Friday, May 29, 2015

Interview: Andrew Bujalski

Like a character from one of his movies, writer-director Andrew Bujalski has a self-effacing style of speech and a habit of making a thoughtful observation, then promptly second-guessing it. He also seems to be motivated in large part by conquering his own fears, which he acknowledges so freely that he used the word "fear," "frightened," or "terrified" in answering about a third of my questions as we discussed moviemaking in general and his latest feature, Results. Where Bujalski's early films were about people feeling their way through life after college, and his last feature, Computer Chess, was an affectionate and bemused look back at the infancy of computer-nerd culture, Results is a charmingly meandering, brainy rom-com set in the adult working world. As always, the director finds gentle humor and emotional truth in the bumpy road traveled by his main characters: Trevor (Guy Pearce), the owner/manager of a gym; his star trainer, Kat (Cobie Smulders); and their new client, Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a newly minted millionaire who's a schlubby stranger to the world of fitness. He also scores some interesting points about how the work we do—or, in Danny's case, don't do—both reflects and affects who we are.

Your movies don't seem strictly autobiographical, but they do seem to be at least partly about whatever stage of life you're at. I wonder if you're thinking about doing anything about parenthood, since you've been very open in interviews about how being a father has transformed your life.
I don't know. The problem is it would be such a big undertaking that I'm a little nervous about the idea. You really have to direct kids. Not that the directing would be so scary, so much as coordinating and organizing and the rest of it. Like with everything, there would be ways, but you strike fear into my heart. [laughs] Like you say, nothing I've done is strictly autobiographical, but it's all very personal. My life feeds into what I do in a kind of back-alley way, in terms of perceptions and wondering what we're doing on this planet. So, yeah, the thought of doing a movie about parenthood has crossed my mind. I've imagined what I'd like to say about that, but it would be kind of frightening to try to actually pull it off.

How much do you get to choose what you do next and how much is just a function of what you can get funded? Are you always working on a bunch of different things at once until one of them gets greenlit?
Yeah, to some degree. Politicians always talk about the arc of the possible, and there's certainly some of that when it comes to moviemaking. I have movies that I haven't figured out how to get made, so we're not talking about those right now because I haven't made them. On the other hand, like politicians, you can fall into the same trap where if you get too focused on what's possible then you'll never make any progress, so I try to let my imagination go. Ultimately, the thing that I've found is that, although I may have a half-dozen ideas that all exist on different budget levels or in different spheres, nothing really happens until I say, "Okay, this is the one I want to do." Certainly, the big change, at least for right now, about being a parent is that it feels like I can't do something that I'm going to spend 12 years on and make a thousand dollars for. In the past, for whatever reason, that did seem like a good idea. [laughs] I mean, I love working that way. I love the freedom of that. And I would love to go back to it, but maybe it wouldn't be possible.

Because the financial obligations of being a parent make you look at that kind of thing differently?

Yeah, yeah, for sure. And, you know, I can blame my kids, but I’m also older, and the money thing is more challenging anyway.

Speaking of fatherhood, women are so often asked about how being a parent affects their work and men almost never are, so your being a parent usually wouldn’t be part of the conversation if you didn’t bring it up.

Yeah, I know, I’m complaining. I don’t know why I—

No, no, wait. I don’t think you’re just bitching. My point is, the way you talk about being a father seems connected, to me, to the way you’ve always put fully realized female characters at the center of your movies. So, I wonder: Do you think of yourself as a feminist? And are you consciously trying to tell women’s stories, or work “women’s issues” into your work—or at least not to cut them out of the stories you tell? Or are you just being yourself?

I guess I’m just being myself. I feel like my last two movies are very male. Obviously we have a pretty strong and significant female character front and center in Results, but it still somehow feels like a very bro-y movie to me. And Computer Chess is a very male movie.

But you had that female programmer in Computer Chess, who everyone kept “welcoming” because she was so out of place.

Yes, of course. I do love making movies about women, and I want to do more. I think I had a little bit of hubris on the first and the third movie [Funny Ha Ha and Beeswax], where I thought, “I’m qualified to do this because I understand women,” and then [laughs] I got married and my wife disabused me of that illusion. But on my list of projects is always something that’s woman-centric. In part because I’m motivated, always, by wanting to see something that I haven’t seen. I have this terrible fear of making something that someone else is making better at the same time. There’s something in it, too, that comes from ego. I want to put something on screen that I don’t feel like other people are putting on screen. It’s not a knock on anybody else; it’s just me looking for my own little territory to grow in. And for better or worse, [laughs] women still seem to be largely uncharted territory in movies.

You went from probably your least commercial movie ever, Computer Chess, to presumably your most commercial one with Results. First of all, what do you think makes this one “at least kinda sorta semi- quasi-commercial,” as you put it in IndieWire?

It’s such a hard thing to quantify. I feel like I’m always wrong about that. Going into Computer Chess, I thought it was the least commercial thing I could possibly do, and then if you measure in terms of box office it’s splitting hairs because you’re not talking about big numbers in any case, but it did as well commercially as anything I’ve done. So, mostly we’re talking just about sort of external elements. In the case of Results, first and foremost there are actors’ names and faces on the poster that people recognize. There are semi-familiar romantic-comedy elements. But I really don’t know. I think I always trick myself into thinking that everybody’s going to walk along with us on this journey and understand what I’m trying to do, and then I read the reviews and I go, “Oh, yes, of course, I forgot.” I forgot that at a certain point I kind of stopped looking at the playbook and did this other thing because I thought it would be fun. Not everyone wants to go off the path.

Yeah, your plots aren’t exactly linear.

I think that’s where I’m getting into trouble on this one.

So, working with name actors was new. What about the process of making the film? Did it feel really different than what you’d done before?

Yes and no. The “no” part is that my job is pretty much the same. It’s one of the cosmic mysteries of moviemaking that most movies are made more or less the same way. You get people and you talk through what they’re going to say and do and you figure out a place to put the camera, and there are only so many places to put it, and usually you’re putting it in the same two places. In some ways, it’s all very familiar. And then there’s an infinite variety in what actually ends up on the screen—the feel of what ends up on the screen—that comes from intentions of the people in the room. To me, that’s a magical and mysterious process, and when it really works you get actual magic out of it. So my job is what it is, which is listening to people and trying to figure out how to give them whatever they need to do their best work.

But with specific regard to professional actors, in general the way my mind works is that I like to begin in chaos and then look for patterns and pick out order from the chaos. I think that’s part of why I like working with nonprofessional actors. There’s no training for them to rely on, so they kind of start in the same place of not knowing what they’re doing or why they’re there, and then slowly find their way toward patterns and some order, and it’s always been very exciting. Whereas professionals, certainly the likes of Guy [Pearce] and Cobie [Smulders] and Kevin [Corrigan], are so incredibly skilled. Their training allows them to show up to any set and be bulletproof, because actors so often are working under adverse conditions, and they need to stand and deliver no matter what the conditions. So they’ll show up not only with lines memorized, but with a performance ready to go, in a way, and then my job becomes to dismantle some of the order and try to push us back in the other direction, towards chaos.

Speaking of cameras, you worked with the same cameraman, Matthias Grunsky, on all of your films. What is it about working with him that works so well for you?

At this point, it’s kind of impossible for me to measure. I’m terrified that someday I may have to do a movie without him, and I have no idea how to survive that. Everything I know about moviemaking is making movies with Matthias, and certainly after making all those movies there’s plenty of unspoken communication; he knows what I want before I know it. He’s also an incredibly charming and sweet guy. Any shoot we’ve ever done, the cast and crew have fallen in love with him, and that’s so valuable. When people in crucial positions like that are grumpy or difficult, obviously that affects everything, and when they’re as adorable as he is, it just puts a little pep in everybody’s step. He’s been my most essential collaborator and ally through all this.

Do you think you’ll ever do a TV show?

I’m supposed to be writing one right now, that may or may not go anywhere. It’s something I’ve played around with in the past. I see the appeal, but we’ll see. An indie movie, it’s possible to just push that through on sheer willpower, whereas TV—well, anything’s possible. But I don’t necessarily see myself going out and making a web series and then hoping that goes somewhere. A TV show is something I’d do only if somebody’s paying for it, and that’s not up to me. But yeah, I love the possibility of it, and obviously there’s tons of great shows out there. It’s exciting, but it’s not second nature to me. The thing that I keep trying to wrap my head around is how to tell a story that you’re not allowed to end. That structure has always been very important to me. I like the formal and poetic nature of a movie, where you immerse yourself in something and it starts here and you go there and then it ends here and that’s it. Somehow the boundaries of it are important to me, part of the story.

Like going from writing short stories to writing a long novel—a serialized novel.

Yeah. Or from poetry to prose. There’s a way in which everything matters in a movie, and I love how the littlest detail means something. Though actually, that’s the appeal of TV, in a way: You can have an episode that ends a little gummy for whatever reason, or a piece that doesn’t add up or doesn’t go anywhere. In a way, a movie has to be a perfect little object, even if it’s full of imperfections, as my movies are. It’s a perfect imperfect little object. And there’s something nice about just stretching out in TV and playing around. But it’s not intuitive to me.

You studied film at Harvard—with Chantal Ackerman, which sounds pretty amazing. Can you tell me a bit about the experience and how it influenced what you do now?

Oh, yeah. I loved that program. It had a massive effect on how I’ve worked since then. It’s very kind of nuts and bolts, low to the ground. It’s very unpretentious—well, pretentious in as much as there’s a presumption that your work matters, that what you’re doing is work. But it’s not career training. When you come out of there, you can’t get a job anywhere with what you learned, but you do kind of maybe know a thing or two about making movies on a very basic, simple level.

Documentary is the backbone of it, which I feel like is just about the most valuable education any filmmaker can get, because documentary trains you to look at what you have rather than what you wanted to have or thought you had, and that’s one of the hardest things to learn in filmmaking. You have to learn it over and over again; it’s never easy. And I had extraordinary teachers there. Chantal Ackerman was my thesis advisor. I also had DuĊĦan Makavejev, and Robb Moss, and a guy named Dick Rogers, who passed away 14 years ago. So, four different mentors with very different voices, all brilliant filmmakers with fascinating personalities who made a very great impression on me, and who ultimately I carry around in everything I do.

Do you think you might make a documentary?

I would love to, but again it’s the fear. I would really want to do it right, and that’s terrifying. I’m also so steeped in—documentary has changed so much in the last 15 years, and I would want to do it old-school. But I’m not sure what that means, and I’m not sure what the subject would be. I would love to do it in this lifetime. I hope I get around to it someday. We’ll see.

Written for Slant Magazine

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