SxSW 2021 Interview – POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA director Wes Hurley

An autobiographical dark comedy about 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.

Having its World Premiere in the Narrative Feature Competition, we speak with filmmaker Wes Hurley from POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA. 

I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past!

In 2017, I premiered my short doc LITTLE POTATO at SXSW – it won the Jury Prize that year.

Great! Let’s hear more about you and how you got started in the business and what you have worked on in the past!

I was born in Vladivostok, Soviet Union. After immigrating to the US with my mother, I studied drama, interdisciplinary arts and film at the University of Washington in Seattle. I have written, directed and produced dozens of award-winning queer shorts, three feature films and a two seasons of CAPITOL HILL, a series I created for Huffington Post which went on to be picked up for television in Europe and Canada. In addition to premiering POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA, this year’s SXSW is screening my companion VR piece called POTATO DREAMS, a surreal 6 min short narrated by my mother.  I also produced this year’s feature doc YES I AM directed by Aaron Bear, narrated by Zachary Quinto and featuring Bill Gates.

How did this project come together?

I wrote the script for POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA eight years ago.  It’s very closely based on my life.  After trying to raise money for the feature, I used a small grant to make two concept pieces telling the same story; short doc LITTLE POTATO and VR short POTATO DREAMS.  I hoped that making these shorts would help me get the feature made and I was right.  LITTLE POTATO was a big success and won a bunch of awards.  It became a great way to pitch my story in 10 minutes.  In 2019, I received the Creative Capital Award which helped jumpstart fundraising and finally go into production.  We shot American scenes of the film on locations in Seattle in the fall of 2019.  The following winter we shot Russian/Soviet scenes on sets we built in a large abandoned retail space in Burien, Washington.  I edited the film myself in the spring and summer of 2020 with the help of my consulting editor, Annette Davey (“Waitress”, TV’s “Battlestar Galactica”, “GLOW” and “Transparent”).  I was thrilled to have composers Catherine Joy and Joshua Kohl create the original orchestral score for the film.  They were working on it while I was editing and it was a fun collaborative process.  I wanted the two parts of the film, Russian and American, to each have a distinct look and sound.  Having two very different composers accomplished that.

What keeps you going while making a project? What drives you?

I love the process of making films so that part – being on set – is not stressful and I don’t need anything “to keep me going”.  I love challenges of low-budget filmmaking.  I love creative problem solving – it’s like playing a game or solving a puzzle. Fundraising and planning/scheduling on the other hand are extremely stressful and hard.  But having done a few projects, I know that if I persevere, it will get done.  Things always work out at the end.

What was your biggest challenge and what was the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge was raising the money.  As for the most rewarding moment, there were so many. Many moments on set when actors shine and things come to live exactly the way I envisioned.  Certain moments during the editing process when things click and you realize everything a scene or transition is really working.  Getting the film back from the sound mixer and hearing clear refined dialogue and music working in harmony for the first time.  And getting a call from SXSW notifying us that the film got in!  I have yet to experience this film with a large live audience so that will be a very rewarding – maybe, the most rewarding – moment that I look forward to very much.

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the visual design of the movie and how it was made. 

When I write a screenplay, since I’m writing for myself, I have every frame of film designed in my head.  That was the case with this film as well.  Of course, once we got into pre-production there are realities of working on a low-budget film.  I find that process actually very fun; working with my production designer Kristen Bonnalie to creatively troubleshoot our budgetary limitations.  Translating my original vision into what’s feasible.  I have a background in visual arts and painting so composing the shots is one of my favorite parts of the film.  I have been collaborating with my DP, Vincent Pierce, for years now so we work very well together.  Once I had conversations with Kristen about what’s possible on the production design front, I started having meetings with Vincent and we storyboarded the entire film together.  In the case of POTATO DREAMS OF AMERICA I was really inspired by baroque paintings like Caravaggio for Russian/Soviet scenes.  Having things emerging from darkness.  We had a lighting designer, Robert Aguilar, who has extensive experience designing for theater which was a great asset for this film.  I really wanted to embrace the artifice and theatricality of this “memory world” of USSR/Russia of my childhood.  The American scenes were much more straightforward and closer to conventional film look.  But even in America, the sets were meticulously curated by Kristen and I.  It was very important to both of us that everything you see is deliberate, appropriate and visually cohesive.  

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW Online?

I’m really excited for the world and industry to see how wonderfully talented my cast and crew are.  I hope many amazing opportunities will come their way after this film.

Clearly this is such a different time with virtual festivals and online screenings. How do you feel about releasing movies in this current format and how do you feel audiences will see most films in the future?

It is what it is.  I try not to dwell on what I cannot change.  We are very lucky to be part of the festival in any shape or form.  But any filmmaker who tells you they would rather screen online than in theaters is lying.  I just think it’s a First World problem and I have no right to complain when people are dying.  Of course, like the rest of the world, I think all filmmakers are looking forward to things going back to normal and being able to screen their films in person.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or work in the business. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into filmmaking, especially now as things are evolving at such a fast rate?

I would say unless you can’t stop yourself and you have something new to say, don’t make movies.  The world is oversaturated with films.  Mostly bad films.  And even worse mediocre films that muddy the landscape, distract from great work and drown out good art.  I’m making films because there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather do.  If you can do anything else, do that.  If you think of an idea for a film and it’s the kind of film that other people could make – don’t make it.  If you think of a film that only you can make – make that.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

Kirsten Lepore’s animated short HI STRANGER.I think I saw it at SXSW but it played everywhere.

This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to!

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