Filmmaking and Fatherhood: Five Years Later

Writer-director Joel Potrykus, whose new film Vulcanizadora premieres at Tribeca next month, on life with his son, Solo.

Ten days after my first child was born, I flew to Austin for the premiere of my fourth feature film, Relaxer, at SXSW. Coming back two days later, I felt like I’d been gone for two months. For the duration of Relaxer’s festival run, I was mostly an absent director. When the film was released theatrically in 2019, I wrote a piece for the Talkhouse called Filmmaking and Fatherhood: Year One. At the time, I was a full-time dad, still very much learning what fatherhood meant, but mostly tired and just getting by. I was a full year into my new life with my son, trying to find a balance between being a good father and good filmmaker. Filmmaking seemed very much past tense.

Five years later, I still have only the one child. His name is Solo. He just turned six. His interests change by the week, and he currently loves science and building Rube Goldberg machines. He does not yet love pizza and wants nothing to do with anything pizza-related. He loves YouTube and has yet to understand the religious aspect of the theatrical experience.

Much has changed in our lives, I’ve been making movies again, and balance has been restored.

During that first year of fatherhood, I took a job teaching filmmaking at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. Every summer, they offer a class that gives students a real-world, real-deal independent filmmaking experience, called the Summer Film Project. The class is taught by a professional director, who leads the class through the production of a large-scale short film, aided by a pro producer, cinematographer and sound operator. When the professor who’d been helming the majority of these projects retired in 2021, I was put in the hot seat. My job forced me out of filmmaking retirement and back on set. I wrote a script, brought some of my friends to help out, brought Solo for a bit, and we made a movie called Thing from the Factory by the Field.

Joel Potrykus with his son Solo on the set of Vulcanizadora.

The following summer, I was at it again. Another Summer Film Project with my friends. Solo again visited the set and became a part of the crew. I began to feel the spirit of another feature film brewing. It seemed possible again. I started writing.

One of my biggest concerns about fatherhood was that I’d soften up and start telling stories about Shark Girls or Lava Boys, or whatever. Luckily, six years in and I’m happy to report that I’m still preoccupied with the anti-socialites, dregs and the parts of myself that make me feel uncomfortable. But fatherhood has changed my stories a bit. It’s stirred up all kinds of fears of inadequacy and abandonment and mortality. My biggest fear is losing my son, or more accurately, my son losing me. I’m sure this is a universal fear, but I think a lot about going to prison by accident, falling off a cliff by accident, jumping off a cliff by accident, moving to Prague to hide in a castle for the rest of my life by accident. Intrusive thoughts, call of the void, all that stuff. I put all that into a screenplay and called it Vulcanizadora.

Not only was I was determined to get back into the feature film business with Vulcanizadora, but I wanted to make it the way I’d always done it, with my film band, Sob Noisse. The tricky part was convincing my wife, who not only is Solo’s mother, but the producer in the band. Many things have evolved in our lives over the course of becoming parents, but mostly for Ashley, who found a new purpose as Solo’s mom. As much as she supported my ventures making movies with the students, she returned to the big question: What do we do with our kid while we film?

We invented a crew position – script supervisor/nanny. Our friend Ariana Uding took shifts with Ashley to cover Solo’s 12 hours of awake time, which aligned with our shooting days. She’d play games with him and occasionally bring him to set. It helped him feel connected to the process. I was stoked that he was absorbing the experience, learning about filmmaking through osmosis. Either becoming inspired or seeing first-hand the headaches of making a movie.

Solo Potrykus and Joel Potrykus during the filming of Vulcanizadora.

Also, I wrote Solo into the story. Or maybe I wrote the story and later realized Solo would be in the film. He would play Jeremy, a boy who’s father has left him behind. They say to avoid working with kids, but I figured I had the advantage of working with my own kid. Or it’d be the most terrible idea I’d ever had. We were shooting on 16 mm, so there was little room for error. Leading up to the shoot, Ashley and I coached him with the character and the dialogue. Every day, we’d talk about what Jeremy would wear, what he’d play with, and let Solo bring his ideas. After a while, he started to refer to Jermey in the third person, and developed his own little sad backstory. Our tactic was working. He could remember the lines, he could repeat the lines, and he could lock eyes. Ashley and I agreed if he pushed back too hard, or didn’t have the juice to pull it off, we’d find a different kid.

Solo’s scene came on the final day of the shoot. It would be great for this article if it went to hell and we burned through three magazines trying to get his six or seven lines, or he threw a fit and left the business right then and there. It’d make for a great story, but luckily for me, Solo was into it. It worked. I try not to get emotional on set, but shooting that scene was heavy. Directing my son and directing my fifth feature film were two things I could not have even contemplated 10 years ago.

Vulcanizadora is one of those rare movies for me, where everything just worked the way it was supposed to. It’s my most sincere and personal film, but also my starkest. It sorts out much of the void calls I’d been dealing with, and helped me detox a bit. And so, part of me wants to hide it away for a couple of decades until Solo has the emotional wisdom to wrap his head around it. But that’s not how the biz works. The film premieres at Tribeca this June, and Solo will be coming along. He won’t be watching much of it. Instead, he’ll be back at the hotel learning to love Famous Original Ray’s pizza.

Featured image shows Joel Potrykus holding his son Solo during the making of his latest feature, Vulcanizadora; all images by Jeen Na, courtesy Joel Potrykus.

Joel Potrykus resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he works with a filmmaking band, Sob Noisse, including long-time collaborator Joshua Burge. His latest feature, Vulcanizadora, makes its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2024. His films Ape, Buzzard, The Alchemist Cookbook and Relaxer have premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, Locarno Film Festival, and have screened at the Lincoln Center and the MoMa. He teaches filmmaking at Grand Valley State University.