Director Joel Potrykus and DP Adam J. Minnick breakdown how they created an entire apartment set in their friend’s garage for their SXSW ‘18 feature ‘Relaxer’.
There might not be a more destructive filmmaker working than Joel Potrykus. Best known for his DIY indie-punk features Ape, Buzzard and The Alchemist Cookbook, the Grand Rapids, Michigan based writer and director has found a his niche making tight, smart and brutal indies well outside the Hollywood or New York mainstream systems that are equal parts horror thrasher flicks as heady character studies into the limits of the human condition.
Relaxer, which premiered at SXSW in 2018 but is just now coming out March 22nd, 2019 (the 29th in NYC) was the third feature collaboration between childhood friends Potrykus and the Austin-based DP Adam J. Minnick.
In their latest offering, to capture the story of the forlorned character Abbie (frequent collaborator Joshua Burge) trapped stationarily on a couch for days on end tasked with the challenge of beating the high score in a game of Pac-Man, Potrykus and Minnick had to not only create a set of fastidious filmmaking rules, but they also had to create an entirely functional apartment living room set (which, spoilers - sort of - they would ultimately have to systematically destroy).
For disclosure’s sake, I must reveal that I originally met both Potrykus and Minnick and saw Relaxer at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas, Texas shortly after their SXSW-premiere where a short film of my own - Chris Stares At You While Eating A Plate Of Nachos - played as a sort of “opener” to their feature. It also involves a stationary character ingesting a large amount of food in a short amount of time, although with much less detonative results.
Jourdan Aldredge (NFS): Hey guys, first off it was an honor to have our short film CHRIS STARES AT YOU WHILE EATING A PLATE OF NACHOS play as an opener to RELAXER at the Oak Cliff Film Festival. It felt like a nice thematic intro to what we were going to be seeing with y’alls film (especially with the long continuous-take opening sequence).
Joel Potrykus: Thanks, Jourdan. Oak Cliff picked a winner to set the mood for Relaxer. Fill everyone up with thoughts of nachos, just before we blast it out of them, all over the floor.
Adam J. Minnick: Yeah, that was our third time playing Oak Cliff and I can’t think of a better match for our static shot, food-obsessed vibe.
NFS: Regarding that opening sequence with Abbie (Joshua Burge) and Cam (David Dastmalchain) and the initial Pac-Man challenge introduction, how long did it take you all to rehearse and get it coordinated on set? And then how many takes did you ultimately need?
JP: That shot is broken up in the film cut, but untouched it's a 22 minute take. We gave the actors very little marks to hit. Josh just needed to stay on the couch. And Dave had a limited space to move. After that long 180 pan, the camera stays on Josh mostly the entire time, so Dave was free to come and go into the frame. Josh and I rehearsed that scene to death long before filming. So once we got on set, the dialogue was in place. Adam's great with framing on the fly, so we ran through it a few times with the actors off set, then once or twice on set. We ran maybe five or six takes before we got it.
AJM: When we got the 22-minute oner we knew was right, Joel jumped onto set cheering from out from behind the wall in video village. It was the moment I knew that this was gonna be our favorite thing we’ve made together. Everyone was kind of firing on all cylinders on this shoot, and it felt like a big part of it was out of the way.
NFS: Throughout your films, there definitely seems to several instances where we’re left with a character consuming an impressive amount of food or liquid in one long continuous take. (The spaghetti scene from BUZZARD and the cola chugging scene in THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK come to mind.) Obviously, I’m a fan, but what’s your thought process in writing - and eventually filming - these shots?
JP: I just like watching characters eat in movies. I like watching normal life mixed in with violence or ridiculous humor. It makes everything feel more human to me, which in turn heightens the drama. With Buzzard, the script just says something like, "Marty takes a bite of the best spaghetti he's ever eaten." But in the moment, Josh started taking huge, sloppy bites. I stood back and just watched in awe. I knew it was my favorite scene in the movie while it was happening. It's something I wouldn't have been able to write and catch that kind of magic. It sounds simple, just a guy eating a bunch of spaghetti, but it's a magic Josh moment.
NFS: As the narrative of RELAXER begins to unravel, and the rules of the challenge (and the film) defines itself, the set very much becomes almost a character of its own. Tell us a little bit about how you built the apartment and working with the mostly static camera shot.
JP: The production designer, Mike Saunders, and I spent four months building the set in his parents' two-car garage. We didn't really know what we were doing, so it was a lot of trial and error. But the set was the most important element of the film at that point, and had to be built to the exact specs I drew up early on, so the camera team could execute their shots as planned. Adam and I are big into restrictions, so we established those before talking about a shot list or even aesthetics. The camera had to be fixed at Josh's eye-level the entire time. It could tilt and pan, but never rise or lower. It could never go behind him. It could never leave the room, to show us what's in the hallway or outside the window. Every film I've made has been done with a restricted narrative. The camera only shows us the protagonist's perspective. This helps us understand the character and see the world through his eyes. And obviously, it's a challenge to write a story where The Hitchcock Bomb Theory is essentially nullified.
AJM: Yes, the camera was to sit at Josh’s seated eye-level, which was 37 ½” high while he occupied the couch. And both the camera placement and movements were restricted to only a 6-foot by 11-foot rectangle in front and to the direct side of the couch. Because we shot the entire film on an Angenieux HR 25-250mm zoom (with the exception of a single jib shot), and we wanted no handheld operating in the movie, we navigated the room with a Dana Dolly with 4-foot to 8-foot speedrail, and a lot of dynamic, slow pans, tilts and zooms.
NFS: Similarly, the passing of time becomes a major factor and theme throughout Abbie’s journey. How were you all able to work with the different lighting setups needed to show the passing of days and seasons?
JP: Adam and gaffer Eric Zeilenga are obsessives with colors and color temperatures. I basically told them I wanted three or four looks to signify time of day and let them get creative. Otherwise, the only other key look was an Apocalypse Now-inspired set-up to give the film more depth visually, and show us more of what was happening inside Josh's character, Abbie. I've always used cuts to black, and this film is no different. It also helps cue the audience to passage of time without using exposition.
AJM: The benefit of working on a constructed, walk-away set is that it allows for complete photographic control. Mike Saunders built what was essentially a four-walled black box with two motivated sources of key light (windows), and we justified our fill with what in the natural world would be bounced wall light. The set’s open ceiling allowed my gaffer, Eric, to rig several banks of bounced and angled Kinos in specific color temperatures within the upper rafters of the garage. Then, we stretched a 10x20-foot overhead scrim over the entire set for further diffusion. The soft and wrapped lighting and shadow throughout the film come from the Ingmar Bergman/Sven Nykvist-esque bounce-and-diffuse approach that I use in almost every film I shoot. The only lights I wanted pointed into the set at all were for the window blind slashes across the refrigerator in the background and when we needed focused, contrasty beams for the Colonel Kurtz-like scene between Josh and Adina Howard.
As Joel mentioned, we wanted the ability to shoot different times of day, but also to depict several natural atmospheric conditions. So we created changeable setups with a range of possibilities such as bright sunlight, overcast day, rain, snow, silver moonlight, sodium vapor streetlights, and even fireworks light. In addition, every time Abbie was playing Pac Man (which is for about 80% of the film), Eric was manually strobing red and blue “television” lights into the set for a constant undercurrent of our 3D-glasses inspired palette.
NFS: The apartment set also begins to deteriorate as time passes. What were some of the challenges with creating a deconstructable set that has to be systematically destroyed until it barely resembles its look at the beginning of the film?
JP: Production Designer Mike tended to the walls every night after we wrapped, then in the morning again. He's great with continuity and came up with replaceable sections of the set that could be destroyed and reset relatively quickly. I mean, the entire set wreaked like rotten milk, and was covered in layers of sweat and grime by day three, but the camera doesn't catch just how disgusting it was in real life. We shot in July and the garage didn't have ventilation. Our princess of an actor, Adina Howard, shot her scenes during the last few days and I felt pretty lousy about asking her to even breathe that air.
AJM: It’s also worth mentioning that we actually shot the whole ending and winter sequence of the film first. So for the first two days the set was completely covered in prop snow, ice, mud, broken glass, etc. Then Mike and the art department reset the whole space for the beginning of the film. And hair and makeup chopped Josh’s long hair, shaved his face, and cleaned that boy up to the sparkling version of Abbie we see in the opening of the movie!
NFS: Finally, regarding the ending (without giving away any major spoilers), how were you able to achieve the one upwards camera move as Abbie finally changes planes? And how was that different from the camera setup from the rest of the film?
JP: It's the first jib I've ever used in a film. Normally, I oppose too much camera gear, as I think it distracts from the story. But in this case, it was absolutely necessary to tell the story. As I mentioned, the eyeline stays with Josh the entire film, so it's a motivated camera move and a jib was the only way to achieve it.
AJM: Camera setup-wise, this was the only shot in which we utilized a prime lens. But more importantly — without giving anything away — the shot’s relevance is very clear within the narrative. The motivation of the move was to literally follow our eyeline rule and to put a giant exclamation point on the action occurring on screen. If you see the movie, you’ll get it...you’ll feel it, even.
NFS: Where and how can we check out RELAXER and what are you both working on next?
JP: It'll play arthouse theaters, VOD, DVD, blu ray, Amazon, piratebay, all that stuff on March 22. It's going to be a big deal.
AJM: At the end of last year I shot a short called Churros for Emilie McDonald & Bruce Smolanoff in Brooklyn, and I just shot half of an ongoing short subject project in L.A. with Mike Ott. Next for me is a feature this spring, and probably another this fall, but we are still figuring out the details on those ones.
Relaxer is in select theaters March 22nd (March 29th in NYC), 2019. You can find out more about the film here.