Singular appreciation: interview with Andrew Bujalski
It's not easy being young, but apparently it's even harder to recreate the experience on film. So many versions of the post-college life seem contrived and inauthentic, mostly designed to push soundtracks sales and phony catch phrases. Enter Andrew Bujalski, writer, director, actor, editor, and above all, the best chronicler of twentysomethings to emerge in at least twentysomething years.
Bujalski knows the tension in a parked car kiss, the indignities of temping, the poorly articulated emotions, the unromanticized romances, the nagging suspicion that there was supposed to be so much more waiting for you. In fact, his films are often so unassumingly note-perfect, you could mistake them for documentaries. His debut, Funny Ha Ha, was easily one of my favorite films last year, but his follow-up, Mutual Appreciation, still manages to improve upon it.
Starring Bishop Allen's Justin Rice as an Brooklyn indie musician (I admit it's a stretch), the film tackles everything from math rock to morning afters, from drunk dialing to the daily grind. Included in the Village Voice's Best of 2005 film series, and sure to appear on even more Top Ten lists than its predecessor, Mutual Appreciation is confirmation of an important new voice in independent cinema. It opens in select theaters on August 22nd and Funny Ha Ha is available on DVD now. After you've scribbled that date into your calendar and rearranged your Netflix queue accordingly, check out my premiere interview with the man himself:
NL: How long did it take for Mutual Appreciation to come together? What did the process involve?
AB: I began writing Mutual in 2002 just after I finished Funny Ha Ha, and had a complete first draft somewhere around the end of that year. We were lucky enough to be able to get it together to shoot in October '03 and then finished it all up in March '05. (Though of course it never feels "finished.") I'd written the film with Justin Rice in mind for the lead--would not have tried to make the film with anyone else--so getting it together first meant making it work with his life and his schedule, and then assembling cast and crew--all, miraculously, the right people at the right moments--who could bring the thing to fruition in as light and relaxed a manner as we could pull off. Many, many favors were of course necessary, loads of equipment was lent to us, countless kind deeds done on our behalf by all sorts of people...
NL: A lot of the actors in your movies are known primarily as filmmakers or musicians. Why'd you make that choice and how do you think it affects your direction?
AB: These just happen to be the sort of people I often consort with and my mode of direction is based much more on personal rapport and understanding than any sort of traditional understanding of "craft." Hence the casting of a lot of friends, but also of people who maybe I've just met but could or would or are about to be friends. These sort of people of course also tend to have their own things going on, intellectually, emotionally, and can bring a lot to the story, without looking to me to micromanage their performances, which I wouldn't know how to do anyhow.
NL: Although they're usually discussed as limitations, how have budgetary constraints improved or inspired your filmmaking?
AB: Partially, I think a low budget helps engender a sense of camaraderie, which is entirely necessary to how we work. If there were millions of dollars floating around, the "all for one, one for all" spirit, to the extent we have it, would be far more difficult to conjure up. And perhaps more importantly, millions of dollars usually do not turn up without all sorts of strings attached, which I've been quite happy not to have to deal with.
Justin Rice and Pamela Corkey in Mutual Appreciation
NL: There's this sense of ennui and malaise hovering over your films that becomes especially noticeable when the characters go to parties. What do you make of the idea that our generation is more lost/confused than the ones before it?
AB: It's difficult for me to comment on that, I'm not a cultural historian particularly, and I've never meant these films to be "portrait of a generation" films, I need to approach the characters and situations as highly specific... Maybe we're the lostest generation in a while, I don't know, but perhaps the next group will be even loster, let's see.
NL: What's an average day like for you? What is the breakdown in terms of writing, doing publicity, trying to pay the bills, etc.?
AB: Oh geez, that's a tough one, I wrestle with trying to pin this down constantly. Perhaps I'd be happier if I had more structure. I've been doing a ridiculous amount of traveling this summer, which has been fun and often fulfilling, but also exhausting and disorienting--I'm writing to you now from Chicago where I've been acting for a friend's film. (Nervewracking, self-conscious-making, horrible/fun.) Been spending a lot of time going to festivals and promoting the films, and of course gearing up for our upcoming release. Have been trying to find time to work on my own script which I'd like to shoot next year, have been hired to write a "professional" script, which has been on hold for a while but will become a going concern again next week I think. Have been working on elaborate special features for the Mutual DVD, including a short film we shot last week. Etc., etc. So the average day... mostly consists of me panicking that I'm too far behind on all of these things. Usually I just write e-mails until my eyes start to bleed.
NL: Who are some young filmmakers/musicians/writers whose work you enjoy right now?
AB: I'm tempted to just list all of my friends. But then I'm the kind of person who would feel really guilty if I left someone off that list. So instead I'll just evade the question entirely for now... There was a piece made for Boston public access several years ago called Brookline Is My Lady that I've watched twenty or so times and that I love very dearly...
Kate Dollenmayer and Myles Paige in Funny Ha Ha
NL: What advice would you give to a filmmaker just starting out?
AB: What's this hypothetical filmmaker trying to accomplish? I'd say, "Please don't make a calling card film," but, you know, to each his/her own. I certainly can't hold it against people who want to kickstart traditional careers going out and doing that, there's nothing actually wrong with making a living...
NL: What are you working on next? Are your characters going to become older and more adult in subsequent projects as they seem to be doing so far? Also, do you intend to keep working with nonprofessional actors and in 16mm?
AB: As per earlier answer, a few irons in the fire, I guess. Mainly I want to do another big film in the vein of the two that I've done. I am convinced that my method is NOT a sustainable one (was not particularly intended to be), so if I want to make films like this, I have to do it NOW. Will have all the time in the world to work in the industry later, if they'll have me. It's difficult to predict where the characters will go because I won't really know what the films are until they're done! Which is presuming I can actually pull them off! We shall see.
I do love non-pros and I do love 16mm and I don't feel like I've worn either of those things out yet for my own tastes. The DVD extra short we shot last month was on HD, and though a lot of things were very convenient and nice about that, I did not fall in love. My heart is still with dying technology...