Andrew Bujalski has been a critics’ darling since his debut feature, Funny Ha Ha, got a limited release in 2005, three years after it first screened at a small film festival. It’s now thought of as the first “mumblecore” movie, though when Bujalski was making it, he didn’t think it was the beginning of anything. “I was just a really late straggler,” he told Eric Hynes in the New York Times, “making the last indie movie of the early ’90s or late ’80s.”
Now well into his 30s, with a child and a mortgage, Bujalski is “trying to sell out,” he told me. He wrote a script-for-hire—an adaptation of the Benjamin Kunkel novel Indecision—but the movie didn’t come together. He’s pitched a couple of TV shows, and both are currently with networks that are, he says, “on the fence.” He likes his TV ideas, and would love the chance to make them happen. But he’s also tried, in crafting them, to imagine things that might have wider appeal than his movies have had so far. He didn’t bring the networks his “craziest shit,” he says, noting that even when a truly original show—like Louie or Girls or The Wire—succeeds, networks tend to look for the next show like that, rather than another truly original piece of work.
So what is his craziest shit? Probably Computer Chess, the strange, enormously inventive, not-like-anything-else movie that opens on a handful of screens across the U.S. this month and next. Set at a 1980s tournament for computer programmers trying to create the best chess program, it was filmed using 1970s video cameras that have long been obsolete.
I spoke with Bujalski in New York earlier this week about his new movie, his 1980s childhood, and the underappreciated intelligence of Sylvester Stallone.
Slate: I have a lot of questions about Computer Chess, but first I want to ask you about Sylvester Stallone. You recently cited the Rocky series as one of your key influences, and said of Stallone, “There’s no actor in the world that I would rather work with.” Explain?
Andrew Bujalski: It runs deep with me. To be a child of the ’80s is to have Stallone as some sort of father figure, I guess—he certainly is an emblem of masculinity from that time. One of the things I love about him is that he’s very much his own. Though he’s made plenty of questionable career choices, and has had his attempts at pandering that didn’t work out so well, when he’s been successful it’s been because he’s following his own muse. He’s one of those guys for whom success is so overwhelming that you tend to think of them as mainstream, but in fact I think he’s quite individual and eccentric—and the mainstream bent to him, because he was the right guy for that moment.
I think he’s incredibly smart, and I’d love to try and get that on screen. When people think of Stallone they think of a big ’80s action star, and the Rocky movies—as much as Parts 3 and 4 can get pretty overheated and big—they’re not action movies, they’re dramas. It’s stunning, in a way: These were blockbuster dramas. There aren’t a lot of other examples of that.
I can talk your ear off about the Rocky series. First of all I think it’s a trilogy, and each part of the trilogy is in diptych form—like he kind of takes two cracks at each part. So 1 and 2 clearly go together: They’re the story of an ordinary man discovering the champion within. And 3 and 4, in a very ’80s way, are the story of a champion discovering the super-duper-champion within, the turbocharged champion. And then 5 and 6 are kind of a reentry into the earth’s atmosphere.
Slate: I confess I did not see the sixth one.
Bujalski: It’s great. The fifth is terrible, but part of the genius of the sixth is that it’s so good that it retroactively justifies the fifth.
Slate: You mentioned being a child of the ’80s, and Computer Chess, your first period piece, is set very squarely in that decade. Did your childhood experience of that era inform the way you approached it in the movie?
Bujalski: Of course. You know, if I’d made a movie set in the Civil War, it’d all be an act of the imagination—and this was all an act of imagination too. But I did have vague, hazy memories of the period that I could draw on. I could look at some bit of production design and say, “Yes, that’s right.” I knew when things clicked for me and felt evocative of that time. And that was fun. But I’m certainly not an expert.
Slate: And you had a production designer.
Bujalski: Yes—and that was all new to me. I’d never worked with a production designer, never worked with a costume designer, with hair. But I was very fortunate to put together a tremendous crew that did great work.
Slate: It certainly looks right to me, as a fellow child of that period. At one point, the programmers stumble upon a New Age-y group that is staying at the same hotel where the tournament is taking place. Were there groups or movements that inspired that particular idea, or was it something more speculative?
Bujalski: I don’t remember how it started. But certainly once I started to put this thing together, I did my due diligence on “encounters.” I had a friend who had just written an academic book on the encounter movement, so I went out for a drink with her and made her explain everything to me. And the actors did a lot of research, all the folks we cast for the encounter group. I have a tendency to want nonprofessional actors, but I knew for the encounter group I wanted to get seasoned acting vets, who just have a blast doing the research and going deep into that. So they brought a lot as well, and were a joy to work with.
Slate: I read somewhere that there was more improvisation in this film than in your previous movies.
Bujalski: It’s the first thing I’ve ever done without a complete, conventional script going in. And there were a lot of reasons for that. I’m not a tech guy, so for me to try to go on Wikipedia and research these tech issues and do my best to fake those words on a page seemed silly. It seemed to make more sense to cast people who know and understand computers and get them to say it right. But ultimately the process of shooting was surprisingly similar to working from a script—if anything, it required me and the producers to be better prepared than we might have been otherwise, without the document to fall back on. I certainly didn’t know every word that was gonna come out of every person’s mouth, but we always knew the structure of the scenes—and ultimately that’s the same as the script, even if you do have every word on the page in front of you. There’s still a process of sitting down with the actors and working it out and making it come alive with them that is going to be the same with or without that page.
Slate: When shooting your previous movies, your actors had the freedom to change the lines a little as they worked through their scenes.
Bujalski: Yeah. I ain’t David Mamet.
Slate: You mentioned in New York Magazine that the idea for the film originally came from a book of chess trivia. Did it mention computer chess?
Bujalski: Yeah. The book was from the ’80s and had been sitting on the remainder shelf at New England Mobile Book Fair for 20-some years when I picked it up. I can’t explain to you why I am the kind of person who sees a book of chess trivia for $2 and says, “I want that,” because I don’t know the answers to any of the questions in it. But there was a section on computer chess, and one of the questions was, “Where was the first American computer chess tournament held?” Something like that. I can’t remember the answer, but just the fact that such a thing existed sparked something in my mind.
People keep asking me, “Where did this movie come from?” I don’t have a good answer. I think the answer is, “My subconscious,” but I wasn’t privy to most of how it was built in there.
Slate: It does seem, especially by the end, like that’s where it’s coming from—there are various surreal surprises that suddenly make the movie feel like it’s coming from a fairly deep mental place.
Bujalski: The 8-page treatment that was the basis of everything we shot was written pretty quickly shortly before my son was born. That’s part of why I don’t remember anything, because my memory was wiped after that. You know, that was a different lifetime. But somehow that’s all in the movie, too.
Slate: There’s one shot in particular near the end that hints that perhaps, having created a life, you’re exploring what that means—in a sense, asking this new person, “Who are you?”
Slate: You’ve mentioned a fondness for public access television. I think that shows in the movie, too.
Bujalski: It’s rare that I turn on the TV at home, but when I do I’m a compulsive channel flipper, because nothing holds my attention—except public access. I always stop on public access and I’m always fascinated by it. A few years ago when I was living in Boston I had a roommate who played in an amateur baseball league, and one of his games was televised once, so I thought, “Oh, this’ll be fun, I’m gonna watch Paul’s baseball game on TV.” And I found that completely riveting—because the nature of how it was shot and how it was edited was so different from professional baseball games, which are, at this point, so incredibly well orchestrated. Professional baseball, when you watch it, you have a very strong narrative sense of where you are in the game and what’s happening and why. Whereas to watch this public access game, where the camera would just be in odd places or cut at odd moments—there was a constant disorientation in trying to figure out where we were in the game or what was happening. Which to me was a joy, and a great kind of adventure as a viewer.
I like that feeling very much. And I think it’s prominent in Computer Chess, but to some degree it has always been one of my enthusiasms as a filmmaker, to try to use disorientation productively. My favorite feeling watching a movie is the feeling of being a half-step behind it, trying to figure out where I am and trying to catch up to it. Obviously if you get left behind by too many places you throw up your hands and it’s not that much fun, but there’s a certain degree of disorientation that for me is always very fun as viewer.
Slate: I wonder if casting nonprofessional actors plays into this, too.
Bujalski: That’s part of it, certainly. I love professional actors and obviously work with a lot of great ones in Computer Chess and couldn’t have been happier with what they gave me. But the reason I’ve not always turned to them is this feeling that professional actors are trained to clarify, to help an audience understand what’s happening to the character, and I needed layers of misdirection. I was afraid a professional actor—you , know all of their training would go against it.
Slate: I wonder if the technical challenge you set for yourself in this movie, with the obsolete camera, has anything to do with putting an obstacle there for yourself, too—as though you wanted to surprise yourself, and break out of the routines that your usual process might have threatened to fall into.
Bujalski: It’s always a surprise. There’s no way to make a movie that isn’t hard.