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Articles

Andrew Bujalski: A Structure Underlying Everything
By Hannah Eaves
August 31, 2006 - 10:59 AM PDT


"It's a mystery to me how I've survived this long."

Having been swamped by the endless flow of mediocre entries in the oft-lauded genre of American "indie" filmmaking, somehow it just becomes easier and easier to let that year-out Sundance hotel reservation slip. But in amongst all the Sundance narrative flops, a few remarkable films have emerged this year in the Sundance-vein that never saw the snow in Park City. One of these films is Andrew Bujalski's completely charming Mutual Appreciation, which may just hold the power to get you really excited about small US films again.

One of the most captivating factors in Mutual Appreciation's success has been its skillful portrayal of the twenty-something generation in a way that is both ramblingly true to itself and dramatically compelling - a very tough combination. While Bujalski's promising first feature, Funny Ha Ha, fell just short of meeting that challenge, Mutual's characters are so likeable and its situations so recognizable, that it emerges as an unqualified, landmark success.

For all its well deserved, exultant critical attention, Mutual was unable to find an appropriate traditional distributor and will take the tack of Funny Ha Ha, which developed a devoted audience through self-distribution.

Mutual Appreciation opens in New York on September 1, followed by Los Angeles on September 8, with a staggered national release to follow. When I reached Andrew Bujalski by phone, he was in Chicago, working "on a friend's film" - which, as you'll see, adds a slight meta layer to our conversation.

You're self-distributing Mutual Appreciation with Houston King. Had you always intended to self-distribute or would you rather have had a distributor?

Well, we certainly we're casting about to get the film out there via traditional distribution. As much as there are many things that are great about self-distribution - it's great to have that kind of control - it's not something I'd really like to do unless it seems like the best way to go. I mean it just takes up too much time, from my perspective, personally. I'd much rather leave all that stuff to somebody else. But the only kind of offers we were getting were just so financially disadvantageous that we decided self-distributing was the much wiser way to do it, even though it's not my idea of fun.

And have you had any interest in anyone funding any future productions for you?

Possibly. We'll see. I've written something that I'd like to do next year and I'm hoping I'll be able to pull that off, but I have no idea what the next year will bring.

So, you studied at Harvard. How much of that was a practical education and how much was theory?

You had to do both kinds of classes to graduate, but the practical stuff was really where my heart was. I don't particularly remember the theory classes all that well, although I do remember all the great films that I would see for those classes. But the filmmaking classes made a big impression on me and, I think, had a huge impact on how I've learned to work since then. Harvard's program has a really strong documentary background, and so learning to work in that style, learning to really hand-make films and work in that vérité fashion, I've applied a lot of that to how I try to make fiction films.

And were your short films at school similar in tone to the work you do now, or were they documentaries?

Both. I did some documentary stuff and then, I guess, two little fiction films, which I don't really need to ever see again. I'm happy to have them buried under a rock. But I learned a huge amount from doing them.

And what did you learn from them?

I guess I came out of there with a real desire to correct what I felt were the mistakes of those films. The writing was not so great, but really I felt like I didn't know how to make or to find interesting performances. That really became the rallying cry on the features, just to make that a top priority.

I've always felt like maybe the greatest lesson, or the most consistent, inconsistent truth of filmmaking I've learned is that it's surprisingly difficult, but really crucial, to try and understand the footage you have, as opposed to the footage you want. I think so much of bad student filmmaking, or bad non-student filmmaking, comes from people who have the visions in their head, and you just have to do so much work to accomplish that. Sometimes it's very easy to lose sight of the fact that the material you're actually getting bears no resemblance to the vision in your head. You need to learn to grapple with what's actually there, whether you like it or not. That's what I've tried to learn how to do, although I don't think it ever stops being a challenge.

It's funny you say that because I was speaking to François Ozon recently and he was saying something almost identical about having to confront the difference between what you've imagined in advance as a director with what you actually have filmed, and how sometimes that can be a good challenge.

Ultimately, I think that's part of the excitement of working in this medium. I occasionally fantasize about being a novelist or something that's less stressful in just the pragmatic way of all the thousands of things that you have to get done, but I don't think I could do it because I don't think I have the stamina to stay in my own head that long. That's part of what's so exciting about making a film. It's that you do grapple with the real world. Even though the real world throws punches at you, it also gives you things that are much richer, more interesting certainly than you could ever put in your screenplay.

I think what you're talking about with performance in student films, and even non-student films is also exacerbated by bad writing. I'm thinking particularly of Quinceañera, which just won so many prizes at Sundance. How much of that do you think is in the writing? I'm thinking of your performances and how, in contrast, they seem so natural.

I think that, on some level, the performances in my films are as stylized as anybody else's. But, yeah, I think writing has a huge impact on how it turns out. It's hard to quantify what comes from writing and what comes from the moment. And it's really important to me to try not to be too precious about the script and yet I couldn't imagine working without a script. Some people are able to do that and to get a lot of loose stuff out of that, but I guess I'm more and more aware of how important it is, even for me as a director, to have a sense of what structure is underlying everything. Then on top of that, you can go as weird and outlandish as you want. But that's certainly been that pattern of the films I've done so far is... hang on... [speaking to someone else] You're not going to... what are you doing? Should I be here? Okay. Are you there, Hannah?

Yes I'm here, go on.

I think I might actually be being filmed. Now. As I speak to you.

Oh, really?

Yeah. So I'll try to look extra handsome while I do this. If you'll forgive an additional layer of self-consciousness.

Is there going to be sound?

Ahhh, yeah. Yeah, yep.

Okay.

Ha. Okay, I'm sorry, where were we, what were we talking about?

I'm trying to remember. I was distracted by... I mean, you were talking about scripts and how it was important to have that backbone.

Right, right. When I write, I try to be really as precise as I possibly can. You know, like David Mamet makes sure that every piece of punctuation is as perfect as he can make it. Then, of course, once we get to the set, all that gets thrown out, but somehow, that's really helpful for me, to feel like I know the blueprint of the work and I think it helps the actors.

Do you get feedback from the actors before you arrive on set or is it mostly that the changes happen in the performance process?

A little bit of both. We haven't had a lot of time to rehearse just because people are non-professionals and they do have real jobs, so it's not like we can really workshop things for a long time. You try to figure it out as you go and then, of course, the bulk of the work happens when you're on set.

Now what was the position you were in when you were writing Mutual Appreciation? You had just finished Funny Ha Ha and were starting the distribution phase of that, right?

Yeah, well, Funny Ha Ha had a really long, strange life-span, so for the first six months after I finished Funny Ha Ha, it took me that long to get anyone to screen it anywhere. That was when I wrote most of the first draft of Mutual Appreciation, which was great, in a way, because I wasn't so subsumed into the whole world of promoting and running around, which has been, you know, a lot, a lot, a lot of my time in the last couple of years and I've probably over committed to that.

How have you managed that? I mean, it must be very difficult to spend so much time traveling with a film when it's not generating that kind of income...

It's a mystery to me how I've survived this long. At the moment, I just got my first ever Hollywood job. I got hired to adapt a novel, so that's what's paying my rent at the moment. And then teaching, and then I've just had a lot of little day jobs here and there and somehow managed to string it together. When you go to a film festival, you usually get a few free meals out of that. [Laughs]

And what has the film festival reaction been to Mutual Appreciation? Has it been different than for Funny Ha Ha?

Similar, although I sort of know those ropes now and, of course, we had a much better time getting Mutual that initial traction. Funny Ha Ha, again, had that strange long build time. We started at smaller regional festivals, but it just kept going in a way that we hadn't predicted. With Mutual, there's been a little more interest from the get go. And then we started getting into international film festivals, which is something we had not done with Funny Ha Ha.

You've gotten a lot of really great press for Mutual Appreciation, too. I have to wonder if that's gratifying or frustrating, considering you haven't had any large distributors come on board...

I don't know, it doesn't bother me that much. When we were making it, I wasn't thinking we were going to make money off of this or this was going to get traditional distribution. I have a contrarian streak; something feels kind of badge-of-honorish about not fitting into the commercial marketplace.

[Background: "I'll be over here!"]

And nice reviews are great. In a way, I'm pretty certain that part of the reason that we've had such a good response from the press has something to do with where we are or where we aren't in the commercial marketplace. I wouldn't expect such kindness from the press if we were making any money. [Laughs]

Aw, what? Come on, it's a great film!

I don't know!

It's like you're saying that making money and making a good film are mutually exclusive ideas!

Oh, no, that came out... that sounded a little bit cynical. What I meant is that I do feel like, to some extent, um, we've been adopted, you know, certain critics have adopted us and I think the underdog bit has to do with that. Maybe I'm not giving critics enough credit there.

I think that critics are just happy to see a film that they actually like and can write good things about. Because I don't think that comes along that often.

Right.

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Index
"It's a mystery to me how I've survived this long."
"Sometimes the thing that seems most honest in the film is the most invented."

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Hannah Eaves
Originally hailing from Australia, the home of greatly-missed Victoria Bitter and the 'laid back life,' Hannah is currently based in San Francisco. Her writing can also be found in SOMA Magazine, The Santa Cruz Sentinel and Intersection Magazine, which she co-publishes with Jonathan Marlow.

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