Marty is using him. Derek doesn’t mind though, because he wants someone in his life just as badly as Marty does. They both understand the relationship, but almost won’t admit it.

I decided to play that part because I know Josh so well. We auditioned so many actors but none of them had the chemistry and ability to just—there was so much improvisation and none of them felt comfortable calling Josh a “gay pervert.” Those lines were just thrown in there because I wanted to play it with Josh and I wanted him to be able to throw it right back as Marty. We just have that ability to goof around with each other. These guys are calling each other ”gay” and that’s just such the 14 year-old mentality that I keep going back to—they just haven’t grown. One’s a bully and the other is the kid being pushed around, and they both understand that dichotomy, which I think that exists in a lot of “friendships.” That’s the fascinating thing to me; I think it’s more fascinating than them being best friends, out on the run and escaping the law. You’ve also got all these weird undertones of them kind of calling each other gay and the physical games they play together. I’m not going to dive in deep on that stuff. I’ll let the viewers figure out that stuff on their own.

NE Tell me about your lead actor, Joshua Burge. One never tires of looking at him.

JP I think the most important part of casting is presence—someone who the audience wants to look at—rather than just dashing, Ryan Gosling, good looks. What I find to be most important about the opening shot is that you’re just looking at his face, and even though he’s sitting there literally doing nothing—he’s literally just a wall—you kind of just get sucked into his face. Josh is a musician in a band called Chance Jones in Michigan and when you see them live, he’s just wild, he’s got this crazy manic energy. I thought if I could just channel a fraction of that energy into a character, it would be something great. Luckily. he’s a good actor as well! (laughter)

Josh and I grew up together and learned from each other. I consider him “my guy.” He’s my Taxi Driver. He’s just got it.

NE Absolutely. You talked a little bit about how your perspective is shaped by being from the Midwest, from Michigan. How were your able to make a film in Grand Rapids? Is that something you want to continue doing or have you entertained the idea of working with Hollywood?

JP I like to work in Grand Rapids because I have a community of people who understand what we’re doing, we’re able to make films cheap there, and we’re so far removed from the “industry.” You don’t have to get permits and scout locations. You can literally go somewhere and put on a wireless microphone and start shooting. You can shoot in public if need be! There’s nobody who knows what you’re doing. It’s almost like they don’t take you seriously because they don’t harass you for legality issues. If we go somewhere to shoot and we forget the right lens, I just say, “Hold on, I’ll go and get it.” It’s a small world that has everything we need—it’s very self-contained; we have our little band of filmmakers and we all work together.

Right now, LA is quite literally calling me. They’re trying to woo me to come out there and work in their world and I’m torn! I’m not sure what to do and maybe if someone gave me $10 million to make a movie I wouldn’t know what to do with it! I’d be clueless. I wouldn’t know what to do with ten million other than to pocket half of it—

NE That’s the Buzzard talking!

JP (laughter) Yeah, exactly! If Hollywood offers me ten million bucks, I’m gonna take that money and make a movie for $200,000 and keep the rest. But for now we’re in Grand Rapids, and I’m very content working outside of the system. It keeps us grounded, being in the Midwest.

Nicholas Elliott has been New York correspondent for Cahiers du Cinéma since 2009 and is a contributing editor for film at BOMB. His essay on Chantal Akerman’s New York films, Un écran à New York, will be published in April in the catalog Chantal Akerman, Cinéaste de notre temps (Bande(s) à Part/Magic Bobigny).

Buzzard screens in New York on March 23 and 24 at New Directors/New Films.

Tags:
Independent film
Narrative film
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