Wes Hurley on creating ‘Potato Dreams of America’

Provided by Dark Star Pictures, LLC

Wes Hurley’s acclaimed Potato Dreams of America, which received a positive reception at its premiere at SXSW and its Los Angeles premiere at Outfest 2021, will be available in special limited-edition Blu-ray from Dark Star Pictures and Vinegar Syndrome.

Hurley’s autobiographical dark comedy tells the story of a gay boy growing up in the collapsing USSR, his courageous mail-order bride mother and their adventurous escape to America. Full of unexpected twists, the film is an immigrant’s take on the American Dream and the power of cinema, proving that life is often stranger than fiction.

Written and directed by Wes Hurley, Potato Dreams of America stars Lea DeLaria (Orange Is the New Black), Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”), Jonathan Bennett (Mean Girls), Marya Sea Kaminski (Waxie Moon in Fallen Jewel), Sera Barbieri (Three Busy Debras), Tyler Bocock, Hersh Powers, Sophia Mitri Schloss (Big Shot), Cynthia Lauren Tewes, Lady Rizo, James Grixoni (Twin Peaks : The Return), and Alycia Delmore (Take Me). Potato Dreams of America was produced by Mischa Jakupcak and Hurley, and executive produced by Eliza Flug, Sarah Crowe, and Mel Eslyn.

Check out my interview with Wes!

Hersh Powers as Potato in Potato Dreams of America. Photo provided by Dark Star Pictures, LLC
What inspired you to tell your own story?

Wes: I’ve wanted to tell the story for a long time, I think since around the time that the Sochi Olympics were happening in Russia. There’s a lot of controversy and I realized that not a lot of voices are coming out of Russia and talking about things like gay rights and so what life was actually like there. I realized that the voice is so lacking and I could share my own story. That was about eight, nine years ago when I first started.

What was this process like for you, reflecting back on your life?

Wes: It was interesting. It’s the first time that I did anything like that. Everything I’ve done before was write fictional things, so it was just a different way of storytelling. I was really determined not to make anything up and keep it really really faithful to the events in my own life. But at the same time, when you’re condensing anything from true life into a movie, you have to really figure out how to distill it and maybe combine certain characters or figure out what’s important, what’s not. That sort of process, of curating events and people in real life into a smaller story, was interesting and challenging and fun. And at the same time, I’m really drawn to magical realism, especially in coming of age stories, because I think it captures that sense of wonder and kind of heightened reality that you have as a kid and how you remember things from my childhood, so I tried to integrate that as much as possible into the story as well, especially in the Russian half of the film because that’s when Potato is little.

How much of the film is actually true to your life?

Wes: It’s like 99% true. Yeah, there are no events or characters or twists that are not true. I will say the big thing with telling a true story, I think for anybody, whether it’s personal stories are not, is to condense things. So, for example, I have a couple of grandmas raising me in Russia, but I just made it into one grandma, things like that. I didn’t make anything up but I did have to edit a lot.

Tyler Bocock, Marya Sea Kaminski and Dan Lauriain Potato Dreams of America. Photo provided by Dark Star Pictures, LLC
How did you come up with the title being Potato Dreams of America?

Wes: So, my mom and I had different nicknames for each other, all the time, when I was growing up and Potato is one of them. I just picked it because I thought it was funny and it sort of goes with the stylized nature of the film. The potato is this vegetable that’s really important, but is not a very attractive or glamorous vegetable. And then, for me, personally, I think it helped me when I was writing the script, because it is so faithful to my own life and it’s so personal, to sort of put a distance between myself and the story. That helped me feel more comfortable in telling this personal story and it was easier to sort of name the character something else. So that’s one of the reasons why I did that as well.

And you have two actors playing Potato. Hersh Powers and Tyler Bocock. What was it about them that landed them the rolls of Potato? 

Wes: Yeah, I just feel so lucky that I found them both. I was really nervous to work with younger actors, because that’s not something I’ve ever done before. I didn’t know if we would find good actors. And when we started auditioning, there were a lot of talented kids, but for Hersh, I think he just had everything going for him. He was really, really good in his audition, but he also had this sort of star quality that, you know, great movie actors have and even though I was filming him with my phone for the auditions, the camera really loved him. He has that sort of special spark that I think movie actors need to have that drive him. And so we instantly, my producer Mischa (Jakupcak) and I, looked at each other like, ‘we found our Potato.’

For Tyler, it was a similar thing. He did a beautiful audition, he had the special quality on camera, and he naturally had something in him that I was really looking for for that role, a kind of vulnerability and a little bit of teenage awkwardness that really was endearing. As soon as we saw him, we knew he’s the one. I’m really so lucky to get Tyler because he is so young, but he had to learn a Russian accent and he did such a beautiful job. He also has to go through such a big arc and the movie, sort of finding himself and finding his confidence and growing older and he pulled that all off so beautifully. I’m really really grateful for him.

How did you arrive at Jonathan Bennett playing Jesus?

Wes: Well, for the three bigger roles, we knew that we wanted to have a couple of name actors in the film. Most of the film I cast myself, but then for those bigger roles, we went out to a casting agent in New York. The wonderful Patty McCorkle suggested Jonathan and so we pitched it to him and he agreed to do it, which was really exciting for me and for everybody, there were quite a few Mean Girls super fans on set that kind of freaked out. And he was really fun. As soon as he arrived on set, he was with us only for a couple of days, but as soon as he arrived, like his focus was all Hersh and creating this kind of camaraderie and chemistry with Hersh. They hung out and were always singing and dancing and talking about theater, I guess they both love theater. And so, by the time we started shooting, you really got a sense that they have this best friend kind of chemistry. And with Hersh, he was really comfortable with him by that time, so it was really great. 

Jonathan Bennett in Potato Dreams of America. Photo provided by Dark Star Pictures, LLC
I also really loved the ending of the movie, how it kind of made feel even more autobiographical to end it with Tyler’s Potato making the movie was it? Was it always the plan to end it like that?

Wes: Yeah, I always wanted to kind of come full circle with it. There’s a scene, it’s the very first scene in the film with a toddler Potato imagining that he’s making a movie of his parents’ fight to sort of cope with it in the moment and then I wanted to come full circle and sort of see adult Potato making that film as well. So yeah, that was always the intent. It’s so funny, that scene is technically one of the more complicated since we were almost done and we were running out of time to do it. It was really stressful because we had maybe two takes to do it right. And thankfully, one of them worked out.

Another thing I really liked about the movie is that there’s this theme of using movies to find yourself and create who you want to be. What films were very influential for you?

Wes: Gosh, I mean, I think it has changed a lot. I guess for most people, you know, as you grow up in Russia we’re really looking for escape and hope and something that would ground us and help us feel like there’s hope in the world. So I was really drawn to sort of mainstream Hollywood films with happy endings, comedy type films. I remember the first film that my mom and I really fell in love with was Curly Sue. And watching it now, it’s pretty cheesy, but at that time, it was really precious to us. We just would watch it and watch it and watch it and that just made us so happy and distracted us from our challenges in our life.

And then when they came to the states, my life suddenly got exponentially easier and less stressful and I discovered sort of new queer cinema. So I discovered Derek Jarman, Greg Araki, John Waters; and those filmmakers inspired me in the sense that they were working on small budgets and being really creative about how they tell the stories that they tell. And Derek Jarman tells us pretty epic stories, period films sometimes are filmed on very small budgets, and then are really heightened and theatrical and that was a big inspiration behind Potato because if I didn’t have that point of reference of making something more theatrical and heightened, if I was married to realism on film, then I could never make Potato. Potato is a period film that takes place over several decades in the Soviet Union and in Seattle, like there’s no way for me as a micro budget filmmaker to tell that story in a conventional Hollywood, hyper realistic way. But being able to shoot it on stage, you can embrace the fact that it’s artificial but make it beautiful and interesting and artistic. That really inspired me and allowed me to make stuff like Potato.

Sera Barbieri, Lea DeLaria and Hersh Powersin Potato Dreams of America. Photo provided by Dark Star Pictures, LLC
Now that your movie is out and people are getting to watch it. What do you hope they take away from your story? 

Wes: One of the things I wanted to sort of show is, I know for a lot of immigrants like myself, the American dream was very much alive and well, so I wanted to share that perspective. There’s a lot of people in the world who would do anything to come here and for a lot of those people, you know, it really is an amazing country. Like even still, my mom and I have been here for 20 years, but we still acknowledge everyday how lucky you are to be here. So that’s one and then also just thinking about all the Potatoes of the world. All the kids who are struggling with something, for them to have the story of hope and to know that things will get better and can get better. I wanted to share this sense of hope and resilience that was really important for me, especially right now in these challenging times where a lot of people are distraught. 

And it’s also very much an ode to mothers, like my mom, who would do anything to protect their kids. So even though it’s called Potato Dreams of America, I definitely see the mother character as a main part of the story, an important part of the story.

Has your mother seen the film? 

Wes: Yeah, she got to see it. She didn’t want to see it until she could see it with an audience. And, of course, when we first premiered at South by Southwest, it was all virtual and the first few festivals we played at were virtual, but eventually she got to go to France for the international premiere in Deauville, and she got to share it with like 1200 people in the audience and they gave her a standing ovation. She had such an amazing experience and had a lot of fun with it. I mean, I can’t imagine how surreal it must be for her because for me, I edited the film so, you know, when you edit your film, you don’t really have that moment of revelation like, there’s no like, ‘this is it,’ because you’re just constantly reworking and reworking. So, I was really excited for her to see it and just see it all at once from scratch.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add before I let you go?

Wes: Yeah, I’m just really excited for this special edition Blu-ray that’s coming out from Vinegar Syndrome. I’ve been a huge Vinegar Syndrome fan and collector for a long time and the fact that they’ve released this, packed with special features and it’s got a really beautiful artwork, I’m really excited about that.

Hersh Powers and Sera Barbieri in Potato Dreams of America. Photo provided by Dark Star Pictures, LLC
Potato Dreams of America will be available in special limited-edition Blu-ray June 21