Buzzard (Joel Potrykus and Joshua Burge) “Basically every shot is of Marty, and so we just see his world, and we don’t even know what’s real and what’s not by the end.”

Although Buzzard is technically the third in a trilogy of films by Michigan filmmaker Joel Potrykus, it is in many ways an ambitious departure. Rooted in his collaboration with musician Joshua Burge (a.k.a. Chance Jones), Buzzard is a metal revenge fantasy comeuppance story. Burge plays Marty Jackitansky, a lazy temp at a mortgage company who sees an opportunity to rip off the bank and takes it. This misstep sends Marty into hiding, and his geeky coworker Derek (played by Potrykus) lets Marty crash in his basement, a “Party Zone” of endless Mountain Dew and video games. When things turn rotten, Marty escapes and goes on an increasingly desperate journey, ending up in Detroit with only his homemade Freddy Krueger glove for company. Sharp and funny as hell, with loud bursts of violence and metal, Buzzard shreds conventional ideas of what an independent film can be.

Finally the beast is loose! After catching Buzzard at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, the film is now available in theaters and on VOD. TMT talked with Potrykus and Burge about the rewards and challenges of making the film, from Bugles-fueled basement improv to tracking down a functioning payphone in Detroit.

You’ve done a few films together. What’s the story of how you met and started working together? What was the process of creating this film?

JP: We both live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we both went to the same school. Josh was in the film program and I was too, but we didn’t have classes together. Josh is a musician; he was the guy who would be playing at the coffee shop on campus there, so I kind of just became aware of him through that.

JB: A few years went by, and Joel had a film called Gordon that he had made. I had seen that film, so I became aware of his work that way. I was playing in a band at the time too, and we knew each other from shows; Joel would film the band sometimes. So when Joel decided to do another short film, we talked about me maybe being in it, and I jumped at the idea.

JP: Yeah, that was maybe six or seven years ago. I mean, it’s a pretty tight-knit crew in Grand Rapids; all the musicians and artist people kind of roll together. Yeah, I mean, just seeing this guy’s live show, it’s like, man, if I can get a little bit of that energy… His band is Chance Jones. I shot a couple live videos of theirs, and you just see some of that energy onstage, it’s like, yeah, this dude’s a performer.

But you hadn’t acted before?

JB: Not really. No, very little. I think I had taken a semester.

JP: That was just a pleasant surprise that he could act too. Because I thought, “I just want to get this guy and get this persona on screen.”

JB: Yeah, it was performance. I mean, the way I viewed my onstage persona was a character named Chance Jones, whatever my ideas were behind that, but that was all performance.

JP: The best actors aren’t actors. I think the best actors are just people who are able to inhabit some other persona and have just that innate ability to perform, like the kind of people who go to a party and perform. They need to be somebody else at that party, they need to be somebody else for their parents, they need to be somebody else with their girlfriend or whatever. The ability to… not to say that you’re multiple personality…

JB: No, we all do that anyway. So it’s just embracing it, I guess.

So Joel, you write the scripts?

JP: Yeah, I would write the characters, because I would never write with Josh in mind. Because I don’t want this to be about Josh. I don’t want his personality, I want this other personality. I want him to bring something to this character. That’s the funnest part. I can in my head create the character, but it’s only halfway there. And then once I pass it off to this guy, he fleshes it out and does the other 50% of the work.

JB: Yeah, and I prefer that Joel doesn’t write with me in mind. I’ve had people bring me parts before [that] they say they’ve written with me in mind, and I read it, and it’s like, “this is what you think of me?” [Laughter] You know, it’s great, and I love Joel’s voice, and I’m just a fan of his work in general.

Loser is an easy catch-all word that people will understand a lot better than a complicated, deep, sad hustler.

When I was reading descriptions of Marty, a lot of people called him a loser or a slacker, and I found that interesting because I saw him as more of a hustler or a trickster, and I actually think that takes a lot of intelligence and a sense of humor.

JP: He’s way more ambitious than any kind of loser or slacker! A loser would just sit in his mom’s basement and feed off unemployment. He’s ambitious!

JB: He’s a very confident and headstrong guy.

JP: He’s trying to earn $50 on his lunch break. I mean, it’s a three-hour lunch break, but he’s always trying to hustle and make a buck. He knows how to do it, how much he can get away with, and how much he can’t get away with; he’s pretty savvy about that. I mean, the term slacker, I don’t even know what that means anymore. Both Marty and Derek and are just guys who are stuck in their place in the world and they don’t know where to go, and that’s pretty common. But he’s got a job and he’s always out for something; he’s got intentions and goals, even if they’re misdirected or negative.

JB: His scams might not be the most lucrative scams in the world, but…

JP: But he put effort into them! I don’t look down on Marty at all, I wouldn’t call him a loser. I would never want to waste a whole year of my life writing and filming and editing a movie about someone I don’t want to know or I don’t like. He’s not the most likable guy, but I like him as a person and feel like he’s got something good down deep inside; it’s like a sadness. I definitely don’t see him as a loser. I like Marty and I feel for him.

Were there any particular characters or films that were inspirations for the character of Marty or for the story?

JP: [to Josh] Did you watch anything for your version of Marty?

JB: I mean honestly, really, Vincent Gallo was probably a big inspiration. [Laughter]

JP: I never knew that! Buffalo ‘66? [Laughs]

JB: Something going on there probably.

JP: Yeah, yeah, he’s got some sadness with the family and everything. For me, I wrote it just based on what I had gone through. I temped at a mortgage company for a year, making $9 an hour and taking three-hour breaks. My version of going to the bank and getting the money for the free checking promotion was a little different. I didn’t have the balls to quite do it at the same transaction. I don’t know, that’s fun to me, to cheat these things and just see how much I can get away with little things. A part of the little silly scams comes from me, but as far as having this really abrasive vendetta against the world and just looking out for myself, that just comes from [thinking]… it was a more interesting character at that point, to start injecting some of that wrath and almost evil into him. It just kind of happened in the script.

JB: I guess I shouldn’t necessarily say Buffalo ‘66 or Vincent Gallo, but that idea of his persona, whatever it is, in the entertainment industry… a me-against-the-world, chip on my shoulder, I’m an ultra-right-wing conservative guy in liberal Hollywood, you know? That idea that everyone’s against you, that general idea.

JP: Even the people who like you are out to get you. Because a lot of people are pretty nice to Marty in the movie. Derek’s nice and wants to be his friend. Marty just… once he starts to feel like he’s gonna be sincere, he lashes out. I don’t know, he’s a complicated character. I don’t want people to write him off as just a slacker or a loser. For me at least, and for Josh, there’s some pathos there for us.

Yeah, definitely. For me that for sure came through, and that’s why I was kind of surprised that’s how people were describing him, because that didn’t seem apt to me. To me, that’s classically American in some ways, that kind of hustler, someone who’s able to navigate that.

JB: Yeah, me too.

JP: I think it’s just easier. If you’re a journalist, how do you describe a character in one or two words? Loser, slacker, that’s just easier than saying, “he’s got this background with his mother that’s very hard for him to articulate.” It’s just hard to describe a character quickly in a review. Loser is an easy catch-all word that people will understand a lot better than a complicated, deep, sad hustler.

JB: There is a lot of sorrow to him.

JP: The most important stuff we shot was the phone call with his mom.

Did you consider writing scenes with the mother?

JP: No. We need to know the mom through Marty’s eyes and not the actual mom. We didn’t put her voice on the other end of the phone. We’re not sure why he’s lying to her, if he’s trying to make her feel proud of him, or if he feels shame, or he just can’t not lie, or in his head he really does think he’s doing great and everybody likes him and he’s doing great at work. I want that kind of ambiguous relationship with his mother. The whole movie is told through Marty’s eyes. Basically every shot is of Marty, and so we just see his world, and we don’t even know what’s real and what’s not by the end.

In interviews, you’ve mentioned things like the 99% and corporate America and the middle class. I guess this question is for both of you: would you consider this a political film?

JP: When I first starting writing it, I was almost afraid it was too political. It was very obvious it had a political agenda. It was much more, like, “you know what? These corporations are holding us little people down! We have to fight back!” Once I started drifting away from that and injecting some of the more absurd stuff, like the Mountain Dews and Bugles, it [became] a political film that’s disguised as a slacker comedy. The politics were definitely important; the third act takes place in Detroit, and that [city] just crumbled from the mortgage crisis, or the casinos and corporations. It died the same way that Marty feels like they’re oppressing him. That city represents what he thinks is happening to him. Like, it’s not me; they’re bringing me down, they’re taking me down! But it definitely started off as the 99% fights back against the 1%.

JB: I kind of like that it developed in that direction as well, because for whatever street smarts or cunning or cleverness that Marty might possess, maybe he is sort of ill-informed about that type of injustice or politics that is going on. When he’s freaking out at the check-cashing place: “Corporate America thievery!” These are just buzzwords he heard; he’s really not that politically savvy of a guy. He’s just existing in that world with all these conditions around him.

We’re not out to say you’re right and you’re wrong; it’s just through the eyes of one character who thinks he’s right and he’s probably wrong.

JP: He’s a naïve guy; he doesn’t understand the system that he’s fighting against. He thinks he does, but there’s a gray area. It’s not just 99% and 1%. But for him, he feels that’s how it is; like, no, you’re either against me or you’re for me. And I don’t think anyone’s for him; he feels like everybody’s out to get him in some way, either rip him off or watch him. He’s paranoid about the outside world.

JB: That begins to inform his own morality.

JP: Yeah. I’d say it’s more of an allegory, even for some of the people who go and protest Wall Street. Are you really understanding what you’re fighting against here? Because, you know, you may be drinking a Starbucks coffee while you’re doing it. So there’s a lot of different levels, and I guess Marty is someone who’s not as informed about the political world as he thinks he might be, and that’s kind of the standpoint of our film. We’re not out to say you’re right and you’re wrong; it’s just through the eyes of one character who thinks he’s right and he’s probably wrong.

The scene in the end is somewhat triumphant though. It’s funny, that reference was in Frances Ha as well. That seems to be a visual motif right now.

JP: Sometimes you gotta just end a movie with a burst of emotion. It was our take on Mauvais Sang by Leos Carax, but the heavy metal version of it. And we just needed Marty to have a release. He just needed to feel on top of the world.

JB: The act of violence didn’t give him the release?

JP: No! [Laughter] It’s the act of thinking that he got one up on the corporate world and that his boss got fired and he’s free. He just slashed somebody, but he’s like so far over the edge at that point that he doesn’t even realize what he’s doing, that he’s standing there wearing a Freddy Krueger glove in public. That moment, those two or three minutes of ecstasy, end with him realizing, “Wow, I’m always going to have somebody watching me. As good as I felt a minute ago, I feel bad again right away.” We wanted to end it on kind of a haunting note there. But he’s got those headphones on for so long he just needed to put them on, so when he did, it had to be big and loud and happy.

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