Andrew Bujalski, Beeswax
Every film movement has its (sometimes reluctant) leader or trendsetter, and in the case of mumblecore, that person is Andrew Bujalski. The soft-spoken writer-director and sometime actor was born in 1977 in Boston, where both his parents worked in business. His mother had previously been an artist, and Bujalski seemed to inherit her more creative inclinations, which lead him to study film at Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Bujalski was particularly fortunate to have the legendary Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman as his thesis adviser, who helped him find the lead actress for his thesis film, Maggie Hatcher. In 2002, Bujalski made his feature debut with Funny Ha Ha, a 16mm movie about a twentysomething woman fresh out of college trying to find her place in the world. The film, which Bujalski self-distributed, was critically lauded and is now considered the first mumblecore movie. He followed it up shortly after with Mutual Appreciation, another low-budget tale of arty twentysomethings, this one centered around an aspiring indie musician played by Bishop Allen frontman Justin Rice, self-releasing it in 2005 to more great reviews. Subsequently, Bujalski went on hiatus from writing and directing, taking time out to act in friends’ movies, such as Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), the Zellner brothers’ Goliath (2008) and Dia Sokol’s Sorry, Thanks, and to work on an adaptation of Benjamin Kunkel’s novel Indecision for Paramount.
Bujalski’s third feature, Beeswax feels somewhat distinct from his previous films, not least because Mutual Appreciation was shot way back in 2003. Moreover, Beeswax is about a more grown-up world than Bujalski has shown us before, depicting the lives of a pair of twins, wheelchair-bound Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) and her sister Lauren (Maggie Hatcher). Both are in flux, as Jeannie’s business partner in her vintage clothing store is (maybe) threatening to sue her, which prompts Jeannie to reestablish ties with her law grad ex Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), and Lauren is between jobs and weighing whether she should accept a position in Kenya. The film’s main preoccupations are family (sometimes in a broader sense) and communication, and the intersection of the two. Though the threat of the lawsuit seems as if it will be the driving force of the movie, Bujalski doesn’t take a conventional approach with this narrative device and keeps an all-important sense of naturalism and believability. Beeswax is blessed with two great performances from its lead actresses, and the Hatcher twins’ charm and energy is perfectly showcased within the structure of Bujalski’s tighter but still very organic film.
Filmmaker spoke to Bujalski about working exclusively with non-professional actors, the indie auteur as small business owner, and looking for film critic David Edelstein in a fake graveyard in Virginia.
Filmmaker: I’m interested in how you feel looking back on mumblecore, and how much you perceive it as a help or a hindrance to where you are now.
Bujalski: Well, I guess I’m not sure where I am now. [laughs] I don’t know how much the blogosphere affects reality per se. [laughs] When that movie After Last Season came out, I went and saw it with some people and I loved it and had a great time. But going there, I wondered, “Who is going to be in the theater? Because the blogs are ablaze with this!” And, of course, there was just me and the group of friends I went with. I thought, “OK, maybe a thousand blogs doesn’t actually mean one viewer…” So I actually have no idea. The fact that mumblecore has been hotly debated on the internet may or may not have anything to do with anybody coming to see the films. I don’t think it hurts – in terms of the concept that there’s no such thing as bad publicity – but it certainly has nothing to do with what I was trying to do as a filmmaker and a storyteller.
Filmmaker: Was Beeswax a conscious decision to try and move on from mumblecore?
Bujalski: When you make small films that get some attention, a lot of people whisper in your ear that you should try to take it to the next level. Which means make more commercial work. That’s certainly something that I do have an interest in, but on this film if anything I had a perverse desire to try to stay in a similar realm to where we’d been, because I felt like there were more stories that I wanted to tell coming out of that way of filmmaking and, in some weird way, stay the course of the thing that people least wanted from me, which kind of made want to do it.
Filmmaker: What kind of progression do you feel you’ve made since Mutual Appreciation?
Bujalski: I don’t know. I can tell you that my life feels very different and I can tell you that anytime an artist is lucky enough to survive making something, of course you’re going to look at that thing and take some positive lessons and some negative lessons and also a desire to try out new things from it. It’s hard to quantify what those are exactly. I don’t think that much in terms of logical progressions, I think those are structures that we impose after the fact.
Filmmaker: This feels like a more adult and responsible world than the ones in your previous movies.
Bujalski: I’m sure it is. I’m sure that has something to do with my thoughts going into it. At the risk of tying things up too neatly, I think in the first film I did, the Marnie character is a wandering soul, which is more or less how I felt when I was in my early twenties and writing it. And in Mutual Appreciation, the Alan character is a struggling artist on the make, which is kind of how I felt then. [laughs] In this film, the character is a small business owner, which certainly has something to do with a couple of years spent self-distributing my films.
Filmmaker: Is the small business owner a pertinent analogy for the contemporary indie filmmaker?
Bujalski: I’ve certainly known people who did work that I thought was really terrific but that, because they didn’t have that small business owner mentality, didn’t want to put in the miserable hustle it took to get people to see their work. So a lot of good work goes unseen, and I admire those people because ultimately they have a real artist’s soul: they only care about making the thing. But I have this nagging sense of obligation – I feel like if we’ve put so much into this then I can’t really tear myself away from getting people to see it. Certainly most of the people who do the festival circuit have that hustle, and I think that’s a lot like being a small business owner.
Filmmaker: In the film, Jeannie’s vintage clothing store is described as a good little business that will always make a small profit. Is that an allusion to your self-distribution experiences as well?
Bujalski: It’s funny because I think a couple of people thought that that line was an external meta-reference to the films themselves. I wish that the films were a reliable small profit generator – that would be great! I’ve never come anywhere near making a living off these films. It’s an uphill battle for sure.
Filmmaker: How much did your move to Austin inform Beeswax?
Bujalski: The shoot occurred before I moved back here, and moving back was an indirect result of shooting here. I’ve done three features now: all of them I’ve written in a different place than I ended up shooting them, and none of them did I think I’d end up shooting them where we did. On this film, there was no obvious place to do it. I was living in Boston and I was working with the same team of people I’d worked with in the past in New York and L.A., and Tilly was living in Atlanta and Maggie was living in New Haven. So nothing was particularly central for anybody – though I guess Austin is kind of central geographically. I was leaning more toward doing it in Boston because I was lazy and it was going to be easy for me. We talked about doing it other places and the only city that made sense besides Boston was Austin, because I had lived here in the past and I did know people and that there was a community that was going to be not that difficult to plug into.
Filmmaker: You mentioned your lead actresses, the Hatcher twins. Their performances are so central to the film’s success.
Bujalski: Absolutely, and I wouldn’t have written a word of this film if I didn’t know them and weren’t thinking of them for it. I met Maggie in college. I was doing my college thesis film and Chantal Akerman was my thesis advisor, which was an amazing experience. Chantal discovered Maggie walking down the hall. [laughs] She was a rugby player and I think she had just torn her ACL and had surgery, so she was walking on crutches. I don’t know why, but Chantal stopped her and said, “My student needs you for his film,” and so I ended up meeting Maggie and putting her in my college thesis film. Shortly after that, I met her sister Tilly. I find them immensely charming individually, but together as a duo there was a kind of magic there that for many years I fantasized about trying to harness in a movie.
Filmmaker: So they were the initial spark for the movie?
Bujalski: Yes, and from there I was thinking about family – it seems like the thing to think about when you’re doing a movie about twins. And I think this whole lawsuit aspect came from anxieties in my own life, but also it seemed like it was at the opposite end of a spectrum from the way that problems are resolved in a family. This is a story about two people whose personal relationship has broken down and now have to turn to this legalese. I wanted to pit that against family coming together to try to take care of each other.
Filmmaker: You’ve always worked with non-professional actors. Why are they so important to you?
Bujalski: I think that they communicate differently. I think actors are trained to communicate very clearly, and I didn’t want that clarity for these films because the films are, on some level, about people trying to find their way through these situations in our lives. I wanted to get it to a place of unpredictability from second to second, and a kind of freshness. And also freshness for the audience. I love as a moviegoer discovering a new performer who I don’t know, and there’s something remarkable and amazing about how that never goes away. Even if you’ve seen a hundred Robert De Niro movies, you can still watch Mean Streets and feel like you’re discovering him. So I like trying to get that from people, and obviously a non-professional is better equipped than anybody to give you that real freshness.
Filmmaker: The film feels very spontaneous and naturalistic. Did you stick closely to the script or give your actors a lot of leeway?
Bujalski: There’s always leeway, and it depends somewhat on the actor. Every actor has a different comfort zone. Some people are at their best or happiest when they’re making it up as they go along, and other people really want to get something just right. This film has generally shorter scenes than the last ones did and a lot more specific exposition that has to be thrown out. There was a ton of exposition and that was the real challenge to keep it feeling alive amidst all of these points that the actors had to hit. So there was less room for goofing off and generally the actors were less inclined to goof off than in previous films.
Filmmaker: The way that you use the lawsuit is very interesting, because you introduce it as a conventional narrative device but don’t execute it in the way we might expect.
Bujalski: The film is ultimately about anxiety and fear. Who knows what it’s about, but that’s what’s driving a lot of the characters’ actions. This relationship between Jeannie and Amanda has been recontextualized through this threat of a lawsuit as Jeannie’s rushing back to this document, saying “I thought our relationship was what we’ve developed together as people and friends, but now I have to go back to this document we wrote years ago that we don’t necessarily understand to find out what our new relationship is.” In our first press kit, we were calling the film a legal thriller and getting into a little trouble for that, but when I was writing it I did think about borrowing some of the structure of a legal thriller for completely other purposes and deviating from that structure with it. I feel like anybody who’s been involved in a legal conflict would not feel like it was “thrilling,” and I was trying to get to some of how these things actually impact our lives.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask you about the title. It seems like people have been very keen to derive their interpretations of what the film is about directly from the title.
Bujalski: It’s interesting. I was surprised at how enigmatic the title seemed to be for a lot of people. I wasn’t necessarily trying to make a tease out of it, but having done that now, I want to stick with the enigma. I feel like when you’ve got something like that that is engaging people on that level and they’re looking for meaning, that may or may not be a dead end to unlock the secrets of the film through the title but I’m happy that people are taking the time and engaging with it and trying to make sense of what they see, because that’s part of what the film is there for.
Filmmaker: I was thinking of asking about the meaning of the title, but I guess, as the saying goes, it’s really none of my beeswax.
Bujalski: In fact, that was the joke that Tilly made in Berlin when we were asked that in Q&As. It’s a joke, but it’s right on the money and it also does answer your question.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest thing you’ve experienced during your time in the film industry?
Bujalski: There was one night at the Virginia Film Festival where we piled into a car with the guy from the Mekons and the critic David Edelstein to go see a Kiss cover band play in an abandoned potato chip factory on Halloween. Edelstein wanted to come along because he loved the Mekons, but then he didn’t really want to go to the show so he walked away, and then I felt bad and tried to find him. There was a tombstone showcase factory across the street – a place where they made tombstones that hadn’t been inscribed yet – and I was walking around in this kind of fake cemetery looking for David Edelstein, across the street from the Kiss cover band show at the abandoned potato chip factory.
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Filmmaker: Finally, What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Bujalski: Don’t think about your career ever.
Filmmaker: What should be your focus then?
Bujalski: Making good movies.