Interview: Andrew Bujalski


Though he dislikes the term himself, Andrew Bujalski is widely regarded as the linchpin of the nebulous mumblecore scene that spawned the likes of the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg and Lynn Shelton. Whilst his first three features possess the low budget and shaggy tone that define the scene, Bujalski's films have always been more keenly and delicately observed than many of his peers and the likes of Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005) and Beeswax (2009) possess a tenderness and interest in their characters that few filmmakers are capable of.

In 2013, Bujalski took a major departure from the style of his first few features with Computer Chess (2013), a bizarre, stylistically and structurally radical film set at a computer chess programmers' convention in the 1980s and shot on black and white Sony AVC 3,260 video and 16mm film. Never one to do what's expected, this year sees the release of his far more polished Results (2015), set in the world of fitness and self-improvement. It marks the first time he's worked with major actors (Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders and Kevin Corrigan) and though its story seems more straightforward and commercial, it still possesses Bujalski's offbeat sensibility and his keen interest in how groups of people interact.

Adam Howard: Results seems more similar to your earlier films than Computer Chess. Was this a conscious decision?

Andrew Bujalski: In some ways I didn't feel like it was going back to anything; it's as much of a departure as anything else. First and foremost using name actors and shooting the thing on 21st century cameras, and trying to make something pretty and polished. In some ways it felt more uncharted to me than Computer Chess.

AH: Working with a much bigger crew and recognisable stars, how much did you have to alter your approach to do that, in terms of the actual filmmaking process?

AB: It's a different kind of operation. In some ways, every project you do is going to be new and different and the challenges will always be surprising. And this is is still by any professional standard this would still be considered a very small, cheap, scrappy production, but we had something like, I don't know, forty people on the crew as opposed to, if you go all the way back to Funny Ha Ha, there would be four or five of us. Military metaphors get thrown around a lot in filmmaking but I think there's a reason why you call a small crew a guerrilla crew, guerrilla filmmaking, it does feel like running through the jungle, improvising and being ready for anything. Whereas once you do find yourself around forty people it is kind of a military occupation. Everywhere you go, there's no way to be subtle with forty people, and my job becomes more of the general's job. And I kind of miss that feeling of, there are just a few of us all in the trenches together, now I feel like I'm this guy sitting behind a desk sending young people out to get blown up. It is more tactical in a way, more managerial, more strategic in the sense of the strategy of organising people and getting the best out of people and getting the best out of a system that is in some ways preset before you get there. But essentially once the cameras are rolling the job is kind of the same no matter what, and across five movies that do a lot of things differently and feel differently on the screen, you're still always looking for that same feeling of excitement when the cameras are rolling and you're sitting next to a monitor and seeing something come alive before you're eyes. It's all a very human matter of "how do you get to that?"

AH: How do you create your characters and develop them within a screenplay?

AB: I wouldn't know how to tell a story if I didn't on some very basic level like the people I was talking about. I think the older I get the more I have a sense of how limited my experience is, of how much of the world I don't interact with, especially now I have kids, it gets very insular and you spend all of your energy trying to build a nice world for your kids. But I do hope that I have curiosity, I'm a shy person but I like meeting people and I like getting to know new people. So whoever it is, whether it's computer programmers or personal trainers, human beings the world over have a lot in common, but every little subculture has its own quirks, and it's a fun exploration to try to get know them. And some of that's research, but some of that's of course trying to turn on my imagination and trying to get myself into their world.

AH: That's a theme that runs through all your films, these little worlds that your characters create to bolster themselves against their own insecurities.

AB: Everybody has their own experience of life and their own perspective on the world, I'm always surprised that I get asked how come I'm so attracted to these inarticulate, insecure people or people who are struggling in life, and I always thought that was just people. I just thought that was everybody on some level and I'm always surprised at this idea that the world is actually full of very confident, very articulate people who know exactly what they want and exactly how to get it and they may well exist, but either I don't meet them or I do meet them and I don't notice. But certainly part of Results is about that. I have gorgeous movie stars in this movie, and clearly they are capable of accessing all the fumbling of everybody else.

AH: The cast all put in such interesting performances in terms of their respective careers. Cobie Smulders, in particular, is shown in a completely different light following her Marvel exerts.

AB: We were very lucky to catch her at this point in her career, when she's had that tremendous success but also she was looking for a bit of adventure, to try something new and a little bit more scrappy than she was accustomed too. It was very good luck and good timing.

AH: In terms of what's next, is this the kind of direction you want to go in, with more commercial features? Would you ever want to make something like Computer Chess again?

AB: For sanity's sake, I'd never want to do anything again, you never want to remake something you've already done. But on one very obvious level I do have a mortgage and children and I would love to be able to earn a living, and that sort of points to doing this movie star kind of work, but I feel like my creative enthusiasms are all over the map - I can sit here and dream up something I would like to see that would be absolutely commercially doomed. I've also learned about myself, for better worse. I worried about Results when we were doing it. My greatest fear was if I do something that is on the surface a bit more slick, is my voice still present? And of course all the reactions that my voice was all too present, that perversely enough many people who saw the movie found it as odd, if not more odd than Computer Chess. So I'm stuck with myself whatever I do, whether I'm trying to make the strangest thing I can think of or something nice and clean and palatable, they come out about the same amount of odd in any case.

AH: Without mentioning the 'm' word, when you and your peers were making films ten, fifteen years ago, they really shaped indie cinema today. What do you think has changed for young filmmakers now in terms of things like funding and distribution?

AB: I think the movie market has been changing a lot, tectonically, over the last twenty years, and it seems like it will continue to change. It's always been a steep, uphill climb, it's always been the same struggle, and there are little windows of opportunity that open and close. So I think it's the same spirit that animates young people, throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. I think some things never change, it was difficult 100 years ago, and it's difficult now, and that's the thing that in some ways gives me hope - there's plenty to despair about in the economics of it and yet one way or another every year you see half a dozen things that knock you out. People always find a way.

Andrew Bujalski's Results is available now on DVD and on demand, courtesy of Kaleidoscope.

Adam Howard | @afahoward

CONVERSATION

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