'The Alchemist Cookbook' Filmmakers Prove Everything You Learned About Shooting Coverage is Wrong
Joel Potrykus and Adam J. Minnick are throwing out the rules for everything from shot coverage to film distribution.
“That seems like a musician who is writing a song, but in five different keys just in case one sounds better,” says director Joel Potrykus about coming up with a long shotlist for a scene. Instead, DP Adam J. Minnick, Joel's long-time collaborator, applies the 14th-century philosophy of Occam's Razor to their films: when multiple explanations for something exist, the simpler one is usually better. Or as Adam words it, the best cinema can come from "a single and communicative shot."
Their latest film, The Alchemist Cookbook, a devilishly delightful dark comedy, comes out today in a pay-what-you-want experiment on BitTorrent Now and in theaters, so you can see for yourself whether their theories hold up. No Film School sat down with Potrykus and Minnick to talk about making The Alchemist Cookbook, from shooting unbroken masters, to pharmaceutical disasters on set, to how the most important thing you can do for yourself as a director is to write, write, write.
NFS: Joel, your last film, Buzzardwas considered sort of a new addition to the slacker genre, where the main characters are not doing much, or are certainly not going on a conventional hero's journey. Does The Alchemist Cookbook fit into this category?
Joel Potrykus: The original intention with The Alchemist Cookbook was to try to make something different than everything else I’ve done. I started to feel like people were expecting me to make another angry-white-boy-in-the-city movie — a slacker, lashing out. So I wanted to take it out of the city, take the white people out of the movie.
I’m the last person to ever try to classify what I try to do, so as far as this slacker thing…it’s kind of a little bit weird. I just make movies about what I’m going through or feeling at the time. Every time someone calls it a slacker movie, it feels like an indirect diss to me, calling me a slacker! I never consciously think about those kinds of things. People come up and spot similarities in the way the character reacts to other people and is still lashing out and feeling paranoia. And as much as I tried to make something different, as I was writing and shooting it, I could spot the similarities myself. Those are things I think are subconsciously never going to change. I’m interested in what I’m interested in. These are the type of characters I end up writing. There’s no traditional hero's journey, there’s not even a traditional hero or protagonist/antagonist.
Buzzard and Ape were borderline traditional narratives. They followed a linear story. Here I wanted to make something that was more of a puzzle, that [audiences] could put together themselves—hopefully, in different ways—and talk about it. I didn’t want to lay all the information out very clearly. I wanted to be cryptic enough that people could interpret it for themselves. I was definitely trying to challenge myself as well as the audience.
NFS: Adam has been your DP on previous films. What was your conversation about what The Alchemist Cookbook should be like visually?
Potrykus: It may sound corny or pretentious, but the first thing we talk about is what color the movie is going to be. Buzzard was blue, The Alchemist Cookbook was blood red and gold.
Adam J. Minnick: Joel and I discussed the visual language of the film early on and often. We decided on a warm, golden palette due to its natural relation to the story's main themes, and Sean's pursuit of alchemical success. We used the previous autumn's leftover gold, yellow and brown leaves covering the Michigan forest bed, along with quite a few magic hour "last light" moments in support of our color goal.
"If the characters are moving, the camera is moving. If the characters are not moving, the camera is not moving."
It was important that this film have a different feel than the raw, menacing, aggressive camera of Buzzard. For The Alchemist Cookbook, which is a piece that deals partly with solitude and privacy, the approach to camera was more still and quiet. Only moving the camera when we felt Sean's movement called for it was always one of our "rules."
Potrykus: I think I said, "if the characters are moving, the camera is moving. If the characters are not moving, the camera is not moving. I’m rigid about those sorts of rules. I have an intense formal style and structure that I stick to once I come up with it.
Credit: The Alchemist Cookbook courtesy Oscilloscope
Minnick: We sort of set out to make a "Jim Jarmusch in the woods" film with our exteriors, so many of the shots in the film are essentially still photographs in which the only movements are Sean's actions within the frame. For the trailer interiors, I tightly shot a lot of 50mm to 100mm focal lengths to emphasize the feelings of enslavement, discomfort, anxiety and claustrophobia. Often, we would push in tighter than originally planned to visually reinforce these ideas.
"It’s really about not doing something stylized just for the sake of doing something stylized."
NFS: What's the motivation behind having the camera move only when the characters move?
Potrykus: For me, I want the audience to get inside the character, and be able to feel like you’re moving with the lead character. There’s this subtle, almost subconscious feeling audiences get when the character is just sitting there, and the camera is on sticks locked down, sitting in the room with him for five minutes. It just helps you feel like you are really sitting there in the room with that person. If it is chaotic, and the character is running around, I want you to feel like you are running around and shaking and moving with that character. It’s really about not doing something stylized just for the sake of doing something stylized. There should be nothing to distract from the story or the characters.
NFS: Almost all the shots are unbroken masters, you don’t cut back and forth from close ups to establishing shots. You have, for the most part, only one shot. Does that fit into your formal philosophy?
Potrykus: I don’t shoot any coverage. If I don’t shoot coverage, and I get into the editing room, 99% of the time it’s like, “oh shit, we should have shot coverage. Now we’re stuck.” But for me, I like that challenge. I’m editing the movie as I shoot it, in my head. I’ll usually have a pretty good idea if we need to change a shot or change an angle to get something to match. But otherwise, I like forcing myself to think in one way only, and see the scene in its best possible way, and not try to do coverage just for the sake of coverage, just for safety.
"The less cutting, the more likely the audience will forget they are watching a movie that has been manipulated by people and put together inside of a computer."
To me, that seems like a musician who is writing a song, but in five different keys just in case one sounds better. I mean, you find your key, your tempo, and that’s the song. For me, that’s how it was. There was no other way to shoot the scene, this is it. Every time you cut, it takes someone out of the movie. It lets them know they are watching a movie. So the less cutting, the more likely the audience will forget they are watching a movie that has been manipulated by people and put together inside of a computer.
Credit: The Alchemist Cookbook courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories
NFS: Adam, as the DP, how does that change your production style? What is your philosophy about not shooting coverage?
Minnick: Probably more than any other visual approach to a scene, Joel and I are aligned on this one. I feel strongly that the simplest and most direct path to a solution is often the right one. I'm talking about sort of an "Occam's Razor" approach to imagery and cinema. If everything you are trying to say in a scene can be cleanly presented in a single and communicative shot, then that, to me, is complex and successful cinema. Sure, there's always a time and a place for traditional over the shoulder shots and the like, but I try to approach each shot with intent, and not just filler. Working with Joel is so nice in this respect because he's a fluff-cutter, and he likes to get right to the meat.
NFS: What did you decide to shoot on to match this production, and why?
Minnick: We shot the film on an ARRI Alexa (Classic EV) with Cooke S4/i primes. The way the Alexa handles highlight rolloff, shadow details, and organic gradients is so pleasing, especially for guys like Joel and I who come from chemical film backgrounds. It's one of only a couple digital cameras to me that rivals celluloid. Even the digital noise is pretty acceptable and granular right out of camera. The Cookes were a decision I made based on their slight softness and natural warmth, to support our palette. And I really love the way they help take the hard edge off digital HD images as well. I'm always working on ways to dirty up the picture a bit.
"I feel strongly that the simplest and most direct path to a solution is often the right one."
NFS: In all your previous films you worked with non-actors who you knew. Here, you cast Ty Hickson (Gimme the Loot) as Sean. What prompted the casting of professional actors, and how was the experience different?
Potrykus: It was different because Joshua Burge has been in the last three things I’ve done. We’re really good friends, and it's natural. We could communicate without even really talking to each other on set. We just had our own sign language almost. So this was very different, to have an actual actor that I didn’t know going into it. It took a couple days. I would roll the scene, and then I would let the camera kind of sit there, and not say cut. That threw him off the first day.
I told him, "probably what’s going to make this movie are the things I did not write. Things I want you to come up with. I’m not going to give you any direction—I’m just going to let the camera roll and just have fun and get crazy and see what you come up with." Then he understood. We talked about jazz a little bit. He knows all the notes, now it’s time to play them however he wants. I sometimes think that actors might not get enough freedom to do what they want to do, or take chances. So all I really want to do with any actor is to let them know that they’re OK to be freed up and not stick to the script.
It was different working with Ty and Amari, who plays Cortez. Amari is a Julliard-trained actor! I had to loosen ‘em up a little bit and get them both accustomed to the way I shoot. Some days we would literally throw the script into the trash. I would say, "Let’s just see what happens today. Let’s just get the camera in the woods and play around. I think they liked it, and it was awesome for me to see new people take my ideas in different directions."
Credit: The Alchemist Cookbook courtesy Oscilliscope Laboratories
NFS: Was rehearsal a big part of this process, like in your previous films?
Potrykus: Ty came in a few days early for rehearsal. But weirdly enough, the day he was going to come, I was really nervous. Like I said, it was the first time I was working with someone I didn’t know who was actually an actor. Adam gave me an anxiety pill, and I’d never taken one before. It knocked me out. I turned into a zombie! I think I literally fell asleep on the floor in the trailer. I woke up to people texting me, “Where are you? Ty is here.” I had to drive back to the production house, like with my elbows. I couldn’t see straight. It was awful. I see Ty standing there. I had to go up to him and say like, “Hey man. I’m accidentally really stoned right now. This is not me. I’m sorry. I know we’re supposed to rehearse, but let’s just go hang out and talk.” I was a mess. I couldn’t even stand up really. It was terrible. So unfortunately, that was his first impression of me. Some drugged up director who was stumbling. That was the last time I took an anxiety pill. That was dangerous! That’s how we eased into our rehearsal.
So we did rehearse the day, the morning of, and a few days before that. Ty had done a lot of research and practice ahead of time. So he was well prepared, and luckily the part was loose enough that he could have fun with it.
"I think the best way a DP can help in a case such as this is to allow the director to 'forget' about him or her. "
NFS: For Adam, was there any way you tried to help Joel get past the nerves of working with his first professional actors?
Minnick: I think the best way a DP can help in a case such as this is to allow the director to "forget" about him or her. By this, of course, I mean allow the director to not worry about camera-related issues. This can only happen once the DP instills a sense of trust, preparation, confidence and calmness. Joel and I have a solid shorthand communication that doesn't come easily, but it can absolutely help in cases where he might have uncertainties or even anxieties when making a movie. Knowing that I have his vision's best interest in mind at all times allows him to forget about the image and technicalities once we are rolling along. He leaves that to me and my camera team. Rather, he can focus on his actors' performances, blocking, subtleties in story, or even last-minute changes to the feel of a scene.
Joel often looks at me after cutting and asks, "we get it?" Sometimes I'll just nod or say "yep" and we move on. That tells me a lot about where we stand. And it tells me that I'm doing my job by taking at least one worry off his plate during production.
NFS: Finally, Joel, you’ve made three successful features now. What would be your advice in that respect?
Potrykus: The biggest piece of advice i have for any filmmaker, who doesn’t want to be a DP or a sound person, but who wants to be a director, is you have to write. You have to be able to know how to write your own scripts. That way, you don’t have to wait around for other people’s ideas. You have full control on set if you’re the author of that work. A lot of times, filmmakers make one feature or one short they are proud of, and they kind of sit on that for a long time. I’ve only watched The Alchemist Cookbook once, after I finished editing it. For the last year, after the film premiered, I was immediately in the mindset of: what’s next? Let’s make this next one happen. I feel like I have a lot to say, I feel like I’ve said it, and then moving on to the next thing I want to say. Be aware that you should always have other things ready to go, and be able to write your own material so you have control over it.
"In my dream world, in five years, everything will be pay-what-you-want."
NFS: The film is coming out this Friday and on Bittorrent Bundle. Is it going to be pay what you want?
Potrykus: Yes! It’s pay-what-you want in theaters too.
NFS: Theatrical pay-what-you-want?
Potrykus: This is part of these big dreams I have for these alternative release strategies. Pay what you want is a step towards that. Oscilloscope was open to the idea. That’s one of the reasons I love working with Oscilloscope, is because they are way into crazy ideas. We’re always throwing weird ideas around, and hoping other people will get it. So now, Texas Theater in Dallas is screening is theatrically, and at their box office, it’s pay-what-you-want. That is so awesome. Pay-what-you-want for a movie ticket? I love that idea. They are totally on board. In my dream world, in five years, everything will be pay-what-you-want. At least in the movie world, or for the art world. How can I tell you this thing I made is worth $8? How can I tell you that? Maybe it’s not with $8 to you. Maybe it’s worth $1. Maybe it’s worth $20. So it’s an experiment, and we’ll see what happens. I definitely think for me and Oscilloscope, it’s a step in the right direction to try something different.
If you live near Texas Theaters in Dallas, you can try the glorious pay-what-you-want model at the box office. Anywhere else, you can watch the film for the price of your choosing online through Bittorrent Now.