Making its world premiere in Austin, Texas for the SXSW Film Conference and Festival this past Sunday, March 13th, Joel Potrykus’ The Alchemist Cookbook filled the theater to capacity.  Each subsequent screening at the fest continued to sell out tickets.  Having seen the film (review here), it’s easy to see why.  Part horror, part humor, and intense character study, Potrykus’ first follow up after his Animal trilogy (Buzzard, Ape, and Coyote) defies categorization.

Following the second sold out screening, Modern Horrors sat down with Potrykus to discuss his characters, alchemy, and the creepy crawly pitfalls of shooting in the woods.

You drop the audience in the middle of the story, without exposition, but you learn more about Sean in bits and pieces throughout the film. Can you expand on the conception of this story and the lack of exposition given at the beginning for the character of Sean?
Yeah, basically, it’s kind of a study of someone that you just met. How it feels to meet someone right in the middle of some kind of a break down, and you don’t really understand what they’re thinking. They may not understand what you’re thinking. And so we just sprinkled in a little bit [of character background]. In the opening song the lyrics very much tell his childhood story, but you don’t need that. If you really want to know more about the character, it’s there in the opening song. Things like, just the fact that Cortez is there so you know what kind of a background he has and what he’s escaping. His family, his friends, things like that. People just didn’t really understand him. And things like he has pills, and he’s hiding out so there’s things that he’s running from. He’s got mail from the courthouse. He may have been up to no good. He’s fleeing not just from society but anyone who may not have cared about him.
I loved the character Cortez. He gives you more insight on Sean, but he breaks up the intensity on screen. He’s sort of the comic relief. Was that the goal behind his character?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t like making movies that are one note scary, or funny. Life has all of those things. It’s important to me to make movies where people aren’t sure how to react. Like, you’re not sure whether to laugh at this point or be scared or what to feel. That’s why I like peeking in at every screening because people will laugh at places I never heard people laugh before. So that’s just important to me to have that balance; to keep people off balance and not have a genre or tell them how to feel. I’ll freak them out one minute and then make them laugh the next minute. And just keep them where they can’t predict what’s going on and what’s going to happen next. That’s just, the only kind of thing I like to do, throw people off a bit.
You have been primarily known for your intense character studies, and this still feels like that but there are elements of horror. I don’t know if I was reading too much into it, but it seemed like there were subtle cues throughout that may be indicative of something happening.
Yeah, the sound design was really important because a lot of scenes early on end with a vague grumble out in the woods. Or you hear this growling murmur throughout and it’s just something is off. I don’t want to show people or tell them what’s going on; I just want them ideally to feel a little bit off and know that things are probably going to get ugly as it goes on and have no idea what direction it’s going to go. They just know that it’s going to build to something maybe a little bit scarier or just more intense than what they’re seeing. I just want them to feel it.
Let’s talk about the animals in the film. The possum scene. What was that? Was that a puppet? Was that an actual possum?
That’s what I love! People asking if that was animatronic or a real puppet.
From the moment we saw in a cage I was trying to figure it out!
I kinda don’t want to say. I don’t want to tell how we pulled that off. Love the possum. Love the possum.
You want to keep that a secret. Ok. Let’s talk alchemy. Where did the alchemy come into play? Was that always part of the story?
No, I mean everything I write starts with a character and then, it may sound pretentious or something, but I let that character just kind of start telling the story at a certain point. It’s like a runner’s high and your body just takes over when I write. I feel that. It’s like, “oh, this is where it’s going” and I wanted people to…I didn’t want people to think he was making drugs out in the woods because, for me, I feel like that’s where it could easily have gone. Like they’re cooking meth or something. And so, I haven’t seen a movie about alchemy in a long time and I just wanted to smash together a bunch of different ideas in there. Alchemy is so cool because a lot of people don’t know much about it and don’t know that it’s half chemistry and half black magic. I’m just so fascinated by that and that a scientist and a Satanist could be hanging out together trying to do this. I do still believe that alchemy could happen. There’s a part of me that thinks that, maybe not the black magic part, but through chemistry or science that it can be done. I’m fascinated by alchemy and it seems like, where are the modern day alchemists right now? Like why isn’t Nasa trying to crack the code for alchemy? Maybe there’s outsiders, or underground alchemists out in the woods and that’s what fascinated me when I started thinking about that.
So did you do a lot of research on alchemy? Because watching the film, half of the time I’m wondering what he’s even doing. I’m wondering if any of it is actually a thing? Are his books real?
I did read two books on alchemy. But I mean books on alchemy are ancient, ancient times, with what these guys did with lights, eggs, and nature. Just crazy things. But then you read that people do really think that filaments in lightbulbs and battery acid and just these weird ideas can cause these chemical reactions and can be a thing. So I never wanted to lay out what he’s doing, like when he’s sawing a battery in half and you’re like, “What is he doing? What is going on?” He’s basically at the end of his..he’s exhausting everything chemically and now is like, “I’m going to try black magic, now.” But, yeah, it’s mostly bullshit. Because alchemy is just grasping at straws, and so that’s basically what he’s doing. But I did take a lot of ancient things written about it and read about modern people on the internet with weird ideas and tried to make something new. Something that doesn’t need to be explained.
Right, he’s just going for it. So is the book that he uses something you created?
We made that book. I’ve never found an actual text of alchemy, just the history of. That’s a dream, to find an old bookstore and find someone’s old journal on alchemy and their results. That would be amazing. For Sean, it’s his guidebook. And the title works because it’s stolen from The Anarchist Cookbook, and I thought he’s an anarchist as well. Giving the middle finger to society.
The movie has a timeless feel to it; you’re not quite certain what year it was set. Was this an intentional move to keep the audience off-kilter?
Yeah, all of my movies are totally in non-specific time periods. People are always asking me when Buzzard takes place, and same with this one. For me, iPhones are the cheapest, easiest instrument in a story. If characters have an iPhone then it’s like, “Where’s my wife? Oh, I can call her.” Or, “How do we get here? Oh I can Google it.” It just takes out so much, people can just solve things so easily instead of really struggling. So I never want to make a movie with that kind of technology. It’s like in movies when people are in the basement doing research on microfiche and it drops a whole bunch of exposition with newspaper clippings. The new version of that is Googling, and we could see search results on screen. I didn’t want Sean to have that convenience.
It’d go against his off the grid character anyway.
You’re located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I assume this was shot around there?
Yeah, we shot in Allegan, Michigan, which is about half an hour south. Out in the woods. It’s a small town and everyone was really excited and really helpful. That’s what Michigan has going for it; everyone is really excited about making movies and they’re really welcoming. For me, it’s the best place to make movies.
What was the hardest part of getting this made?
Finding the right people to trust in this idea to provide the money for it. Which is always tough. On paper it’s like, “What is this movie? What are you making?” Luckily Oscilloscope trusted enough and helped produce it. And just the daily stuff. When you’re shooting out in the woods there were hundreds of ticks. All over everything. I found a tick, after we’d wrapped for three hours and I was at dinner, I found a tick in my leg. The gaffer had to come remove it with tweezers. Yeah, that was a daily struggle. Ticks. Always ticks.
UGH! Gross! Wow. So, I noticed that it doesn’t feel that way, but there’s only two human characters in the entire movie.
Yeah, I normally only focus on one character, I’ve never done two characters. My original inspiration was Walden Pond. I want to make a guy out in the wilderness by himself, but I wanted to see him interact with someone his polar opposite. I wanted to challenge myself and make something totally different from the Animal trilogy. I just needed to make this movie. I needed to make it. All of my films are about loneliness and isolation, and this is just an extreme version of that.
I liked that you kept things purposefully vague. Did you ever consider just showing the audience your hand? Sort of spell out what exactly is happening.
No, I always wanted the audience to question if what they’re seeing is actually there. I never wanted to have a full on reveal, I wanted it to be in his head or actually there- you’re never quite sure.
I feel like you snuck in a lot of details for the audience to grab on to.
Yeah, I wanted to give the audience all of the pieces to a puzzle, but I wanted them to assemble it however they wanted. For me, I know how it’s supposed to look, but I never want to impose my view. For me, it defeats the purpose of making a movie. I want the audience to put it together however they want. It’s a tricky balance between telling a story and leaving things out intentionally. It’s a fine line.
So were there things that you trimmed to keep it up to the audience?
Oh yeah, there were things that I cut that spelled it out more. I always shoot way more footage than I need so I have an easier time during editing.
Makes sense. We’re looking forward to a release for The Alchemist Cookbook. Thank you so much for your time.