STRAIGHT TALK: Andrew Bujalski In Conversation with Paul Felten
Forget the “mumblecore” tag: the young characters in Andrew Bujalksi’s three feature films (Beeswax, Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha) speak audibly—if not always articulately—and what they say isn’t as important as the honest confusion their chatter belies. This isn’t to say they don’t know what they want in some general sense. “I don’t want to be happy,” says Alan in Mutual Appreciation. “I just want a good story.” Happiness is what you feel after you’ve settled down, when you’re no longer attentive to the possibilities that each moment contains for altering life’s direction. Bujalski’s films are about the tension between responsibility and freedom, between the moment and its consequences, and they ask us to face, for a couple of hours, that profound between: the space that we all live in, and that both the young and old organize with inevitably temporary success.
PAUL FELTEN (RAIL): How do you get to work once you’ve got the germ of a story in mind? How has your working method changed over the course of the three features you’ve made? I’m especially interested in the script stage; watching the films again has made me think of you as a pretty rigorous dramatist.
ANDREW BUJALSKI: One germ attracts other germs I guess. I begin hippie-style just by following my intuitions—“This is a movie about a pair of twin sisters, and maybe one of them is being threatened with a lawsuit? And maybe one of them wears a yellow dress at some point? No—a green dress.” and begin filling up notebooks trying to figure out how these pieces fit together. Of course sometimes the pieces don’t fit at all; just because something happened to turn up in your stream of consciousness doesn’t mean it’s useful, and a lot of stuff gets thrown out. But slowly the story reveals itself, and of course generally I find myself embarrassed to discover I’ve just been heading back all along to the same obsessions I’m always heading back to. So it goes.
RAIL: What are those obsessions?
BUJALSKI: Oh, I don’t know. How people treat each other, how people understand each other, and misunderstand each other, sometimes willfully, sometimes not. And why! Like the monologue that opens Wings of Desire: “Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and not there?” I can’t figure it out.
RAIL: The central characters in Beeswax are twin sisters—people who share more history with one another than any two characters in your prior films, who pretty much embody that question “why am I me, and why not you?” (but don’t seem to struggle with it via squabbling, rivalry, any of that). As someone who’s focused so much on the push-and-pull of people trying to come together, what drew you to these people who already are together in such a profound way?
BUJALSKI: Well, you pretty much got it there: twins embody that question that I’m stuck on. The film is so much about family in all its forms—the kinds we’re stuck with, and the kinds we build for ourselves—and all of that radiated outward from the spark of the idea of the movie, which was that I wanted to do something with the Hatchers. I do think that twins are inherently “cinematic”—Sam Worthington and the big alien Sam Worthington in Avatar represent a kind of twinning. I think Beeswax and Avatar would make a compelling double feature—hopefully the studio will strike a deal with us to package the DVDs together.
RAIL: The people in Beeswax don’t drink nearly as much as the folks in Funny Ha Ha or Mutual Appreciation. I waited in vain for someone to throw a beer bottle off a porch or to call an ex. What is it about these people that compelled you to keep them relatively sober?
BUJALSKI: It’s a different movie. Spielberg seemed to have some success with aliens in Close Encounters and then with E.T., but he didn’t then feel a need to find a place for them in The Color Purple (Spielberg, obviously, being the model for my career).
RAIL: Along with Cameron, clearly. As long as we’re on science fiction, can you talk about D.J. Taitelbaum’s score for Beeswax on the new DVD? I don’t know of a DVD extra like it.
BUJALSKI: Yeah, I didn’t either! Which is why I wanted to do it. I hate watching movies on DVD. If I miss it at the theater, then that usually means I’ve missed it, but I love DVD extras. I always wanna consume all the extras, but they’re often so boring. I’ve never had any interest in doing a Director’s Commentary or a Behind-the-Scenes EPK sorta thing, so on every film I’ve tried to figure out a new way to approach this technology. Putting a score on a film that was never meant to have a score struck me as, if nothing else, novel—there’s a big fad for writing scores to silent films (seems to be the only way silent films are ever screened these days), but I’d never seen it on a “talkie.” D.J. Taitelbaum is in the film, in fact, we already had a piece of his music in the film, so I asked him to write up a score for the film and gave him free rein—I did not give anywhere near the amount of direction that I might have had this been for the “official” release—instead I wanted us both to be approaching this as an experiment, in which it was more important that he be trying things than that they all work. So, watching the film with that score track playing is a very peculiar experience—and sometimes it works eerily well! But it always recontextualizes what’s happening on screen.
In a weird way it does feel a bit like defacing my own movie—but we do seem to live in a 24/7 “remix” culture these days, and frankly I’d rather endorse an artistic, experimental recontextualization of the film than allow it to be remade in the image of the critics, the bloggers, the culture-at-large—that’s a kind of reinterpretation too, it’s just less fun.
RAIL: It completely recontextualizes what happens onscreen, but your offering of it is a generous act—we’re free to use it or not. You seem generally comfortable with whatever people take away from your movies, but I have to ask: are there any interpretations that aren’t acceptable to you? What critical tendencies make you angry?
BUJALSKI: I don’t object to any individual’s interpretation of the movie if it’s genuinely felt. I do feel like when you buy your ticket to the movie you’ve purchased an entry to your own relationship with it. It’s not really any of my business. What does raise a little fight in me is what seems like a tendency, in the public and the critics both, to relinquish private responses in favor of the rush of taking part in a mass experience. People seem fascinated by the thrashing about of the culture: we’re all junior sociologists and fewer and fewer of us are watching the movie without speculating what the guy next to us is thinking about it. Who cares what the fuck it represents to the culture, how zeitgeisty it is or isn’t? You just spent 100 minutes with it, what did it feel like to you?
RAIL: I’m still interested in the script. The drama in your movies hinges on miscommunication, oftentimes unwelcome direct communication, sincerity and deception in the same breath—dialogue that’s very halting and, to some extent, stylized. Is it ever tempting—while you’re writing the film alone in a room—to give these characters the facility with language that’s a writer’s luxury? Is it hard not to?
BUJALSKI: Not really. Occasionally I find myself writing out exactly what the “point” of a scene is in some character’s first draft dialogue and then going back and eradicating that line in the second draft because it seems to drain the drama out of the scene. But for the most part when I’m writing dialogue I just feel like I’m transcribing the way I’m hearing it in my head. Of course sometimes you have to force things, it doesn’t always flow so naturally. And the things you force are the things you find yourself calling bullshit on later and rewriting.
RAIL: So what constitutes “bullshit?” Is there a specific example of this kind of revision that comes to mind?
BUJALSKI: No example is leaping to mind—the writing process is too deep in the muck of memory now and I can’t bear to dredge it—but I think “bullshit,” generally, is when you look at what’s on the page and say, “Well, this serves my agenda as the writer, but it doesn’t serve the characters’ agendas, or jibe with what this situation would actually feel like.” On the one hand, it is part of the writer and director’s jobs to play god and push things where they need to go, but if the internal logic of the world you’re building is compromised, then whatever convenience you’ve bought yourself has come at too high a price. (I’m sure plenty of people would accuse me of getting this balance all wrong.)
RAIL: You once said that you wish you had the patience to write a novel, and I know you’ve adapted a novel (Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision) into screenplay form. How’d you approach that? What was frustrating and/or freeing about trying to shape someone else’s material into a movie narrative you could live with?
BUJALSKI: My wife is a novelist, and after a few years of working on something, she just deigned to show me some of it over the weekend—once again I was struck by what an incredibly demanding job that is—I am stunned by what she’s been able to pull off in that medium and I have no idea how she does it. To write a novel requires being alive and sensitive and open at every turn. So does making a film, but working on the film I can try to vampirically absorb that energy from the other people in the room. I couldn’t do a whole project, start to finish, completely alone in the room. I don’t trust myself enough.
Adapting Indecision was a pleasure, and indeed, because I was working with Kunkel’s consciousness as my source, a less solitary-feeling endeavor than writing my own scripts. The challenge was to be respectful of the accomplishment of the book, to try to capture some of that life that was on the page, while simultaneously being entirely disrespectful, as one must, because nothing gets adapted decently without first getting torn down to the ground. That book’s most glaring and obvious asset is its totally convincing, hilarious, tightrope-walk of a first person voice, and so the first question was, am I going to try to retain this somehow by writing voiceover? And I decided no, which meant rebuilding.
Beyond the challenges of adaptation, that was also my first Hollywood gig. Before that I’d been writing for myself, serving one master. Now I was serving three—the book, the producers who were paying me and of course had notes on each draft which I had to respect, and, lastly still, myself. I don’t know if I did a good job, but I had a good time working on it. I’d be delighted if it got made some day.
RAIL: Are there any novelists who’ve informed your approach to storytelling on film?
BUJALSKI: Oh, probably, though no one specific leaps to mind.
RAIL: I know you’re inspired by Cassavetes and Leigh, but I’m interested in your relationship with Ozu’s films, if you have one. He didn’t like to write scripts unless he knew who’d perform them, and he wrote from the conviction that (to paraphrase Donald Richie) human immutabilities are best dramatized by a focus on a small group of individuals whose behavior can’t be defined by some singular “essence.” I also ask about Ozu because his characters—like yours, unlike many of those in Cassavetes or Leigh—are rarely, or only elliptically, confrontational.
BUJALSKI: I must confess that I have only seen a little of Ozu’s work. My movie education has massive gaps that result from my compulsion about seeing things on the big screen—the more interested I am in a movie, the less I am inclined to want to see it on DVD, so I just keep my fingers crossed that I’ll cross paths with it in 35mm somewhere, and que sera sera. (People often assume I’m a Rohmer acolyte, and I’ve only seen two of his films for the same reason.)
Certainly I’ve always believed that the work is more productive when it’s more specific and I have trouble giving a fuck about archetypes or mythology, which has made for a steep uphill climb in trying to establish a Hollywood screenwriting career.
RAIL: Your films are essentially generous, so I wonder—looking back, do you feel like you’ve ever unduly scrutinized one of your characters? Not given him or her a fair shake?
BUJALSKI: Hmm. Playing god is a big part of directing. You’d have to ask God what he thinks of my impersonation. I probably find that aspect a little more daunting than most. I’m sure plenty of directors enjoy throwing their characters off a cliff, and I have difficulty with it, but I’d never abdicate the responsibility. I give the characters more care than I give most actual human beings I meet, certainly.
PAUL FELTEN is a screenwriter based in New York City.