Grand Rapids filmmaker Joel Potrykus is on a roll. His project Buzzard premiered at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, was picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories and made a hell of a run through the festival circuit, wowing audiences and critics.
Last year, Buzzard saw a national limited release, garnering even more acclaim. And 2016 is turning out to be a hell of a year for Potrykus as well.
His new film, The Alchemist Cookbook, premiered last month at SXSW and he’s been hosting Open Projector Nights at the UICA — an event where local film nerds have a chance to display their own projects on the big screen. On top of that, a big chunk of his time has been spent teaching a screenwriting course at Grand Valley State University and a guerilla-film course at Michigan State University.
“We’re trying to teach Michigan kids how to do it right here in Michigan and not have to leave for the West Coast,” Potrykus said.
And The Alchemist Cookbook is proof that Michigan is as good a place as any to make a movie. Filmed at what used to be a Girl Scout camp in Allegan, Potrykus said he employed a cast and crew made up of mostly Michigan natives.
“It was the same Sob Noisse group from Buzzard but we just added people to the mix. Everyone is either from Grand Rapids or Detroit and then two of our producers are from New York — they brought a couple people with them as well,” Potrykus said.
While he’s used to working with local talent, he said The Alchemist Cookbook boasts the most local talent he’s worked with on one project — it’s about three times the size of Buzzard’s crew.
“This was our first time working with a big, kind of official crew, where everyone had designated positions,” he said. “It wasn’t like the sound guy had to go pick up lunch and then also pick up the actors.”
While Buzzard was considered a guerilla film made on a micro-budget, The Alchemist Cookbook gave Potrykus a chance to work with a larger budget thanks to the backing of production company Oscilloscope Laboratories.
“The Alchemist Cookbook, I would not classify as a guerilla film,” he explained. “It’s a low-budget film, but it’s not like we were storming the streets or sneaking into McDonald’s with a camera. It was just one setting, so it was a very relaxed shoot and we were able to take in the woods and film what we wanted to. But we didn’t have to sneak around or break any laws with this one.”
While the production days may have been tamer on The Alchemist Cookbook, the subject matter is anything but. The movie follows an outsider-turned-hermit who retreats to the backwoods to make his own fortune via alchemy, only to slide down a slippery slope to something much crazier.
With the film promising Potrykus’s signature elements of psychological breakdowns, magical realism and dark undertones, it only seems fitting this latest feature also had its world premiere at SXSW Film Festival.
“SXSW has always kind of been home to the weirdos and outsider films,” Potrykus explained. “When we were there with Buzzard, we felt pretty at home and everybody really seemed to get it. It’s cool because the screenings are like one-third people off the street, one-third very refined cinephiles and then one-third stoner metalheads.”
Considering the fact that SXSW has the potential to make or break a director, it’s no surprise Potrykus is busy with interviews and promotion during the festival. But that doesn’t stop him from having a good time, too.
“I’m usually pretty busy during the day. During the evening is when I get to actually watch movies,” Potrykus said. “Then at night it’s a different kind of enjoyment because I’m usually just bouncing from party to party.”
While Potrykus is busier than ever, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s finally able to leave boring desk jobs and minimum-wage gigs behind and make film, in one regard or another, his full-time profession and passion.
“I’ve started to slowly be able to figure it out and not do things that I don’t want to do,” Potrykus said. “Everything I do, I really, really am into and I really love.”