Everyone knows the woods of Allegan are a local hotspot of nature and wildlife.
Michiganders all over agree these lush forests are the ideal haven for hiking, bird watching, hunting and… practicing alchemy? OK, so maybe that last part seems a little out there, but not for Joel Potrykus and his crew. These brave local filmmakers used this location for their most recent project, The Alchemist Cookbook.
“The movie that made me want to make movies was Evil Dead, so I needed to make a movie out in the woods,” Potrykus said. “I’d had this idea for a long time about a guy cooped up in a trailer, trying to turn lead into gold and messing around with black magic.”
Potrykus took this idea and ran with it, but not before studying his subject matter. He pored over books on alchemy and black magic, and even consulted with a professional chemist who had done research on alchemy. The expert suggested modern takes on alchemy to Potrykus, incorporating things like light bulb filaments and battery acid into traditional alchemic practices.
“When I started writing, I just kind of took all those ideas and threw them together and made it my own,” Potrykus said.
The end result is different from Potrykus’ previous films in more ways than one. This is in part due to the fact Potrykus had a larger budget than ever before, along with studio backing from the get-go. But perhaps the biggest change is that this is the first feature film Potrykus has made without Joshua Burge in the lead role. Instead, he decided to bring in New York native Ty Hickson to star as Sean, the aforementioned hermit who attempts to create his own fortune through alchemy.
“I want the actors to bring as much to it as I am,” Potrykus said. “I had to really get him comfortable with that, so he could try different things and experiment while shooting, just like I’m going to try new things and experiment.”
“Joel was great,” he said. “He’s super cool and he knows what he wants. At the same time, he will also allow the project to grow by letting myself as an actor, or anybody on the team, make it a better film however they can.”
The majority of screentime in the film belongs to Hickson, although Amari Cheatom also shows up briefly as Cortez, the friend who delivers Sean’s supplies to his remote trailer. Other than that, The Alchemist Cookbook is pretty much a one-man show. While it might intimidate some actors to basically have an entire film depend on his performance (especially considering the intensity of Sean’s character, as well as the dark turns the movie takes), Hickson embraced the challenge.
“It’s only as much pressure as I allow to be put on myself,” Hickson said. “At the end of the day, when I read the script I connected with the character. It felt like something I could pull off, so I just went into it with the mindset of killing it.”
The decision to have such a small cast for the film was pivotal for Potrykus, and not just because the film revolves around a hermit. It also has a lot to say about the themes explored throughout the film.
|The Alchemist Cookbook
Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts
2 W. Fulton St., Grand Rapids
$8 non-members, $4 members
For a full listing of showtimes visit uica.org/movies.
“It’s really about isolation and what that does to you,” Potrykus said. “There’s just no law. So it’s about a person living on his own, making his own laws away from society.”
Even though The Alchemist Cookbook boasts the smallest cast Potrykus has ever worked with, it also had the largest behind-the-scenes crew. Much of this crew was made up of familiar faces, such as producer Ashley Young, who helped produce Ape and Buzzard, and who also happens to be Potrykus’s longtime girlfriend.
“We live together and everything, so we work pretty closely when working on movies,” Young said.
Aside from her role as producer, script supervisor and other on-set tasks, Young also volunteered her cat (real name Fiji) to play Kaspar, Sean’s feline companion in the film.
“I think that was probably the most difficult thing for me, just because of my personal connection with the cat,” Young said. “I was probably more stressed out than Fiji was.”
Fiji made it through filming just fine though, as did all of his human companions. And The Alchemist Cookbook went on to premiere at SXSW in March, also gracing the screen at various other film festivals since then. Finally, in September, the film made its official West Michigan debut as part of ArtPrize: Onscreen. If you missed that showing, don’t worry — The Alchemist Cookbook is making a proper theatrical run at the UICA from Oct. 14–27.