Medium Specific: An Interview with Computer Chess Director Andrew Bujalski

Computer Chess, featured in Science on Screen Computer Chess, featured in Science on Screen

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is the most daring feature film of the year. A bewildering and baffling trip back in time (to circa 1980), the movies follows a group of four-eyed super-nerds engaged in a unique chess tournament – in which their carefully designed computer programs face off against each other. Shot on 43-year-old video equipment (the Sony AVC3260, one of the earliest consumer cameras), the movie looks like a lost artifact from another era — with soupy black-and-white images that take on a ghostly pallor. If Bujalski is known for his lo-fi minimalist human comedies Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, Computer Chess takes him to another entirely otherworldly dimension that’s engaged as much with insights into social awkwardness as philosophical inquiries about sentient machines and the mind-body problem.

Working from an eight-page treatment and conceived as a direct rebuke against commercial filmmaking, Computer Chess could very well have signaled for Bujalski “a nail in the career coffin,” as he says. But as confounding as the project may be for some viewers, the Boston-based filmmaker says it’s turning out to be one of his most successful projects.

Bujalski spoke to Filmmaker about medium specificity, focus challenges, wounded cameras, and the frustrations of trying to accommodate the commercial marketplace.

Kino Lorber is opening Computer Chess at Film Forum this Wednesday. For more on the film and its wacky aesthetic and background, be sure to check out its website: http://www.computerchessmovie.com/

Computer Chess writer/director Andrew Bujalski

Computer Chess writer/director Andrew Bujalski

Filmmaker: At what point in the process did you say to yourself that I want these questions of technology to be imbued in the film’s making?

Bujalski: Before anything else about this movie, I knew I wanted to shoot with these cameras. But that being said, the idea that it would resonate with themes of technology wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of my mind. It was accidental that I made a zeitgeist-y relevant movie. I didn’t mean to do that. I just constructed it mostly with my subconscious. It was only when we were gearing up to shoot, that I realized a lot of it made sense and worked for our contemporary world.

Filmmaker: What were the most difficult challenges dealing with this equipment?

Bujalski: None of us had ever made a movie with the Sony AVC3260. I think I went into it a little naively and thank goodness I did, because we had to go in naively or we wouldn’t have dared to pull off as many absurd things as we did. I had thought this camera worked well in 1970 and there’s no reason why it couldn’t work now. And that was sort of true, but everything that would have surrounded that camera in 1970 has vanished, starting with the ¾ inch tape deck that you can record onto.

On wider shots, it’s not the sharp critical focus you’d expect from contemporary or even old film cameras. There was one point where we had a reason to think that the whole movie was entirely out of focus. That was a terrifying, sinking feeling. We halted production for a couple of hours to worry about this. We were able to figure it out. Ultimately, it came down to we were watching it on a laptop monitor, and it had something to do with the lines of the video on the computer making it look fuzzier than it was.

Filmmaker: Did you go back and look at sources of this video? What was your research?

Bujalski: I’m sure I encountered these images before, but what lodged in my head and got me excited about it was William Eggleston in the ’70s got a Portapak and shot a bunch with his friends in Memphis, and some clips of that turned up in Michael Almereyda’s documentary about Eggleston. Shortly thereafter, it was edited and released as something called Stranded in Canton, which is just amazing. Seeing that made me fall in love with the camera and sparked the fantasy of wondering if I could do a narrative on this.

Filmmaker: What is so amazing aesthetically for you, specifically?

Bujalski: The thing that’s easiest to talk about is the trailing lights phenomenon. If I point the camera up at a bright light and pan away, that light is going to leave a trail in the image. There is a ghosting effect that takes some time for the tube to recover. There’s something so beautiful about it, and at the risk of being pretentious, it also seems like a fine metaphor for moviemaking, because these images you see on screen are always ghosts, and here is the camera that makes the ghosts apparent. There is almost something paranormal about it. And I love the fact that it’s analogue, but in many ways, it’s the first steps towards the digital world of today. I love that it’s so responsive to organic matter: The idea that light can wound the camera is stunning, and so contrary to the impervious technology that we have today.

Filmmaker: I have to wonder after making Computer Chess how you can go back to a regular DV camera because it would just not seem like a challenge enough? What will you take from this to the next project and how will you not be bored?

Bujalski: For me, the reason we did this and for that matter, the reason why I shot my first three movies on 16mm in a video era is because format matters, which I think gets lost in the digital age, where convenience matters. I cut my first three movies on a Steenbeck [editing system], and it’s not fast, I admit, but when I tell people I cut my movies on a flatbed, I often get this odd reaction like I climbed Mt. Everest. But why would that be considered a feat, because for several decades that’s how every movie was made. So it does matter. You tell a story differently with different kinds of images. And it’s always been important to me to be conscious of that. If I’m going to continue to make movies and make a career of it, I’m going to have to catch up to the 21st Century and work with cameras that people work with these days. I can do that. But I don’t want to treat it like 16mm or 35mm.

Filmmaker: But do you think the more experimental nature of Computer Chess will fuel you to continue to experiment more?

Bujalski: I’d like to. I’ve never had more fun creatively than I did on Computer Chess, because there was no imperative to be tasteful. I would love to jump off another cliff. But I will say that before we premiered, I feared, “Nobody is going to get this, nobody is going to like it, and I’m going to have to apologize for it for years.” But then it was received better than I hoped for, and then my fear became,” Oh my God, what if somebody asks me to repeat this?” Because I have no idea how to make another Computer Chess, because I don’t know how I made it the first time. But it would behoove me to make something that would be more likely to bring in money one way or another.

Filmmaker: What’s your background with documentary, which seems applicable to the improvisational nature of Computer Chess?

Bujalski: That was my training as an undergrad at Harvard’s Visual and Environmental Studies program. I did narrative work there, but the backbone of that program has always been documentary. And I do believe documentary is phenomenal training for any filmmaker, because it is all about adapting to things that you can’t control, and that’s a profoundly important lesson. Filmmaking is always a collaboration between you imposing your will and something else imposing its will that you have to accept and end with.

Filmmaker: Which is also what the film is about, too, right?

Bujalski: Sure.

Filmmaker: You mention the whole movie coming out of your subconscious – obviously, there’s a lot of stuff in there that doesn’t narratively make sense exactly, i.e. the cat digressions – so were you worried about that, or were you looking at experimental models of repetition to structure it?

Bujalski: This whole thing was conceived as a leap off a cliff, so the fact that it was coherent at all is a surprise to me.

Filmmaker: But you have structuring principles that you work with?

Bujalski: Part of me wonders if I didn’t go far enough. Certainly, structure is always paramount for me. I think I conceive of everything movie-wise in terms of structure. It is my focus as a writer. I want to try to gain momentum and power from where I’m going, even thought it might have the appearance of madness.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about how you were thinking about this crazy dream of a movie being structured?

Bujalski: There are certain principles in place. You do have a tournament in a discrete location to contain everything. Of course, the tournament ends two-thirds of the way into the movie. But that becomes another structural element: How do you build a movie where there’s still a third of the movie to go; how do you make that work? But to be perfectly honest about writing the treatment, I really don’t remember it very well. It was something I did shortly before my son was born, and after that, my memory was erased at that point.

Filmmaker: Are you able to think clearly now with a young son?

Bujalski: No, I haven’t thought clearly in years.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about making a film at this point in your career that is made so much without any regard to commercial concerns?

Bujalski: A lot of the genesis of the project was my place of refuge and my imagination for years, because I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade, and more and more lately, trying to figure out how to sell out. And I don’t have a knack for it. And it’s frustrating for me how to understand what the marketplace wants, and how I can give it to them. That’s not a happy place for me to be. When I would get frustrated, I would retreat to the least commercially viable thing I could think of. Two years ago, we were trying to pull together a movie that still would have been my movie and my voice, a more conventional deal, with actors you’ve heard of, but when we ran into a brick wall with financing that in 2011, I was desperate to shoot something, because I had a 1 year-old son, and I was afraid if I didn’t make a movie soon it would be easy not to make one again. So I pulled out this Computer Chess treatment and decided to do it.

I’ve made four movies, and all of them I made completely free from worrying about what the marketplace would do with them. This one, in particular, there were plenty of reasons to think this would be a nail in the career coffin. But I’ve been surprised at how kind people have been to it. It’s this perverse irony: If I ever made something that would be guaranteed to lose money, it would be this one. But it now seems on track to be as “successful” as anything I’ve ever done.

Filmmaker: How much money did you spend making it?

Bujalski: That’s crass. No one likes to talk about numbers. But it’s less than we spent on Beeswax. After Beeswax, it was the movie that we spent the most on and made the least back on, so that was worrying. Again, I’ve never made these movies thinking too much about how we’re going to bring the money back. But Beeswax was made with private investors, and I hate losing their money. So it felt like we had hit a wall there. There’s always pressure to go bigger, but there’s part of me that thinks you can go smaller.

I intended Computer Chess to be cheaper than it was, actually. We kept costs as low as we possibly could, too low, in fact. At this age, I don’t want to make a movie where I’m asking people to work on deferment, but a lot of people were working on deferment. We paid a third from crowd-funding, a third from grants, and a third from private investors, and I think we’re on track to actually get them their money back, which is a relief for me.

Filmmaker: I didn’t mean to be crass, but what is the reality of making an artisanal film, which still costs money. What can we get away with these days making this kind of movie? How much can you really make your movie any way you want?

Bujalski: It just depends on your expectations and standards and what you want to accomplish. Are you going to do what Kevin Smith did with Clerks and have it launch you in the stratosphere? Probably not. The conditions seem a lot more difficult for that now.

Filmmaker: Are you trying to get other projects going now?

Bujalski: I have been for the last six months. But when you’re making a project like this, it consumes you for years. And then, you wake up and look around and say, “I really need to make money now.” This is a constant cycle for me: I panic. And then I go back to make something crazy. But it’s becoming untenable as a cycle. So I’ve been to Los Angeles a couple of times, done those pitches and I have more indie stuff bubbling up in my mind, as well.

Filmmaker: How satisfying has it been to work on polishing scripts for Hollywood?

Bujalski: I am trying to get more of that work. But that game of working as a hired gun writer was never a game I mastered. And that seems to have gotten tougher and tighter. And it seems like everyone in Hollywood is trying to get out of the movie business and into the TV business. I’ve pitched a few things, but it’s tough for me, because I’m focused on a middle, beginning and ending, and it’s hard to conceive of something where you’re not allowed to end it. But I’d be delighted if any of those projects went forward.