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Any cursory description of the films of writer-director-actor Andrew Bujalski risks making them sound like a thousand others that have attempted, motivated either by genuine artistic impulse or crass marketing instincts, to depict the trials and tribulations of young people in their 20s trying to establish footholds in a strange and often forbidding grown-up world. But with the exception of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming and a select few others, I’d happily trade most of the lot for Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation — two films that, together, have probably been seen by fewer people than tune into a given week’s broadcast of The OC.
My introduction to Bujalski’s work came in the fall of 2003 when, while I was a judge for the Independent Feature Project’s annual Someone To Watch award — a $20,000 cash prize given to an American independent filmmaker whose work has yet to receive distribution — a tape of Funny Ha Ha made its way to my door. The story of a noncommittal young woman (played by the radiant nonprofessional actress Kate Dollenmayer) drifting between dreary temp jobs and ill-advised romantic liaisons, the movie was striking from the start, as much for its grainy, color-saturated 16 mm frames as for its invigoratingly unpredictable rhythms and ear for the ebbs and flows of real conversation. A few months later, when Bujalski claimed the Someone To Watch prize, he thanked the members of the selection committee for insuring that he could quit his job as a substitute teacher and set to work on a new film.
The fruit of that labor is Mutual Appreciation, which played the festival circuit last year and finally arrives in Los Angeles theaters this weekend via a distribution company formed for the release of Funny Ha Ha by Bujalski and producer’s representative Houston King. Clearly, this is not the road to be traveling if you want to “make it” in the movie industry: When I attempted to schedule a time with Bujalski for this interview, we found ourselves working his latest part-time job, in a Boston bookstore. But Bujalski is making what may prove to be the defining movies about a generation — which is to say my own — marked by its very lack of definition. One hopes this will soon become his full-time vocation.
L.A. WEEKLY:To begin with, an obvious but irresistible question: What first got you interested in making movies?
ANDREW BUJALSKI: That goes back to even before I remember. I was a pretty movie-crazy kid — I was obsessed with Rocky III and Star Trek II and all those classics.
Ah. I remember them fondly. So, did you know from pretty early on that you wanted to go to film school?
I think so, though I ended up going to Harvard, which isn’t a traditional film school. But they do have an excellent program there, which ended up pretty strongly influencing the way I’m working.
Do you mean in terms of films you saw there, or theories you studied?
I suppose it’s a combination of a lot of things. Certainly there was stuff that I saw there that I wouldn’t have expected to see if I’d gone to USC or NYU — a very eclectic mix of stuff that comes to the Harvard Film Archive, and the Brattle Theatre, which is the local rep house. The theory classes I took at Harvard actually don’t stick with me so much as the production classes. That program has a pretty strong documentary backbone: A lot of personal documentaries come out of Harvard, and that has a lot to do with the personalities of the teachers. I never had Ross McElwee, but he’s there. Rob Moss was my teacher, and he came out of the same background as Ross. The program is so non-career-oriented that you don’t really learn what an AD does and what a UPM does. Instead, you learn how to do it all yourself. You learn how to make a film. And that was hugely influential on the way that I work. The revelation was that there’s no one right way to approach film production, and the way that you do approach production has a huge impact on how your film turns out.
I think they’ve been mentioned more by others, and I always tend to try to avoid that subject — maybe because, like any artist, you’d like for your work to be taken on its own terms.
Well, I think the comparison is intended in a very general way, which is to say that your films, like their films, aggressively subvert the established conventions of Hollywood narrative cinema, in terms of the way a story has to be told and characters have to be developed, and in terms of your willingness to give enormous freedom to the actors.
And of course, you’re absolutely right, and obviously both of those filmmakers are huge influences; I just tend to evade crediting them because I’m tired of reading it. But I’m a huge fan of both of them.
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