Andrew Bujalski's one of the most distinctive directors of drama to emerge in the last decade. The elements that define his work are instantly recognizable: the abrupt starts and stops (those words seem more appropriate in regard to his movies than "beginnings" and "endings") and his instistence on not offering resolutions at the end of his films; the careful interplay of details that mark both his characterization and his framing; and the nuanced, often beautiful images he creates with his regular cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky. Frankly, he's got more in common with Mike Leigh and recent Patrice Chereau than with his friend Joe Swanberg.
Bujalski's first two features were the naturalistic miniature Funny Ha Ha and the bleak, ambiguous Mutual Appreciation. His newest film, Beeswax, can be seen as an application of the lessons of those first two films: after Mutual Appreciation's urban sprawl, he's focused again on a very small group of characters and a fairly straightforward narrative, but at the same time he's filled out the film with the variety of places, situations and characters than marked his second feature (the idea that Bujalski "makes films about twentysomethings" isn't really true—it ignores the multi-generational casts he has employed since Mutual Appreciation and the fact that the protagonists of Beeswax are in their thirties). Tilly Hatcher plays Jeannie, the co-owner of a clothing store who begins to suspect that her absent partner may be planning to sue her. Her sister Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) is considering taking a teaching job in Africa. In the meantime, Jeannie's ex-boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student, begins offering her legal advice while simultaneously trying to become a part of her life again.
Bujalski spoke to me on the phone from his home in Austin. He's an affable guy, which is probably part of the reason he collaborates so frequently with other directors (director Bob Byington, with whom Bujalski has worked on two films, including this one, dropped by unannounced while we recorded the interview). Beeswax, which has been travelling around US theatres since August, opens at the Capitol Theater in Olympia and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago (where Bujalski will be present for Q&As) on February 5th. We talked about editing, vicariousness, the existence of evil and his interpretation of Avatar.
ANDREW BUJALSKI: We shot Beeswax in 2007. Really, it all started in 2005, if you want to go back to me thinking up the idea. Most highly productive people have a half-dozen projects going at once. It's always been difficult for me to focus on the next project before the one I'm working on is done. Mutual Appreciation was finished in 2005, and I had this vague notion for a film. I'd done two films which were written for the people who played the leads and I really liked what we were able to develop through that. For a long time, I'd wanted to do something with the Hatcher sisters. Of course I didn't know how it would turn out, but I knew that the kind of energy they'd bring to the screen would be as different as what Justin Rice and Kate Dollenmayer brought in the other films. I managed to talk them into doing a sort of screen test, and that gave me a lot of insight into where I wanted this to go.
It's been a while—it's hard for me to reconstuct it now. I had the idea of the plot being driven by a phantom lawsuit. There was a lot of anxiety, so I had to think about what corners this would back the characters into. I built it scene by scene. Maggie, who plays Lauren, was in med school at the time, which meant we had a very limited window of time—basically 3 weeks in summer of 2007—so we had to build everything around that. It's good to have that very specific, concrete frame of time, to have been then or never. It's a great motivator.
NOTEBOOK: Your first two features also took a while between writing, shooting and distribution.
BUJALSKI: Well, Beeswax was the longest from the "front end"—in terms of conceiving it to finishing it, it took longer than the other films. Funny Ha Ha we finished in 2002, and it had a theatrical release in 2005. Mutual Appreciation came out in 2006. This one was in theaters 6 months after it was done, which is great.
NOTEBOOK: Spending so much time on a film, doesn't it sort of bind itself to your life? Do you feel like if you were making a film every 6 months, you wouldn't feel as involved?
BUJALSKI: That's a good question. I'd like to try working that quickly sometime, that's for sure. But when you have to live with something for so many years, the film becomes indestinguishable from what you think of as your life. I'm sure there's a danger to that. But there are also great things that can come from that.
NOTEBOOK: Beeswax is your first feature in widescreen, and you edit your films yourself. The frame often dictates editing decisions—you have to think about the image differently depending on its dimensions.
BUJALSKI: At one point, I could've told you the exact number of shots in each film. Beeswax is the "cuttiest" of my films, which is still a long way from contemporary commercial cinema. I really like the 1.37 ratio...
NOTEBOOK: ...I hear it's hard to get it distributed...
BUJALSKI: Well, with Mutual Appreciation, there's not a single print that's actually the original ratio. They're all pillarboxed. It's certainly an oddity; people aren't used to it.
NOTEBOOK: 1.37's a very beautiful format. It has a directness that you can't get with a wider frame. Sometimes it seems like editing is felt in that ratio much more strongly. It doesn't seem narrower, it seems taller. It can look very monumental, even if the screen is small.
BUJALSKI: I don't know why that is, but there's a way in which 1.37 can be more absorbing. I certainly can get lost in the little frame. I don't know why. Maybe it's because of that directness, and because there's less room to wander around in there. I make fairly chatty films, and that frame fits a human face so well. So, on the first day of shooting for Beeswax, I remember sitting there and thinking, "I have the face there. What am I supposed to do with all of this space?" But we figured it out, and we got used to it. It's hard for me to talk about it, because editing is so... I don't think I really sit down beforehand and dream up what my philosophical approach to the edit will be. I think you just work and work and work and the material slowly comes through.
NOTEBOOK: Is editing for you more like solving a problem, or feeling your way through it?
BUJALSKI: Both. It's both technical and emotional. One of the great challenges of editing, of course, is that you have to keep a view of what you're doing and not getting lost in the technical aspects of it.
NOTEBOOK: I know you edited Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation on a flatbed. Did you do the same with Beeswax?
BUJALSKI: Yes, on a flatbed again. Maybe for the last time. I don't know what'll happen. I'm looking at it right now, actually.
NOTEBOOK: You have one at your house?
BUJALSKI: Oh yeah.
NOTEBOOK: Do you feel more of a physical relationship to the film when you're working on it? With digital editing, it can become more conceptual. You're arranging these imaginary copies of the film.
BUJALSKI: I did a short for the Mutual Appreciation DVD [Peoples House]. It was great fun to do it, the convenience of it was extraordinary, but it was harder for me to fall in love with the film.
NOTEBOOK: Did you feel less of a relationship to the...
BUJALSKI: To the image? Yeah. It's difficult for me to fall in love with a computer image. Peoples House we also made very quickly.
NOTEBOOK: It seems like it took a few hours of an afternoon.
BUJALSKI: A few hours of two afternoons. We shot it on Saturday and Sunday, and then Monday we spent mostly driving back to New York and returning equipment. And by Tuesday morning I had a rough cut. And that's amazing and that wouldn't have happened with a Steenbeck, certainly, but I miss falling in love with it, falling in love with the picture. But, then again, as much as we wanted to do the best we could with it, it was a DVD extra, and that's all the life it was meant to have.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think you'll ever shoot a feature in HD?
BUJALSKI: I likely will, given the way the world is going. I have plenty of ideas and notions and half-baked plans right now. I'm considering something I have mixed feelings about. I don't know if I wanna commit my life to doing it or not. There are a couple I wanna do. Certainly I'm desperate to earn a living right now—that's how I spend my time. I'm very anxious to figure that out sometime in 2010.
NOTEBOOK: Have you seen Avatar yet?
BUJALSKI: Yeah. I enjoyed it. I thought I wasn't gonna go see it. It didn't look good to me. And then I talked to a buddy who made a good pitch for it. I liked it on the level that all movie characters are avatars, that it's all about vicarious experience. The same way that in The Matrix—and mind you, I don't like CGI effects—the CGI all made sense because it all took place within a computer. Which is why it looks like a film made on a computer. And in Avatar, when he's swingin' off of vines and jumping off of the things, that sort of stuff usually bugs me, because I can't believe you're not in danger here the way you would be in real life. But he wasn't in danger, and I loved that idea that if the avatar body died, you'd be fine. It doesn't address that question at first, but then it's revealed that, that's right, you're really not in danger, it's fine. And it all brought it around to where the world is at: movies morphing into video games, all of us morphing into autistic people.
NOTEBOOK: You don't feel like audiences are ever really in danger watching a film?
BUJALSKI: No. That's the problem with movies, and that's the problem with watching too many of them. It's not ultimately a suitable substitute for life. You can get a lot out of it—I've spent a lot of time with movies, and I love it. But I think it can warp your perception a little bit.
NOTEBOOK: Well, there's sometimes a discomfort in your films. I'll admit that I sometimes feel embarassed or humiliated watching them. Do you feel like this sort of emotional anxiety doesn't compare to the real thing?
BUJALSKI: It's a vicarious experience. That's what you pay for. You laugh or cry or get upset and then you go home. Some movies may change the way you view things, and that's awesome, but it's not the same as the real stuff that you can't turn off.
NOTEBOOK: There'a character in Beeswax I wanted to ask you about: Merrill. Did you originally write the part for yourself?
BUJALSKI: Alex Karpovsky [who plays Merrill] asked me the same thing, and on some level I think he still doesn't believe me that I didn't. It was never meant to be my character. Alex brought stuff to that role I never could have. There's this moment when they're going to meet this potential investor guy, played by Bob Byington—who's sitting in the driveway right now—and it's revealed that Merrill knows him from rehab. And that's one of the keys to him, for me, is that he has a sort of addicitive personality. He's gotten over some of his more fearsome addictions, but we know that he's gonna throw himself entirely into his ex-girlfriend's crisis. I think Alex brought this sort of nutty focus. I wouldn't have known how to do it. Which isn't to say that I wrote the character for myself and didn't know how to do it. But I don't know, I've certainly been accused of writing characters who talk like each other, and I'm sure that, on some level, they all talk like me. The old Woody Allen problem.
NOTEBOOK: I don't think they talk alike! You tailor your dialogue to the actors, anyway, don't you?
BUJALSKI: Yeah, after they're cast, once I can actually hear somebody's voice, I re-write.
NOTEBOOK: The Rohmer approach.
NOTEBOOK: The one thing I do think your characters have in common is that it's impossible to completely dislike any of them. There are no villains.
BUJALSKI: It's possible for some people to dislike them. It's probably a limitation that I have as a writer. It's difficult for me to see people as villainous or evil, and I think it becomes a limitation to understanding how other people may view the world. I think for most people, there are the good people and there are the evil people.
NOTEBOOK: Do you believe in evil?
BUJALSKI: I don't know. It's a serious question.
NOTEBOOK: You've made three features, and evil is conspicuosly absent. Not just evil—any sort of malice that the characters won't later regret. Even Amanda, the partner in Beeswax, who could be perceived as the "villain," even when she reaches the height of dislikability, there's a scene where we get a sense of where she's coming from and she becomes more human.
BUJALSKI: Well, that's very subjective, because some people come out of the movie hating her. I think it's easier for me to believe in the Devil than in truly evil people. I believe in evil as a concept and I believe in evil as an influence. I don't know, though, if it's a characteristic that's firmly rooted in people. I think there are extremely fucked-up people in the world who'll always do the wrong thing whenever they get a chance, but it's still hard for me to call them evil. But that's an insult to people who have suffered at the hands of those people.
NOTEBOOK: Do you think about other people's experiences of the world, about differing opinions a lot?
BUJALSKI: I think it's probably deeply ingrained in all of the work I've done. Certainly the Jeannie and Amanda conflict in Beeswax is a question of two people who look at the world differently and get torn apart by that. They can't figure out how the other one could possibly see the world. My career is about that. Why aren't as many people going to see Beeswax as are going to see Avatar? Of course it doesn't make sense to me: I don't share the worldview that would produce that mass opinion. I'm up against that every day.