The Boring Twenties
An Interview with Andrew Bujalski
by Michael Koresky
Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, an incredibly low-budget 16mm kinda-romantic comedy, was made in 2003 and just this summer began to be distributed around the country. After amassing a small cult following via Sundance channel, festival screenings, and videotapes passed among friends, Bujalski’s dirt-cheap debut charmer eschews all conventional forms of movie polish. Some chalk it up to first-time amateurishness or slovenly anti-aesthetics, but doubtless, the rhythms of the film’s twentysomething layabouts and the sense of community the film creates in the small suburb outside of Boston, herald some sort of new voice in a national independent cinema that is quick becoming merely a subset of studio control and compromise. Bujalski talked to Reverse Shot on the eve of the film’s small release last month by loyal distributor Goodbye Cruel Releasing.
Reverse Shot: Funny Ha Ha overall seems like an utter anomaly. Was there something you were trying to achieve that you felt was missing from contemporary American filmmaking?
Andrew Bujalski: That’s very nice to hear. Though I never had any manifesto or felt like I was on a particular mission, I do feel like it behooves me to make films that no one else will, and I did have a sense, as we did Funny Ha Ha, that it would at the very least be somehow unique. I often think of this great Morrissey lyric, from “Hand in Glove”: “No it’s not like any other love/ This one is different because it’s ours.” Which of course, as most Morrissey lyrics, manages simultaneously to be utterly romantic and ruthlessly mocking of romanticism. On the one hand I knew that there were a million film students churning out pieces about youthful confusion and ennui, and that any capsule description of Funny Ha Ha would make it sound awfulbut I figured this one is different because it’s ours.
RS: Funny Ha Ha is often described as being “naturalistic” or focusing on the quotidian. But the aim seems to be more than just mere realism: it sort of circumvents the so-called “naturalism” of films by directors like Linklater by upping the ante a bit in the awkwardness of daily exchanges. What process did you have with the actors? For better or for worse, many seem like they have never been in front of a camera before.
Bujalski: Well, I always thought it was odd when people would describe the film as being about “ordinary” people, when in fact the actors are many of the most glamorous and attractive people I know. In that sense I think I’ve done nothing different than what Hollywood does, creating a shortcut to an audience’s sympathies by using appealing people. Though, obviously none of us are overtly sexed up in the film. None of the actors are professionals, so certainly some degree of fearfulness about the processnot to mention the disorganization of our tiny budget production—does creep its way into the characterizations, which luckily shares a neat overlap with the content of the scenes, wherein people are frequently unsure of how best to express themselves.
Though I must say it was only after the film was done, and people started to describe it to me as a film about awkwardness and inarticulateness, that I ever considered it that way. Such a description is not necessarily inaccurate, but when we were making it I’d thought of the communication issues as being the form rather than the function of the sceneswhich is to say, I was thinking of it as a fairly conventional story about a lost young woman seeking her path. The fact that people were mumbling and apologizing for themselves was only because that was the most honest and interesting way I could figure to tell it.
RS: Kate Dollenmayer, who plays the lead role of Marnie, is a real find in particular. Was she cast early on? And at what point did you decide to act in the film yourself? I initially had no idea it was you until the credits; your performance is so fully inhabited and touching.
Bujalski: Certainly there’s no movie without Kate. And in fact, the whole seed of the idea for the movie was that I believed she could carry a film. She was a friend and my roommate when we were both living in Austin, TX, and I believed that she had a personal charisma that a film could be built around. What I could not have known is that she also has amazing technical acting skillsshe can do the same action ten times in a row without ever losing the freshness, which is something that most of us non-pros have trouble with.
As for my own performance, I had not written the character of Mitchell with myself necessarily in mind. However, as we got closer to production, and the limited scope of our resources felt more real to me, the idea of acting began to make sense on a purely pragmatic levelby playing a role in the film it would be one less person I’d have to find, one less person whose schedule we’d have to coordinate with, who’d have to steal time off from work to participate in the project. Also I felt like putting myself in it would somehow be a nice gesture of solidarity toward my friends who I had conned into actingthough it was ultimately different sorts of pressures and fears we were facing, and furthermore I think many of the cast members didn’t even realize I was acting in it, as Mitchell’s scenes are exclusively with Marnie; he never interacts with the other characters. I’m glad you didn’t know it was me until after the movie was over. One of the strengths of the film, I think, is that none of us bear the baggage of being known actors (though Christian Rudder’s band Bishop Allen definitely has a following); hopefully an audience can come to the characters free of preconception. I worry that even the knowledge that one of the characters is played by the director leads to some sort of preconception. But of course my desire that people only discover the film accidentally, without knowing anything about it, runs contrary to the more conventional, and practical, desire to get lots and lots of people to check it out.
RS: One scene is a particular standout: Mitchell’s date scene with Marnie; there’s a refreshing clarity to it, and the scene is slightly uncomfortable yet never mortifying for either character. How long did it take to shoot that scene, and how were you able to achieve something so blessedly warm between you?
Bujalski: I can’t remember exactly how long we spent—I believe it was shot over the course of a few hours, between the lunch and dinner rushes at the now-defunct Shogun 9 Japanese restaurant in Framingham, MA. Just three set-ups, the two-shot, and the close-ups of Marnie and Mitchell, I don’t think we did more than four takes at any angle. Of course I can’t possibly begin to know how to answer the second part of the question, the part about blessed warmth. I suppose the fact that Kate and I did know each other so well helped, though there’s an odd irony to that, that knowledge and comfort could be used to flip inside out and create a scene about discomfort. But I suppose it’s like directing an action fight sequence, that the actors or stuntpeople need to find a common language and ease so that they can take punches from each other.
RS: The characters seem to be in a bit of a stasis, yet if you pay attention you realize that they’re all growing in very subtle ways over the course of the film. How do you work through the notion of stasis vs. change in the script?
Bujalski: Hmm. A fine question, and I’m not sure how to answer. I guess I’ve come to think of Funny Ha Ha, and my new film Mutual Appreciation, as somewhat miniaturized forms of drama. A friend of mine recently started getting into microscopic sculptureI’m not sure what materials you use, but you literally manipulate stuff under a microscope to make tiny little artworks—and it seemed an apt metaphor. Again I think the film is probably more conventional than it may appear at first glance, just that the action is taking place on a lower frequency than most films deal with.
In screenwriting classes I think one of the basic principles that gets taught is “raise the stakes.” Which I actually think is fairly sound advice, except that generally it is interpreted to mean that no one will like your movie unless your main character at some point has five seconds to defuse a nuclear bomb, or whatever. At which point the stakes are so artificially high that they’re utterly meaningless, and therefore quite boring. When the conflicts are smaller and the consequences of actions less clear I think there is at least more interesting drama to be found.
RS: You chose not to shoot on video. What sort of textures does 16mm bring back to independent cinema in this digital era?
Bujalski: I know that cinema is evolving, and I know it’s no good to long for dead media and dead modes of expression, but I’m not quite ready to wholly embrace the present. This may well lead to some personal crises, as well as aesthetic ones. At any rate I think there is still plenty of life left in 16mm. I aspire not to be an embittered curmudgeon about it, but I also know that it’s still possible, if difficult, to get very new and exciting music out of an acoustic guitar in the year 2005.
RS: Do you see yourself always using film instead of video?
Bujalski: I'd use video if I could figure out how to tell a story that felt like it'd be best expressed through that medium. It's hard to put one's finger on, though, because the video technology is in such speedy evolution. Anything specific I might say here could probably be outdated by the time anyone reads it, in, say, two weeks. It's difficult for me to untangle how much of my attachment to 16mm is cultural—my associations with the films I've loved the most—and how much is “purely” aesthetic. Definitely though there is a painterliness to film, a veneer of artfulness draped over everything, an inherent sort of “fiction” to the look, contrary to video, which nakedly presents itself as a glamourless, pragmatic recording medium. Of course "glamorous" is not the first word most folks would use to describe my films, but it has been important to me to embrace fiction, or at least never lose sight that as "honest" as we might try to make it, it's still all crafted drama.
RS: Chantal Akerman is thanked in the closing credits. Is she a presiding influence?
Bujalski: Chantal was my thesis advisor in college. She’s in the credits because, during a period of six months when I was living in L.A. and trying to get the film going there (it would have, of course, been very different, if we’d even survived the process), she’d been helpful by introducing me to some of her contacts there.
I am a great fan of Chantal’s films. Je tu il elle is probably my favorite, and I loved her most recent, Demain on déménage, too, and of course a lot in between. But she’s probably been more of an “influence” just in my personal interactions with her. She’s been quite good to me, and I adore her.
RS: I’m curious to hear your outlook on where you see things heading as so many independent distributors are sucked up into the Hollywood vortex.
Bujalski: I’m far enough out on the distant margins of the business at the moment that I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment. I guess my basic feeling is that filmmaking has always been the medium wherein commerce necessarily has had the greatest sway over art, and thus it’s always bound to be in artistic crisis. But miracles have happened before, and I imagine will continue to. They wouldn’t be miracles if they happened with reliable frequency. And I don't think that whatever "crises" movies are facing now are necessarily new. Given that my own work is based entirely on performances from non-pro actors, I wish that indie financing were not so rooted in attracting star power. But that's the way the money flows, and in truth, my films would not stand out nearly so much if they weren't pitched against the existing economic structure.
RS: Do you align yourself at all with the Austin, Texas, school of filmmaking, and if so, how do you see that as an aesthetic or cultural movement?
Bujalski: I don't know if I'm aware of that as a “school,” but when I was down there for South by Southwest in March it seemed like there was a lot going on, which was exciting, probably more happening at the moment than there was when I lived there, '99–'00. My friend Spencer Parsons made a great short and is working on a feature that sounds like it'll be excellent. I'm a big fan of the Zellner Brothers down there. And the guys who did The Puffy Chair, awesome, the Duplass Brothers, were Austinites though they're in NYC now. All these brothers afoot—one of my producers, Dia Sokol, has volunteered to become my brother to boost our profile and productivity; we're calling her “Seth” Bujalski. But I didn't live there long enough to really learn most of the community. Of course I'm a big fan of Richard Linklater's, and his films did have something to do with why I moved there in the first place. If there's any commonality between whatever filmmakers are there it's probably just that they're the sort of people who like to live in a really pleasant and friendly environment. Which I suppose is a good indication of having one's priorities straight.