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Low-Res MFA Student Makes Off-Beat Film with Unusual Business Model

Joel Potrykus, a student in Emerson’s new low-residency MFA in Writing for Film and Televison program, says all of his work is a “combination of two extremes.”

In his first feature film, Ape (2012), a terrible comedian turns to pyromania to take out his frustrations. In Buzzard (2014), a bored, angry temp who turns to small-time scams to rebel is forced to go into hiding when he thinks his boss is about to discover his latest theft, and things eventually turn violent.

In The Alchemist Cookbook, which premiered at this year’s SXSW, where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Award, and was released on October 7, a young recluse goes into the woods to undertake experiments and ends up trying to commune with Satan.

It was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, said Potrykus.

“I wanted to make a movie about one person living out in the woods and getting away from society,” he said. “So in Walden, there’s a person living off the grid, but after a while that doesn’t hold my interest personally, so I like to inject nice, pleasant concepts with a shot of evil.”

The Alchemist Cookbook has already gotten a fair amount of buzz. It was named to Rolling Stone’s Best Movies to See in October list and got a favorable reception from Variety. His two previous films won awards in Locarno, Llubljana, and Nashville.  

So why is a working filmmaker with three reasonably successful movies to his credit going back to school to learn how to write screenplays?

“Primarily, I want to teach,” said Potrykus, who is currently an adjunct instructor at his alma mater, Grand Valley State University, but would like to become a full professor eventually.

“I’m an active filmmaker here in Michigan, so it wasn’t something I could leave home to do… [Choosing Emerson] was just a no-brainer. That was by far my number one school I applied to.”

Potrykus and his classmates spend one week per semester on campus—Boston in the fall, Los Angeles in the spring—then do the rest of their work online. So far, he said he’s been impressed with program director Jean Stawarz, who is “super helpful,” and with whom he agrees on most things related to screenwriting.

It’s not just his career trajectory or his storytelling that’s unconventional. He’s trying to move to a pay-what-you-want model for The Alchemist Cookbook.

“[The model] is something new, and hopefully, in a tiny way, revolutionary,” Potrykus said. “This is the kind of world that I would like to live in. Especially for art, how do we value art?…How can I say, ‘This art is worth $8, this art is worth $10.’”

So The Alchemist Cookbook is available via BitTorrent for whatever you feel like it’s worth. And at least one theater was on board, as of writing. Moviegoers at the Texas Theatre in Dallas can watch it for 25 cents or $25.

“Maybe it’ll pick up steam and people will catch onto it,” Potrykus said.

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