Icons of Fright Talks THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK With Director Joel Potrykus
During this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, one of the many impressive surprises was THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK (review), helmed by BUZZARD director, Joel Potrykus. A scary and sometimes humorous look at a hermit’s experiments with alchemy and demonic conjuring, the film sets Potrykus apart, as one of the most unique voices working in independent cinema today. Potrykus was nice enough to chat with us for a little while about the film, his desire to do something quite different and a band we mutually adore, Smoking Popes. Read on!
Dude, THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK was the first film I saw out of Fantasia, and I seriously think it’s one of the most unique films I’ve ever seen in my life.
Oh that’s radical man, thank you.
I absolutely loved the hell out of it.
I read your review, really killer review. You seemed to really understand it, which is awesome.
It works as a genre film, but I think it resonates on quite a few other levels as well.
That’s what we were going for and I always dig when people kind of appreciate the things that we’re trying to achieve with these movies so…yeah. That’s awesome.
Can you speak on how the project came to fruition?
I’d been making these movies, I don’t know if you saw APE and BUZZARD…
Yeah, BUZZARD was a lot of fun…
Those two were very much like angry white boy in the Midwest movies and I wanted to get away from that because I felt like I had so many other influences and inspirations. I wanted to do something different, you know? So let’s get rid of the white dude, and let’s get rid of the cities, and do something I thought. I’d always been into alchemy and all the weird things that haven’t been explored with alchemy. When you think of an alchemist, you think of an old white man with a long white beard, like a wizard or something, so it was just trying to do something opposite of any expectations of what this kind of a movie about an alchemist living out in the woods would be like. I was bringing hip hop and punk rock into it and just trying to do something interesting. I feel like every director has that one movie they make where it’s like a puzzle or a poem or something and they gotta get it out of their system. That’s what this one was for me, my little poem, my genre poem or something like that and I wanted to really challenge the audience. It’s just something I had to get out of my system man, I had to do it.
It worked very well. I’m curious about how you came the across the actors, because they’re both just phenomenal and so naturalistic, they’re just so beyond skilled.
That’s so cool that you felt that way. This is also like the first time I worked with dudes I didn’t know. It was tricky, because we had to find people outside of Michigan. I like to work in Michigan as much as possible but I don’t know, I mean the straight up thing is that not a lot of African American actors fit the bill that I was going for with this one, so we had to kind of cast the net a little bit. There was this movie called GIMME THE LOOT, have you seen that one?
I haven’t. It was on my radar when it came out and after watching THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK, I’m planning on trying to check it out.
It kind of like toured around the festival scene when I made APE,so I was aware of it and there’s this shot in there where Ty Hickson who plays Shawn in THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK, is walking out of this basement, talking to these people and there’s this punching bag and he punches the punching bag out of nowhere. My first question I asked him was ‘Did the director ask you to punch that punching bag?” and he’s like ”No but it was there, so who wouldn’t?” and I was like yes! That’s what I hoped he would say. Like just a dude who sees a punching bag and takes a punch on it. You know that’s the most important thing, just finding somebody natural and instinctive in that way and then when we sent the script to him, he wasn’t like a few of the guys we sent it to that were like ”Eh, I don’t get this, I don’t know what this is, I don’t feel it” right away. He asked for a few days to really think about it because he had never read anything like it. It was just like finding guys that really knew we were up to something different and were up for a challenge, so both of the guys were up for it and also happened to be actors that I was into.
Another thing I was curious about, right from like the first viewing is how much, if any of the film was improvised? Because some of those lines are just out of left field in the best of ways. There’s a line in the film regarding Mad Max that had be laughing for at least ten minutes.
All of the dialogue was actually scripted but what I’ll do is in rehearsals and things we’ll do it by script but then I’ll let the actors loosen up a little bit and bring in their own little traits into it and then I kind of rewrite the scenes based on that. The MAD MAX stuff was all me, but I say a lot of what you see Ty doing as Shawn was improvised when he’s not speaking. What I do is let the camera roll, and we’ll shoot the scene, and then I don’t say cut, I’ll let the camera roll and see what the actors do. So a lot of times when you see things where no one is speaking, that’s all improvised by the actors where we’re just going to see what they do if I don’t say cut and they are still in character. That, to me, is the coolest stuff where, you know, it’s more fun to me to not follow a blueprint, so to speak.
You spoke a bit on the punk rock element of it. The soundtrack was another thing that I just absolutely loved. Am I wrong, or did I hear Smoking Popes in there somewhere a couple of times?
Yeah, Smoking Popes is in there twice actually.
That caught me off guard so much! I was like “What the hell?!” It was great. That band was one that I used to skate to a lot.
I didn’t want to make anything cliché where this kid just listens to rap music and stuff but that is the environment he came from and I think the music is really important in giving you a kind of back story as well as like the character of Cortez, because with Shawn, we never really get a sense of who he is or where he came from or why he’s out there, but the character of Cortez and the music shows that he was kind of a little bit different than the people in his neighborhood and he probably was not accepted based on how he dresses, how he behaves, the music he listens to. So it was important to have the contrasting music in there and also music that I put in my movies is just music that I really like. They’re songs that I’m like “Man I wish this song would be in a movie!” and so some of those songs are from when I was like 19 and I would dream of making a movie where I’d get to put my favorite bands in. With Smoking Popes, one time when I was in college and my girlfriend came to visit, we drove from Grand Rapids to Lansing to see them and my car broke down. We went to Burger King and the car wouldn’t start again, so we walked to the club where they were playing and we weren’t 21 and we didn’t know that it wasn’t an all ages show, so we couldn’t even get in. We stood outside the front window and we watched them play and there was like nobody inside watching the band. The band saw us watching and was kind of just playing to us and it was this awesome, weird private show. They hung out with us after the show and they even tried to give us a jump on our car and it wouldn’t work so they let us stay the night with them in their hotel and called us a tow trunk in the morning. I don’t know many people who would do that, but man…Smoking Popes. Those are good dudes. They need more exposure, I’ve just loved the band for so long. I felt like it was time to put Smoking Popes in a movie, for sure.
I love genre films that kind of have a bit of mystery to them. Don’t get me wrong, I love ’80s slasher films and stuff like that but I like a lot of the psychological horror films too where you don’t know if something is actually happening or if the character is just slowly going crazy. And that’s what I loved about THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK is you know, for the first half at least, you kind of wonder if all of the chemicals and fumes are just getting to him, you know? And until the scene around the campfire where Cortez comes back, which I will go on record saying is probably the scariest scene I’ve seen in the last five years. I don’t know why, but it just spooked me the hell out all night.
That is so awesome!
Was it your goal to kind of keep the audience guessing?
Yeah, yeah. Of course. For me, I think it was like I don’t know, I have a family history of paranoid schizophrenia and stuff and like when someone is off their meds, it’s way scarier than to see someone popping pills left and right and just being crazy for a few hours and then just passing out. When someone is off their pills, that is like wicked scary. So yeah, you’re right. I wanted a lot of this to be an unreliable narrator in a way, you don’t know what’s happening, what’s not happening and everything he’s getting involved in is not making it easier for the audience to figure out if any of this is real or not.
Without me spoiling anything, the very last shot, it reminded me a lot of the late ’70s or early ’80s horror films with the still picture closing…
That was actually taken from 400 BLOWS by Truffaut. I loved that shot, so I figured, “I’m going to try and see if it works” but when I did it, it didn’t feel like 400 BLOWS, but like you said, like these weird ’70s movies, these weird psychological films. You get this still of this person and you let it sit there for a second you know, and it’s like this last portrait burned into the viewer’s brain. I love that and never really had the right movie to do something like that in. This one, it was in the script like freeze frame, black and white slow zoom on that was in the script and if it works, it works and if it doesn’t I’ll come up with something else. That was a really important thing and I felt it was going to leave the viewer with no feeling of resolution and I don’t want to spoil anything but there’s no happy ending, there’s no red ribbons tied up nicely in any of my movies so it’s just another non-happy ending (Laughs).