Interview: Joel Potrykus (Writer/Director – ‘Buzzard’)

Marty is a caustic, small-time con artist drifting from one scam to the next.  When his latest ruse goes awry, mounting paranoia forces him from his lousy small town temp job to the desolate streets of Detroit with nothing more than a pocket full of bogus checks, a dangerously altered Nintendo® Power Glove, and a bad temper.  Albert Camus meets Freddy Krueger in BUZZARD, a hellish and hilarious riff on the struggles of the American working class.

A personal favorite from the 2014 SXSW Music, Film & Interactive Conference, as well as last year’s New Directors/New Films, BUZZARD releases in theaters around the country TODAY.  We spoke with the film’s Writer/Director Joel Potrykus in an extended conversation of all things (Michigan) Indie filmmaking, the reception BUZZARD has received so far, and much more.

If you’re in NYC this weekend, check out BUZZARD at the IFC Center.  Also, be sure to donate to the fun 8-bit video game project (link at end of article) as a collaboration between the BUZZARD team, Oscilloscope Labs & Babycastles.

Find more information on BUZZARDhere

The film’s protagonist, Marty [Jackitansky], doesn’t really have the most likeable personality. You could say he’s manipulative, self-centred and sometimes very hot-tempered. At the same time I believe the most flawed characters are the most interesting to watch. When you were writing this character, did you have the expectation that he’d be labeled an anti-hero?
I never really think about how the audience is gonna perceive a character or even a movie. In real life, I don’t know any heroes, or villains or anti-heroes. I just want an audience to basically understand Marty. And if they liked him and cheered for him, then that’s cool. If they thought he was an asshole, then I understood that, too. A lot of people think he’s an asshole that they like, and they’re confused why they like him. I never sought out to create a specific character that would — likeable but unlikable at the same time, or something like that, you know… I just put that in the audience’s hands.

From a viewer’s perspective, it’s easy to see Marty, as well as your character, Derek, as being aimless and irresponsible — a man who hasn’t really matured since he was a teenager. But I actually read one of your interviews, for The New York Times, where you said that you find it weird when people call these characters slackers ‘cause you think they’re ambitious, just misdirected in their ambitions. Do you think this perception comes more from people projecting their own ideas of what a fulfilling life is to these characters?
Yeah, maybe… I mean, unfortunately, or fortunately, this has been what my life, a lot of my friends’ life, [is like] for a long time, sitting in front of a basement, playing video games well past our teenage years. If somebody needs to ridicule these characters, then maybe they are projecting something about themselves on them. But again, I’m just writing what I know; I definitely know that world and know those two guys very much. Those guys exist anywhere at any job, any office or any warehouse. I never wanna create a character that I disliked. I love those guys, and I think that’s what makes them feel more real and human, hopefully.

BUZZARD_Still1Underneath Marty’s lazy and detached demeanor, he does have a goal that essentially fuels all of his actions in the film, which is to rebel against the big corporations and give a middle finger to it. Although he sees himself as this rebel, he’s really not much of an expert as he believes he is ‘cause he learns that Big Brother is always watching. Do you think that the shameless gratification that he gets from conning people is a drug for him more than the cause that he believes he is fighting for?
Yeah, I think it’s a combination of a couple things. First up, they say, “You write what you know.” I was a temp at a mortgage company; we goofed around a lot. On the other hand, if people want to dissect the movie, there is a few levels to dissect. For me, I had to scale back some of the politics of the film ‘cause I felt it was too overt at first. But to me, Marty definitely represents what I feel is kind of the flaw in the Occupy movement, where so much of the 99 percent that were protesting didn’t quite understand what they were protesting. And they’d be picketing Wall Street but sipping on Starbucks at the same time. They’re mad, and they don’t know why. They’re angry, and they’re not sure why they feel like they’re owed something. That’s who Marty is to me — is misdirected in his anger.

Speaking of Big Brother, the surveillance of our daily lives — whether it’s by cameras or authority figures — is a dominant theme throughout the film. And this paranoia is often what prevents Marty from going even further in his crimes. What would you say is more of a hindrance for his goals? His own personality, being quite arrogant, or his own financial disadvantage? If he had more money, he’d probably be able to do more than what we see him do.
If Marty was a millionaire, he’d be trying to scam companies out of a new helicopter. It’s definitely not just out of necessity; it’s just part of his personality. [In] the whole movie, he’s afraid of getting caught. He’s afraid of everything, but we never once see a police officer. We never once even see his boss. His paranoia is pretty perpetuated by himself. Even though he’s doing wrong things, it’s important to never show these authority figures hot on his trail. I wanted the audience to manifest some of that in their heads — in their own imaginations.

Is that why you didn’t show the bank person at the opening scene?
That’s our first real introduction to Marty, and it’s much more important for us [to] kind of sit in the room with him. Luckily, Joshua [Jackitansky] has the kind of face that you can just watch, not saying anything, and learn about that character almost more from what he’s not saying than what he is saying. The “faceless corporate world.” He’s literally faceless in that scene. So, like I said, there’s layers to pull apart. I don’t like to pull at it too much, but, yeah, it’s there.

‘Buzzard’ was shot in your home of Grand Rapids, Michigan. How were you able to obtain the necessary resources or infrastructure for filming that you needed? And did you have any help from the incentives from the state?
No. The state of Michigan really doesn’t care about us, which is great. It should be that way [so] we don’t have to get permits, or insurance, or ask to have a street closed down. The resources are mostly just the people that I work with, and friends who believe in what we’re doing, and have the same attitude about Hollywood and the LA industry, and how that’s wasteful. We’re trying to do something a little more efficient and kind of change the way films can be made.

BUZZARD_Still2Going into that, you’ve also mentioned that some of the scenes you filmed were covert and without a permit. Was this rebellious technique more of a plan, or [did] you have to do these just to get those scenes?
It’s definitely way easier to shoot something guerrilla style. You don’t have to ask permission; it’s definitely more fun. I also felt like we were living the movie a little bit. We were living through Marty by sneaking, and cheating, and stealing certain shots. We were practising what we were preaching, I guess. So it’s a little of everything. But, ultimately, it’s just less of a headache than asking permission and getting people to sign of off on agreements and things that they probably would never do because people are very protective of their businesses.

On that note of these daring and spontaneous moments during the making of the film, I’ve pretty much read all of your interviews. So I know that the five-minute spaghetti scene wasn’t planned to be that long. As well, the treadmill wasn’t actually in the script, but it happened to be at the basement of your producer’s parents’ house, where you filmed. So you incorporated these things that happened at the moment. Were there any other moments that were not originally in the script that you just happened to use?
I’m one of those guys that tries to go off the script and the blueprint as much as possible, but leave a little bit of room for happy accidents like that. As far as certain scenes, I think the treadmill and the spaghetti scenes are the biggest ones that were not scripted. They just happened because we were in a place where we had time to do what we wanted. No one was pressuring us for a schedule. Those happy accidents you can’t script — those are my favorite scenes in the movie because they feel more real to me. They didn’t come from me; they came from a different place.

Although Marty is trying to cheat the system for his own benefit, he does have these moments where he is vulnerable and shows a selfless side — where he’s talking on the phone with his loved ones. Did you have a balance of how far you were willing to let him be self-indulgent?
Yeah, that’s really important. I never try to lay out a backstory for a character; I’d rather have the audience fill in their own backstory. I think that takes away from some of the shared experience when you lay out everything too clearly. But it was important to hint at Marty’s upbringing or where his disaffected attitude comes from. So those little moments with the phone call to his mom are probably the most important, emotionally and psychologically, for someone to understand why Marty is the way he is. Even if they don’t really comprehend those conversations, it’s not going to take away from the movie. I never like to give the person on the other end of the phone a voice because I think it’s more powerful for us to picture what they’re saying, and just listen to one person’s perspective on that scene.

I have to admit that I didn’t know that you were Derek in the movie before I did my prep for the interview. So when I watched it, I didn’t know that was you. How much of that character is similar to you in real life, and how are you different from him?
Well, I’m glad you didn’t pick up on that; that means I did my job. I like to think that Marty is my dark side, and Derek is my light side, pushed to extreme. I mean, everybody’s frustrated, angry about something, but me, too — I’m not quite a violent dick like Marty is. And I geek out at old video games and going to Best Buy like Derek. But I don’t quite have the facial hair… You just gotta take your own personality and exaggerate it a little bit, but I think Marty and Derek are one in the same person. They’re just different sides of the coin.

Without giving it away, the ending, which touches again on surveillance and how Marty sees himself, is quite ambiguous. It leaves the audiences to interpret it for themselves. Was it intentionally left that way to end?
I always like to end with a moment of surrealism and ambiguity a little bit. There’s been some weird Internet theories about what happened to Marty at the end. Some people [who] listen all the way through the credits, hear a police siren in the distance. I never want to lay it out exactly what happens. I think it’s more powerful to end with that — the movie is basically about paranoia, so we end on a very extreme note of paranoia that kinda catches you off guard. I’m not quite Tarantino; I’m not telling you what’s in the briefcase. But I do like to leave some of that off for the audience to fill in the gap for themselves.

Buzzard still 3So if someone’s gonna tell you their theory, you’re not going to say if it’s right or wrong?
Probably not. It frustrates me when other directors do that. Sometimes, at a Q&A, someone will come up with a theory, and I’ll just give them a very positive nod, and hopefully they’ll understand that, yes, they just nailed what I was trying to do.

Was there any interesting one that you think is the best that you’ve heard so far?
With ‘Ape,’ somebody had a time travel theory at a Q&A, which was pretty awesome. I’ll never ever tell them that they’re wrong when a time travel theory comes up. Those are always my favorite — anything that has to do with time travel. I just told them, “I think you’re on to something,” and left it at that. So my answers are usually just as vague as the ending is.

Well, thank you so much.
Great. Everyone should also check out the Kickstarter for the video game. It’s an extension of Marty’s video game life brought to life, so that’s a really cool thing that’s happening right now. If people love the movie, then they’re going to love the video game.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by Alfonso Espina

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