When I tell director Joel Potrykus that his new film Buzzard only gets better the more I ruminate on its nuances and unique brand of humor—and that even now I’m chortling alone in my room simply at the name “Marty Jackitansky”—he tells me he’s pleased. “Sometimes you see a film and a half hour later go, ‘No, wait, I didn’t like as much as I did a few minutes ago. So, great.” But no, like all strangely delicious things, the latest installment in Potrykus’ Animal Trilogy only gets better with time.
And for the Grand Rapids-bred filmmaker, whose first two films, Ape and Coyote, garnered acclaimed for both he and star Joshua Burge, their latest endeavor into minimalist thrill comes in form of Buzzard—a film about an “ambitious cheater with very, very low ambitions,” working as a temp and making ends meet through small-time scams in Grand Rapids. Living off frozen pizza and potato chip sandwiches, Mountain Dew, coupon’d Hot Pockets, and SpaghettiOs, after getting the idea to sign over bank customers’ checks to himself while working at a temp gig, Marty’s life begins to take a downward spiral, as his endless foibles trip him further and further into a paranoid madness.
But what’s so wonderful about Potrykus’ film is how it transcends genres and cinematic class distinctions to form something that’s as bizarrely goofy as it is brilliantly crafted by someone who truly knows his medium—seamlessly blending junk food culture and nerd aggression with odes to Leos Carax and Stanley Kubrick. And with Burge as our not-so-humble leader Marty, he’s absolutely magnetic and enjoyable to watch—his presence onscreen as hilariously deadpan and riotous as it is dramatically compelling—and couldn’t be more perfectly grounded in Potrykus’ world.
Earlier this week, just after Buzzard’s premiere at the the New Directors / New Films Festival, I got on the phone with Potrykus and Burge to dive deeper into the pure id psyche of Marty, the strange wonder of Bugles, and making the film as human as it is insane.
How did you evolve from Coyote and Ape onto Buzzard—where did the story come from and do you always write thinking in terms of working together?
Joel Potrykus: We’ve been making this Animal Trilogy, so Buzzard was going to be the last one in it, and I think it started when we were coming back from a festival. I had a very loose idea of what I wanted to do based on my days working as a temp in a mortgage office—making nine dollars an hour, taking three hours breaks, sleeping in my car, nobody even aware I was gone. I just thought that weird midwestern life needed to be told into a film. I write independently and then bring it to Josh and he brings his own madness or interpretation of the character, so once I had the initial first draft of the script I passed it along to everybody and we started to hammer out all the subtleties and the real emotion of it. Josh brings something of himself to the character for sure.
Joshua Burge: Joel sent the opening scene with the bank teller shortly after Ape had premiered, and while Ape was on the festival circuit Joel was developing it and sending pages here and there. We were working with the character Marty and the he was changing all of the time. Marty was really evolving for the whole year, so by the time we got to set, everything was lined up and it fell into place right away.
What’s great about Marty is how seemingly under-achieving and apathetic he is, but when it comes to these scams of his, he’s so committed and so passionate about his own mission. I read you describe him as a “petty idealist,” which was an interesting way to put it.
JP: I really don’t agree with people when they say Marty is a big loser or a slacker, because he’s got ambitions. He’s working nine to five, while also trying to cut corporate corners, and even when he’s at home, he’s trying to get some free coupons. He’s an ambitious cheater with very, very low ambitions is all. He’s very dedicated to his tiny cheats. So I don’t see him as a loser, I see him as someone misdirected and trying to find his place in the corporate world—which is somebody that buys and cheats and feels no remorse. And Josh brought a different perspective to the character once he started playing him.
JB: I thought about Marty as a person, and I didn’t really like the guy. I love the character, I think he’s an interesting character, but when it comes time to portray him, it always that Marty feels he’s in the right and is not remorseful at all about that. He feels very confident that he’s on the right track, even if it is misguided or he’s got a certain tunnel vision where he’s focusing on these small things that are his whole world. It causes him to lose sight of the bigger picture, which is why it maybe comes off as petty, but I don’t see it that way. I think Marty considers himself very brave.
JP: He feels the world owes him.
He’s also someone who, on the page, would probably come off incredibly unlikeable, but on screen you’ve made him a guy you really do want to root for, even when he’s fucking up. You understand that even if what he’s doing is completely manic and removed from reason, he has his own motives.
JP: I didn’t need to make him likable, I just needed to make him real. And if you can understand his motivations, you don’t have to like him, but you can understand him and root for him a little bit.
JB: And empathize with him.
JP: Yeah, he’s not a hero, he’s not even an anti-hero—he’s just someone who’s out for himself and that’s what I want people to understand. If you like him, that’s awesome, if you don’t like him, that’s fine too, but just understand, that’s all.
The film also has so much fun blending different tones and styles—moments of charged frequency and really dialed back scenes. I mean, you go from a Freddy Krueger glove slasher bit to a Mauvais Sang riff. It’s pretty amazing.
JB: I’m nowhere near as nimble as Denis Lavant. I wish I’d done cartwheels, and wish I’d had that ability.
JP: I have no problem—almost like Marty’s character taking from other people and keeping things for himself—I have no problem admitting things I’ve stolen from other films and tried to make them my own. So sometimes you just need something and you just want to make that your own. And that scene from Mauvias Sang running, it just makes me so happy watching that shot, so I wanted to bring my own interpretation of it. If I can mix Leos Carax and Mountain Dew and Hot Pockets, that’s the voice I want to have. The mixing of the junk food and the art world, if I can find that balance—it’s not a comedy, but it’s got funny parts, it’s not a horror movie, but it’s got a Freddy Krueger glove. It’s all about keeping things unbalanced and surprising the audience, and almost sometimes confusing them on what direction the film is going and how they’re supposed to react. So if I make people a little bit dizzy, my job is done.
JB: And anything I’ve ever worked on, I’ve tried to take things that I like and bring them all together. Knowing that’s what Joel’s doing, makes it even more relatable.
And that’s what feels exciting about it, because you never know where it’s going to go next or how the tone will read in the next scene.
JP: I’m into genres, but I’m not into making a genre film. I want to take all the genres and stick them in a blender.
Speaking of Mountain Dew and Hot Pockets, this junk food culture was certainly a huge element of the film—and played into a lot of the best comedic moments. I mean, Bugles are inherently funny, but how did they make their way into the film?
JP: Bugles are great! Oh, I don’t think we’ve ever told this to anybody, but one night we were hanging out in Michigan and there was a bag of Bugles—it was at like a deer camp, I don’t know, we were like the only ones not out with a gun hunting—and there was a bag of Bugles. We probably had a few too many things to drink and we thought it would be funny if we would pour we would pour whiskey into the Bugle, then hold it above our mouth, bite the tip off the Bugle, and let it drip into our mouth. We called it “Nip the Tip,” and there’s a deleted scene in Buzzard where Derek and Marty are nipping the tip with root beer, pouring the root beer into the bugles and then biting off the tip, and letting it go in their mouth and then eating the Bugle. Bugles are so weird and unnecessary to be shaped like that. It seems like a lot of work for such a little cheap thing—they’re great. They’ve got a lot of ambition.
And where did the treadmill Bugle scene come from?
JP: That was improvised on the spot, and we owe a lot of that to our DP Adam. I have a tendency to rush a lot of shots and he’s more patient and wants it done right. So I was like, I’m just going to lie down, you put some Bugles on a treadmill, and I’ll chomp on them—shoot quick quick! So we did it, but the shot was pretty rough and pretty loose, and I was like no, no it’s fine, but he was very insistent on going back and shooting that one. It probably would not have made the film had we not gone back and reshot it, because it was so rushed the first time. There happened to be a treadmill in that basement and we just started goofing around it.
Even just you two jogging together on the treadmill was completely absurd and hilarious.
JP: I don’t even know what’s going on or why they’re doing that. I don’t know, is it some competition they’re in or some team exercise? That makes no sense at all but that’s why I love it.
Having a strong relationship off set as well, how do you two go about working together on screen? Is there a lot of improvisation as you go along, and did a lot of the scenes change once you actually got on set?
JP: The luxury of doing this on our own and not having any executives on our ass, we can kind of work at our own pace. But we had a pretty unprecedented eight months of rehearsal. We rehearsed it so much that when it came time to show up on set, we knew what we had to tell and what the scene was about. So it gave us a lot of room to bounce off each other and improvise and throw in weird lines. I was basically just trying to make Josh laugh the whole time.
JB: And I was trying not to laugh.
JP: So it was great. The first stuff we shot was in the basement so everyone could loosen up and we could improvise and just get into the characters. It was just a lot of goofing around and a lot of improvising, and because we had rehearsed for so long, we just knew every scene and every line.
JB: Everything was so established by the time we got to set, we just knew what we had to do. So whatever extra free time we had we’d play a little bit.
Did you have any particular inspirations you drew from in terms of character and tone?
JP: I always have one or two homework movies before we start shooting, and it may sound weird, but before we started shooting, one of the movies was Wendy & Lucy—just for the way that’s shot and the way it breathes. And for our DP it was Wendy & Lucy as well, and also The Comedy by Rick Alverson. I wanted to go off more current or modern independent films that are doing something in the vein of what I wanted to do, but take in a more extreme direction. But just the way the two films look and how they move.
With the older films, we were looking at so much stuff from the past—‘70s and ‘80s—and with this I wanted to, tonally, bring everybody down a little bit because I knew the subject matter would be so over the top. I wanted to make it a little more human in the way it looks and the way it was shot and the way it feels. We weren’t making some kind of parody or something too silly, I wanted to ground it in something more human or realistic looking.
The ending is super ambiguous and probably better left untouched, but what is it about Detroit that really allows Marty’s fear to manifest itself?
JP: We chose Detroit, because not only is that our home state of Michigan, but Detroit is the best backdrop for a character who is fighting the mortgage takeover and the crumbling economic crisis. That was a good setting, but as far as the actual ending, I’m afraid to talk about that too much. By the end, Marty’s character has become a different person. His original goals and his revenge that he thinks he’s taking against the corporations, has dissolved into fighting little small businesses, and his ideals and what he’s fighting for is completely gone and lost by the end of the film. It’s like there’s a different Marty there. So it’s important to convey that Marty has lost his sense of self, but not explicitly lay that out. We actually shot a few different endings, and Josh was one of the key guys who pushed for that last shot. It didn’t take too much pushing, I think we were all agreed once we saw it that, that was the best way to convey that sense of loss of self and identity.
JB: I just thought it was such a good way to bring everything together—with the surveillance cameras. I love trickery in films, I’m a big Orson Welles fan, so anything like that that we can pull off and have it be effective is great. But the surveillance thing is key throughout the film—he stays with Derek because he thinks there’s surveillance cameras, the guy at gas station shows him the camera—so it was just a perfect way to package that up, what is being captured of him or whatever manifestation of Marty is in the frame. It was one of those ideas that when it happens it just feels right.
Oh, and lest we forget the pasta eating scene. I loved that because it’s the first time you really see Marty just completely content and at ease. Was that important for you to express something about him?
JP: It was important because Marty, up until that point, is kind of dirty and wears black clothes, and this is the first time you see him clean. He’s in a clean, white robe enjoying this expensive meal and it’s the first time you see him happy and out of his element. So that was really important, and Josh can elaborate on the actual shooting.
JB: Even his voice changes when he addresses the room service person. It’s very much, “Oh hello, oh thank you,” it’s a Marty that’s very specific to that scene that you do’t really see in the rest of the film. But when we went to shoot that scene, we’d shot it immediately after dinner, so there was an added challenge to shoving that pasta in my face. But we did pull it off. It was nice being in a bathrobe.
JP: I’m actually looking at the desk here in the office and there’s a picture of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. There’s a lot of A Clockwork Orange in Buzzard—Alex dressed up in that robe eating spaghetti was the start, and when it came down to it, I didn’t say cut, I just let Josh keep shoving that spaghetti in his mouth. We all just kind of watched in fascination at him just cramming it in more and more and more. To me, that’s something you can’t script, that’s something that just happens. So it stayed in the movie because it was important to show Marty completely indulgent and happy. If you don’t see the importance of you it, at least you can enjoy it for the absurdity, otherwise it’s going to be a scene that can turn people off for sure. But that’s okay, because it’s a scene that needs to be in there.
How has it been taking the film from SXSW to ND/NF?
JP: This is our second festival after SXSW, so it’s super, super humbling. We’re showing our Mountain Dew culture to Lincoln Center, heavy metal night at MoMA. I’m pretty excited to bring it to a different crowd. Even last night’s crowd was into it, even the young cool kids and all the older esteemed sophisitcos, they all seemed to respond to it, which was totally awesome.