Andrew Bujalski interview: Computer Chess, mumblecore

Interview Paul Weedon 21 Jan 2014 - 09:48

The geekiest film of 2013 gets its home release this week. To celebrate, we chat to Computer Chess director Andrew Bujalski...

Having arguably created an entire film movement singlehandedly (and somewhat unwittingly), Andrew Bujalski is arguably one of today’s most exciting and unconventional filmmakers. Regarded by many as the ‘Godfather of Mumblecore,’ over the past decade his low budget, lo-fi features, often shot with non-professional actors, have amassed a dedicated following alongside the work of his peers, Joe Swanberg, the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton.

Bujalski’s latest offering, the brilliant Computer Chess, marks something of a departure from his previous work, as he turns his attention from the awkwardness of contemporary America to the visionary oddballs of the late 70s and 80s tech scene. We spoke to him recently about his influential body of work.

You’ve spoken before about mumblecore being this kind of accidental movement. Is it slightly frustrating to be considered the godfather of a movement you never set out to establish by choice?

Only mildly so. It would take quite a bit of hubris to ask for anything better [laughs]. I mean it would be nice to just be considered a good filmmaker. It's a silly little thing, but I certainly feel I could have done worse for tags to get stuck with.

And it’s made waves around the world. I was reading that there's a Berlin mumblecore movement, for example. What defines the genre in your opinion? You recently stated that if you consciously set out to make a mumblecore film today you probably wouldn't know how to do so.

Well, I never knew what it was. I kind of feel like I'm the least qualified person to define what that thing is that people are referring to when they use that word and I think it's also shifted over time. It’s been interesting for me to see a neologism take root and spread across the world. I mean, you're across an ocean talking about a joke that my sound mixer made to me eight years ago and I certainly never expected to be talking about it with him, let alone anyone else so, who knows?

I guess the best perspective I have on it is that it has nothing to do with an aesthetic particularly. I think the word was useful in defining… I don’t even want to call it ‘a generation gap’, but I think that if there was one thing people were responding to it was a commonality in these movies. And I think I'm on the older end of what mumblecore is supposed to be, but that’s people from a generation who were responding to similar things in culture and the films maybe spoke in a voice that sounded different because of the patterns of how we grew up and how we learned to communicate with each other.

I mean, certainly from my own films at least. In fact, if anything, I'm probably the most retrograde of that group. I was the one who was shooting on 16mm. I was trying to make old-fashioned movies and the last thing I was trying to do was launch a new movement.

So why Computer Chess?

That’s the hardest question to answer because I think most of the heavy lifting creatively from my end happened subconsciously. It was a fondly held fantasy project for many, many years and it was kind of a place of refuge for me as I would try to think about how to do something that the marketplace would find acceptable. I spent a lot of time thinking about that and trying to figure it out. And I find that very frustrating. I don’t feel like I have a natural talent for it, so my happy place would be to go and dream of the craziest, least commercial thing I could possibly think of, and that was Computer Chess.

And as far as that specific oddity of the subject matter, I had a little book of chess trivia that I bought for $2, it was a book from the 1980s, and I don’t know exactly why I bought it, except that it was cheap, I liked the book store and I like chess. I’m not good at it. I’m a terrible player. I never had the discipline to get any good at it, but I liked chess enough that I thought I’d like to have a $2 book of trivia and questions that I will not know the answers and probably not understand most of the answers to.

And in that there was a passing mention of these computer chess tournaments. And this book was from the 1980s, so the question might have been, ‘when was the first computer chess tournament held?’ or ‘where was it held,’ or something like that. And I just thought that sounded interesting and somehow this logged in my subconscious next to this fantasy I had predating that about how interesting it might be to make a movie on this kind of old school analogue video and those things seemed to fit well together. And then, I don’t know, I just fantasized on it for years. It’s very hard for me to reconstruct how this thing came to be. 

The aesthetic quality of the film is something that’s really striking. It was shot on one of the earliest Sony video cameras, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it’s the AVC-3260.

There’s a real sense that we’re watching the story unfold in a completely different time period as a result. How did you go about researching the equipment and, in particular, the setting too?

I think we did our due diligence. We didn’t really have the time or the money to knock ourselves out. You look at something like Mad Men and it’s very daunting because you think they’ve spent millions of dollars on production design and it’s all authentic. And we knew we couldn’t do that and we didn’t want to pour all of our energy in to that. It couldn’t just be about fetishising the era, but I figured when you make a period piece it’s never really about recreating the era anyway.

I mean, even Mad Men, for all of the beautiful little details, is so much a contemporary show and not particularly about the 60s. It’s about building some kind of tunnel between the 60s and today and finding where they resonate with each other and where you can make a story out of that and I figured that that was all we had to do.

We didn’t have to build 1979 or 1980 perfectly, we just had to build a nice sturdy tunnel. And so I have no doubt that there are plenty of anachronisms in the movie for anybody who’s inclined to look for them, but we weren’t putting our energy into policing that so much as we were trying to get it to feel right.

And how important was it for you to have the clash of personalities between the two groups staying at the hotel? You’ve got the chess tournament attendees and, in contrast, you’ve got another set of oddballs, this new age encounters group who come together in the same place.

You know, I don’t remember how or when that notion crossed my mind, but it certainly felt right, especially in terms of the fact that we never quite defined in the movie what year it is or where we are, or anything. I think there’s a kind of pop culture telling of history that in the 50s everybody listened to Elvis and in the 60s they all turned in to hippies and in the 70s they all went disco dancing and in the 80s they all started playing Pac-Man. I don’t think our experience of history as it happens is that cut and dry.

You don’t hang up your disco bell bottoms on December 31st 1979 and get ready to start playing Pac-Man on January 1st 1980. These things flow in to each other and there are always echoes of the past that continue to resonate. And the more time I spent learning about this world there was a tremendous amount of resonance between the kind of hippy culture and the tech culture. And certainly all of Northern California, as far as I can tell, is just built on those two things bouncing off each other.

Ultimately, I think the quest to build an artificial intelligence has to be kind of a spiritual one. You can’t seek to build an intelligence without on some level reflecting on your own intelligence. Certainly the programmers that I talked to in the course of research all have some sort of philosophical bent or they wouldn’t have chosen such a peculiar place for their talents. I mean it’s a very strange and very human thing to want to do – to want to teach a computer to play this human game. 

I think that’s something that’s kind of taken for granted today.

Absolutely. And I think the era that we depict in the movie is probably the closing of the era where it was possible to have this opinion that a computer will never beat a grandmaster at chess because there’s something spiritual about the game. I think, for anybody who plays the game, it’s very easy to recognise or feel that there is some spiritual component to the game, but ultimately we learn that that doesn’t mean a computer can’t absolutely crush you at it [laughs].

One thing that fascinates me is that the computer beating Gary Kasparov was not the end of the story for them. They just kept getting better and better. Now I think computers are playing chess at a level where it’s starting to become difficult for humans to understand how good they are. And that’s also a little bit scary, but fascinating.

If the film were to have been shot digitally, how do you feel that this would have impacted it?

It would be a completely different movie and we would have made it completely differently. I’m a firm believer that you can produce good and interesting work in any medium, whether that’s the fanciest, newest video in the world or it’s just making shadow puppets in front of a bonfire. I think there’s always a way to tell a compelling story, but it’s not the same. You don’t tell those stories the same way in those media. And for years people would ask me, sometimes with a tone of anger it seemed: “why do you still shoot on 16mm?”

People seemed to be annoyed that I didn’t want to join the 21st century and shoot on video. And, in a way, this was kind of my reaction. I can shoot on video and I can shoot on the new stuff too, but whatever I shoot on, I want to do it not just because it’s the most convenient thing out there, but because I’m trying to get something out of the image and trying to work with what that brings me.

And so this was a very particular case of shooting the story to the medium. And, as I mentioned, I had the idea to shoot on this video before I knew that I wanted to make a movie about a computer chess tournament. So I don’t think this movie would exist if not for that ambition, to try to work in this way. And could you make a movie about a computer chess tournament on nice new digital video? Absolutely. But you couldn’t make this one.

You’re renowned for working with non-professional actors. What does this bring to the fold that professional actors wouldn’t, or couldn’t?

You know, I guess I just feel like over the years I’ve learned how to work with them and how to get something that’s really exciting and really special. With professional actors, it’s often part of their training to endeavour to clarify things for the audience. I think professional actors are often taught that they should help the audience find their way along in the story. And that’s good. That’s useful. It makes a lot of movies work, but the things I’ve always been interested in doing have been a little contrary to that and I’ve always wanted to tell stories with a lot of uncertainty and murkiness in the performances.

I’ve always wanted to see people figuring out what’s happening to them as it’s happening to them, because a) that’s something that cinema absolutely excels at portraying and b) that, to me, is where the most interesting stories are. And, in a way, I think that kind of goes against an actor's training. Not that they couldn’t get there and not that they couldn’t do a good job, but when I’m working with somebody who has no other ambition than to try to serve that scene and not to serve the larger story particularly.

It’s a little harder to get my head around how you generate that same kind of enthusiasm for something that is a little more commodified. Now, all that said, I get that that’s how the commercial world works and if I’m to have any kind of career going forward I have to do that at some point, and I’m trying to figure out how to do it now. So we shall see. But for me, I would have to try to find a way to keep it exciting and keep it fresh and still mean to cast the person I’m casting and not just be casting them because they were the most famous person available. 

The writing plays a huge part in it as well because so much of the dialogue sounds wholly improvised, but much of your creative process involves focusing very closely on dialogue and the end result is kind of seamless. Non-professional actors take this and translate it in to something that sounds completely authentic. How much improvisation was employed on Computer Chess?

A fair bit actually. Computer Chess was actually the first film I’d done without a full conventional screenplay, so the first three movies looked like any other screenplay. We worked from an eight page treatment with sheaves of other kind of compensatory notes, which ultimately probably required more rigorous planning from me than having the screenplay.

Without the document to refer to I just had to have more information in my head. So it really depends from scene to scene. There were some scenes that might as well have been scripted because I knew pretty well what people needed to be saying and when and there were other scenes where there was a fair bit of room for improvisation.

I mean, even on the earlier films where I did have a script, I was never too precious about having the words delivered precisely the way I wrote them because that was never as important to me as that feeling of naturalness and freshness on screen.

What is it that attracts you to outsiders and awkwardness?

It’s probably my general awkwardness [laughs]. I don’t have much of an answer for that question, but those have always been the people that I’ve been interested in real life and as a writer.

It’s certainly something that seems to have been commodified more and more by Hollywood in the past decade. How does mumblecore’s brand of awkwardness differs from Hollywood’s, do you think?

[Laughs] Well it’s just the difference, as you say between the commodification. I think, you know, for any kind of storytelling or any kind of character device in the world there’s usually a kind of straightforward, honest way to do it and there’s usually a broad way to do it, which isn’t to say the broad way can’t be honest too.

I mean I’m certainly a Michael Cera fan and I enjoy what he does. It wouldn’t necessarily belong in one of the movies I’ve made, but who knows? There are just different ways of getting it. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. I mean the problem with Hollywood is it’s all so… It’s a shame to me because I think that there is a great opportunity to make popular entertainment that also has some heart and some honesty and some love to them. And occasionally those sneak out and that’s very exciting when that happens, but it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to do that over there, just because the folks who might be capable are not allowed to steer the ship.

You mentioned that you’re looking to come up with an idea that steers you towards… I don’t want to say ‘Hollywood’ because that’s not what it is. Let’s say bigger budget productions…

I feel like I’ve gotten about as successful as you can get without making any money [laughs]. And that’s good. I mean, quite honestly, that’s all I ever aspired to. One of the thoughts that scares me is I have in fact achieved my greatest ambitions because I think all I ever really wanted to be was an obscure independent filmmaker and I feel like I’ve done that. And I’d love to keep doing that for the rest of my life – it really is where my passion and my enthusiasm is and I have so much fun making these things that are purely individual, but I certainly owe it to my family and, on some level, I owe it to myself just to try to get my feet wet in that pool. Can I do something that will connect more broadly? Even if that just means you put a movie star or two in it. Now, it becomes a problem to crack, just like any other.

Computer Chess was all about “how do I tell a story in this outmoded, abandoned visual language?” And so you go from there and you keep asking that question and ideas begat ideas. And to some extent I’m trying to take a similar approach to this very different problem of “okay, how do I tell something that feels honest and fresh and exciting for me, but also has room for movie stars in it?” And so I’m trying to crack that problem with the same unscientific method. 

There’s something that feels distinctly American about the raw style of mumblecore. I get the impression that a British attempt to recreate the genre would be very different.

I have no idea what it means to “try” to do a mumblecore film, but I think there’s no reason it shouldn’t play over there, especially if you look at the things people tag my movies with. They would probably translate very well to Britain in as much as I’m accused of having characters who don’t want to express their emotions and talk around things and I feel that you guys invented that. You guys are the best at it.

Mike Leigh’s very good at it.

Oh yeah!

Was that a frame of reference for you when you were starting out?

Oh yeah. I adore Mike Leigh and he’s a huge inspiration for sure. Although, I think, like with any filmmaker who’s really good, he’s certainly inimitable and anybody who goes out to try and make a Mike Leigh movie who isn’t Mike Leigh is really headed for disaster. But, nonetheless, there are still inspirations that you can take from them and things you can learn. There’s a lot you can learn from watching his movies. And so, yeah, for sure, he’s a big deal for me. But lots of people are. Movies were the only thing I ever really wanted to do and just from when I was a really little kid - just going back to Star Wars and Conan The Barbarian and Rocky III - these all made big impressions on me and they all still do resonate in my head.

You can find inspiration, not just in the greats, but sometimes you see something totally forgettable, except for one scene, which just has something mind blowing about it, or maybe it doesn’t, but you thought you saw something mind blowing in it. And you can go and steal that and build something out of it and that’s exciting.

And the stories that you’ve got floating around right now… whether it’s a big budget production, or a smaller, intimate affair, do you think you will continue making these lo-fi films that find this dedicated audience?

You know, there’s always going to be a part of me that really wants to run off and do that and it’s just a question of can I? Just in terms of not having my house foreclosed upon and not having my wife divorce me, you know? What can I get away with? As soon as I feel like I have the opportunity to do something financially disastrous, I’m sure I will.

Andrew Bujalski, thank you very much.

Computer Chess is available on dual format disc now.

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