Andrew Bujalski Talks Mumblecore

The independent writer-director discusses how two of his films accidentally started a movement.

Photo from Computer Chess press kit.

  • Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Avenue)
  • February 3–4
  • $21in advance/both films

When young Boston director Andrew Bujalski made a perceptive, low-key comedy called Funny Ha Ha in 2002 on a shoestring budget with a 16mm camera and a group of friends who had little experience, he could have no idea of the ripple effect it would create. Filmmakers started to make movies with whatever meagre resources they had at their disposal and collaborated with each other, and the resulting wave of lo-fi cinema became known as “mumblecore.” Although mumblecore is now considered to include such mainstream successes as Lena Dunham and the Duplass brothers, Bujalski is viewed by many as having led the move to embrace financial limitations and focus on capturing authentic interactions between characters.

Bujalski will be on hand for screenings of Funny Ha Ha and his second feature, Mutual Appreciation, on February 3 and 4 respectively. The event is being presented by CINSSU and video magazine The Seventh Art, as part of an ongoing Live Directors Series that has previously brought Whit Stillman and Paul Schrader to town.

We spoke with Bujalski over the phone from his home in Austin.

Torontoist: You’re screening Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation here, and it’s been over ten years now since you made those films.

Andrew Bujalski: Yeah. Jeez, how did that happen?

So how nostalgic are you? Does your affection for those two movies grow over time?

In the abstract—I’m not planning to watch them with the audience. [laughs] But sure, yeah. I think I feel blessed in some way that I have the emotional and physiological makeup to enjoy my own work. Again, I’m certainly not revisiting them too often. But I can think fondly of them.

When you set out to make these films, were you motivated by something that you weren’t seeing on screens?

Yeah, I think that’s part of it. And that’s always some kind of motivator for me. I never want to make a movie that I thought another guy could make better. Certainly, it just never seems worth my time and all the blood, sweat, and tears that it takes to make a movie to do something that already exists, one way or another. I mean, to some extent, you’re fooling yourself. It’s not that the world is really demanding another weird little independent film. But I think you have to believe that you’re reinventing the wheel or else you’re not going to be able to keep going.

Do you think because you were younger, it was maybe easier to delude yourself into thinking that something was going to come of it?

Oh, yeah. And that’s a beautiful thing. That’s something that I envy about the young folk. I mean, again, you’re kind of always deluding yourself. But I can’t imagine going out and making a Funny Ha Ha today the way that we did it, for all of the obvious reasons. That’s kind of the classic cliché that once you know why you can’t do it, you won’t do it. But if you don’t know why it’s impossible, there it is.

When you were writing the lead characters for your friends Kate Dollenmayer (in Funny Ha Ha) and Justin Rice (in Mutual Appreciation), was that process collaborative at all?

Not particularly. I mean, I wouldn’t go to them and say, “What do you think should happen in the next scene?” They didn’t see the script until I got through a first draft of it. But it was collaborative in as much as I’d known both of them for years. There was a lot of time and energy, a lot of just collaboration in life that put them in my head to a place where there’s certainly no way I could have written either of those scripts without having them in the roles. Which isn’t so much a story thing. It’s not that I was writing their life stories or even writing characters that I believed were exactly like them, but I could hear their voices delivering those characters and that’s what brought them to life for me on the page before they went out and brought them to life for real on the screen.

Working frequently with inexperienced actors, how do you create a comfortable environment for them to perform within?

When you go to a movie set, you see a lot of talented people working hard and then you see the director who isn’t really doing anything—except maybe trying to create a mood or a tone or an environment. And that’s the job. That people look to you, and they say, “Is it okay if we try something here that we don’t know whether it will work or not?” And then you say yes or no. If you say yes, hopefully you’re opening people up to taking chances and to allowing things to flourish.

When you were finished making Funny Ha Ha, how hard was it to then transition into getting it out there for people to see?

I had a 16mm print made, which was already fairly archaic a decade ago, and certainly it’d be the stone age now. But I remember holding that finished print in my hands, and it suddenly dawning on me, “What am I going to do with this? How am I going to get anyone to watch this?” So I started applying to film festivals. I just went on and got a list of them and was applying blind, scattershot. And of course got rejected from the vast majority of them. And it took six months before I could get anyone to show it anywhere. But then once that started to crack, the film just had this great series of good fortune. We played one or two or three festivals, and I thought, “Well, that’s probably it. That’s the end of the road, but I’m glad a few audiences got to see it.”

And then there would be some piece of good luck or some break or some other reason why it stayed alive. And so Funny Ha Ha was a movie that I finished in 2002 and started to screen it at the end of that year, and then it kept moving around and finding audiences in 2003, 2004, and then we finally had our quote-unquote official theatrical release in 2005. So that’s a much longer life than most movies get. Of course, I wouldn’t particularly want to repeat that experience and spend four years flogging another movie. But in terms of a slow build to some recognition, I couldn’t be more grateful to have had that experience and for that movie to have gotten out there the way it did.

You’re also acting in both of these movies and went on to act in others’ movies as well. Do you think there’s been a progression to your acting? Do you think you get better at it over time?

Uh, I haven’t. [laughs] I’m sure people who are committed to it might. I think my performance in Funny Ha Ha is probably as good as I’ve ever done as an actor and probably ever will do. Not that I wouldn’t welcome the opportunity to keep taking a crack at it. But it did feel like acting for myself ultimately was easier than the experience of acting for others. Not so much because I’m more in tune with the story or know how to direct myself—I think really the issue was that when I’m directing and I’m on set of something I’m directing, I’m so stressed out over my director worries that I don’t have time to really get too self-conscious as an actor. And when I’m acting for somebody else, it’s kind of all self–consciousness, all the time. It’s hard to turn that off when you have the time to sit around and think about how bad an actor you are.

For last year’s Computer Chess, you were working with an outline instead of a script for the first time. How was that different?

You know, it was more similar than I expected, actually. It was certainly nerve-wracking to leap into the void. But ultimately, I found that it was a very similar process whether or not you have all the words on the page. You still got to sit down in a room with the actors and figure out how you’re going to make it come alive.

With many filmmakers who were inspired by your films, is it possible to see your influence in the work of others?

No, not really. [laughs] I mean, especially a hundred and however many years into movie history. I think we’re all kind of collections of influences one way or another. I think I kind of just stumbled into a little bit of a historical accident. Funny Ha Ha got pegged as the first of something. I certainly didn’t think it would be considered the launch of a movement. If anything, I felt like I was at the tail end of something. I felt like I was making the last of a tradition of independent film from the ’80s and ’90s. I was just a late straggler making an indie movie from 1988. I think it just means I’m too old for what I’m doing. It would make more sense if I was 25 doing this.

Have you seen any films recently that you really enjoyed?

I was pretty delighted with The Wolf of Wall Street, which I didn’t expect to be. I think it’s easily the best thing [director Martin] Scorsese has done in the past fifteen years. I was thrilled to see that he still has it in him.

Knowing your ambivalent attitude toward the term mumblecore, would you prefer at this point that the word had just never existed?

Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to be bitter about it. It’s fine, and there’s certainly plenty about it that is nice. I mean, there are plenty of filmmakers and films that get yoked in that alongside me that I’m honoured to be considered alongside. You know, for a minute there, too, it seemed like part of the definition of that was, “Here’s a clique of young filmmakers that work on each others’ stuff.” And I like that aspect of it, too. I thought, “Well, if maybe mumblecore just means collaboration, then I can get behind that.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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