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Interview: Filmmaker Andrew Bujalski

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Writers, directors and artists of all stripes are often told, "Write what you know," but few filmmakers accomplish this as successfully as Andrew Bujalski. At age 29 the Boston-based filmmaker has directed two well-received feature films, both of which are set in a post-college, indie rock milieu that he seems to know intimately. Describing his own post-college experience Bujalski says, "Since college I've basically been pursuing these loony little independent movies."

Funny Ha Ha follows Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) as she muddles through her temp job and tries to make sense of her hopeless crush on Alex (Christian Rudder). The nominal plot of Mutual Appreciation revolves around Alan (Justin Rice), a musician who moves to New York on the heals of a band break-up, crashes with his best friend Lawrence (Bujalski) and kinda sorta falls for Lawrence's girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift). Shot in a style that's the filmic equivalent of lo-fi recording -- 16mm film, minimal lighting, mostly handheld camerawork, small crews, deceptively simple storylines -- the films, which are sometimes criticized for their navel-gazing solipsism, display Bujalski's gift for mining the nuances of behavior and emotion.

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Q: What was the film program like at Harvard? I understand Ross McElwee teaches there.

People don’t necessarily realize that there’s a film program there, but it’s pretty documentary-centric. A lot of my initial training was observational documentary, which I think I brought a lot of to how I’ve learned to work as an amateur filmmaker.

Ross wasn’t teaching the years that I was there, but he was a presence. A lot of personal documentary comes out of that program largely with students inspired by the likes of Ross.

Q: What was the film program like at Harvard? I understand Ross McElwee teaches there.

People don't necessarily realize that there's a film program there, but it's pretty documentary-centric. A lot of my initial training was observational documentary, which I think I brought a lot of to how I've learned to work as an amateur filmmaker.

Ross wasn't teaching the years that I was there, but he was a presence. A lot of personal documentary comes out of that program largely with students inspired by the likes of Ross.

Q: Did you come into Harvard knowing that you wanted to do documentary work, and then evolve into narrative features?

Not particularly. I grew up a movie-crazy kid, and that was always where my interest and my enthusiasm was. Probably when I was in high school, I think I assumed that wherever I went to school I'd be studying film there. In retrospect Harvard's program feels like a great, a great fit for me. Just in terms of just watching things, between the Harvard Film Archive and the Brattle Theater, most of the great films I've seen in my life, that's where I saw them.

Q: Were there any particular films or filmmakers whose work inspired Mutual Appreciation?

Yes and no. This is the kind of question that I'm always cagey about. People have a tendency to want to peg you down with influences because I think it makes it easier to write about. So for that reason, I sort of always get evasive on this question. I think you're grabbing from everywhere. A lot of the obvious influences are in there, but I don't want you to think that the film is no more than just an ensemble of other films that I've watched.

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Q: I've read a lot of comparisons of your work to Jim Jarmusch because of the minimalism, the naturalism, etc.

Jim Jarmusch is great, particularly the earlier stuff is. You can't do a little weird, independent comedy in black-and-white without thinking of him to some degree. Black-and-white does handle a certain kind of deadpan comedy really well.

Q: Is that why you decided to shoot Mutual Appreciation in black-and-white?

That's more or less it. I thought that it had the right mood and the right vibe, and that it would be funny in a specific way. And it's so much fun when you get your footage back in black-and-white. Everything looks beautiful, contrary to the Paul Simon lyrics where he says everything looks worse in black-and-white.

Q: What kind of short films or other projects did you do to prepare for making your first feature, Funny Ha Ha?

Coming out of school, I did a thesis film that was 26 minutes long. I don't think it ultimately is very good, but a lot of the lessons I learned from that I carried around in my craw for three or four years until I was fit to get behind the camera again and do Funny Ha Ha. The program does have a strong documentary, so when you go to make feature films you're doing it very much with the documentary ethos, this notion that ultimately all you need to make a film is someone to run the camera and someone to run the sound, or in Ross McElwee's case one person can do both. There's more of a militaristic aspect to large-scale productions where everybody has a specific role, and you learn the difference between an assistant director, a camera assistant, a production manager and all that stuff.

Q: Both of your films have a similar feel, a very naturalistic, documentary-esque style. To what extent are you making a conscious effort to explore a particular aesthetic?

I'm not necessarily trying to make films that look "of a piece." I didn't make Mutual Appreciation thinking that this would be a direct companion piece to Funny Ha Ha. But all of the things that led me to make Funny Ha Ha the way I made it were still interesting to me. I didn't feel that there was any reason that I needed to abandon that turf yet.

I think that often when someone who is thinking very much about the last thing they did and wanting to react to that, sometimes they want to avoid certain mistakes they made or repeat certain successes. And for that reason people sometimes think, "Well, I've got to do something completely different to get away." In my eyes Mutual Appreciation is completely different from Funny Ha Ha, but I understand how someone who hasn't spent years at the editing table with them might not see it that way.

Q: Although I think the narrative of Mutual Appreciation is more complex than that of Funny Ha Ha, I feel like Mutual Appreciation is a first film and Funny Ha Ha is the second one. Maybe that's just because Mutual Appreciation is in black-and-white.

Obviously it's a similar milieu with similar sorts of characters, but I feel like the tone of the films is very different. When we made Funny Ha Ha we didn't know who, if anyone, would ever see it, and there was this great bubble of naiveté around us. I think the people who prefer Funny Ha Ha prefer it because it has this unrepeatable naiveté to it. And Mutual Appreciation is harsher in some ways. It may be a funnier, more muscular a film in certain ways, although to me that doesn't necessarily mean it's better by any means.

Q: It seems like a lot of the aesthetic of your films originates from your methodology. What are some of the things that led you to make Funny Ha Ha?

To some extent I've learned how important performance is to me. You see this in so many student films where all kinds of attention is given to the things that are more or less within one's control. And the things that are more ineffable, such as performance, it's hard to know what to do with them. You have these films that may or may not be lit nicely, but there's no heart to them. That was my paramount goal with the film, getting the performances to feel organic. And to that end I ended up casting non-actors, because I realized that I knew better how to work with non-actors, how to work with people purely on a rapport basis as opposed to via craft. I haven't particularly learned the craft of directing professional actors.

Q: How do you find people to play these roles?

Well, they're old friends, and some of them are new friends, people that I'm lucky enough to come across at the right moment. You meet someone, and you have a sense of them and what it looks like when they walk into a room. And then you try to imagine them as that character. I've always done screen tests with people whenever I've had the chance. I just put a video camera on them and ask them to play the scene, and that will give you a notion pretty quickly of how a person adapts to having a camera in the room. Some people freeze up, but a lot of people are great if you give them the room to move and see what they do with that room.

Q: How fully written was the script for Mutual Appreciation? Was everything laid out or is it more of a loose structure of what you want to happen in each scene, but the actual dialogue is improvised?

I write a conventional-looking script, and I write it as precisely as I can. I go back and I tweak every line and that kind of thing, but from there, once I actually get to set, all that goes out the window. The most important thing is that it sounds like it makes sense coming out of someone's mouth. Sometimes what ends up on the screen is exactly what I wrote, and very often it's some loose variation on it. But it all sticks pretty close to the structure as written. We tend not to stray too far from that structure, because that's what makes it possible to edit the films.

Q: How did you rehearse with non-actors to prepare for the film?

Some of the things we can never rehearse before the shoot, because people have jobs and other commitments, like the party scenes in Mutual Appreciation where you have four characters in a room together. But the smaller, the more intimate scenes, we try to rehearse those. I usually just do one rehearsal to try to give the actors a better sense of what the scene is about but not to the degree that they memorize their dialogue, so it will still be fresh when we actually get to set. It's very helpful for me as a writer. A lot of times, the first time you hear someone say something that you've written you realize how bad your writing is. Sometimes it's not easy to see that beforehand. Certainly it's a last-minute reveal when it comes to that.

Q: You've also cast yourself in both of your features, and both times in roles that aren't flattering, especially in Mutual Appreciation where your character is largely stumbling and ineffectual. How closely did you identify with those roles?

It's hard to say. I'm a little too close to it, which may be paradoxical that I'm too close to it to know how well I identify with it. Certainly, I had a sense of what there was for me to give as an actor. But it's hard to be objective about yourself in the same way that you are with all the other actors about how their vibe is going to translate to the screen. I can certainly identify with the characters I play, but I think what all of us do on screen is we pick part of ourselves to exaggerate and caricature. I do that as much as anybody else.

Q: Tell me about the practical details of making Mutual Appreciation.

It was a 20-day shoot done over the course of one month in October 2003. We shot on an Arri SR-II camera. On both films I worked with cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, who's great and who I adore. I try to consult with Matthias as much as possible, but I really trust him. We'd talked through the shots and everything, but there was no video tap. I usually look at the frame before we start rolling, but I don't know precisely what's in the frame or what his movements are. Every shot in these films was shot from his shoulder. In that sense, Matthias has to react as the characters do, to a large extent. He has to move with them, and as the characters move around Matthias has to keep up with them.

We were shooting 16mm film so we had to light most of the time. I always try to minimize the amount of light and the amount of equipment around, but it's necessary, most of the time, to get an exposure on film.

Q: How long did it take you to edit the film?

It took while for a lot of reasons, partially because it's kind of a big film, and I had various day jobs, and we hit a lot of technical snags. We shot in October 2003, and I didn't have it finished until March 2005. That wasn't a solid year and a half of cutting, but a big chunk of that was cutting.

Q: What was the total budget for Mutual Appreciation? How did you get it financed?

I'm always shy about saying numbers in print. But there was some grant money that went into it, which was hugely helpful, and that's money that I wouldn't have been able to attract without having done Funny Ha Ha. And there was some other, private money, the kind of money that nobody was expecting to get back in a hurry. I think that that's the only way you can make films like this. All of the camera equipment was lent to us, all of the lighting equipment was lent to us and almost everybody worked for free. The majority of locations were given to us. I don't know how many more films I can make like this without getting money back.

Q: Why did you end Mutual Appreciation with the scene that you chose: all three of the main characters in a group hug?

Endings are tough and very hard to explain. I feel I ride a tricky, thin line in terms of trying to find an ending for these films without necessarily looking for a resolution. I don't think that these stories would support conventional resolution. I have to feel intuitively for the point where the story has played itself out. There's no more to tell in this chapter, which isn't to say that the characters don't go on in some other line, but I felt at that point, all the right questions had been raised.

Q: Why did you title the film Mutual Appreciation?

I like that phrase. I like that "mutual appreciation" is a much less intense form of love. And maybe that was what the film was about. I don't know.

Q: You've become the latest poster boy for indie filmmaking. What would you do if were offered a Hollywood gig? Would you take it and try to put your own stamp on it?

We'll see. For the moment, I've gotten a script-writing gig, adapting a book. It's my first time doing anything like that. I've never adapted a book before, never worked for studio people before, and I'm very early into that process now. I'm just beginning to learn what that's all about. I think like a lot of independent filmmakers, the fantasy is the John Sayles model of working, where you make your living doing that kind of work and then are able to continue to do your own stuff as well. The kind of autonomy that I've had on Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation is something that very few filmmakers ever get to have. On one hand I don't expect it to last, but on the other hand I'm not going to give up without a fight.

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