We recently spoke with Relaxer director Joel Potrykus about his new movie. Relaxer is out now in select theaters and should be seen by anyone who aspires to live on their couch and play Nintendo all day. We had a blast talking to him about the movie and hope that you all can check it out this weekend now that it’s playing. Here’s what he had to say about the film and his career as a filmmaker, his music background and his love for videogames.
Andrew Hawkins: Tell us a little about your movie. What would your quick summary be to someone at a film festival or skimming around on vod?
Joel Potrykus: Well, it’s a blend of reality and fantasy, and a blend of horror and science fiction. It’s basically a survival movie set in a living room, and there’s a lot of Pac-Man being played in the movie. Otherwise, I have no idea how to describe this movie to people. (laughs)
AH: No worries. I read your statement that one of your dreams was to play videogames all day on a couch, and this is your nightmare of that.
JP: Yeah, that’s really what it is. It’s a dude on a couch for a long period of time playing a videogame and I would love to have that. Just that time to hang out on a couch and play videogames, so this is like what could go wrong if that were to actually happen. What would be the real-life consequences if you actually had to sit on the couch the entire time?
AH: Yeah, and then Y2K happens and you can’t get up for anything. What happens in the movie and the progression of events leading up to the end; it just gets worse and worse and it makes for such a great watch.
What are your passions? You’ve been making movies for twenty years, but are you also really into videogames? Are you hardcore into movies and music? Where are your interests at?
JP: I think I’m hardcore into all three of those things for sure, it just depends on what day you catch me. I mean my basement, which I dub The Party Zone, has all of the systems I wish I had as a kid set up. Now that I’m an adult I have actual money to buy them and no parents to tell me, “No.”
But in my basement I have an Atari, NES, Super Nintendo, N64, a Genesis, Intellivision, laserdisc player, a PlayStation; so I have all of this stuff and those are kinda my interests and really I’m just making movies. I’m making the movies that I wanna see and that I would like, and all of my interests just seem to manifest into these screenplays and then on to the screen.
AH: Well tell us a little bit about your background. It seems like you’ve got a sort of indie connection to the entertainment industry. You’ve got a lot of people who’ve been regulars in your films, especially Joshua Burge who’s your star in this playing Abbie. What’s your community like? Did you just grow up with a bunch of friends who wanted to go out and make movies?
JP: No, I grew up with all of my friends musicians. And I was like the guy who would also film your band when I wasn’t playing. I always had a camera.
My best friend Adam Minnick growing up was always into photography, so at one point when we were getting ready to make this movie Buzzard I said, “You should switch over from photography to cinematography.” “It’s just taking 24 pictures every single second instead of just one picture every few minutes.” And he was in bands too so it’s a lot of the guys that I still have hung out with from high school and college, but we’ve just kind of evolved into filmmakers.
We’re still very much into music and videogames and whatever we were into in high school and college. For me it was I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, at least try to be a filmmaker, from when I was 14 and since I was into music I saw The Doors the movie by Oliver Stone.
Jim Morrison, Val Kilmer in the movie, says that he’s going to film school and I was like, “What?!” “What’s this film school, I wanna go to a film school!” And once I heard that I knew that’s where I was gonna go after high school. I still really didn’t know what I was gonna do at this place called film school, and then a year later I saw The Evil Dead for the first time. Before I even saw it, I was obsessed with it because I had read so much about it.
I would go to the library and read Roger Ebert journals and Leonard Maltin reviews, and I found out it was made by a bunch of dudes from Michigan with a low budget. Just a bunch of friends in the woods. And it was built up so much in my head that I felt like it could only be a disappointment when I actually saw it, but it was the opposite. It was better and louder than I ever thought it could be.
I could see how they kind of made that movie. I was like, “I can see there’s a camera moving and I feel like I kind of know how they’re doing it.” And once I saw that that was the big trigger for me. It was, “Yeah I wanna make movies like this.” I mean obviously that’s evolved over time, but it just started with me trying to rip off Evil Dead and make my Evil Dead and that’s what got me going into filmmaking.
AH: That’s awesome. One thing about your script for Relaxer is that it’s filled with a lot of satire and dark humor, and there’s a bit of a horror thread kind of going through it but also a lot of unease. Where did you get the jokes that are in the movie? Was it just growing up in the 90s with people talking smack to each other and ribbing each other and stuff that you would say to friends and family?
JP: Yeah, I think my sense of humor probably hasn’t developed since age 15. (laughs) That’s just stuff that I still think is funny and that’s kind of how my friends and I still talk to each other. So it just kinda hits the page that way. I don’t overthink it, I don’t try to make it more sophisticated, it’s just what makes me laugh.
Jokes about Pam Anderson and Total Recall just make me laugh, and that’s all I’m trying to do is entertain myself with these movies. The other stuff, there’s a lot of like gross humor or gross elements in the movie and that’s not really stuff I’m ever trying to do. I’m not trying to gross out an audience or shock an audience.
AH: Not trying to do a Troma thing?
JP: No, no, no. I’m just doing things that I think are amusing but trying to elevate them above Troma production values and that kind of brand of shock or disgust. I try my best to mask it with a certain level of artistic sophistication, whatever that leads to whether its lighting or camera. Basically, I’m just making Troma movies that look like they’re made by a pretentious filmmaker I guess.
AH: Well I gotta tell you it’s also in the editing and the pacing, and the framing and how you set everything up. One thing that I loved that was a standout moment for me from the movie is the buildup to breaking through the wall and deciding which pipe to try and get water out of. Even the music, that was Neon Indian right?
AH: Their setup, the music for the cue that leads up to that whole thing, some of it sounds like Super Metroid and other bits of it sound kind of like Creepshow and then it gets really dark. I think overall this movie is edited really well and that’s all you.
How do you like directing, editing, screenwriting and pretty much making a film almost in the style of someone like John Carpenter or Sam Raimi; just being the one behind the whole thing? Are you feeling kind of like you’re working as an auteur?
JP: I wouldn’t say that, that’s for somebody else to say I guess. I do love the writing and the editing cause those are the moments I just get to be by myself and work at my own pace. But I hate the directing part. Like I dread it, and it’s stressful, and it’s anxiety-filled. There’s people asking me questions, and a clock that’s ticking, and money being spent; and that part of it is really, really awful for me.
But the feeling I get when it’s done and I have this edited, finished film is that’s the feeling I’m just chasing. I’m just trying to get that rush and the only way I can do it is to direct it myself cause I have it in my head when I’m writing it, and I really just don’t trust anybody else with the idea. (laughs) So I suffer through the directing but love the writing and the editing part of it.
AH: Another thing I like about the movie is how much of a time capsule it is cause you really do show these people that seem like they’re pulled straight out of the end of the 90s. There are a lot of movies out there right now that are trying to push that nostalgia with band t-shirts and, “Remember this music? Remember this store?” kind of stuff.
You’ve got guys just talking off the cuff about Shadowgate and not making a big deal out of it. (Joel Potrykus laughs) And that’s one of the best lines of the movie to me because I used to play the hell out of that game on Nintendo when I was a kid.
JP: I love Shadowgate. I still play it. I’m still into Shadowgate, man.
Yeah, I hate all of that faux-nostalgia garbage that rotates every five years. That stuff just doesn’t do it for me and it feels so artificial. For me, I’m just putting in stuff for guys like you where it’s not like a gimmick or a cheap laugh. It’s just how these characters would talk and they wouldn’t explain to the audience what Shadowgate is.
AH: Well even the character Cam wearing a FEAR shirt is just great cause he’s got that shirt on while he’s being a complete jerk to Abbie and it’s just part of his character.
JP: Yeah. FEAR is a band that changed my life. When I was 15 and on Comedy Central I saw an old SNL rerun of them playing. Have you seen that before?
AH: Yeah and I know that got pulled and Ving was friends with Belushi at the time and they wound up doing the movie Neighbors. I Love Livin’ In The City and Beef Boloney and all that.
JP: Oh, you know that stuff. Dude, when I saw that my mind was blown and it completely changed my idea of music and performance. Oh my gosh.
AH: So are you always kinda keeping that punk mentality and getting it done DIY?
JP: Yeah, I mean I guess it really comes down to how we raise the money ourselves or have somebody I trust put up the money and then I’m good. But the more people are involved in giving you money, all of the sudden you have to please them in a way or you have to insert elements that you wouldn’t normally want to insert so they feel like they’re going to make their money back.
I like to have low budgets so I feel like if four people watch this movie it’s ok because the people who gave us the money aren’t going to be out too much. So I’m able to go to sleep at night and not be riddled with guilt or feel like I have to “please the man.” I consider filmmaking the same as being in a band, and we’re just a band of filmmakers. We just make movies instead of albums. I don’t need to make something for Netflix when I can make something for Oscilloscope for a tenth of that.
AH: Yeah, and it’s getting a limited theatrical run and it has already been on the festival circuit. How’s the response been to Relaxer with screenings? Have you had anybody come up to you and tell you they liked it or anything like that?
JP: People only tell me if they like it. I would love to hear more from people who didn’t like it so I’ll have to go to Letterboxd to get the honest opinion from people who are into movies and go to festivals.
But, people seem to be into it. The only way I can really gauge that is to sit in on screenings and feel it out. People always laugh harder than I think they’re gonna laugh. They gasp louder than I think they’re gonna gasp, and they are grossed out and they applaud. It’s been the most reactionary audiences I’ve had for a movie and that’s all I can ask for.
AH: That’s cool. Well, I know a lot of folks are looking forward to seeing it. The trailer’s out there and Oscilloscope’s getting it out there, so it’s gonna be good to see a lot more reactions to it. Is there anything you’d like to talk about to close on?
JP: I’m not that good at promoting but I guess if you wanna go see a movie that you have no idea what’s gonna happen next, check out Relaxer cause the intention is to keep people off balance and surprised for 90 minutes.
AH: Hell yeah.
JP: And if you like Scanners, you’ll love Relaxer.