Can setting up elaborate shots with time-consuming tools zap the soul out of your film? Joel Potrykus, the director of Buzzard, a film being called one of the most original American films to emerge in some time, suggests that not only do you not need high production value, but it might be taking away from the essence of your story.
When the film premiered at SXSW, No Film School sat down with Joel to talk about Buzzard, which has just been released on VOD/Digital this week. From putting a wireless mic on his main actor inside McDonalds, committing to a camera in the lead actor's face, to rehearsing for eight whole months, Joel embodies the microbudget, punk-rock ethos of DIY filmmaking.
Before you read the interview, or watch the full film, here is the Buzzard trailer for your perusal:
NFS: Buzzard was shot in Michigan. Why shoot there instead of, say, going to a place with a bigger film industry?
Joel Potrykus: Well, we live in Michigan, first off. The number one benefit is it’s cheaper to shoot in Michigan. There aren't a lot of people doing it, so the police won’t stop you. You don’t have to get permits for anything. It’s super cheap. If you get to set and you forget, like, the right lens, you just say, "Hold on, I’ll be back in 5 minutes, let me go get it." It takes five minutes to get from one side of the town to the other. I don’t think any of us are really wanting to live that Hollywood lifestyle just yet. It’s easy and cheap and you can get away with just about anything.
NFS: And at No Film School, we’re always interested in micro budgets.
Joel: I feel like we’re the kings of micro budget.
NFS: Could you elaborate a little on that?
Joel: I can’t disclose the budget for this film, but I can tell you the budget for my last film Ape was $3,000. The cost to put us up at our festival was more than the budget for the whole movie. We buy our equipment and we just sell it on eBay after we use it. It’s going to be outdated technology in six months anyway. So, we are all about micro budgets. Catering consists of mostly McDonald's or Little Caesars. Everybody on the cast and crew, mostly crew, are part of our film band and we don’t get paid to make them. Hopefully we make money off the films, and then we get paid percentages. Everyone is in it because they dig it and they believe in it.
NFS: So what do you do when some guy comes over and --
Joel: -- Says, "Hey you can’t shoot here,"?
Joel: We shot on the bus, on the city bus, once. We tried to get permission for that. They said, "It’ll be $100 per hour and you can shoot." I was ok with that. I was like, "We can get this shot in under an hour, that’s easy." But then they read the script and were like, “Oh, well we feel like this doesn’t put public transportation in a very good light, so unfortunately we will not be able to oblige that.” So then we were like, "Ok, our camera can fit in a backpack, so let’s go shoot it and not tell anyone." That’s the beauty of DSLR and all digital cameras -- we just do it, even if they say no. And they don’t even know what we’re doing! We shot on a bus in a Greyhound station. Nobody knew we were filming. We just kind of sneak in everything -- the ultimate guerrilla filmmaking.
I can’t disclose the budget for this film, but I can tell you the budget for my last film Ape was $3,000.
NFS: Nobody at the Greyhound station noticed because they were all passed-out, asleep?
Joel: There was a guy in the foreground of our shot who was sleeping. He’s sleeping, and he doesn’t know we’re filming, and our actor Joshua Burge is behind him in the shot, pretending to sleep in the shot. So, to give Josh his cue I just went “BOO!” But it also woke up the guy who was sleeping. So in the shot, they both wake up at the same time. It was beautiful.
NFS: I know you’ve worked on Super 8 a lot in the past, but you decided to shoot on DSLR for this?
Joel: All my short films were Super 8 -- but then I wanted to do a feature. I like the look of film and everything, and I don’t like what video looks like. But the first time I saw footage from like, a Canon 7D, I was fooled. I thought it was 16mm, and I was like, "Ok I’m in." Shooting on film, sync sound is a problem; with Super 8 sound is a nightmare. Once I saw DSLR footage, it got me. We shot Ape on a Canon 60D, we shot Buzzard on Canon 5D Mark III with a little Tascam audio recorder. Then I just sold it on eBay -- the next version is just gonna be cheaper and better!
NFS: What lenses did you pair with your 5D for this kind of production?
Joel: This one was different because we actually had a DP. I don’t think I ever had an actual DP before. Adam J. Minnick lives in Austin; he’s my friend from Michigan. We’ve been friends forever. I thought if there was gonna be one guy to shoot it, I trust my friend Adam. He’s way more tech nerdy. He knows what we’re going for. He and I kind of work on the same page. He was very adamant about getting some Zeiss prime lenses. We started shooting it on the Zeiss 50mm, but after a few days, I started to see that the 80mm was the one I really liked. Then the 135mm I really, really liked. I like the long lenses. It looks better than anything else I’ve done.
We rehearsed for eight months -- That’s ideally what it’s all about: rehearse so much that everybody can bounce off each other.
NFS: I hear you rehearse with your actors for many, many months ahead of time?
Joel: That’s the luxury you have when you’re not working with a studio. We rehearsed for eight months. The producers and the cast would show up once a week. We’d hang out for like five hours. It’s not just rehearsing, it’s like everybody would read parts of the script. It was kind of a way cooler table reading. Just hearing the words spoken out loud, everybody kind of contributes ideas to the script. And Josh could really work on the character. It was a solid eight months. Any anybody who had any part, even a bit part, they had to come in and work on the script with us for three or four hours to make it sound natural. We didn’t want it to sound fake and phony and scripted, so they just came in and we did it over and over and over until they know the lines. Then you get to the point where you can improvise and change it up and not confuse the other person. That’s ideally what it’s all about: rehearse so much that everybody can bounce off each other. So it was ideal. I don’t know if we’ll ever have that opportunity to rehearse for that long again!
NFS: This sounds like a kind of Cassavettes-ensemble-rehearsal process. Having worked with your lead actor before, is there an understanding that develops between you over time?
Joel: Josh and I have our own language where I can go on set and be like, “You know we gotta go like -- ” And he’ll be like “I got it.” There aren't any real directions, just a bunch of ums and ahs. I was talking to an actor in Michigan about the next feature. And he was like, "Give me a shot, I’ll come in to the audition and I’ll kill it. Whatever you want! I can be your lead." I just looked at him and I said, "I’m sorry, we already have a lead singer." That’s how I refer to it. Josh is the lead singer. The face of the band, the movie. He’s our guy.
NFS: Did Josh have acting experience before your films?
Joel: He has done a lot of plays, and I think he’d done a lot of acting in high school. He went to film school. He was in Coyote, but he didn’t have any lines. There was no dialogue in Coyote. So Ape was his first time with actual dialogue with someone. So, he’s a seasoned pro in Buzzard. I consider him one of the best actors around today. He’s just -- he’s that good! He’s doesn't just have the ability to act; he’s got a look and a persona that you can’t practice or make. He’s got the look. Like an evil Buster Keaton!
We put a wireless microphone on him in all these public locations, and had him do it. He likes it. That’s my favorite part. There’s some element of surprise, you don't know what’s going to happen.
NFS: How did Josh like working within the guerrilla filmmaking style of the production?
Joel: We put a wireless microphone on him in all these public locations, and had him do it. He likes it. That’s my favorite part. There’s some element of surprise, you don't know what’s going to happen. He’s always down with that. He was a little nervous during Ape when we had him walk down the street three times with an actual Molotov cocktail. In the middle of the day on a busy street. He was a little nervous for that! And then he had to light it in all one shot. Walk down the street for 5 minutes, come to this place, light it and throw it. "OK, take 2." That made him a little nervous, I understand that. But he is the kind of guy that’s kind of a little unsure about the whole situation, but as soon as you yell action he turns in to the character. You couldn’t convince anyone he had any reservations about doing scenes' he’s instantly committed.
NFS: That kind of shooting style doesn’t really allow for fancy gadgets and tools of high production value.
Joel: I’m very much against all that kind of stuff. I think crane shots, big jibs, all the things that slows it down and require trucks to move around, that’s not art to me. That’s construction work. I think it zaps any kind of momentum you have. It’s like when Poison and Warrant were big in the 1980s. Cranes and jibs, that’s all hairspray, just to make your production look fancy and slick and have a high production value. But if it doesn’t have heart and soul, it’s nothing. I’m all about the soul and the essence. I think working with elaborate productions zaps that feeling. That’s just me.
NFS: The timing to be able to move quickly --
Joel: You’re sitting around waiting for roadies to haul your gear and set it up. That’s no fun. You should be like, rock and roll!
NFS: How did you handle lighting?
Joel: All natural.
NFS: So did you get to a location, and then shoot where you could find light?
Joel: We scheduled the shoots out we so knew where the sun was going to be at certain times. We had some footage in a basement. I think we had a china ball down there. That was it. Otherwise it was just whatever light was there. That’s why we picked the 5D Mark III, because of the low light capabilities. If we needed to go shoot somewhere at night, sometimes we’d just drive around until we saw good lighting. That’s where the scene would happen. Again, that’s my favorite kind of stuff. Stuff that’s not planned out, where you just wing it. You can’t do that if you have a cast and crew of 40-50 people. But when you have a carload of people, it’s easy. You just drive around and find your spot!
NFS: What if drone technology gets better? Would you put the 5D on a quadcopter and follow Josh around?
Joel: No, no! I don’t think I would. It doesn’t have the same feeling as being eye-level with someone. Technology can never replace putting the camera in someone’s face and just watch them deliver their lines. Or have a camera walking with someone. That puts you there. All that stuff is cool, and James Cameron will have a lot of fun with it, but it’s not my bag.
Guys like me, we’re just trying to keep the big guys in check and show them they’re wasting their money. We’re going against the system.
NFS: Do you think Michigan audiences will like Buzzard?
Joel: I think people are people. As a whole, when you’re outside of a film festival, people are not as receptive to independent filmmaking as people at a film festival. I think you get a lot more mixed reactions, and a lot more walk-outs if I showed it at the local multiplex. I don’t think people would be going in expecting some kind of heavy metal slacker nightmare movie. There are cool people in Michigan that will dig it, and probably a lot of boring people in Michigan that would not dig it. We’ll see! They all know what to expect after seeing Ape, which has a similar feel to it.
NFS: What do you think is the value of having independent film? For stories that wouldn’t be playing at the Multiplex?
Joel: Well, obviously, the term for independent film is shifting quite a bit. Most of them are winning Oscars and the budgets are $40 million. Guys like me, we’re just trying to keep the big guys in check and show them they’re wasting their money. We’re going against the system. That’s what it’s all about. Trying to do it a different way. Show them how punk rockers did it in the late 1970s! We started a band in a garage on shitty equipment -- and we’re better than you guys! The Ramones are better than Led Zeppelin. That’s what we’re out for, to do it in a different way, cut out the waste and get down to what’s important. The art of it. No gloss! Just honesty.
NFS: Do you have advice for other filmmakers?
Joel: I always say don’t be afraid to rip off things you like. Almost every shot that’s ever done in any movie is ripped off from something else. Eventually you get your own voice from stealing other people's voices. I have no problem saying what I ripped off -- you put them all together and it makes something new.
Thank you, Joel!
What do think of Joel's style of filmmaking? Have you helmed similar productions?