Wes Hurley’s Artist Diary: Potato Dreams of America
A darkly comic ode to mothers, immigrants, and dreamers everywhere, Wes Hurley’s 2019 Creative Capital Project, Potato Dreams of America, has been a lifetime in the making. The autobiographical film shares the American Dream from an immigrant’s perspective, tracing the story of Hurley and his mother as they came to America in the 1990s—her as a mail-order bride, and him as her gay, closeted son.
The film premiered at SXSW in 2021, went on to win several prizes at other film festivals, and is now available on DVD and video-on-demand, as well as a limited-edition Blu-ray through acclaimed distribution company Dark Star. Read on to hear from Wes Hurley about the ups and downs of making this project a reality.
Creative Capital was life-changing. I’ve never had the luxury of just hanging out with brilliant artists for a week and talking about nothing but art while learning how to talk about my project.
I write, produce, direct and edit my own films. So it’s always a long continuous process where every step is connected. I envision every frame of the film before I even write it so it’s always a bit of a surreal experience to get to the point where those frames are finally real and I’m editing them at my desktop.
My favorite part of filmmaking is seeing how my collaborators absorb and filter my vision through their own sensibilities and talents. It’s always exactly as I imagined and nothing like what I imagined. It’s a wonderful surprise and an affirmation all at once. Most of my cast and crew on “Potato Dreams of America” are trusted collaborators of many years. But we did bring some famous actors from LA as well, which was an exciting and very different way of working. You get very little time with these visiting actors and you have no idea what they’ll be like on set. On the other hand, they’re such pros—it was really fun to watch them bring that level of technical skill to film acting. I’ll always treasure Dan Lauria’s stories from his decades of working in theater and TV.
This film went through many iterations as various producers/investors would attach themselves to the project and promise big budgets and big stars, then disappear. It was a heart-breaking, soul-crushing 8 year process. Ultimately, it was the Creative Capital Award that gave me much needed cash (and confidence) boost to say “to hell with it” and decide to make the film on my own terms, drawing resources from Seattle creative community which has supported me for many years. The film was a hybrid between the kind of guerilla filmmaking undertaking I’m used to and a more “professional” production.
I think to survive as a filmmaker you have to find that very fine line where you have faith (otherwise you’ll just quit), yet refuse to believe anything anyone (with money or power) promises you. It’s a tough balancing act to master.
During the COVID year, I fell in love with the boutique video label called Vinegar Syndrome who remaster and release mostly-vintage genre films and art house movies. It became my “comfort food” during the shutdown. So I couldn’t be more thrilled when in 2022 our American distributor for Potato Dreams of America—Dark Star—partnered up with Vinegar Syndrome to release this special edition Blu-ray of my film.
I love this artwork by Jess Rotter who managed to perfectly capture the essence of the film in her cover art. The power of having faith in your own future—conveyed in such a simple and delightful way.
It was a huge honor to come back to SXSW with Potato Dreams of America screening in Narrative Competition category. SXSW premiered my short doc Little Potato and it went on to win the Oscar-qualifying Jury Prize at the festival. SXSW has played such an oversize role in my career, it felt like a perfect home to premiere the feature.
After SXSW we went on to screen at dozens of other festivals around the world. We landed a North American distribution with Dark Star, while HBO and three other distributors shared the patchwork of international rights.
To my surprise small indie films can still get a theatrical release. Dark Star put us in theaters around the country for its limited theatrical release. European theatrical run is planned for later this year.
Although we premiered while the pandemic was still raging and many festivals were exclusively virtual, six months into our festival run some festivals started to open up physical screenings. One of the highlights of our festival run for me was meeting the Saint of Guerilla Filmmaking himself, John Waters, at Provincetown Film Festival. Mr. Waters was first in line to see our film, he stayed through the Q&A, asked questions and even hung out with us after the screening, praising the film and its cast. Not a day I’ll ever forget.
Deauville Festival Du Cinema Americain
Three of my stars (Lea DeLaria, Sera Barbieri and Hersh Powers) attended our very glamorous international premiere at Deauville Festival Du Cinema Americain. While I’m afraid of flying and didn’t come along, my mom (who’s the real hero of my film) got to come to Deauville and received a standing ovation from 1200 people in the audience. This was her first time seeing the film.
The first time I was able to share the film with quite a few of our cast and crew members in person on a big screen was at Directors Guild of America theater as part of Outfest LA. We went on to win Jury Prize for Best Screenplay.
Left: Marya Sea Kaminski as Lena and Tyler Bocock as Potato. Right: Real-life Lena and Potato. Seattle, 1999
25 years since my mom and I came to this country, the film of our journey is finally done and being shared with audiences all over the world. First and foremost, Potato Dreams of America is an ode to my mom and all the amazing immigrant parents in the US. I could not be more grateful to Creative Capital for making this cinematic dream come true and allowing me to share our story.