I’ve known Joel Potrykus for several years now, since re-entering the Grand Rapids film scene back in 2009. But, we actually first met way before that. Joel remembers, but I don’t. See, I used to host a public access show in GR called The Late Night Movie Geek Monster Fest. Joel tells me he introduced himself to meet at a local bar back around the turn of the Millennium, and told me he was a big fan of the show. Me and my co-hosts partied hard back then, so it’s no wonder I don’t remember it.
I became a fan Joel’s work after seeing his grotty, brilliant short film, Coyote, back in 2010. While our filmmaking styles are different, as a writer and director, Joel consistently raises the bar with every film he makes, and I continue to learn from and be inspired by him and his work. He keeps me on my damn toes, and I love it. Plus? Dude’s waaay into Don Dohler movies, which is pretty much all we yap about at the bar whenever we see each other.
I’m thrilled that Joel took a little time out of his busy schedule to talk la legado vivo! with me.
RYAN LIESKE: Thank you for taking part in the La legado vivo! Series, Joel. Introduce yourself to the readers.
JOEL POTRYKUS: I’m a writer/director living in Grand Rapids, MI. I teach filmmaking at Michigan State University. This summer I’ll be making another feature film. Anxiety level high at the moment.
RL: So, what is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you?
JP: Just last month my mom sent me my original copy of When I Get Bigger by Mercer Mayer that she used to read me before bed. Or at least she claimed to have read to me. It seemed only vaguely familiar. Got me all prepped for my future career ambitions, I guess.
RL: What are some of the books you remember reading during your childhood?
JP: Like most kids, I collected things. The Illustrated Classics Editions by Moby Books were my favorite. At nine, I felt like a genius being able to breeze through War of the Worlds in two days. I had no idea they were abridged and tweaked for a younger audience. I get a little nostalgic when I see them in thrift stores, but I’d never re-read one. Same with Choose Your Own Adventure books. Likely never read another one, and I’ll survive. Doubt I’ll ever revisit the Narnia series, either.
Although I was hooked on the Far Side collections in elementary school, and just recently got back in. Still brilliant.
RL: Oh, yeah. Far Side definitely shaped my sometimes absurd view of the world, not to mention my rather mordant sense of humor. I feel the same way about Calvin & Hobbes. They still connect with me. But I’ll tell you what doesn’t click with me anymore, Family Circus. I loved that shit as a kid, but it is so vapid and lame whenever I read it now.
JP: Family Circus?? Had no idea that appealed to any kid in America. Or adult.
RL: Guilty as charged. But I can’t erase the past, and I feel as though I have atoned for it a hundred times over. So I’m at peace with it now.
JP: But yeah, The Far Side was likely my second introduction to humor through absurdity, after my fixation on Flying Circus in the second grade. We only had two channels in my neck of the literal woods. CBS and PBS. I wish I had the guts to cut my cable and still live off those two channels.
Anyway, a lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you?
JP: Well, I should come clean. I’m not a voracious reader. Not sure I ever was. Probably not voracious about anything. In junior high, I mostly read biographies about dead Brooklyn Dodgers players. Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax. In high school I mostly read Leonard Maltin movie review annuals, Roger Ebert essays, Nirvana bios, any book on horror or cult movies. My mom worked at a Christian bookstore when I was in high school. She could order on the cheap and sometimes snagged advanced copies. I remember being there when her boss opened a shipment to discover Filmmaking on the Fringe, with Evil Dead‘s woman getting pulled into the ground on the cover. That book turned me onto a slew of sleaze.
The only fiction I remember is Douglas Adams, horror anthologies, and Stephen King short story collections. I was too lazy for his novels. In turn, I probably wrote more than I read. Good chance I assumed I’d read enough to know how to succeed as a writer.
RL: Speaking of this time period, were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether?
JP: I was the kid that skimmed and pretended to read the assignments. My journalism teacher once asked me the impact Malcolm X’s father had on his life. I hadn’t quite read the book. I replied with BS about how pops continued to shape his son’s ideals and watched from a distance. “But his father died when he was six.” Immediately, I defended my statement with talk of Heaven. Everyone knew I was busted.
RL: That’s funny. I had a similar thing happen to me in college with The Handmaid’s Tale. I had really wanted to read it, and when it came time to do a book report they let us choose what book we wanted. I chose Handmaid as an excuse to finally read it. Well, I got distracted with other books I was reading, and films I was watching. I only got through the first couple of chapters when I realized my report was due to in two days. So I rented the movie, hoping like hell that it was close to the book. And I did my report based on that. Of course, when I started giving my report to the class, some dude interrupted me and straight-up asked me if I’d actually read the book, because everything I was saying was from the movie and (apparently) not in the book. I didn’t even try to BS my way through it. I just threw up my hands and said, “You got me. Thanks, dick, for making me looking like an ass.” We exchanged scowls the rest of the semester. For the record, I did read the book later, and loved it.
JP: I still haven’t gotten around to that Malcolm X bio. I actually wrote a letter to the local newspaper in tenth grade, appalled that the Spike Lee movie/joint wasn’t coming to our hometown theater. I was much more interested in watching, than reading, I guess.
RL: I’m a big fan of that film. I think it was snubbed at Oscar time. But that’s neither here nor there. I feel like I should probably read that bio at some point, as well.
JP: In college I told my storymaking professor that I was reading three novels currently, and didn’t have much interest in the assigned books (true on both accounts). She was totally cool with it. I was a big reader in college. The internet wasn’t quite the addiction as it is today. It’s when I finally found my guys.
RL: Reading is inherently a solitary activity, so did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up? Were you more apt to hide out in the library at school, or stay home on a Saturday night to read a book?
JP: I was more of a library stalker. Not at night, but my summers as a kid were slightly lame like that. I grew up around cows and trees, so once the parents of all my friends on our dead end street got divorces, my brother, sister, and I didn’t have much to do outside books and movies.
But I just got back from a road trip through Washington state where I had my nose buried in a Return of the Living Dead behind-the-scenes book, so I occasionally feel like a social dope about reading.
RL: Your college years—what new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college?
JP: In college, I looked for all the books “I should have read”. Freshmen year meant Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, along with very highfalutin film theory. I wanted to be taken seriously. From there, I found Vonnegut (still a favorite), Tom Robbins, Anthony Burgess’s Enderby series. A lot of counterculture fiction writers.
It wasn’t until my senior year that I finally read Catcher in the Rye. Probably clichéd, but that book has had more impact on me than anything before or since. Holden Caulfield was the lonely misfit I wanted to be.
I wrote J.D. Salinger some letters, begging for permission to adapt it into a movie. Unsurprisingly, I never heard back, so I opted to write my own novel about petty rebellion. I essentially lifted the themes and put my own spin on a slightly older suedehead Caulfield, named Easton, wandering Michigan, looking for his dad. The storymaking professor who let me ditch the assigned texts pushed me to keep going. Took two years, but I finished that little novel. Easton, Take a Bow. It’s too internal for a screenplay adaptation without garbage voiceover, and I haven’t been brave enough to flip through it in over a decade, but I think with a polish, it would still hold up. (Even if it was rejected from over thirty publishers.)
RL: Oh, wow. So you did actually try to publish it?
JP: I was absolutely rejected from over thirty publishers. Still have the letters somewhere. It taught me a lot about that world. The vapid goo that is POD and vanity press. I eventually cranked out a DIY run of 100 copies, with little gold embossed lettering on the cover, all by hand. Those were much cooler to me. I mean, not as cool as Penguin, but whatever.
RL: Well, as a fan of your work, I would love to read that if you have any copies left.
Now, for me, as a teenager with a car and a part-time job, bookstores became a big part of my life. What bookstores were the first you began to frequent?
JP: There were only a few bookstores in my hometown of Alpena, MI. Walden Books in the mall, Artis Books, that felt like a cavern and a museum at the same time, Salvation Army, and a tiny used bookstore outside of town. Walden and Artis is gone, but the Army and, I think, the tiny bookstore are still around. I don’t buy many books unless it’s for school, or something. I sold all my books and movies and music years ago. I realized I was just lugging junk around from apartment to apartment with little reason other than possibly to show visitors I was sophisticated. I’m still a library guy. But the digital revolution is perfect for a recovering hoarder like myself.
RL: Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you?
JP: I’m still sappy about old movies, but not so much with books. Again, it probably ties into my laziness. I’ll re-watch a movie, but rarely re-read a book. I haven’t read fiction from Stephen King in years. I like On Writing quite a bit, though.
RL: Personally, I feel like that book should be taught in college writing courses. Maybe it is now, I don’t know. But for me it’s the best book about the craft of writing I’ve ever read.
JP: I’d certainly use it if I taught a straight creative writing course.
RL: How has your reading life survived adulthood? How do you work reading time into your life now?
JP: I intentionally took the bus to work everyday for the last couple of years, just for the ability to take 30 minutes each way to read. However, the more ambitious my teaching became, I began to plan and grade on that bus ride. Foiled.
I normally work from home, which kind of gives me a decent amount of free time. Very little excuse for not reading. I’m reading Fight Club right now, for a class. I first thought it’d be a waste, already knowing Tyler and the narrator are one in the same, but it’s actually much more fascinating watching Chuck Palahniuk talk his way around it. It’s taking me longer than it should to finish.
RL: I’m a big fan of Palahniuk and that movie, but oddly enough it’s one of the few books of his I’ve never read. He even thinks the movie is better. What are your thoughts on that?
JP: I actually just re-watched the movie today, which is one of the best things after finishing a book. I think the movie handles the ending (their third act) much better, even though the book has a killer final chapter not included in the movie. Otherwise, it’s nearly beat-for-beat based on the book. Normally, I think voiceover is a crutch, but it works here because the narration is adding texture, rather than filling in holes.
The Mondo Vixen Massacre is a recent favorite.
RL: What do you dig about it?
JP: It’s ballsy and has little interest in spoon-feeding the reader. Dives right in and isn’t afraid of a damned thing.
RL: Currently, what types of books are you mostly drawn to?
JP: To be honest, I mostly read older comic books these days. Especially EC reprints. I travel a lot, and always a have a few issues tucked into my backpack. Otherwise, I’m in school and teach, so I’m usually buried under academic film books. I like reading them just as much as a Vault of Horror, though.
Fascinated with behind-the-scenes books. The Disaster Artist is a recent favorite.
RL: Can you talk about that one a little bit? I’ve been curious about it, but haven’t read it.
JP: Its structure just totally works. Every chapter alternates between what it was like on the set of The Room, and the odd series of events that lead up to the lead actor’s involvement, from meeting Wiseau to rooming with him, to listening to his delusional babble. All while trying to solve the mystery of this bizarre auteur. Quick read.
RL: Well, The Room is a good lead-in to this next question (for some, maybe). I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures?
JP: Not quite a guilty pleasure, but I’ll admit I really dug A Million Little Pieces, but then hated it once I found out it wasn’t true. Although I say a good story is a good story, it suddenly felt dishonest, which is a crime in my eyes.
RL: This one could apply to all art, really, but in terms of writing, what are your thoughts on “genre?”
JP: Zero interest in genre. To me, it’s just a marketing tool. Drama is drama. Comedy is drama. Horror is drama. I just like stories. That was the big difference between Family Video’s open shelves and Blockbuster’s nit picky genre micromanagement. Glad to see them gone. Glad to see Family Video still around, family-style secret naughty room, and all.
RL: My friend Rick and I, back when Video Tyme was still around, we called it “The Creaky Room,” because the doors always creaked really loudly when you entered. We always figured they did that on purpose to embarrass anyone looking for porn.
JP: I buy into that theory. The Family Video in Alpena had Beaver & Buttface. One of the craziest things I’ve ever tried to watch. Revolting and almost surreal.
Of course, anything with a monster on the cover makes me want to open it up, so the marketing works on me.
RL: I know, right? I like to think I’m above genre tropes and marketing gimmicks, but I’ll be damned if I’m drawn to them like a moth to the proverbial flame.
JP: And Bigfoot. If he’s on the cover, I’m in.
RL: Do you take a book with you wherever you go?
JP: I do not. Never quite sure how to pull that off without a purse or some type of man bag variation. I always have a book in my backpack at work, but I don’t always have my backpack on me.
RL: What are your favorite books of all time, and why?
JP: Like I said, I love Catcher in the Rye, and used to collect different editions. But never with an illustration of Caulfield on the cover. That was my rule. I also used to collect old copies of A Clockwork Orange. Illustrated of Droogies on the cover encouraged. Eventually, I just gave them all to friends.
RL: I used to do that with VHS copies of Night of the Living Dead. Actually, I think I still have them somewhere. Even the shitty colorized version.
JP: Otherwise, The Man who Fell to Earth is my idea of a perfect novel. Isolation, social and political commentary, humor, irony, literal and figurative alien, and that ending.
RL: I’m a fan of the film, but I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read the novel. How do they compare?
JP: I think the movie is kind of a loud mess. Bowie is perfectly cast, but it feels like it’s trying to tackle too much and loses its focus on occasion. The novel is much more contemplative and critical of society. It has one of the best endings I’ve ever read, and the movie totally botched it. Didn’t seem to understand the melancholy, or was afraid of a bummer ending.
RL: Interesting. Now I definitely need to read it. And then revisit the film.
What books―and they don’t have to necessarily have to be “all-time favorites”―do you feel have influenced you and shaped you the most: as a human being, as an artist, etc.?
JP: As a filmmaker, Rebel Without a Crew told me how there was a different way.
Tom Robbins replied to my fan mail once and said I had a great name for a book jacket, so that guy kept me going for awhile. The Bible is still the best collection of stories I’ve ever read.
RL: That’s very interesting to me. I have similar feelings about it. But I’m curious to know what makes you say that?
JP: The parables are rooted in great dramatic irony. King Solomon’s ruling is a perfect short story. And some stories are wicked freaky. Satan tempting Jesus in the desert is hardcore morality horror. Just about every screenplay I write is rooted in a Biblical story. Ape is a play on the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. As soon as Trevor eats the apple, he’s given the power to say it like it is, but pays for it. The Alchemist Cookbook was my take on the story of Job, the long-time sufferer for what he believes. His art. The film we’re shooting next month is a take on Cain and Abel, but reversing the roles.
RL: I love that. That makes me look at Ape differently now. I plunder the Bible, and sundry other religious texts, for pretty much all of my work. I’m a sucker for anything rooted in religion and/or spiritualism. The novella I’m working on now is my take on Marian apparitions, specifically Our Lady of Lourdes. Man, I had no idea. Now I know what to talk your ear off about the next time I see you at the bar!
So, tell me about one of your worst reading experiences, or an author you particularly dislike.
JP: Can’t get through Thomas Pynchon. I find myself needing to re-read every paragraph. I’m too dense.
RL: No worries there. I have similar frustrations with his books. I feel like I should like them, and am supposed to like them for some unknown reason, but I’ve never taken to them like some people. I vow to get through V. someday, though.
Let me throw this out there—I’m a fan, and collector, of movie novelizations. If given the chance, would you want to write the novelizations of your movies?
JP: I would have little patience for essentially re-making my own work. Once I’m finished with a script or cutting a movie, that’s it. I’m instantly over it and want to move on to the next story.
RL: I’m the same way. I’m doing the final edits on my novel right now, and I’m like, “Man, I thought I was done with this.” I’ve moved on to about four other projects. But hey, I’d be happy to write them for you. I’m affordable.
Thanks for rapping with me, man. It was fun.
You can also find him on Twitter.