Director Andrew Bujalski discusses his career in the event of the tenth anniversary of his debut Funny Ha Ha.
As much as the filmmakers whose films it designates may have grown to hate it, the label mumblecore is pretty much indelible at this point. And while their resentment towards the term is understandable (it doesn’t have quite as romantic a ring as nouvelle vague, does it?), it nevertheless refers to the most creative and influential wave of films to come out of the US independent scene since the early ’90s. In this regard, it should be considered a badge of honor.
The film that started it all was Andrew Bujalski’s debut feature Funny Ha Ha. Produced in 2002, it spent three years accruing word of mouth on the festival circuit before receiving a theatrical release. When it finally did, it quickly turned into a small sensation. Shot on a shoestring budget with a cast of non-professionals, the film’s lo-fi aesthetic and highly naturalistic, unsensational portrayal of early adulthood was met with overwhelming critical enthusiasm and helped turn attention to the work of a number of other young, similarly inclined filmmakers.
Bujalski’s following two features—Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, released in 2006 and 2009 respectively—confirmed his early promise and established the direction of the35-year-old director. This year marks the tenth anniversary of his debut and a newly restored 35mm print is traveling across the country to celebrate the occasion.
Giovanni Marchini Camia It’s been ten years since you made Funny Ha Ha. When did you last see the film?
Andrew Bujalski In January. There was a new print, which I’d never seen before. I wanted to take notes on the colors in case there’s any reason to make another print down the line, so I watched it with an audience in Berlin. It was a strange experience, because it had been a few years. At the time that I made it, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me that anyone would have any trouble finding their way into it. I thought it was a very straightforward story told in a very straightforward fashion. But watching it again this year, I thought, Wow, this is completely personal and completely particular and completely peculiar. It kind of amazes me how lucky I was that people did find it.
GMC I feel that your films are the type that viewers will relate to differently depending on what stage of their life they’re in when they watch them.
GMC So watching Funny Ha Ha in 2002 and 2012 could be a completely different experience. Have you noticed such a development with audiences?
AB Yeah. I mean, I would assume so; I haven’t done a thorough scientific survey of everybody who’s watched the movie. Although, just last week I was in Boston, and I was having a drink with a couple of old professors of mine and they were saying that they saw it differently now, because now they have kids who are in their early 20s. (laughter) It was a different experience for them to watch the movie thinking it was about their kids.
Obviously, it’s such a particular moment in a person’s life and we made that movie very much from within that moment. When I made Funny Ha Ha there was nothing ethnographic about it: I wasn’t trying to make a grand statement about what I thought it was to be 24, I just was 24. All that stuff was very real to me. So I think, if anything, if the movie resonates, that’s why: because it’s not told with critical distance, you’re really just looking at the Petri dish. So, who knows? I always intended it to be a personal experience for everybody who watches it. I think when you make a certain kind of movie—if you make a thriller, then you want everyone to jump out of their seats at the same time and if you make a slapstick comedy, you want everyone to laugh at the same time, but with this, I wasn’t leading an audience through a preordained set of responses. The movie only works if you bring your own thoughts and feelings to it and everybody’s gonna have a different feeling.
GMC What about nationality—have you noticed a difference in the audience’s reaction when bringing the movie abroad?
AB It is a funny kind of movie because American cinema culture is so focused on Hollywood, so it’s the kind of movie—because it’s ponderous and slow and strange—that people would say, “This is a European movie, you should bring this to Europe.” But of course, if you bring it to Europe, it is so very American in the particulars: it’s so much about an American experience. So I couldn’t tell you. I mean, I’m always surprised by what plays where, but for better or worse, when I’ve traveled with the movie, I usually only got to go to these wonderful foreign countries for a few days at a time and didn’t really get to go deep into the culture or really understand how people are reacting.
GMC I really like the ending of each of your films. The way you abruptly cut mid-conversation, as it were, always captures and encapsulates the crux of the film. Sometimes, especially in Beeswax, that crux only really becomes evident through the ending. It’s a really strong way of keeping the viewer reflecting on the film after it’s over. I’m curious about how you developed your signature ending.
AB It’s hard to reconstruct the writing, but I know that I’ve always felt like there’s this idea that ending and resolution are the same thing, and I don’t really believe that that’s true. A story can have an ending without having what is considered a conventional resolution. I’m very interested in ending, I’m very interested in structure, but for me ending is the point where it’s right to stop telling the story, where you can let go of the story and everything that needs to be said has been said. I’ve always been a believer in not lingering around too long after that, so they do end very abruptly. I do think that there is a certain kind of movie, and a certain kind of storytelling, where it might be nice to linger. It just has not been the case for these movies—I always wanted to end not a frame later than when I was done telling the story.
GMC You mention structure—the structure of your films is interesting because while it feels very spontaneous, almost arbitrary, at the same time it always coalesces. Could you shed some light on your writing process in that regard?
AB As a writer, I love that feeling—it’s a feeling of freedom in a way. It’s the same way that in life it’s always such a pleasure to go for a trip when you don’t really know where you’re going or what the return date is. I know that certainly some of the most exhilarating moments of my youth were times when I was in a place that I didn’t know, with people that I didn’t know, and I didn’t know when I was going home. So I like that feeling in a movie too, that feeling of freedom, that you’re not sure where the story is about to take you, or you don’t know what the next scene is going to be. That said, we are chopping our path through the forest and there are things that we need to see on our journey. (laughter) I think in the writing I am trying to get from the beginning to the ending, but it wouldn’t be fun for me if I felt like I was grabbing your wrist tightly and dragging you along. I want it to be more of a fun trip.
GMC There’s a definite continuity in your films in terms of aesthetic and filmmaking practice. Do you have a set of rules, a personal manifesto of sorts?
AB On Funny Ha Ha I probably did more than I have since. Since it was my first time doing a project, I was so afraid of making mistakes or falling into traps—and of course, the more you worry about falling into traps, the more you probably fall into the other traps that you’re not looking for. But on that movie I was pretty rigorous to do everything we could to focus all of our attention on the actors and not worry so much about anything else. Which is not to say that I sought to be sloppy with everything else—I didn’t—but there would never be a camera move unless the characters generated it. Everything had to flow from actor and character. And for the most part, that is still my impulse, my instinct, although I have gotten looser about it.
The movie I’m finishing now, Computer Chess, which is going to premiere at Sundance in January, is in a lot of ways an aesthetic departure. I’m curious—I mean, I can’t really judge that, frankly, I’ll have to wait and see what everybody else says about it. I think it’s in many obvious ways quite different from anything I’ve done before. And in maybe less obvious ways, very similar to everything I’ve done before, so we’ll see what people make of it.
GMC In which ways is it a departure?
AB There’s so many things that are odd about it. For one, it’s a period piece, which is certainly not something I’ve ever done before or would have attempted within the framework of the other movies. You know, I don’t want to talk too much about it before it’s out in the world. I want to retain what little of that surprise I can. But it’s real weird, that’s all I can say. My first three movies were weird in a certain way and this is weird in a different way. (laughter) And I hope unique. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything quite like it out there right now.
GMC Well, without revealing anything about the film itself, maybe you can share how it felt to venture in such a different direction?
AB Strange, but thrilling, liberating. In 2010 my son was born and I was so afraid at that moment: I could really imagine a life in which I never made another movie after that and I was so afraid of it happening that I promised myself that I would make something in 2011, come hell or high water. We spent the early part of the year trying to get together a big movie—you know, with millions of dollars and movie stars and that kind of stuff. It ended up not coming together that year and I said, “Well, okay, I’m going to do something else.”
I had this idea for this movie Computer Chess, which has been in the back of my mind for years. We didn’t have much to go on: we pulled it together very quickly and very cheaply—we spent less money on it than we spent on Beeswax—and just threw every weird idea and every experimental idea we had at the wall and had a blast, it was incredible. I always find production incredibly stressful and this was my first time making a movie where I did have a wife and kid at home and had to leave the set at the end of the day instead of hanging around and wrapping the tables with everybody else, which is what I like to do—I hate being the first to leave, it feels strange. It was just a strange experience but it was also the most fun I’ve ever had creatively because we really felt that there were no rules in particular on this movie.
GMC And this big film you mention, is it the one with Scott Rudin that there had been talk about?
AB No, that was another project years earlier and of course that’s another thing that never quite came to fruition. That was something that was essentially designed to be a project for this Paramount Vantage studio arm, and Paramount Vantage more or less ceased to exist, so that project kind of died together with Vantage. But yeah, I’m certainly always trying to keep a toe in that world and I would love to work in that world at some point.
GMC You’re interested in working within the studio system?
AB I mean, I’m nervous about it, for all the obvious reasons. Although it’s very difficult to get good work out of there, it is possible, it is done and it’s very exciting when it’s done, so I would love to try my hand at it. It’s just like any other challenge; every movie you make brings its own set of limitations and challenges. Obviously, there are lots of challenges that come with having no money, or extremely little money, and then there’s the completely different set of challenges that comes from having lots and lots of money. You have to design your creative work around those limitations and the game is, can you find a way to do that that’s going to be fun and exciting and put something meaningful on screen.
GMC You’ve written, directed and edited all of your films. Going into that world would probably involve relinquishing some of that control.
AB Yeah, it’s true, but yet again, filmmaking is not really about—as much as I maybe am a micromanager and a control freak about certain things—you don’t make films because you love complete control. If I wanted complete control, I might be a poet or a painter, you know, somebody who works without any collaborators. Once you start collaborating with anybody, especially actors, who are not puppets, who have to bring something of their own soul for it to be any good, then you’re in a world where it’s not about control, it’s about creativity: it’s about bringing your minds together and your spirits together and making something better and more exciting than either of you could make alone. It would be the same deal at any level. Obviously, the challenge in the studio world is that a lot of the people you’re partnered with and are collaborating with do not necessarily have a creative attitude per se, but still, you try to find ways to make it work and keep it exciting for you.
GMC So far you’ve mainly surrounded yourself with people you’ve got personal relationships with, right?
AB Well, yes and no. A lot of times those personal relationships come about through the process of working with them. Not everybody who I’ve ever worked with has been a dear personal friend before we started working together, though most of them end up that way afterwards. It’s just my way of doing things and my way of working that I tend to want to work with people who I like and vice versa.
GMC To close, the inevitable question for which I hope you won’t resent me too much: your thoughts about your nickname, “Godfather of Mumblecore”?
AB I like the godfather part, let’s just call me The Godfather, how’s that? I don’t know, the whole thing is silly. It’s obviously here to stay and it will probably be etched on my tombstone. (laughter) I just hope it doesn’t overshadow the movies. I hope people find their way to the movies and find something a little deeper to them than whatever is in that word.
The 10th anniversary screening of <>Funny Ha Ha is happening at 7:30pm tonight at Anthology Film Archives. Andrew Bujalski will be present for a Q&A led by fellow filmmaker Lena Dunham.
Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic currently living in New York. For more of his writing visit his blog.