Back in the early days of 2006, 28-year-old director Andrew Bujalski made two New Year’s Resolutions. One was simple enough: visit Maine. Andrew, a Bostonian, accomplished this without significant trouble. The second resolution, however, posed a more serious challenge: stop reading press for his films. According to Andrew, he went on to violate this resolution “hundreds of times over.”
He could be forgiven for this. One would be hard-pressed to find another director, contemporary or not, to inspire such enthusiastic praise and curiosity from the highest echelons of criticism for their first two feature films. His debut, “Funny Ha Ha”, garnered a place on ten top ten lists, including The New York Times and Film Comment. Bujalski’s latest film, “Mutual Appreciation”, earned him a feature in the New York Times, where they may or may not have forever slapped Bujalski with “Voice of a Generation” status. More praise has followed from Variety, Slate, and Chicago Reader. Scott Foundas of Cinemascope wrote, “Bujalski is making what may prove to be the defining movies about a generation, which is to say my own, marked by its very lack of definition.”
Bujalski has chosen to cast non-professional actors, including friends and himself, in his 16mm-shot features. Both films were written for former roommates (Kate Dollenmayer and Justin Rice, respectively), and focus on the muddied twenty- something lives of post-collegiates. The characters’ dialogue and actions are disarmingly authentic and, mixed with Bujalski’s visual realism, alternately hilarious and awkward to a degree of brutality.
Bujalski and I met on a cold, rainy evening in the dim, mostly-vacant confines of Williamsburg bar Larry Lawrence.
Photo by: Alexander Richter
As a kid, were there any filmmakers or films that particularly struck a chord with you? I think that grows and changes over time. I was movie crazy as long as I can remember. Going back to childhood I remember Rocky III was a big one for me, before I understood there was such a thing as Rocky I and II. But by the time I was an early adolescent, I don’t know, David Lynch and the Coen Brothers and all that kind of stuff.
The ’90s indie movies… Yeah, late ’80s early ’90s: that starter stuff that blows your mind when you’re that age. And a lot of it is still mind-blowing. But those kinds of beginner steps into, “I like stuff that’s different and weird!” And you seek out that stuff.
And then when did it occur to you, “I could possibly do this.” Well, it was the only thing I ever wanted to do. Doesn’t mean I knew what that meant. And I still don’t necessarily know what that means. I think I’ve been extremely lucky. And “Funny Ha Ha” was made, as I think a lot of first features are, on hubris alone. There was no reason to think we could pull that off.
Any filmmakers or films in the past couple years that have genuinely excited you? Yeah, but I always blank on this question. I mean, maybe fewer and fewer in a way. Maybe it’s diminishing returns. I think it just has to do with getting older. The older you get, the fewer things are really going to shock you and open your eyes. And I don’t know if that’s because I’ve seen enough that it’s harder to get surprised or if it’s—what is it that Ally Sheedy says in "The Breakfast Club"? “When you get old your heart dies.” And that might be it—I don’t know.
It’s not a pleasant thought. No, it’s not at all. Every year there are a handful of movies I really fall in love with, but it’s fewer and fewer. Or at least fewer than it was ten years ago.
I have memories of taking my dog-walking money and going to the local independent movie house and seeing weird new movies and feeling so completely absorbed and excited by them—and I feel completely divorced from that now. It’s depressing. But it’s hard for me to gauge. I mean is the 14-year-old kid today who’s going to the movies alone and seeking stuff out for the first time—is the stuff that’s out there today as thrilling to that kid as whatever was to you or me? I don’t know.
At what point did you decide you were going to shoot with film and not going to use digital? Well, I think it makes a big difference in how the film feels. To me video is the difference between a piano and the latest, most awesome synthesizer that almost sounds like a piano. Video is at its worst when it’s trying to fake the feel of film. But there are more and more people out there figuring out how to use it for what it is.
Do you fear changing your filmmaking method at this point? Do you plan on changing anything for the next one? I’d like to retain the methodology as much as I can. I really want to do one more in this vein. It was never intended to be a sustainable methodology. And I think if I don’t squeeze one out now—it’s not going to get any easier. It’s just going to get harder and harder to make films like that.
Do you find it interesting that critics have focused so much on the conversational tics in your movies? I mean, that’s why I was trying to get myself to stop reading reviews. You can’t help but end up feeling a little bit alienated. Even when someone’s being really good to you. Even when the person seems to get it, there’s still something weird about—
Someone else saying, “This is who you are…” Yeah, and when you’re marketing a film you’re asked to say, describe your film in two sentences. Part of me always feels like, well I made a big, sprawling, weird thing and if I knew how to do it in two sentences I wouldn’t have had to make a movie. I could have made two sentences. So anything someone writes about it automatically feels reductive. It’s not bad, I just shouldn’t read it, that’s all.
And then this Voice of a Generation thing has started coming up. That’s the kind of thing—I mean as far as I know the only person who’s said that is Dennis Lim at the New York Times, and I think he did it with a question mark or something. My response to that is always, go and poll my generation. Go and ask everybody in a ten year range of me if they’ve ever even heard of my films, and then whether or not that percentage wants to elect me or not. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
I think the generation tag is interesting, though. I mean, it’s not a generation. It’s a very specific group of people of a certain socioeconomic status, certain educational status. It’s a very specific group that these two movies have been about. The harshest reviews my films have ever gotten have been from the demographic they supposedly speak to.
Like you got too close, maybe. Yeah, you know, “This guy thinks he knows our generation. He’s wrong. My friends are much cooler than these people.” A lot of that kind of stuff.
Alan in “Mutual Appreciation” fits a certain archetype of a young person pursuing their artistic ambitions. What many would refer to as a Hipster. Here in New York, there’s a fair amount of disdain of that culture, as prevalent as it is. Do you have any particular reactions to that archetype? I don’t know…it’s exciting to be young and care about things. It’s interesting, a lot of the press for “Mutual Appreciation” pegs it as a Williamsburg movie or a movie about the Williamsburg scene or whatever. But Williamsburg is never mentioned in the film. The only specific tie to Williamsburg is that he plays at Northsix, which is a real Williamsburg club. But that was also the only scene we shot in Williamsburg. Not to say I don’t know where people are coming from when they say that, but it’s funny to me that that reads to people.
Well, you may not like this, but in a way it oozes Williamsburg. Not saying it was intentional. Right, but I think you’d find the harshest—whoever leads the life that the film seems to be about is going to be the person who least identifies with the film. The person who says, “No that’s wrong. You got it wrong.”
I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I don’t know. It depends.
It does depend. I mean, no one lives that exact life. But, it’s very familiar. When I saw it everything was very familiar to me. This is a bit of a fantasy maybe, but my dream, your fondest hope as any kind of artist I think is that hopefully something will seem familiar about it to some dude in Omaha. I mean, there are a lot of specific New York cues where you go, “Okay, I know where Northsix is.” But you hope that something’s universal about it.
Do you have any particular views on the youth culture you supposedly speak to? I don’t know. It depends on the youth culture. I enjoy a lot of it. I guess youth culture by definition is impermanent, sure. Although it’s weird…we’re in an odd—but again I feel kind of stupid holding forth on this ‘cause I feel like I’m not a sociologist, ultimately.
Sociologists…I mean, who cares? Right.
You don’t have to answer the question if you don’t want to, but no one’s an expert as far as I’m concerned. Well, it’s hard to imagine someone from my parents generation—I mean, I was a huge Beatles fan in high school and I think that’s probably typical for a lot of people who grew up when I did, and its hard to imagine someone of my parents’ generation being so into something from their parents’ generation. They did a great job of cutting themselves off and starting anew, and we didn’t do such a good job of that. That’s not bad on us, it just didn’t happen and the world wasn’t at that place.
At least one segment of our youth culture is one where people revel in making fun of things. There’s high value attached to that ability for mockery. But there doesn’t seem to be much weight tied to meaning or deeper values necessarily. They seem old world. Well, I think there are a lot of people out there who want that. I think there are a lot—and you could say Wes Anderson—I think he, in many ways, and I don’t want to read his work any more than I want people to read mine, but certainly somewhere in there, there seems to be some kind of cry for, longing for sincerity. And what does that mean? I don’t know. It’s a topsy-turvy world! So it’s hard to know…
I’m trying to get at— Well, our parents, hippies or whoever, could convince themselves, “Okay, we’ve totally overturned everything. We’ve got our own music and our own stuff that we like. So we’ve finally gotten to the core of it—the truth.” And then to grow up…See, I just feel like I’m a talking head on VH-1 or something.
I think its interesting that in the face of the utter confusion of your film’s subjects, you’re willing to use realism to simply look at the situation as it is, rather than deconstruct it or try to compare it to something else. And I think that’s significant. Sure. And I always hope to learn something. Not to go in with a statement and try to take that statement from two dimensions to three dimensions. Rather, to go in not knowing exactly what we’re doing and kind of learn as we go. I mean, the film should hold mysteries for me, and hopefully hold mysteries for anyone who watches it.
It’s got to be incredibly frustrating to make a movie and intimately understand what you made, then have to listen to a bunch of people like me try to tell you what it is. It’s just weird. But it’s fine. It’s part of the deal. And you’re thrilled that anybody cares.
Both of the films end on relatively squirm-inducing moments and right when the audience is at its most uncomfortable or awkward, you make quick cuts to black and silent credits. Why do you think you like to finish with such abrupt endings? Endings are tough and it’s always a challenge. I think neither of these stories support conventional resolution. And I’ve seen films where I was on board until a resolution is thrown on—and then I get mad. And I go, “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. I bought your story, but now you’re telling me those two got married and now everything is fine?” It drives me crazy. So the question is, how do you make an ending without a resolution? I don’t know, it’s tough to get out of a fictional world, and sometimes I’m just trying to make a clean break. The story ends here and, I’m sorry, but you people are on your own now.