Should you live and work in a big city or a small town? Should you stick close to your native geography, or build a new creative home elsewhere? We invited two indie moviemakers—Relaxer writer-director Joel Potrykus and Watch Me Drown writer-director Nathan Silver—to debate the pros and cons.
Joel Potrykus (JP): Michigan is the only place where I know how to make movies. I couldn’t do it in any other place. In all the other cities I lived in, it was totally impossible.
Nathan Silver (NS): I’ve lived and worked in New York for going on 18 years now. Even when I make movies in other places, I think of New York as my home and I always come back.
JP: In my twenties, I moved around everywhere—Prague, San Francisco, Chicago, New Jersey. When I moved to New Jersey, I moved there with the idea that “Maybe New York is where I want to make movies.” I lived in Bayonne and would commute to the city every day. After 10 months, I said, “This sucks.” It took me just as long to get to and from work as it took to work my shift.
NS: The trains run so erratically. You never know when the line is going to be down, so traveling to New York has become awful the last few years. To and from New Jersey, it takes two hours to get to New York and another two to get back. By the end, it feels like someone’s beating the shit out of you. That’s the most exhausting part. There’s a lot of discomfort in this city, for sure.
JP: In every other place I’ve lived, I was always blending in, waiting for someone to discover me. I soon realized that’s not how a moviemaking career works, so the only way I was going to make it was if I went back to Michigan where all of my friends were, and where I had access to free locations and free gear. That’s still how it works for me—making movies for little to no money with friends—except it’s now on a larger scale.
NS: I grew up in Boston and I made my first short and my first feature in Massachusetts, because that’s where I had access to locations and friends who were willing to put up with me. My friends and I shot my second feature in my parents’ house. (My dad was on boom a lot of the time.) In an environment where you’re surrounded by people like your neighbors and your girlfriend, you can exercise some control over the chaos inherent to moviemaking.
JP: When I would come back to Grand Rapids, people would ask, “Are you working on a movie yet?” People were holding me accountable, which I needed. Those people were all interested in what I was up to, whereas no one was interested in me in the other cities I was living in, so why even live there? Because of some half-assed idea of “making it” there, when you could be doing it all in Grand Rapids? You don’t have to deal with the commute. You can drive five minutes to get a lens—from one side of town to the other, there and back. I’m really lazy. If I need to be at the location at 8 a.m., I can wake up at 7:30, take a shower, and then I’m there. I don’t want making movies to feel like a struggle. It’s already a struggle enough, so trying to dig around and find locations at the last minute is just one more big headache. Also, in Michigan, everybody is elated and enthusiastic that you’re making a movie. “Of course you can shoot in this restaurant!” People are more jaded on the coasts, but here, there’s this geeky, Midwest excitement.
NS: Yeah … Just this past Friday I went location scouting for restaurants, and every place I asked to shoot in was demanding something like $5,000 for three hours with a five-person crew. Eventually we found a place that agreed to let us to shoot there, but when we brought the equipment, they were horrified and made our shoot a living hell. But there’s always going to be enough restaurants that you’ll eventually find one with no assholes.
JP: But even going around from restaurant to restaurant in New York, just to meet these people—that’s such an expensive trip, too.
NS: So you get a monthly Metro Card!
JP: It wears you out. Every day is physically exhausting. I couldn’t handle it. And when you’re a stranger living in a big city, you don’t have a community of people you can run into over and over.
NS: As an usher at Film Forum in New York, I met a lot of cinephiles, and at most any screening I’d go to I’d recognize at least three or four faces. You do run into each other, and then there’s always a bar that you’ll go to together. I used to want to be a playwright, and while working in an experimental theater in New York, the director Richard Foreman recommended all these obscure movies to me, and I would go to Kim’s Video to rent them. Sean Price Williams, the manager of Kim’s at the time, is now a frequent DP on my films. Alex Ross Perry, Kate Lyn Sheil, and a lot of other people who are now making movies also worked there. One of my main collaborators, Chris Wells, is Head of Programming at the Quad Cinema, and he’s always giving me suggestions on what to see around town. When I first came to New York, I wasn’t necessarily trying to make movies, I was just trying to see them. Here, there’s so much repertory cinema, so there are always at least three films you want to see that are playing at any given time. That’s certainly a plus of living here. I go through periods of moviegoing and periods where I won’t go out to the theater for six months, but I know I’m happier when I’m seeing movies.
JP: I see the other side of that: Because we don’t have something to do every single night in the Midwest, I can stay in guilt-free, knowing I’m not missing out on something cool. When I was in L.A., I felt like, “Oh, it’s so beautiful today, I should go outside.” There are no temptations of beautiful weather, amazing screenings, or “Jim Jarmusch is speaking tonight” here. With none of that, staying in your house to write is the best thing you can do.
NS: Any scene like that can feel clique-ish, but I am working on about four projects with four different groups of people at the moment, and they’re all in New York.
JP: One of my favorite things about watching your movies is seeing all my friends pop up. Outside of Michigan, New York is where all of my other moviemaking friends are. A lot of New York moviemakers work with the same DPs and casts, and I like seeing where these people are plugged in from project to project. I love that familiarity.
NS: I’ve never actually thought about that. We have had to replace some DPs at the last minute, but there’s a big pool of people to pull from here. I guess I take that for granted. I just push ahead with each project, and whoever seems right for a certain project, I’ll approach them and we’ll talk about it over drinks. From there, it becomes something concrete—that has legs. Making smaller pictures that don’t rely on massive amounts of investment to get made is about knowing who to approach. I’ve now shot nine features, so I know who to approach. I’m trying to make films where my crew and I can actually get paid. It’s been exhausting these last few years. I’m burnt out.
JP: Slow down, dude. Stop making so many fucking movies.
NS: That’s the thing: I’m trying to learn to be patient. I wasn’t born with patience. I’m getting back to scripted material, which takes more time than working without a script, and that helps. There’s also definitely a competitive nature to a larger market like New York, where everyone is constantly working. When you’re friendly in person with all of these people, naturally they motivate you to work on your own things as well.
JP: For me, it’s the exact opposite. If I’m surrounded by people who are always doing things, making a movie becomes really stressful, painful, and awful. If I’m surrounded by people who are incredibly prolific, it would make me feel shitty about my progress in life. As a larger fish in a smaller pond, I tend to feel content with my smaller output and where I’m at right now. I don’t have the Alex Ross Perrys of the world standing next to me saying, “Oh, I’m playing at Berlin and Cannes.” I can feel a little better about myself.
NS: My fear of failure is why I make so many projects. If one doesn’t hit, then I’m hoping that the next one will. I always start thinking of my next movie while another is in post. Then, once I start getting the festival rejections, they don’t hit me as hard, since I’m not pinning everything on just one film. That’s how New York has gotten to my brain.
JP: Working on my new film Relaxer reminded me of the ultimate reason why I work in Michigan: Oscilloscope Laboratories funds my films because they know what they’re getting, and they know if they have a film like this produced in L.A., it would probably be around three times the cost to make, because we can get almost everything for free here in Michigan. Relaxer was shot entirely in my production designer’s parents’ garage. Dave Dastmalchian and Andre Hyland, our L.A.-based actors, flew out and were not only able to walk onto set, but they were also able to stay at our production designer’s parents’ house, which was kind of like our production headquarters and living quarters. Their ugly shed was reserved for our art department, and our camera crew had the whole basement to themselves. It was the ultimate in lazy moviemaking because we had no traveling to do. That’s one of the big reasons why I wrote the script that way: With one location, shooting in a gargae, we didn’t have to deal with weather or commuting. It makes everything much easier, and it took us 10 minutes to drive there every morning. If we needed something, we’d stop at the gas station on the way there to pick it up. So, Relaxer was the ultimate relaxing film shoot, and the studio didn’t have a whole lot to lose because it’s homegrown with a small crew. Bottom line: Make films at home. The best piece of advice I’ve heard about moving to L.A. is, “Don’t move to L.A. until they want you there.” That really made sense to me, and I still don’t feel like they want me there. Either way, I know so many people who either moved to L.A. and got crushed or moved to L.A. and got stuck working in a position in which they never became the storyteller they wanted to become. They got stuck simply making a living and put their hopes of telling stories on the back-burner. What I don’t understand is what I did in my twenties: moving and hoping to find somewhere that could be your “moviemaking home.” We don’t live in a world where you need studio backing, big stars, or expensive cameras. You can go to Best Buy, buy a camera for $1,000 and shoot something in your neighborhood. You know your neighborhood better than anywhere else and you know its stories. There’s an authenticity to making a film in the place you call home. You can’t get that by going to a new city and trying to capture that feeling. You don’t know that feeling as well as the people who live there.
NS: That’s all fine, but I still think you’re an idiot for staying in the Midwest.
JP: And I will never agree with anything you’ve said. You’re wrong about where you live and how you approach moviemaking, and you’re wrong for staying in New York!
NS: Screw you, man. I’m not open to any of your ideas. MM
Joel Potrykus’ Relaxer opens in theaters March 22, 2019, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories. Nathan Silver’s next feature, Watch Me Drown, is in post-production. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue. Featured image illustration by Gel Jamlang.