Thursday, July 18, 2024

Interview: Director Joel Potrykus and Actor Joshua Burge of ‘Vulcanizadora’

Prior to the world premiere of Vulcanizadora, I was able to sit down with multi-hyphenate filmmaker Joel Potrykus, and lead actor and longtime collaborator, Joshua Burge to discuss the film. During our conversation, we discuss everything from what the two feel about hiking to eternal damnation. This is a film that leaves its audience with a lot to chew on, and breaking it down with both Potrykus and Burge was an absolute delight. And yes, we do get into the imagery that will likely mystify many people as they stumble onto this film. It’s a gnarly film, but made way for a really fun conversation that delved into a variety of different topics. As a slight warning, it’s of my belief (and Potrykus backs me up below!) that Vulcanizadora should be seen while knowing as little as possible about the film itself. While we largely avoid spoilers in the below transcription of our interview, there’s some general allusions to what occurs throughout the film. Enjoy the conversation, check out my full review of the film right here, and most importantly, enjoy Vulcanizadora!

Alex Papaioannou: So, yeah, I loved the film.

Joel Potrykus: Aw, thanks man.

AP: I went in knowing absolutely nothing!

JP: I wish everybody would just go in knowing totally nothing!

AP: So let’s just get right into it! Are the two of you frequent hikers?

JP: [Smiles.] Josh, you start with that one.

Joshua Burge: I walk as a mode of transportation, so therefore hiking is not an appealing leisure activity. [Laughs.]

JP: I actually dig all that. I love going out in the woods and hiking and camping and all that business. But, yeah, I don’t think ‘ole Burge is into that kinda thing.

JB: Yeah, not my thing.

AP: It does really play like that in the film as well!

JP: I guess it does! [Joel and Joshua laugh.] You’re like, miserable. Not wanting to be there and I’m like, “Come on!”

JB: Yeah, you’ve got all that gear!

AP: Is all that yours?

JP: That backpack actually is mine. I bought it at a garage sale, but I never used it. My wife was like, “Why are you buying that? We have a kid now [Smiles.] You’re not gonna be taking him on weekend camping trips.” So that was in my garage forever. But I did buy the pants that zip away into shorts. But yeah, like the little pan and all that. That’s all my stuff.

AP: You finally got to bust it out. Worth the expense!

JP: There was a reason to buy it, I guess.

AP: Are those pants in the regular rotation?

JP: Those are not in the regular rotation… yet! [We all laugh.] They’re pretty practical and comfortable though, so it was great to shoot a movie in those out in the wilderness. Glad I didn’t have to wear a Tommy Hilfiger sweater and jeans. [Referring to Josh’s character in the film.]

JB: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah.

AP: Getting back to the idea of going in knowing nothing. The dynamic at first plays very comically. Joshua, you’re performing the straight-man archetype and Joel, you’re just going off and doing your own thing. Then it makes the bleak shift about halfway through. So how do you balance that tone?

JP: Well, as you said, [my character] Derek’s the one doing all the blabbering and then there’s Marty. And I think seeing that on screen is what sells the tone. If there’s two guys having a good time on a camping trip, then all of a sudden there’s no sense of danger. But if there’s one guy who’s really excited, and there’s one guy who doesn’t want to be there, you know something’s up. There’s a reason that guy doesn’t want to be there.

JB: And I was just making sure that [my character] Marty would stay as silent as possible. Then that just adds to the dynamic. It makes it much more extreme to acknowledge that one guy is trying to make the best of it and have fun, and the other guy is just really solidifying that he’s not having it.

JP: So right away, without saying a word, I think audiences could figure out something bad is going to happen. Because there’s a big shift in dynamic and in the personalities between those two characters. And it was also important to kind of give a little feeling of unease at the end of every scene. So for Derek, he’s been all goofy, and then to wipe his smile away at the last second, I think helps.

JB:  Just going non-responsive and not participating.

AP: So you two have been collaborating for a while now. You’ve known each other for a long time, and you’re playing such heavy roles, especially in that first half. What’s the approach in terms of going from goofing off with a friend before action is called, to then needing to immediately shift?

JB:  Well, with these two characters, we had already been there before… [Turns to Joel.] I could say that now, yeah?

JP:  [Looking down.] Not yet… [he smiles.] I mean I don’t know. [They both laugh.]

JB:  It was just that revisitation of how difficult it is to act with Joel, because he’s hilarious, and it is hard not to break. [Laughs.] But you just have to keep going over it and over it in your head. That whatever you think of as your total nightmare, an uncomfortable state-of-being, and existing in misery and anger and loss. Frustration. Whatever those horrible thoughts are that put you there, to actually be able to use them to complete that portrayal.

JP:  And it was like that, because we would be goofing around right before the roll. Sometimes I would doubt whether we were in the right headspace. But Josh is such a good actor. He doesn’t need to go into a corner for 30 minutes to go brood and get into character. It’s like, action, and the smile is gone. He’s dark now. So that is how it was. It wasn’t like, cut, and Josh would be angry and sulking, trying to stay in character. [They both laugh.] We were having fun. As soon as we rolled cameras, it was easy for me because I was still kind of the same guy. But for Josh, yeah, he had the heavy lifting in those situations.

AP: Obviously, another big element of the film is the device!

JP: Yeah.

AP: I mean, do you have a name for it that you’ve been referring to it as?

JP: No! Just the masks. And we talked a lot about what that would look like and how it would function. My original ideas were way more simple. It was my brother Charles who said, “Give me a week or two, and let me come up with a cool concept for this and design it and create it.” He typically creates all the… “appliances” in these movies. So we just talked a lot about it. There was no name for them, but it was just “the masks.” He just came to set with them ready to go and locked them on our heads. And it was game on. It was great.

AP: Was it always a mask in your head?

JP: Yeah.

JB: We arrived at the metal mask, I think, pretty quickly.

JP: Ball gag was talked about. Once we figured out how it was gonna happen, we knew we had to come up with a cool mask/headpiece to really freak audiences out.

AP: It’s… gnarly. Putting it on is one thing, and then seeing what happens right after… And that leads to my next question. Thinking it is one thing, seeing it in person is another. When you have it on your head for the first time, what is going through your mind?

JP: I think putting it on is almost scarier than when it happens. There’s way more mystery when it’s just being put on somebody. That, to me, is my favorite moment in the movie.

JB: I mean, it is an intense thing. Chuck did an amazing job building those masks without having our dimensions or any measurements to model it off of. So putting it on it fit great. But it also had a medieval aspect to it, where you’re going into the Iron Maiden or something. Some sort of contraption that you’re not supposed to get out of, you know? And that’s a very encapsulating kind of fear. A striking feeling to have.

AP: Like it’s comfortable enough to put on, but a bit too tight to take off.

JB: Yeah, there’s that real weight to it. And those real jagged edges that you can sense, even if you don’t feel them. It’s very real and present.

AP: And it’s definitely felt. I mean, there’s morsels throughout the film, so you start to realize what’s happening. But once those masks come out, you don’t even want to look. And I think it’s expertly handled.

JP: And what was more difficult is we did all the takes in that whole scene with the things in our mouths. Like, it was hard to breathe. You’re drooling…

JB: Drooling, and you can’t swallow.

JP: And I’m trying to direct and I can barely talk. That was another kind of discomforting part of it.

AP: I mean, how long did that take to set up and shoot once you have it in your mouths?

JP: We wanted to go as quickly as possible, but there were complications. We were shooting on a beach, and we kind of had permission to be there. But there were also other residents around, and they didn’t know what we were up to. So there was some interference from people, like asking what we were up to or being in the shot. And we’ve got this thing on our head, and these things in our mouths, and I can’t go talk to them. So it was probably the most hectic scene to shoot. The sun was going down, there were a lot of moving parts. And it was obviously uncomfortable for us. So that was a tricky, tricky scene. We tried to get it as efficiently as possible.

AP: And of course, shooting on 16 millimeter adds to that. Was that always the plan to shoot on film?

JP: That was the hope! And then once money came through, it was like, “This is it! Like it’s happening.” We’ve always wanted to shoot a feature on 16mm. It just seemed a little intimidating, but our DP Adam J. Minnick has done it many times before. So he convinced me that we could do it for this much money and in these conditions.

AP: So this is the first feature you’ve made since becoming a father! And your son is in the film. Can you talk about what that was like? And how was that first day of having him on set?

JP: So I feel that all the films that Josh and I have made until now have an almost indirect undercurrent of fatherhood. Grown men trying to figure out how to be men, and never having a father to show them. But it’s always just sprinkled in. And this is the one that most directly tackles the idea of fatherhood, and why these two guys are the way they are now. We get to see an old father, and we get to see a kid, and then a father in between both of them. So yeah, becoming a dad definitely shaped the story. I was ready to really fully explore why these characters are the way they are, and why I’m like the way they are. And… [Smiles.] I don’t know if there’s anything for Josh about why he is the way… [Laughs.] I don’t know! Josh and I typically don’t talk a lot about “what I’m bringing to the character” business.

JB: Yeah, we don’t really do that. But at the same time, there’s an understanding that we’re both coming from wherever we’re coming from. And again, the time passage is such a big deal for me on this film. The obstacles that people go through over a certain period of time. In this case, 10 years. And I just honed in on that, I think, more than anything. Like where your relationships are with other people, and the growth or failure of them. Those sorts of aspects were what I thought about most when taking on this dude.

AP: You share a scene with Joel’s son, Solo. What was that like on the day?

JB: Yeah! So… [chuckles] first of all, Joel wrote to me. And he said, “You know, we might have you just hang out and talk to Solo, and we’ll just shoot and see what happens. We might get something or we might not.” And I said, “Well, that sounds great, man. I’ll be prepared.” [They both laugh.] So we’re there. It’s halfway through the shoot, and we’re getting ready. And I was like “Want to try to run the lines?” [Animatedly replies] And Solo had every line down pat! Perfect! [Joel laughs.] Just right on it. And I have to say it, I did not! I did not. I was ill prepared. [We all laugh.] So I said, “Okay, Mr. Potrykus. I’ll learn my lines.” And I was not talking to Joel!

JP: [Laughing.] Yeah.

JB: So it was amazing. The little dude did an amazing job. And it was a thrill to be on screen with him and have that moment. It was a blast.


Solo will be in his dressing room while you learn the lines. [Laughs.]

JP: You know, my wife and I rehearsed him for months and months. We went over the lines, and were like, “You gotta look him in the eye, and you can’t look over there at the camera. You gotta look the person right in the eye and say it.” And once he knew the lines, then he felt comfortable locking eyes. And even about a week up into the shoot, I didn’t know. I was like, “Ehhh.” But then every time we did it, he just nailed it. And I just had such confidence in him. I didn’t even look at the monitor that day. I just sat next to him… It’s pretty emotional. I didn’t even have to direct him! He just knew it. I just wanted to see him do it in reality, because I knew that was the only time I’d ever see that. Forever after, I’d see him on the screen. To be able to be in that moment and be present. I mean, you have that every time you act. You get to experience the moment without the camera. And I very rarely get to do that. I’m usually looking at a monitor.

JB: Yeah! [Smiles.] That’s true.

JP: To be there and to see it happen was really cool. And I got all emotional. It was awesome.

JB: It was just a privilege for me, to be a part of it all. Just to see the little guy, and he was actually playful, you know? I mean, he was playing with a toy, and that’s what was going on in the scene. He was there! What you’re supposed to achieve as an actor is to be there, be involved, be real, and be what you are. And that’s what Solo was like naturally.

JP: He wasn’t in his head too much, like probably most actors get. [Chuckling.] You know, he doesn’t know what he’s gonna look like on screen. Sometimes, maybe actors can get self-conscious about that.

AP: Obviously, he’s not going to see the whole film, but have you talked to him about being on a big screen?

JP: He’s pretty indifferent about it all! [We all laugh.] He just doesn’t get the magnitude, and he kind of doesn’t care. When we were editing his scene, I tried to show him and he was just like, “Eh, okay. Cool.” He doesn’t seem like he wants to watch the movie, or even care that he’s not going to be allowed to watch it for a while. So he’s just kind of drifting through it.

AP: Fame doesn’t change him.

JP: He’s not jaded, his ego is still in check. [We laugh.]

AP: So, without divulging too much about where the film goes: A lot of it is about wanting to be held accountable for certain actions, I suppose, and in turn, there’s constant failure. And then in those final moments, we see what happens. Do you feel that there’s justice in those moments?

JB: I personally don’t see it as justice. I see it as a sense of relief. But I’m not… Josh, it’s your character. Yeah, it’s more of a burden being lifted. I don’t see it as justice either. Not to be religious about it, but there’s the Old Testament with the wrath of God and a burden is lifted.

JP: I think Josh’s character feels something he hasn’t felt in the whole movie at that moment. That’s the most important part of it.

AP: It feels like the only time you really see him smile. Or even emote, I’d say.

JP: That was definitely intentional. It’s something we talked a lot about.

AP: I know there’s the conversation about Hell. Did you pull that quote from something that you saw online?

JP: [Laughs.] I just made that up because that’s my version. That would be my Hell. To not be screaming in pain,  but to be nervous… forever.

AP: In my notes I just wrote, “Isn’t that just real life?”

JP: [Smiling.] Yeah! But instead of just through your adulthood, it’s through eternity. Man… holy shit! [We all start laughing.] I think that may be the most hardcore thing in the whole movie! Just that fear of being nervous forever.

AP: Yeah! It feels like Derek is just constantly talking into the void. And Marty is just there, embracing it. And it feels like his reply is the time where you’re just like, “Ok, what’s going on in your head?”

JP: Yeah! I love that you don’t really know. Is Marty taking it to heart? Or is he just shaking him off? I think there’s something freaky in that. That he’s still locked in after all that.

JB: And I also think about the way that Marty then addresses it. “Well, there is no Hell.” That’s his rebuttal. It’s either to move the show along and get it going, or he just doesn’t want to participate and placate any of Derek’s notions about whatever is going on with Hell.

JP: I thought we had an opportunity to go a lot deeper into it. But I felt like “being nervous forever” is just the thing that I wanted to get across.

JB:  That’s his concept of damnation.

JP:  And if we could get there in a realistic, almost silly way at first. And to then end on that note. The whole movie’s structure is: Goofy into goofy into goofy, and then get ugly or dark right at the very end of a scene or an exchange of dialogue.

AP:  And it totally recontextualizes the first half with Derek. I mean, he’s clearly a goofy guy, but this then brings the thought up of, “Oh, he’s just trying to kill time.”

JP: Yeah!

JB:  He’s trying to prolong the inevitable.

JP:  There’s something about him knowing that this is why they’re there. Him never acknowledging it, and still having this goofy persona, to me, yeah, recontextualizes everything. Like how is that guy trying to have fun, knowing what’s gonna happen?

AP:  It’s so frightening and so masterful. I can’t wait to hear the reactions at the premiere.

JP: Me too!

JB: Yeah!

AP:  How are you feeling going into it?

JP:  I’m super stoked. This is exactly what we set out to make.

JB:  I’m so excited. Seeing everybody’s reaction, and to see it on the big and large screen, too. I haven’t seen it that way. So I’m stoked.

AP:  Out of curiosity. How long was the shoot?

JB:  Eight days.

JP:  Was it eight?

JB:  Eight total shoot days. 14 working days, two to travel and whatever. Eight day shoot.

AP:  That’s amazing.

JP: Yeah, it was super, super efficient.

AP: That’s all I have! Again, thank you both for taking the time. Congratulations on the premiere, and I can’t wait to see the reactions that come out.

JP:  I’m going on Letterboxd tomorrow morning! [We all laugh.]

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