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A Conversation with Joel Potrykus & Joshua Burge (VULCANIZADORA)

With a working relationship spanning over a decade, Michigan-based guerilla filmmaker Joel Potrykus and actor Joshua Burge have collaborated on five feature films. Such films that solidified their craft in the “metal slackerism” genre include Buzzard and Relaxer. Their most recent collaboration, Vulcanizadora, has them reviving their characters from Buzzard, Marty and Derek, as they venture into the Michigan woods toward an unclear destination. The film is hilariously cringe and intense (in pure Potrykus fashion), while also unexpectedly heartbreaking and deeply profound. It was a blast chatting with the talented duo and longtime friends ahead of the film’s world premiere at Tribeca. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Hammer To Nail: Thank you both for taking the time for this! How are you both feeling about the premiere later on?

Joel Potrykus: I’m feeling really, really stoked. Josh hasn’t seen like the final color grading and sound mix.

Joshua Burge: The technical aspects are supposed to be the FINAL final version for me. I get to see it large and in charge so that’s very exciting for me.

HTN: Joel, how did this project come together for you? What was the inception of it?

Joel: Well, do you know the movie Gerry by Gus Van Sant?

HTN: I do!

Joel: So I love Gerry. The first time I watched it, I misinterpreted it and thought it was about something other than two guys lost in nature. And I was like, “Oh I thought they had a mission in that movie!” I thought Gerry missed it, and I was going off on what it could’ve been and where Gerry could’ve gone after the main event happened. I was like “I’m going to make that movie” and then we started to think about who the two guys would be. We also made a movie called Buzzard, I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

HTN: Yup! 

Joel: So I thought about who those two guys would be and Josh had to be in it. I love Josh when he’s talking. When he’s not talking it’s even better because he’s just got a face you can look at! So that’s why sometimes you have to cast a goofy counterpoint to that. I was thinking who could pull that off, and I was like “Man, we’re not gonna have a lot of time to shoot. We’re shooting on 16mm. It’s gotta be efficient. It’s gotta work and the tone has to be super-precise. Who can pull that off?” And I was like “I can pull that off!” So I cast myself and then realized we couldn’t just create new characters. It would be more exciting to revisit characters.

HTN: I was gonna ask you about that! So even though Vulcanizadora has no other explicit connections to Buzzard, what drew you to bring back the characters of Marty and Derek for this particular film?

Joel: Exactly 10 years later! It was so fascinating to see what they’d be up to. Like two guys who were never old in the first place, now they’re older but do they still behave the same? I thought what’s Marty up to? It was super cool to have the chance to do that. 

Filmmaker Joel Potrykus

Joshua: [To Joel] Well when you first said that we were gonna revisit Derek and Marty, the initial thought I had was that it was a bit. That you were just joking. Then ten seconds later I realized you weren’t joking. So I was like “What would that be then?” That was a real-time passage, ten years, which was when we did [Buzzard]. Now it starts flooding in what’s happened ten years in my life or of all those I know. So we thought what would have happened in these guys’ lives, and that’s when you start going down that hole.

Joel: Yeah I was stoked because for once we get to see the weight of the world on Derek. Instead of him being just goofy, he had a little more depth. It was a chance to flesh him out more and explore what a lot of dudes are going through at that age with domesticity, fatherhood, and stuff.

HTN: It’s interesting because your usual characters would make all these impulsive decisions without much thought of consequence, but these are two guys dealing with the sum of their lives and the fallout of their actions. What was it like bringing these characters in this direction?

Joel: Yeah you’re right. There’s usually a slight antihero vibe to the other movies we’ve made. There’s always a moment at the end where they usually do something and you can either be repulsed or cheer. And with this, we thought let’s see them have to deal with all the things they’ve done. So now that the impulsivity is gone and there’s just this heavy weight.

Joshua: Yeah I mean this Marty character was just sitting in whatever he’s done, whether it’s for things he’s done on the screen or shortly before the film’s story started. Or even going back his entire life. He’s just gotta sit in it, man.

Joel: Yeah we get to see Marty regret his actions and comment on the things he’s done before – Hey buddy!

Joel’s 5-year-old son Solo, who appears in the film, ran in to say hi!

Joel: Star of the movie right here!

HTN: Yeah he was the breakout!

After Solo leaves with his mom (producer Ashley Potrykus)…

HTN: Joshua, what was it about the script and this stage in your character’s life that was so interesting to you?

Joshua: Just going back to that part where Marty is just seemingly – when I first played him – unremorseful. But now he’s full of remorse. There were moments where, whether or not it was in the script or when we were in production, that they started to hit me more. Like the scene with him in the police station and he doesn’t even know his name or address, and then he realizes he knows nothing about his friend. 

Joel: I’ve done a lot of interviews in the last couple of weeks, and I never brought up Buzzard. It is the first time we’re talking about this, let alone even saying the characters’ names. So this is cool, you’re getting a different interview right now than I’ve done in the past [laughs].

HTN: I’m getting the exclusive right here!

Joel: Yes!

HTN: Josh what was it like portraying someone carrying so much guilt and remorse? It’s interesting because like you said, 10 years ago Marty would’ve cared more about getting away clean than facing any consequence.

Joshua: I mean, without getting all sensitive, it was mostly based on personal things and the things I’ve learned over the years. That’s what I drew from. I feel like adulthood has been a very strange thing to experience, you know? I have not gone into fatherhood. I cannot image that, I cannot wrap my brain around that. I don’t think the character Marty would be capable of it.

Joel: I don’t think Derek was capable of fatherhood either.

Joshua: Probably not, yeah. So those things that I just couldn’t really address directly made me sort of lean into the things that I could. And man, I hate to bring up the pandemic but that is the most introspective thing and it’s just hard not to mention that as a major impact on how I approached the re-visitation character. 

HTN: Joel, you’ve called yourself an “impatient filmmaker” even though this film in particular feels more still and tonally different from your previous works. How did filming around nature – not to mention on 16mm – impact the way you are normally used to directing?

Joshua Burge

Joel: I like shooting on 16mm because impatient and lazy are really good ways to look at it. I rely on my DP Adam Minnick to be the opposite of that, to be more patient and meticulous. That’s why I love working with him, because with 16mm we have to get it in one take because can’t burn the film, but I want to move on, keep it going, and not spend all day looking at the monitor and just tweaking going [buzzing sounds]. I don’t love being on set necessarily. It’s just stressful because on a production like this, very small crew and everything, we don’t have the luxury of hiring a big production department. I’m a producer too, so I’m always thinking about money, logistics, schedule, food, lodging, and travel. Also, the directing and the writing and it’s just so much to deal with that I put all of that into the pre-production. Maybe it comes off as impatient or rushing on set, but no that’s exactly what I was looking for! It’s not because I just want to move on and go home, it’s because the next scene is going to be awesome, and the light is perfect, and this is all planned like this for no error. That’s why we spend so long planning this stuff that on set it does feel – to other people maybe – I’m rushed and stressed. Well I am stressed, but it’s because I know exactly what I want and exactly when to get it. I’d rather just keep moving and get the next shot. Just try to find it. Ugh, there’s another word for “trying to find it” on set! There are moments you can discover, but yeah I don’t love being on set [laughs]. I love writing and editing. 

Joshua: From my perspective, being on set as an actor, all of that comes off as awesome energy and efficiency. It never really seems stressful to me. It seemed to me that it was just high energy firing off on all cylinders. It was really exciting stuff.

Joel: And going into this, I knew it was going to be amazing because it’s me and Josh. I knew exactly what we were gonna get. We’re always on the same page in terms of aesthetics and tone, how it was going to look and feel. There’s very little conversation needed there. We’ve been in this band for so long that Josh is the lead singer. He knows how it’s going to look and how to keep the audience engaged! There’s no reason to do another take! Josh has got it! And when we do another take, Josh is gonna nail it again and again. 

Joshua: [To Joel] You’ve got too many choices to pick from, you know? Nightmare at the editing suite. [Laughs]

HTN: Did it take a certain amount of projects together for you guys to have this trust with one another?

Joel: Not really. It was fast.

Joshua: Yeah it was really quick.

Joel: Making the first movie in 2009 was just like –

Joshua: That was Coyote

Joel: One take with this guy and what I saw in the camera was awesome. It’s like when a band comes together. When Pearl Jam was looking for a lead singer and Eddie Vedder sent his demo tape, they listened and were like “We can’t believe this! This is everything we’ve wanted to be!” So Josh is my Eddie Vedder!

Joshua: [Bursts out laughing]

HTN: So Josh would be the Eddie Vedder to your…

Joel: Stone Gossard!

We all just burst out laughing.

Joel: I’d much rather him be the Lennon to my McCarthy, but in this situation, he’s the Eddie Vedder to my Stone Gossard.

Joshua: [Still laughing] Stone Gossard…

Joel: You can print that, man! That’s an exclusive right there!

HTN: You mentioned your cinematographer Adam J. Minnick, whose work in this film is so impressive. How did you two work together to create the overall look of the film?

Joel: Adam J. Minnick is the Jeff Ament to my Stone Gossard. [Laughs] He and I have known each other since high school. We both love the same movies and he’s always on-page with everything. He knows exactly what we’re going for, tonally. He’s the one who’s always pushing me to give him time to do something amazing. When you’re shooting in nature, you’re just using the light the sun gives you. Adam’s that guy who assures me that even if the sun is going down, we can push another ten minutes and make it look even more beautiful. Love working with that dude. Only DP I’ve ever worked with. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of that.

HTN: Who designed those wild head contraptions you both wear in the film?

Joel: My brother Charles, aka Chuck. He’s kinda like the art designer. My original idea was a little more simple and kinda disturbing in its own way. We always lean on Mad Max as our aesthetic for things like that. We wanted something that would be handmade, timeless, kinda ugly, scary, and practical in the most primitive way. So then Chuck came up with a really cool design and spent the next few weeks screwing it, gluing it, welding it, scrapping it altogether. 

Joshua: Yeah if it’s made of leather and metal, it’s usually built to last. 

HTN: I know it’s not exactly the ideal friendship on-screen, but would you say there are any parallels between your own relationship and that of Marty and Derek?

Joel: No, I don’t think so. We’re pretty easygoing.

Joshua: Yeah it’s a pretty intense, sort of abusive relationship between those two guys. They’re co-dependent yet hardcore.

Joel: I’d say I’m probably way more Derek than Josh is Marty. 

Joshua: Yeah I’d say I’m more Derek than I am Marty [laughing].

Joel: But I think in the same way, Derek and Marty represent the equal sides of our personalities.

Joshua: Yeah there’s always that facet of a person you can always tap into. You can always magnify that aspect of it for character purposes.

HTN: What advice would you give to any group of friends out there hoping to make like the “next groundbreaking indie?”

Joel: DON’T try to make the “next groundbreaking indie” first off!

Joshua: Just do what you feel compelled to do. 

Joel: I don’t know what it is with this idea that the world doesn’t want to give somebody like me the money to make my movie. You don’t have to wait around for permission to make it. You don’t have to wait around for the money.

Joshua: Also, no one’s gonna save. No one’s coming to help you. And it’s okay! The quicker you’ll learn that, the better prepared you’ll be to plan the strange route you need to get there.

Joel: The fact that you’ve written some great script means that somebody will discover it, give you the money, and you’ll find all the big actors to cast. That’s just never going to happen. You just gotta do it! This is our fifth feature and they’ve all been self-generated. It’s not like someone goes “Joel, we really love to hear if you have an idea because we have a lot of money…” No, this is us hustling. Every single movie. Just start hustling dudes!

Check out the Vulcanizadora teaser below.

– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)

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M.J. O'Toole began writing for HtN in early 2021 during the Sundance Film Festival. An NYC native and lifelong cinephile, his favorite films include Chungking Express, The Three Colors Trilogy, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Lovers on the Bridge, and Midnight Cowboy. He is the Digital Marketing Manager for the agency 3rd Impression - working alongside Editor-at-large Matt Delman - that specializes in digital marketing for independent film. He holds a BA from Adelphi University and a Masters in Digital Photography from the School of Visual Arts. You can check out his portrait and street photography on Instagram.

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