Andrew Bujalski is an American filmmaker who’s been working quietly (quietly is certainly the most suitable word to describe his films) for 10 years now, beginning with his first feature Funny Ha Ha, which, for better or for worse, launched what came to be called the mumblecore movement. He’s in Berlin for the month, where he’s teaching a master class at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie, and was kind enough to fill me in on his thoughts on his work and, of course, that pesky moniker the ‘Godfather of Mumblecore.’
What’s your take on the students you’re working with here?
It’s a very different group than what I’m used to in the States. Partially because these students are much older than the undergraduate students I’ve worked with back home. There’s also a massive cultural difference between a European and an American film student.
What sorts of difference?
There’s the blindingly obvious things which come with age, but these guys are also cinephiles of a sort that is dying out in the States, and will probably die out here too. Of course I’m comparing 30-year-olds to 18-year-olds, but the students I’m working with here have tastes which run to the fairly arcane.
I had the impression that cinephilia was stronger in the US than in Germany.
Maybe it’s just a bad attitude, but most film people I know feel a bit beleaguered because the conditions for classic cinephilia seem to be under siege. The cinemas themselves, for instance. It breaks my heart every time I hear something that rings the death knell of 35mm. But the culture has shifted so much. It’s a kind of revolution that goes beyond just film, but in my worst fears I wonder if our culture is evolving beyond art in general, if we want or need it any more.
Do you think you could have the same break now as you did with your first film?
It depends what you mean as a break. Funny Ha Ha had a very strange, slow build. It premiered in September 2002, but just at small regional festivals. I kept thinking it would be over after it played at the first few festivals, but something else would always come along to give us another little boost. A few programmers would take another chance on it, and at some point we won an award, which helped give us more attention. So even though we premiered in 2002, I think more people heard about it in ’03. And then it played on TV in ’04, and in ’05 we finally had a proper theatrical release, after it had already played on TV. Even though I’m amazed that we’re at the 10th anniversary of that movie, I feel like there are a few anniversaries for the film. I’ll never have that experience again of having something which had such a slow build. Obviously it’s not great when you want to move on to other things, but it’s nice for the film to get to spread out like that. A film can premiere one week and be forgotten the next.
What’s your impression of the evolution of indie film from the boom in the early 90s and today?
There was a period of a few years where it seemed like you could make a living, or perhaps if you’re Quentin Tarantino, even get rich making independent movies. Obviously that changes the game, in good and bad ways. I think they were mostly damaging in the end, but for a moment the idea that money was available for indie film was very exciting. But that was certainly drying up by the time that I started working in the early 2000s. But things have changed since then as well. With Funny Ha Ha I was traveling around with a 16mm print, which was archaic even then, but I think would be impossible now. The landscape has definitely changed. I know a lot of the labs in the States which used to make 16mm prints don’t even do it any more.
Why was it important for you to work on 16mm?
I think viewing 16mm is an experience that’s not recreatable, even as nice as video has gotten. One easy metaphor is to think of it as the instrument you’re playing on. If you have a sheet of music in front of you, you can play it with a cello or synthesizer. There’s nothing wrong with playing it on a synthesizer, but I think you have to be very aware of what you’re doing. I guess I resented the notion that there was no difference. To me there’s something naive in saying “I’d love to make this on film, but I can’t afford it so I’ll shoot it on DV.” Of course you have to work with what you have, but you really have to think about what it does to your story, and how it will change the feeling. I think it’s a terrible mistake to pretend it will feel the same. But for me, these were movies that I conceived of in 16mm, and it was how I needed them to feel.
I read your next film will be edited digitally though. Was it filmed on 16mm as well?
No, we shot it on video, but we used a very particular and peculiar way of doing it. It certainly won’t look like contemporary video. I think the kernel of that project came from 10 years of people asking my why I didn’t shoot on video. So I conceived a project specifically for that feeling.
How was that process different?
It’s a bit oddball. I’m reluctant to talk too much about it before it’s done, but it’ll look weird. It was different in a lot of ways though. When you shoot film, it puts a certain sort of energy in the room. It’s a bit nerve-wracking. Everybody’s aware that it costs money. There’s something on the line once you hear the whir of the camera. With video you can roll all day long, which has its advantages and disadvantages to it. I must say I’m having fun now as I’m editing though. Every once in a while there’s something great I can use from the pre-reel or the post-reel, the moments where the camera was just left running. With film you’re very careful not to turn on the camera until you need to. So there’s a lot more of this footage where the camera has just been left on for 5 minutes or so. And that’s a thrill, to have this secret material. And it works for this film. Obviously it wouldn’t for every movie, but by the same token there’s so much footage that it may be more than I want or need for the film.
I saw that you also crowd-sourced your upcoming film, Computer Chess, which I found strange because you’re working with a cheaper medium. Do you feel like it’s getting more difficult to make a film now than when you started, even digitally?
It depends what you’re doing. Certainly for the people who are working on films with million dollar budgets it’s different. My movies have never cost anybody very much. I had very mixed feelings about the Kickstarter though. On the one hand, it accomplished what we wanted it to. I was thrilled and moved by how many people came through for us. On the other hand, it’s not a nice feeling having to go out with hat in hand and beg your broke friends for their money. And I don’t like the promotional aspect of it. My ultimate fantasy for this movie I’m working on now would be to not tell anyone we’re doing it and spring it as a surprise on the world when we’re done.
So you would prefer if people would just stumble across it?
Well, in my really really fantastical world, a movie would be showing in cinemas and people would walk by the movie and wander in. But that’s not how the world works, and it’s certainly not how marketing works. And yet I always felt my films would be at their best in that scenario. Whether we let information out now or when we’re done, nobody’s going to walk into the movie without any knowledge about what it is. There’s just something about me that bristles against the Internet culture of promotion. I understand it, I too am a cinephile and I want to know about things, but there’s a part of me that would just like to be surprised. So even though there’s not a lot of information out there about the new film, I would have liked let out not as much as we have.
But your films are still hiding in relative obscurity, even in Internet terms.
Of course. And once the movie is out there, we try to do everything we can to promote it. My first two films we ended up self-distributing. So we learned a lot about what it is to go out there and promote and hustle. Although I do want people to stumble in off the street, I also just want people to see my movie.
I also wanted to ask how you felt about the term mumblecore. As I understand it, it began as an something of an inside joke.
It was a joke. It still is. It’s funny to see how it’s taken on a life of its own. I find it amazing how I can pick up a newspaper in Berlin in 2012 and see a word we made up in it. When I first heard people use it seriously I thought it was absurd and meaningless, but it has kind of slowly developed a meaning. When I read an article now and they refer to mumblecore, I kind of know what they mean. So in that sense the word has a use. Unfortunately, it’s not really a usage I would like to associate with my work. It tends to be reductive and dismissive. I would of course rather that the films get taken on their own merits.
Do you feel a kinship with these other directors whose films are referred to as mumblecore?
Sure, but not in the sense that we all have the same aesthetics or goals. Not at all really. When the term first started getting tossed around, it referred to a very specific group of people: myself, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, the Duplass brothers, a couple others. But it was just a group of 5 or 6 filmmakers. But now the usage has grown to something beyond it’s original reference. I can see the similarities in our work, but it’s not the similarities that make them interesting. It’s the differences between these films that are their merits — or their demerits. Obviously some are better than others.
Do you think the application of the term has been a help or hindrance?
I don’t like the idea that it will be written on my tombstone, but I’m more at peace with that now than I was a couple of years ago. As far as it being a help, I suppose it was in a very narrow sense. There was a period from 2007-2009 where people were programming mumblecore series. So it sold a few more tickets and got us a few more bookings, but to me that short term boost was probably not worth the damage of having this millstone around your neck.
Are you very attached to what one would describe as the mumblecore aesthetic?
We tried a lot of things in this new project that are very unlike anything we’ve tried before. I think people will look at it as quite different. But I also think that there are certain aesthetic hallmarks or obsessions that people will recognize as my work, even when I’m trying to do something completely unexpected.
I also saw that Chantal Akerman was your thesis advisor at Harvard. Do you see her as being a strong influence on your work?
Of course I’m a great admirer of hers. I wouldn’t necessarily cite a specific aesthetic influence, but I don’t know that I would from anyone. That’s not to say that I’m without influence, but I’m with so many influences that I don’t pick out one. As far back as my memory goes I’ve been movie-obsessed and taking in as much as I can from everywhere. I think I feel like Chantal’s influence on me is just personal. My teacher from the previous year had been Dusan Makavejev. So between the two of them, that was my first exposure firsthand to filmmaking.
They have two very different filmmaking approaches.
They’re very different. But they were both a model for me of the European artist, which was a very romantic notion for a suburban American kid. So I think I just stood there wide-eyed looking at them and watching how they moved through the world. But things that Chantal said still resonate with me and I’m probably still learning from her. And although it was a completely meaningless coincidence, it meant a lot to me when I saw the other day that her film “Jeanne Dielmann” was screening at the same time as my film at Arsenal.
Is it a choice to not have this classical narrative approach to telling your stories?
I think I just have an instinct not to go in that direction. The way I’ve tried to support myself in the past few years has been to write Hollywood screenwriter, so I’ve adapted a novel and I collaborated on a big Hollywood romantic comedy. Neither of which have been made yet, or necessarily ever will, but I think that people find it obtuse even when I’m trying to write for Hollywood. So it might just be the way my brain works. I’d like to keep making films for decades to come and inevitably, I’ll have to make a film that’s slightly more comprehensible to a mass audience. But I’ve never thought that what I’m doing it all that far off from conventional narrative. I never felt like I was doing anything radical. If anything, I think I tell pretty straightforward dramatic stories, just at lower frequencies.
How do you feel about others reactions to your films? From what I’ve seen online, people seem to feel very strongly about them.
It really surprised me, and it’s something I’m still coming to terms with. I always thought of my movies, if nothing else, as being very gentle. They’re certainly not provocative in a traditional sense. So it shocked me that they could infuriate people. I think I naively assumed that people would either like it, or not care. But I never expected people to get angry.
I’ve seen quite a lot of negativity comment-wise on various articles online.
The Internet is a pretty ugly place sometimes. I’ve read more of those comments than I should have, and they have reverberated around my brain and I’ve tried to make sense of what it means. It’s hard to say, because it is just a disassociated Internet comment, but on the other hand there’s great value in that. You learn things about yourself that maybe you didn’t want to learn. When you put something out in the world, you receive boatloads of free analysis. And in those reviews there are always analyses of your personal character in a way. It’s been a valuable experience, even seeing the negative stuff. You don’t often get to have an honest evaluation of yourself. It’s painful but you learn from it.
And with regards to the interpretations you’ve read? Do you try to convey a certain message in your films?
My films have always been very open to interpretation. I’ve never thought there’s one way to read them. I love it when there’s an unexpected take on it.