Saturday, November 28, 2009

CB Q/A #26: Andrew Bujalski (Film Director/Actor/Screenwriter)

Andrew Bujalski is America's post-millenial Jean-Luc Godard.

Think on that for a moment.

Just like Godard was both a member and leader of a budding film movement in his time and day (French new wave cinema in Paris in the late 1950s and 1960s), Bujalski is a pioneer and continuuing collaborator in a continuing-to-grow and starting-to-thrive genre, American mumblecore. The parallels between the two movements are so uncanny it strikes me as preposterous that someone hasn't already written a critically acclaimed book about this idea. Check out the links above to see what I mean. And, hey, maybe you can be the author! If so, I want a footnote.

I've enjoyed Bujalski's work since first viewing Funny Ha Ha (2002) shortly after its dvd release, and my esteem for the 32-year-old filmmaker continued to grow after seeing his follow-up, Mutual Appreciation, in 2005. Compared to others in the genre, his output is slower, but also marked by such directorial finesse and wisdom that I'd rather have a few-year lag between productions than multiple iterations of something trivial.

As a result, you'll believe me when I say I'm super pumped that Bujalski's latest film, Beeswax, is coming to the CIA Cinematheque this weekend. I'm even more pumped that Bujalski agreed to do this interview with me. Not a bad month overall for CB, scoring thorough and thoughtful Q&As with his two most respected working filmmakers, Bujalski and fellow genre writer/actor/director Joe Swanberg. Not a band month at all.

1) Other than other films/filmmakers, where do you find your influences? I mean, is there a certain type of art or artist, idea, spirit, etc.

Oh gosh, sure, everywhere, all the time. Sometimes ideas come from a song or a book or a photograph but I think most often I get excited by real life interactions taking place in front of my face. It is probably not the healthiest of habits but at moments I have certainly been guilty of, while life goes on around me, thinking, "Ah! How would I write this, how would I shoot this?" But it usually spins off pretty quickly away from a documentary impulse into fantasy.

2) Your film deals with the rise and fall and occasional rebirth of relationships, and seems to have interesting interactions between people at every stage of that cycle. At the end of the day, what are you trying to communicate to your audience?

For better or worse I have been pretty resolute about leaving the "message" up to the audience to determine for themselves--and indeed there doesn't need to *be* a message if you're not looking for one. Our culture has grown addicted to closure in their stories--many people want to walk out of the theater & know in no uncertain terms what they just paid $10 for (e.g. "it was a testament to the human spirit")--whereas I've always been interested in stories that don't boil down easily. My ambition is that if the story's solid enough, and rich enough, then the experience of a couple hours with it (hours that at best continue to bounce around in your head & resonate after the lights come up) is more valuable than a summary to file away.

3) In one sense, the themes of your film are timeless, but in another sense the context is time-bound - a certain hipster community in a certain hipster place at an identifiable moment in the decade. Did you favor one end of this continuum (timeless versus timebound) as you executed this project?

Well, particularly in this film, I'd probably object a little bit to the "hipster" tag (but then that seems to be a curse of this generation, to always identify dread "hipsterism" in others & never in ourselves)...I assume every filmmaker aspires to creating a "timeless" work (except perhaps at the very big budget level where opening weekend is all that matters), but I don't think that's achieved by scrubbing all references to the present. Airplane! was initially conceived as a parody of Airport & other contemporary disaster films, which seems *very* specific to the moment at which it was made--could they ever have imagined when they were making it that their cheap parody would be remembered longer and more lovingly than the source material?

4) What is your favorite moment in the film?

I feel like I owe you an apology for being evasive on all my answers here, but this is another impossible question--I am still way too close to the film to pick favorites, I like the whole thing! (I feel like this is akin to the "What's your best film?" question, which it seems like most directors are also incapable of answering, unless they're very far along in their careers & ready to memorialize them.)

5) You've received a lot of attention the last several years from key critical corners, both as an individual auteur and as a member of a loose cohort whose work has been dubbed part of the "mumblecore" movement. Clearly there is a lot of collaboration and overlap between the individuals often identified as key figures in the movement, but at the same time a thoughtful viewer can discern the individual voice of each of the filmmakers. To what extent has being viewed as a member of such a community been a boon to your work and in what ways has it been limiting?

In the crassest commercial sense I think it probably helped sell a few tickets a couple years ago when the hype was at its peak. I'm glad for that, but I wouldn't be surprised if by now it's also kept as many people from buying tickets. It's a frustrating label because it seems designed almost as a shortcut for people to dismiss the films, not unlike "shoegazer rock" once was--you might love one band that got stuck with that label & be bored to tears by another, but if the only word you heard about both is "shoegazer," why would you want to investigate further?The problem with lumping these films together is that the commonalities tend to be the least interesting things about them. It's the differences that make some of those films really exciting & worthy of attention.

6) The city of Cleveland has made some noise recently about wanting to make this a more film-friendly city. In your opinion, what are the most important things a city can do to encourage that kind of industry attention?

I'm not the best guy to ask about attracting "industry attention"--I have been a half-hearted cultivator of it myself. If the question is, "How do we get Hollywood to bring productions here?" then I think the answer is "Give 'em tax incentives," right? (Is that the question?)

7) Last but not least, any previous Cleveland experiences worth sharing?

I've only been there once, on a road trip in 1997, and I'm embarrassed to say that the only thing I did was go to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. And I briefly dated a lovely girl from Cleveland, but it didn't last long enough for me to get invited back to Ohio.

To check out Bujalski's Beeswax, make plans to attend one of the two screenings the CIA Cinematheque will present this weekend. The first screening is TONIGHT at 9:30 PM, and if the notice on that is too late for you, the second is Monday at 6:30 PM. (On Monday, if you stick around afterward, you can also catch Fellini's astounding Juliet of the Spirits!)

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