Chuck E. Cheese and Sour Milk: An Interview with Joel Potrykus
At the Canadian premiere of Relaxer (2018) at Fantasia, barf bags were handed out to the audience before the screening. The film’s opening sequence, set in a brown and dingy apartment, features a competition. Equipped with a baby bottle and straw, Abbie (Joshua Burge) has to drink glass after glass of souring grey milk. His older brother, Cam, a comically over-the-top bully (David Dastmalchian), taunts him by saying he’ll never be able to finish the challenge. After Abbie fails yet another competition, Cam tells him, “You have no survival skills at all. You can barely survive on this couch.” He then bets that Abbie can’t leave the couch until he beats the unbeatable level 256 on Pac-Man.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, as the Y2K apocalypse looms, Relaxer is a claustrophobic one-room film in which the main character never gets off the couch. Different characters pass through his increasingly desolate man cave, offering him solace and motivation, though most terrorize and tease him. Glued to his couch, he craves Chuck E. Cheese pizza and soda. With echoes of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), the film embraces an absurdist comic energy, embodying an unfiltered slacker enthusiasm the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.
The latest from American indie auteur, Joel Potrykus, best known for Buzzard (2014) and The Alchemist Cookbook (2016), Relaxer reaches new heights in his micro-budget oeuvre. A technical feat with a stoner vibe, the film is a different brand of nostalgia porn for those enamored with the fabulously tacky color of late-‘90s consumer culture. The movie undeniably reeks of decay, as Abbie and his nest become clammy and crowded with garbage and rot. Starkly contrasting in tone and atmosphere, Relaxer also embraces the immortal bright lights and upbeat tempo of the era’s video game culture.
Joel Potrykus sat down with Kinoscope at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.
Can you tell me about your filmmaking philosophy?
It’s more about limitations. Last night, I saw a movie that had this really hyperkinetic camera the whole time — and it works. It totally works. But I’m watching it, and I’m wondering why the camera needs to keep moving? Why can’t we just have the camera sit there and watch these two actors fight? Let them carry the drama rather than the camera controlling everything that we see. And so, with Relaxer, the whole movie is basically Josh [Burge] sitting on a couch.
The DP and I made sure that the whole movie is at Abbie’s eyeline. We can tilt up and we can pan. We can never go behind him. We have to be very strict, it has to be like we are sitting with him in the living room.
There’s a moment at the end where something happens and suddenly for the first time, that eyeline changes and the camera moves. In a way, the camera seems like a character, but in actuality, it’s more like the audience is a character in the room. For Relaxer, we shot on a set. I wanted to make sure we didn’t have walls that you could just pull away, because then that’s like a sitcom. They move the wall and you have a different angle. I think that breaks the illusion that you are in the room with them, even if it’s just subconsciously.
In film school, I think the only time they ever talked about eyelines was with Yasujirō Ozu. In a way, the eyeline in your film is very similar to his.
His [camera] was always at the character’s eyeline, and they were sitting down on the floor a lot. I really admire following those restrictions and setting those rules. My introduction to Ozu was Buffalo ’66 (1998). There’s a scene in which they’re at the dining room table, and they’re all eating. It was shot really weird and I thought, “What is that?” Reading interviews, I realized that was from Ozu, and so that’s where I kind of started watching him. But it’s Vincent Gallo taking from Ozu. It’s like a reference twice removed.
As you’re working on a micro-budget by American standards, what impact does that have when you’re going into a project?
I’ve never had ideas that are big-money ideas. I teach at a film school and I tell the students, “I don’t know how to tell you how to make a big movie.” I’m grateful that my influences are so small, like Jim Jarmusch films. If early in my experience at film school I felt,
“I just want to be the next Michael Bay,” it’d be frustrating because I’d be making movies with no money and trying to emulate big blockbusters — and that’s a real drag.
I love Star Wars (1977), but never once when I was watching it, was I like, “I want to make a Star Wars.” I’ve been approached by big companies, and the first thing they say is, “We are interested if you have an idea that fits a budget of five-to-20 million.” I have no clue how to spend five million, just have no idea. That’s kind of why we’re in Michigan, because we don’t have to spend money on permits and location fees, or other weird red-tape stuff. We can just do it in somebody’s garage and make a movie.
My first film we made for $2,000, and it looks like $2,000. For Buzzard, it was $10,000. The budget on Relaxer was more than that, and I still feel like it’s a ton of money. I could almost buy a house with that money! And we could spend the rest of our lives in it, but instead, we’re going to just goof around in a garage. It seems irresponsible. I take money very seriously and respect the dollar.
In what order did you shoot the film in?
We shot the end of the movie first because Abbie has long hair and a beard. He had been growing that out in anticipation for this role. So, we shot that first, cut his hair, and then shot the rest of the movie. It’s not chronological, even after that, because it’s really just based around the actor’s availability. That’s tough on a movie like this because you’re in one place and you’d have to keep the continuity of all the damage that’s been done to the apartment. We had a hole in the wall, had to patch it up, and then [Josh] had to make the hole later and somehow replicate the one that was there before.
Did it work on the first take?
Yes. The production designer was ready with another wall to be put in if need be, but Josh nailed it the first time. In my head, when I watched that scene, all I hear is him doing it while I’m off camera being like, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!” If he did it anymore, it would have suddenly broken the continuity. Josh managed to replicate a hole in the wall somehow.
We had outlined a little bit. “Right here, not up here, and hit over here. This is as far as you can hit, as low as you can hit here.” We didn’t have any marks. He just thinks that way! He’s able to be ferocious in the moment, but also really calculated.
A central part of the story is about Y2K and fear that all the computers would crash. What were your memories of 1999?
I was that nerd who thought it was going to happen. I thought it made total sense! “Yeah, they’re going to glitch, they’re not going to understand what those zeros are, it’s going to knock out the power, and we’re not going to be able to get food or water!” But, I must not have been that into it, because I was at a New Year’s Eve party that night. My parents always have stockades of food in their basement in case of an emergency, so if I really took it seriously, I would’ve been down there. It was a drag because it wasn’t as climactic as it should’ve been — the earlier time zones celebrated New Year’s Eve first.
I want to know more about Chuck E. Cheese. I’ve never been to one and we don’t have them here. Like, where does it rank in the pizza chains?
Do you know anything about Chuck E. Cheese?
I know there’s a rat and a kids’ playground with bouncy balls.
It’s really just an excuse to find a place for kids to celebrate their birthday somewhere with pizza. You can’t even go there without a kid, I guess to keep out the weird pervs who are there to snatch kids. They don’t deliver.
That adds another layer to the film. Abby is like this little kid, basically a man-child who just loves Chuck E. Cheese, especially because it’s not good pizza.
Joel Potrykus’ Relaxer opens in select U.S. theaters on March 22.