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 believe that in other interviews you’ve mentioned both John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh as influences. To which one could also add Jean Eustache.
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.
How exactly did Funny Ha Ha come about?
I spent the year after college living in Boston, where I’d stumbled into a job teaching a film-studies elective class at a high school, which was fun. After that, I moved to Austin, somewhat arbitrarily, and I ended up really loving it. Kate Dollenmayer, who I’d gone to school with, was one of my roommates down there, and somehow I got the idea in my head that she could carry a film. It’s hard to know exactly why — it had something to do with me having some sense of her personal charisma, but also having some imagined sense of her as a performer. So I started to write, with the central thing driving the writing being that it was a vehicle for Kate. And while the film has very little biography of me or of her in it, it was, in a kind of ineffable way, very helpful for me to imagine her playing these scenes. That definitely added a dimension to the writing that I wouldn’t have been able to get at otherwise. Then we were able to shoot in Boston in the summer of 2001.
Pardon me for being so blunt about it, but how did you put the budget together?
We were cutting every corner we could. All the equipment was lent to us. With a couple of tiny exceptions, everybody was working for free. The thing that does cost money, of course, is 16 mm film stock and processing, so every dime I had was in there and the rest was kind of friends-of-the-family type of money. On the one hand, it’s an ideal way to do something, because there are no strings attached. On the other hand, it’s not easily repeatable, and it’s something I feel a little guilty about, because often this question is raised in the context of young filmmakers seeking advice, and it’s terrible advice to give someone: Have a family that can afford to give you that chunk of money.
How did you go about achieving the wonderful, seemingly improvisational looseness in the dialogue and the performances? Was there a complete script, or more of an outline?
We were very loose on set and in rehearsal, and it was really important to me to remain open to whatever people were going to bring to it. Maybe because I’ve had a lot of time to think about these questions, the more I think about them, the less I feel like I know the answers. There was a full script written and it’s a totally conventional-looking script. And from there . . . well, go ahead and quote Cassavetes: I think he said at some point that once he starts into production, he kills off the writer part of himself. That seemed important to me. As much as you may think you’ve written something awfully clever, if it’s not working, it’s probably not advisable to force it. Making a film in this fashion , where I’m really there at every step of it, I feel like every new stage of the process is a chance for me to cover up the mistakes of the last stage. When you’re on the set, you can try to get rid of all your bad writing, and when you’re editing, you can try to get rid of all your bad directing. Part of me wishes that I had the kind of attention span it would take to be a novelist, but I don’t think I could do it, because it requires you to stay locked up in your own brain and feed off of your own energy for an incredibly long time. I feel like the opposite of that is what’s thrilling about filmmaking. There are so many other life forces to draw from.
Did you use nonprofessional actors out of choice, necessity or some combination of the two?
It was important to me that they were nonprofessionals, because I think I knew that I needed the performances to be idiosyncratic, and that I didn’t want people to be falling back on actorly tricks. But more important than that was just the fact that a lot of these people were old friends, and those that weren’t were basically new friends. With everyone in the film, I felt there was some kind of personal rapport. And I think that’s the only way I know how to direct — hanging out with people and having it be a somewhat social thing, rather than sharing a language based on craft, which I don’t have any more of than they do. I can’t imagine trying to make Funny Ha Ha with professionals. I don’t think it would work.
And how do you go about staging and shooting the action? Do the actors have specific marks to hit?
I love my cinematographer, a guy named Matthias Grunsky. Between Austin and Boston, I was living in Los Angeles briefly and I met him there and there was just an instant bond. He’s also been really critical to getting these films made, because he has what I think is a pretty rare quality of great technical skill, but without the ego that’s often attached to that. A lot of really good DPs that I’ve seen in action have certain ways, they know this is what’s going to make for the most beautiful shot, so everything has to bend to the will of the DP. And in the sort of filmmaking we’re doing, we really have to bend everything to these performers, and Matthias is amazing about that. He’s also just a really charming guy and great to have on the set for that reason. It’s good to have someone around who everybody likes. In terms of blocking, we try not to make people hit specific marks — occasionally it becomes necessary, but for the most part we try to design it so people can go anywhere they want, and then it’s Matthias’ job to keep up with them. Obviously, you want some consistency in how things happen, to make it possible to edit. But sometimes that doesn’t happen and that’s a challenge in editing, but it’s always been more important to me to have each individual shot make sense to the performers, and then I deal with it later. That also informs the editing; I think the first thing I look for when I cut is where the most interesting performance is and then how I can cut things together and have them make sense. From there, you try to make it start looking like you were cutting that way on purpose.
One of the really appealing things about these two films is how acutely they convey this sense of being young and having so many options to choose from in life, and yet being completely unsure of yourself. Which is, I think, a feeling that a lot of Hollywood movies and TV shows about young people try to convey, but fail miserably at.
I know what you mean, but I don’t think that was ever my intention per se. Nor was it any kind of grand attempt to make a generational statement — it was always a little more specific. Though another maxim that I’m given to quoting a lot is that the more specific something is, the more universal it is. Certainly, that was some kind of guiding principle.
Did you feel there were certain specific characteristics or observations about our generation that you were trying to convey?
I can never tell how specific it is. Obviously, it’s really exciting when people much older than the characters respond to the film. I’ve had the whole spectrum of responses, from people raising their hands in Q&As and saying, “Is your generation really like that?” to people saying “That’s exactly how it was for me 30 years ago.” I’m sure there are elements that pervade across generations and others that are specific. But there wasn’t that kind of grand design to it. It was just about these characters and the problems they were having with each other. I tend to be superstitious: I don’t want to think about “What does this all mean?” for fear that that will then get injected into the writing.
Funny Ha Ha was filmed in 2001, but didn’t open in theaters in Los Angeles until the spring of 2005. That’s quite a long time to be on the road with a movie.
The surprise was that it kept going. Theatrical release was certainly never something I took for granted or expected to happen. So the surprise was the life span of the film, which has been crazy, probably unrepeatable, and certainly unusual. I finished the film in early 2002, and then for about six months I couldn’t get anyone to show it. And that’s when you start to learn those hard lessons about the way the film-festival world works — that the vast majority of festival programming happens on the basis of specific recommendations from other people in that world. But slowly it started to crack, and with people like [Boston University film professor] Ray Carney and [Boston Phoenix film critic] Gerald Peary helping me out, I started to make inroads into the festival world. By early 2003, I thought we were probably done. But then little things kept coming along to buoy it and keep it rolling: In June of 2003, we played at the Los Angeles Film Festival and got a nice review in Variety, which I never would have expected, and that kind of opened up the film industry’s eyes to the film. Then, sometime in 2004, a private investor to whom I’m not related came along with a whole lot of enthusiasm for the film and wanted to back a self-distributed theatrical release, which is what we’ve been doing for the last year.
Were any other distributors interested before that?
Certainly, there are people in that world who have been very supportive, but no one who was ever in a position to pull the trigger. There were acquisitions people who would have done it if they ran the world, but film distribution is so brutal, as I’ve been learning firsthand from this self-distribution. I feel like it’s filmmakers’ jobs to martyr themselves, and exhibitors can sometimes martyr themselves, but distributors can’t really do that — they have to be in business again next year. Especially given the current state of that whole business, for someone to take a chance on the film would have really been quite bold, and no one was that bold. And I can’t blame them that much, much as it makes me a little grumpy and cranky at times.
So when did you finally get to work on Mutual Appreciation??
It was pretty easy, because I started to write the script right after I finished Funny Ha Ha; I wrote the bulk of Mutual Appreciation during that six months when nobody would show the movie — I had plenty of time on my hands. So I just jumped right into it. It was the same sort of spark for it, which is that [star] Justin Rice is an old friend of mine and another former roommate; I had this notion that he would be funny carrying a film, and everything grew from there. Or grew on top of it, I guess. Or grew around it, like a vine.
I want to ask you about a couple of set pieces in the film that I think are remarkable — two too-long parties of sorts that Alan, the main character, manages to find himself at over the course of one very long night.
That’s my favorite part of the film; for me, it’s the heart of the film. Certainly, it is long. When I was doing the rough cut, there’d be people saying, “What are you doing? You’ve got 20 minutes in the middle of your movie where the plot stops.” But whenever someone would encourage me to cut it down, my feeling was that I’d almost rather cut out the rest of the movie. I hope it’s not just self-indulgent. I like to be surprised by movies, and I like when things like that happen, where you can take these wild diversions from a plot that’s already pretty loose.
You also really feel time passing in those scenes, which is something most narrative films rarely allow you to do. Were those long pauses written into the script?
Look, if you looked at a transcript of the film next to the script of the film, you’d find they certainly don’t match up word for word, but there is some attempt to drive at that rhythm even in the script. The tricky part, and the part that’s hard to know if you’ve gotten right, is how to give the sense of an interminable party without it feeling oppressively interminable. I did my best at that, and obviously it’s up to every individual audience member to make up his or her own mind. But I enjoy a lot of movies that drag in parts — for something to drag is not always a fault.
Both movies, on some level, seem to be about, for lack of a better way of putting it, the fear of growing up.
Certainly, I think, fear of adulthood is a theme that pervades both films, probably even more so in Mutual Appreciation. And now that you mention it, maybe that is something that is specific, if not to “my generation,” then at least my subset of it. I feel like a lot of people I know, myself included, are still figuring out what we’re doing, are single and so forth, even though we’re now at a point where we’re older than our parents were when they were married and had us.