If you are subscribed to our Sanctuary of the Great Lakes newsletter, you’ll see that every few months we cover a “where are they now” edition- which explores Alpena area talent and what they have been up to since leaving Alpena and making their mark out in this big world we live in.
Today we bring you an update on Ossineke native and writer/director/filmmaker extraordinaire, Joel Potrykus. After graduating Alpena High School, Joel went on to study film at Grand Valley State University and has been following his dreams ever since with his company Sob Noisse Movies. His feature film Ape, won Best Emerging Director at the Locarno Film Festival in 2012, while he has also been the subject of retrospectives at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (2015) and the Valdivia Film Festival (2016).

Here is what Joel had to say about growing up in Alpena, upcoming projects, and advice for future filmmakers.

Joel Potrykus on set for his latest film, The Alchemist Cookbook. Photo courtesy of Anna Gustafson

What is your favorite childhood memory as a kid in Alpena? 
“Going to Midway on US-23. It was the pre-Walmart and pre-Meijer era. They had a cool little lounge in the back with a pop machine that didn’t drop a can or a bottle, but would fill a paper cup. They even had a mini arcade up front with Yie Ar Kung Fu.”
Who was your biggest role model growing up (famous or family)?
“I wanted to be like both my parents, obviously. My mom, Claire, was an artist and my dad, Verne, was a stud. (I would probably qualify as one of these today). At a very distinct point I went from wanting to be like Orel Hershiser to wanting to be like Kurt Cobain.”
How do you think growing up in Alpena shaped you as a person and prepared you for a life in the film industry?
“Two ways: Since there wasn’t a lot happening in Ossineke, it forced all of us neighborhood kids to come up with our own games and go on adventures in the woods. Then, when the VCR came around, we could watch movies all day. A blend of lifelong trespasser and couch potato. I’m sure it is no coincidence that my latest film is a ghost story in the woods.”
What projects are you currently working on?
“I’m still touring with my latest film, The Alchemist Cookbook, while prepping for another film to be shot this summer in Grand Rapids (top secret for now!). Someday, when I get some up north financing, I will shoot a movie in Alpena.”
What is a typical day on the job like for you?
“I teach screenwriting at Grand Valley State University, so those days are spent in the classroom or grading. Otherwise, I write for about four hours everyday, chipping away at anywhere between three and five scripts, or outlining the production of the upcoming film. I’m usually always editing something, around an hour a day. Email takes up another hour or two (mostly business). Facebook chews up another hour (rarely business). My weekends alternate between perfectly quite or traveling to film festivals and speaking gigs.”
Any plans to visit Alpena soon in the future?
“My producer/girlfriend, Ashley, and I will be coming up in the next few weeks to see my parents and my sister, also named Ashley, in Ossineke. I try to get up there once every few months. It’s my getaway- no computer, no phone.”
What do you miss the most about Alpena?
“In the mid-90’s we used to have killer rock shows around town with many local bands that I still think are incredible. We would rent out Wilson Hall, Thunder Bay Theatre, or VFW Hall and put on shows; we were little punk rock entrepreneurs! We actually just had a 21 year reunion show at Wilson Hall in December. It was organized by Eric Peterson, Chris Lawrence, and Joe St. Charles, author of Facebook page Alpena Rock City.”
For young people growing up in Alpena today, who have big dreams of filmmaking, what advice would you give them.
  1. Find a friend who is a good actor and fully believe in him or her.
  2. Learn a little bit about f/stops, shot composition, and sound.
  3. Don’t get stuck in your own head
  4. Get feedback from others before you shoot.
“Too many filmmakers are overly confident in themselves. Film is collaborative for a reason. Fun fact, my first feature film was partially funded by bottle deposits.”
Have you done any early films in the Alpena area? Such as for school or any amateur short films?
“My brother Chuck and I used to shoot animations and super 8 short films in our yard or in our basement; one of them was a Bigfoot movie off of Rude Rd. A gang of us made short films in college and some of our shot sets included the old laundromat on Chisholm across from McDonalds, and Long Rapids Rd. I still make movies with some of these people. Adam Minnick is my cinematographer, my brother designs the artwork, my sister draws up the storyboards, and Jamie Grefe will add music time to time. Nick Fairbanks, Rob Lewandowski, and Katie Call have all acted in my films. I tend to stick with the people I like.”
What kind of support did you receive in the community or at school, and did it help shape your current path in filmmaking?
“I spent two years at ACC, and a few professors gave me the confidence to pursue filmmaking as a major. As soon as Lawrence Boyer found out I was into film, he dragged me to his office to loan out his VHS copies of Blow Up by Italian director Michelangelo Antonio and 8 1/2 by Fredricco Fellini, which I still consider the greatest film ever made. I am still trying to convince my former journalism teacher, now president of the college, Dr. Don MacMaster, to let me start up a trial film program at ACC. I want to show college students in Alpena that Hollywood isn’t that far away.”