Andrew Bujalski on Computer Chess

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
The quiet achiever behind Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax talks about his surreal fourth feature ahead of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Over the eleven years and four features of his filmmaking career to date, Andrew Bujalski, now in his mid thirties, has forged a place for himself as a significant voice in the American independent film landscape. Following in the broad path (rather than strict footsteps) of such esteemed creative forebears as John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch, Bujalski creates small scale films more interested in human interaction and psychology than typically packaged narrative. His work dances with dialogue and the spaces between; love affairs with language and our inability to successfully utilise it. Out of limited budgets he fashions fresh, engaging cinema through blend a lo-fi naturalism—albeit in a relatively defined middle-class, academic context—wry humour, and warmth toward his characters.

Bujalski’s critically lauded 2002 debut Funny Ha Ha and 2005 follow up Mutual Appreciation investigated issues of identity within a post-collegial malaise, then 2009’s Beeswax tracked personal instability, friendship, and the erosion of ideals in a similar community of people some years on. Whereas these first three features explored relational dynamics in the context of realistic free form narratives, his latest outing Computer Chess appears, at least on the surface, a stylistic departure. A surrealist psychological thriller of sorts (not that it can be summarised in such a reductive way!), the film presents as a fascinating mash of narrative context, surrealist action, and thematic exploration. A self-confessed contrarian, Bujalski balks at such attempts to pigeonhole his work with tidy genre descriptions. Confounding expectations in the best way possible, the filmmaker takes his previous proclivity for realism in two opposite directions at once—and to the extreme ends of each, no less. On the one hand, Computer Chess is shot in a faux documentary style on vintage, context-appropriate camera equipment, while on the other it completely indulges a layer of unexpounded Lynchian unreality, making for a singularly exhilarating viewing experience.

In the midst of the film’s busy festival run, and in advance of our New Zealand International Film Festival screenings, Jacob Powell connected with Bujalski via email to get his thoughts on the evolution of Computer Chess, filmmaking process, and his creative career in general.

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JACOB POWELL: What brought you into filmmaking? When did you first start in your ‘cinematic endeavours’?

ANDREW BUJALSKI: I don’t know who was responsible for bringing me to my first movie, but I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with movies. When I was older my folks got me a VHS camcorder and I got to work.

JP: Do you see yourself primarily as a writer? A director? An auteur? A ‘filmmaker’? What elements of the filmmaking process particularly appeal (or really do not)?

AB: Oh, ‘filmmaker’ I guess. Which now risks sounding not only pretentious but outdated. Every piece of the process brings its own challenges, and gives me plenty to gripe about, but I have to view the thing holistically. For me to ‘succeed’ as a writer but ‘fail’ as a director, or vice versa, is nonsensical—the pieces all move together.

JP: You’re credited as the sole/primary editor on each of your features, which is less usual than the common writer/director combination. What’s the reason you choose to take on this additional role alongside your other roles? Is this something you plan to continue in future projects?

AB: I don’t know how viable it will be in the future, but frankly I don’t know how viable any of this stuff will be. (Sorry—my second portent of doom in only three questions, sheesh.) In the meantime, the short answer is that I think editing is the most critical and crucial work of filmmaking and where, more than anywhere else, I really feel my ‘authorship’ matters. A longer answer probably involves a lot of compulsive behavior on my part.

JP: You generally seem to cast a range of non-professional actors with a few experienced players. What drives your casting decisions? Budget? Freshness/realism? Other?

AB: 99% of my and your favorite movies are brought to life by very skilled professional actors—I love them, I honor them, I worship their talents. But I do believe that actors are generally trained to clarify story for an audience. And it’s my peculiarity that I’ve wanted to tell stories that required a murkier surface, which I felt I could achieve better with non-professionals. Of course they still have to do the work that actors do, and I’ve been very lucky to cast people who had brilliant natural talent for it.

JP: Who and what do you see as your key creative influences and points of reference (cinematic and beyond) and why?

AB: Oh, who knows, I don’t remember anymore. As a kid you live in constant thrall to your influences and they’re always on the tip of your tongue. They’re all still in there now but they’ve just become like reflex. My ways of thinking about movies are, for better or worse, deep seated enough that I don’t bother to check on the fundamental principles anymore for continued soundness…

JP: Do you have a group of regular collaborators you work with?

AB: Well, first and foremost, Matthias Grunsky has shot every feature I’ve directed—he’s become my eyes, and though I suppose it would be possible to make something without him, I wouldn’t want to try it. Houston King has been working with me on the business side in one form or another for nearly 10 years now and I adore him. A bunch of other folks have been instrumental and around for a lot of projects—given the option, of course it’s always very nice to settle back in with people you know and love.

JP: What ‘day jobs’ have you worked and/or do you work in order to make your creative career a reality?

AB: Struggling with that right now! For a few years I was very fortunate to almost-get-by as a screenwriter-for-hire, on a couple of studio projects and an indie. I’m devoting much of my energy right now to trying to stay in that game, but obviously it’s quite unpredictable. I’ve also had various teaching gigs and I’m sure I’ll do that again. These are the nicest ways to earn money—reaching further back, other glamorous highlights from my resume include working as a substitute teacher, a Kaplan test prep instructor, and every form of temp under the sun. I worked for three weeks at a plastics factory, wearing one of those clean suits that made me feel like I was in Devo.

JP: Thinking about the genesis of Computer Chess: how long had the project been simmering away, and what were its major development stages?

AB: It’s probably been brewing since I finished my first film and everyone started to ask me, “Why do you still shoot on film?” That question, asked many times, set off a contrarian impulse in me: “Alright—you want to see video? I’ll show you video.” From there my subconscious did most of the work, over a stretch of many years. In 2010, shortly before my son was born, I was having lunch with a filmmaker friend, and chatting about wildly uncommercial fantasy projects. I told him about Computer Chess and he dared me to write up a treatment. So I did, and that’s essentially what we shot a year later. Production came together ridiculously quickly. We’d been gearing up to try to make a much more costly, much more conventional movie, and when we ran into all-too-typical financing problems, we put that on hold and decided to turn on a dime and more or less conjure this thing out of thin air.

JP: Computer Chess appears to be quite a different style of film from your first three features. What led to the change in thematic and structural tack from previous films? Was there a conscious decision to move away from the prior style or…?

AB: It’s just a different movie. Again, I’ve got that contrarian streak, so when people told me that Beeswax was of a piece with my previous films, I wanted to scream at them, No, you’re a fool, can’t you see how it’s completely different? And now that everyone’s telling me that I’ve made a major departure, I want to scream, No, can’t you see it’s all the same tapestry?

JP: Are you even a chess fan/player? Do you have any personal history with computer chess? What kind of chess and computer chess expertise did you get on board consulting for the project?

AB: I love chess but never had raw talent for it nor the discipline to get any good. I don’t know any openings, etc, so any notch-above-novice player can wipe the floor with me. Still, I have a lot of affection for the game. I played a bunch of rounds of computer chess on the inflight system on a plane to Korea years ago, that was fun. Kudos to Korean Air for including a setting easy enough for me to beat, that made me feel great about myself. As for expertise, yes, we needed it for this project. I did as much research and spoke to as many people as I could, but of course mine will only ever be a layman’s understanding. A lot of the cast members, conveniently, know that stuff much better than I could, so I could rely on them to make it sound right. Our producer Alex Lipschultz, oddly enough, comes from a sort of computer chess family, so he was able to make connections to a number of folks in the field who helped us tremendously, most notably Peter Kappler, our official on-set advisor, who also designed all of the chess games you see in the movie. We couldn’t have survived without him.

JP: Thinking again about influences, what were your key creative inspirations and touchstones—including those for visual style and tone—when developing Computer Chess?

AB: William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton tapes were my most profound experience of the Sony PortaPak technology, those had a huge influence.

JP: Can you tell us about your decisions to make this a period piece and the resultant technology/colour choices? And that aberrant colour scene, the only external location—is there also intentionally out of sync audio in that part?

AB: Yeah, the audio goes out of sync. Or, more accurately, there’s no synch for it to be in, that dialogue was recorded separately from picture. I wanted to make something with this lost technology. Making it a period piece is almost a cheap shot from there—it would be much more challenging to figure out how to tell a contemporary story in the language of these images. Sounds fun. Color sequences in B&W movies usually are about bursts of ‘life’, of enthusiasm, of tactility, and of a kind of modernity. (Gosh there are a ton of them. Wings of Desire, She’s Gotta Have It, Raging Bull leap to mind—even Schindler’s List has that girl in the red coat—though The Women, from 1939, has my all time favorite.) I liked that in this movie the color actually seems to represent the past—the one time we leave the conference site, we’re really leaping from 1960s technology back to 1930s technology…

JP: Sound and editing seem more in-your-face, more experimental in feel than your previous features, utilising split screens, superimpositions, back and forth fade throughs etc. Tell us about your use of technical elements to drive the narrative and tonal shifts in the film.

AB: Do you have public access television in New Zealand? It’s a glorious thing here in the States. Always the most interesting stuff on television, and perhaps the final resting place of the avant-garde. Camera and editing on these amateur programs are always a little ‘off’ and always force you to reconfront and reconsider the information you’re seeing, and I think there’s huge potential in that kind of disorientation. Even my earlier, more ‘tasteful’ movies traffic a lot in disorientation. Not with the intention of pissing off the audience (though that’s an occasional, unfortunate side effect) but of producing a particular (and for me, thrilling) kind of experience that spoon-feeding won’t get you.

JP: Coming out the far side of the Computer Chess experience, how do you now feel about the process and the finished product?

AB: Making it was stressful, as making every movie is, but I’ve never had more fun creatively. I’m just pleased-as-punch that anyone out there is getting it and digging it. Before we premiered I had no clue what to expect—it didn’t seem beyond the pale of reason to think I might have just nailed the coffin on my ‘career’. Indeed, that may still be the case, but it is finding an audience in the meantime and that feels great. I’ve gone from worrying that I’d have to apologize for the movie to worrying now that someone will ask me to repeat it. I’d have no idea how to do that.

JP: How many times have you watched the completed film?

AB: Once, with an audience! A million times other times while working on it in one form or another. I look forward to watching it again, I dunno, ten years from now.

JP: What kind of personal feedback have you received for Computer Chess from within the filmmaking industry/community? Any that particularly stand out?

AB: Filmmaker friends seem to appreciate that I went and did something insane. Filmmakers are always rooting for other filmmakers to jump off of cliffs, with or without parachutes.

JP: How do you manage/deal with the range of positive and negative feedback and critique for your projects generally?

AB: I’ve come to think that releasing a movie to the public is sort of like having the world’s worst therapist. You receive a lot of personal analysis, and you do learn a lot about yourself, but, you know, the messengers—a thousand blog posters etc.—are not particularly trustworthy. I’m sure I’m misquoting, but some years ago a friend of mine went to see the writer Jamaica Kincaid give a public reading, and he told me that when she was asked about some criticism of her work, she replied, “Anyone who does not appreciate my work is a perfectly ridiculous ass.” That seems to me to be the most useful response to negative feedback.

JP: How do you go about financing your projects? How did you fund Computer Chess?

AB: A combination of private equity from extremely generous investors, crowdfunding from equally generous folks, and grants from absurdly generous foundations.

JP: How do you think budget constraints play into shaping film/story development? Do you think suddenly finding yourself with bigger budgets would change much of your filmmaking practice?

AB: Choosing what kind of money you’ll work with is sort of like choosing what camera you’ll work with, or which actors you’ll work with. Of course, more often than not, the budget chooses you rather than vice versa—but it’s extremely important that you reckon with the budget you’ve got. Trying to make a ‘$10,000 vision’ on a $10 million budget is just as likely to be disastrous as the reverse.

JP: How hard is it/has it been to develop a useful network of industry contacts and how important is this aspect of your chosen career path?

AB: Depends how you define the ‘industry’. Many of my nearest and dearest friends are in the indie trenches, making movies because they love it. And I suppose I tend to think of the ‘industry’ as the thing that can take or leave something as ephemeral as ‘love’. Which isn’t to disparage the folks who make their living in the industry—I’ve got many near and dear ones in that category as well.

JP: What other project(s) are you working on, or do have in mind, presently? Where are they at in the development process?

AB: Trying to earn a living, that’s the big one. That project is, uh, deep in development.

JP: Any big long term cinematic goals/dreams or just taking it as it comes? (I guess I’m thinking about your overall philosophy or approach to life in general.)

AB: Let me know if you figure out what my overall philosophy or approach to life in general is? Nah, I’m all tapped out right now!

Computer Chess’ screens at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2013, opening in Auckland on July 18, Wellington on July 26, Christchurch on August 1, Dunedin on August 8, and tours the remainder of the country thereafter. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.
The Lumière Reader reports from the New Zealand International Film Festival every winter. For additional commentary and opinion, follow us on Twitter.

Filed under: Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews

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Jacob Powell has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2005. He writes freelance on cinema and other topics both online and occasionally in print. He also works as an Auckland-based university librarian specialising in digital AV media and research collections.