“Would You Mind Going to Video Village?” Andrew Bujalski on Support The Girls, Hollywood Casting and the Patriarchy
The last time I interviewed Andrew Bujalski, he’d thrown a number of viewers for a loop with Results, his gym-set, quasi-romantic comedy starring Guy Pierce and Cobie Smulders. The overt weirdness of Computer Chess was one thing, but Bujalski feinting at a mainstream-leaning movie with honest-to-goodness name actors, a perky score and the promise of two hot people hooking up for a happy ending was a proposition that seemed to fry the expectations of both veteran Bujalski viewers (who didn’t see it coming) and people who didn’t know his work at all (and didn’t get the normal romcom they expected). I’m firmly in favor of a movie that I think was misunderstood (and clearly I’m a super-fan of Bujalski’s work, so that’s not surprising), but let that pass; Support the Girls, which premiered at this year’s SXSW, has been receiving praise from the get-go.
Lisa (Regina Hall) is the manager of a Hooters-type establishment, one Double Whammies. She’s fiercely supportive of and loyal to her employees, who include the psychotically bubbly Maci (Haley Lu Richardson; please note the state-of-Texas necklace she wears in the final scene), troublesome new hire/marketing major Janelle (Dylan Gelula) and single mom Danyelle (Shayne McHayle, aka Junglepussy, in her first screen role). The job is a grind, not least due to asshole owner Cubby (James LeGros), whose rules include an “unofficial” but definitely real policy stating of no more than one black girl per shift, something his employees have definitely noticed. Over the course of one long day, Lisa triangulates chaos, taking everything in stride until that’s no longer an option.
Cubby is himself stressed by the prospect of a chain, the fictional ManCave, opening a new location nearby; competition from a corporate franchise seems to promise his stand-alone business’s inevitable obsolescence. On a superficial level, Support the Girls feels more like Bujalski’s first three films (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, Beeswax) than Computer Chess or Results: there’s no non-diegetic music and the handheld camera (Bujalski’s ever-present DP Matthias Grunsky) places an emphasis on performances rather than conspicuously elegant framing. Beyond that, though, Support the Girls examines the difficulties of trying to find dignity in a workplace that systematically tries to preclude that possibility; the implications for our present economic and political moment aren’t hard to tease out. The film ends with Lisa and her girls on a roof, hanging out when they hear a girl crying in the parking lot beneath them. “We love you!” Maci yells. “Everything’s going to be OK!” “Don’t tell her that!” snaps Danyelle. “Maybe everything won’t be OK.” Indeed: the movie ends with literal screaming into the void before a hard cut to the credits. Support the Girls is in part about solidarity, but the conclusions it reaches are necessarily grim and diagnostically absolutely right-on. The film enters limited release today and, in case I haven’t made this clear, it’s pretty great: both cathartic and anti-cathartic, crammed with numerous tossed off punchlines, a rendering of our dreadful present that doesn’t bludgeon. (Also, New Yorkers, take note; Computer Chess screens tomorrow, for the first ever, on a 35mm print!)
Filmmaker: Before we get into the movie, do you want to talk about directing several episodes of There’s Johnny, which was your first experience directing from someone else’s screenplay and also your first time doing what David Fincher was kind enough to call “streamable chronological narrative content”?
Bujalski: It was a great job. The job of the director is so different in TV, but it was very nice to be a guest of some very nice and talented people, going out to LA for three weeks and having fun with some lovely folks. It’s strange; I’m not used to being in and out of something in three weeks. I’m not sure what else to say about it.
Filmmaker: In TV, you’re able to have your own cut, you submit it and then they’re going to do a cut.
Bujalski: I had two days. They had an editor cut it. I went home and then I had two days for a quote-unquote director’s cut, which was me weighing in on cuts that they sent. From there, it went on to wherever it went on to.
Filmmaker: Was this about the time you were thinking of doing this movie as a TV series?
Bujalski: No, no. Support the Girls began probably about six years ago. I went to a couple of different producers, I pitched it to a few different networks. Nobody bit, which, in retrospect, of course seems like a great blessing. Some years after I finished Results and was trying to think what I wanted to try my hand at next, this was still in my head. And I thought, “Maybe I can reclaim this and do something that’s, to me, more interesting.” When I did There’s Johnny I was facilitating. I was doing someone else’s story and didn’t feel like I needed to master the story myself. To bring [Support] into the movie world, where you’re allowed to end it—that’s my trouble with TV. You can’t end. And if you can’t end, I get very confused by what the structure is.
Filmmaker: So how would it have worked as a series?
Bujalski: One way or another, no matter how we screwed with it—and who know what development process it would have gone through there—I’m sure it would have felt a little more sitcom-y. Now, the movie, as it is, I think still has these odd trace elements of sitcom in it. But it felt like given this form, we had more opportunity to do something stranger with it. If you don’t have to bring everybody back to a comfortable position the following week, then you’re allowed to put them through some things that they don’t have to recover from. I’m a huge fan, as everybody is, of The Wire, but it drove me crazy when the first season was so complete and beautiful and then the team broke up, because it had to. They spent half of the second season putting the team back together because it was necessary.
Filmmaker: You mentioned strangeness. To go back to Results a little bit: I don’t mean this in an unkind way at all, but the movie has one-and-a-half stars on Netflix.
Filmmaker: A friend of mine watched it. She was like, “I can’t put my finger on it, but this is strange.” Another friend got into an argument with his 60-year-old uncle in Nebraska, who just watched it for kicks and has no idea who you are, about it. How do you feel about all that?
Bujalski: I hate for anybody to feel misled. It’s never my intention; the Trojan Horse thing is not really what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to trick people into watching the movie. It’s tricky, especially as the budgets rise and the actors become more recognizable. There are things people are expecting to see. A lot of it’s probably just my own ignorance. I’m kind of out-of-touch with contemporary commercial cinema. Well, it’s not cinema; whatever it is now. I probably just don’t know what some of those expectations are anymore. In that way, I always find marketing these things to be not my favorite part of the process, and I always struggle with it. Computer Chess was by far the most fun movie to market, because there was no way to misrepresent it. Put a frame of that thing up on screen, and everybody knows it’s going to be strange. So we had to sell it as strange, and that was a delight. Everything else, one way or another, there’s been this question of, how big do we want the tent to be? The bigger we make the tent, the more you risk one-and-a-half stars on Netflix, with people who thought they were getting something else. But, to be quite honest, I think I learned a lesson about myself with Results. To go from Computer Chess to Results, to go back-to-back from making what seemed to me the most obscure thing I can imagine making to what seemed to me to be the most accessible thing I can imagine making, and have them both be received as equally bizarre [laughs] — that’s not inaccurate. I think I learned that there’s only so much changing of my spots that I can do.
Filmmaker: You’ve talked about how the movie isn’t supposed to take place in Austin, per se. But there’s the opening credits, which take place over a depressing montage of highways and overpasses; I recognized some of those locations. You’ve become such an Austin filmmaker. When they show your movies at SXSW, they’re like, “Oh, Austin filmmaker Andrew Bujalski has made another Austin movie.”
Bujalski: I’ve shot four movies there. Beeswax took place there, although it wasn’t something they talked a lot about. Results very much took place there. Computer Chess, you know, takes place somewhere weird. This one, while it’s certainly a Texas movie, I didn’t think of it as particularly Austin. We did avoid Austin landmarks. It’s highway world. Any highway corridor in Austin is not that dissimilar to one in Houston or Dallas or San Antonio. It was very depressing shooting it, because we were miserable going out to different highway spots, inhaling the exhaust. We kept trying to squeeze it in between other things. Sometimes, we did squeeze a few things in here and there. But eventually, on a schedule like this movie, there wasn’t much squeezing in to be done. So, after we wrapped, we grabbed another half-day after the shoot to just run around the highways.
Filmmaker: How many days was it?
Bujalski: I think it was 20, plus a half-day of highways. I think Matthias also spent part of a day chasing birds. We had a hard time getting birds. It’s hard to get a bird to be in your movie.
Filmmaker: They just keep flying away.
Bujalski: And never in the direction you expect.
Filmmaker: So where’s the actual Double Whammies?
Bujalski: We couldn’t have gotten luckier with that. We ended up finding a chain restaurant that had closed down, and the location was available. It happened to be literally next door to a Twin Peaks. We came in and did our own design stuff to it, changed some things around, but a lot of it was there. We could not have been luckier, in that sense. Although I will say being next door to the real thing was intimidating. I’m the kind of filmmaker that is always disappointed by not living up to reality. You go, “Okay, our fake stuff is good, but reality is really good.” You go next door to Twin Peaks and you’re like, “Wow, this is insane, they nailed the aesthetic here.” Ours is a little different. Our place wasn’t supposed to be just like that Twin Peaks. It’s not a big chain. It is a one-off owned by someone who’s a little disengaged. It suited us, and our budget, to be a little scuzzier, a little behind-the-times. Twin Peaks is interesting amongst those places, ‘cause they’re trying to keep up with the times. They’re trying to transition. They can be surprisingly hip, in some ways. I went in one time, and they were playing the Pixies, and that blew my mind. I didn’t expect that, at all. I don’t know that it means much. Double Whammies would never play the Pixies.
Filmmaker: It’s a fairly big conclusion—basically screaming into the void, acknowledging that maybe everything won’t be okay, and then there’s a really abrupt cut to credits over a song heard very distantly through car speakers.
Bujalski: It’s “Party Foul.” It plays in the restaurant. It plays at least once, maybe twice in the movie. It’s exactly the song you would hear in one of these places. It’s just a guy singing about, “Don’t do these party fouls, don’t get on the dance floor and act all silly, change the song in the middle of Willie.” That music is playing throughout. I didn’t want the music to be too specifically one thing. I didn’t want to be too on-the-nose and make fun of one kind of music, but I did want it all to live in a certain world that would fit in that restaurant. So even for that to come back, for the women to have their final scream up there, and, to some degree, undercut that by the same oppressive sound of their workday—there’s something a little nasty about it, and I wanted a little bit of that nastiness, but when it came on full-blast, it was too nasty. So we had it diegetic in the opening credits, too; it made sense to go that way in the end.
Filmmaker: You used some non-diegetic music in Results. This time everything’s diegetic.
Bujalski: It just made sense to me on this one, especially in a place where there is wall-to-wall music. Someday, I’d love to really take on a diegetic music movie, and just do it start to finish—really design with that in mind, wall-to-wall. I think about it a lot recently, especially because I watch with my kids all these movies I grew up with. They see Star Wars, they see Indiana Jones. You watch all these and you go, “As much as we worshipped Spielberg and George Lucas, I’m not sure that John Williams isn’t the auteur here.” There’s some real common thread between those movies and Superman and everything else he did. Harold Faltermeyer, with Beverly Hills Cop, you’re like, “Maybe that’s really the soul of the movie.” I would love to try to do that someday. I don’t know how. I don’t know if you can do that any more. I’m always thinking, in a way, of dialogue, or just whatever audio is in the room. That’s the score I’m building with. So I get nervious about trying to work something differently. Results, we had a really specific idea of how to build the score in, and that was so much fun to do. In Computer Chess, some of it creeped in, in moments. But it was nice for me, in a way, to go back. Beeswax had been the last one I’d done without.
Filmmaker: Are there rules when you’re inside the space? There’s a kitchen, an open floor area and a bar. The little room where the safe is is really narrow, the kitchen is small. Are there rules where the camera can and can’t go or is it just figuring it out practically?
Bujalski: Figuring it out. We built the dressing room. We put up a little wall in one spot to make it smaller. Everything else was pretty much good. Then it was just the laws of physics; you could put the camera wherever. We were on a tight schedule, and it was a movie that was all choreography, so that was the real challenge of this movie, for me, more than anything. There were very few [of what] I would consider scenes. I think of a scene as a thing where there’s some people and there’s some movement, and there’s something you can dig into, and you can play with it. There wasn’t a whole lot of that. It’s all almost all interstitial-type things, all movement, all one thing that leads to the next: I walk out here, somebody tells me I gotta walk over there. Lisa’s on her feet all day, constantly getting bombarded. There are very few situations where she can get into anything with anyone. There’s a lot of what you’d call one-ers in the movie, where we’ve got no coverage. We’ve got one angle on this, and maybe we have four or five takes, but there’s not a whole lot you can do in that except just try to get it right. It’s choreography.
Filmmaker: Was that new to you? There’s a lot of movement in Computer Chess.
Bujalski: There’s choreography in everything, and it’s not the first time I’ve rolled the dice. You’ve had things like that in everything I’ve done, where sometimes you say, “Look, we’re going to do this in a five-minute take, and I really hope it works.” But this was so much of that given a tight schedule. It’s just like, “I hope we got it right, because now we’ve gotta move on.” What’s different about it, I guess, is there’s less of, “Oh, we’ll find it in the edit. We got this and this and this, and there’s probably some good stuff in there, and I can see in the edit.” There’s a lot of having to trust that a lot of that editing was just real-time choreography.
Filmmaker: When you’re on-set, do you like video village? Do you stand over there?
Bujalski: I started to. I didn’t have it at all on the first three movies. And then on the last couple—in some ways, it’s just practical on a movie like this, especially doing tight spaces. I’m sure there were times when I was in there with them. But the other thing too is, professional actors expect it at this point. I learned that on Results. Maybe the first scene I did with Guy, I thought, “Well, I’ll just hunker down in this corner of the room here.” And after a couple of takes of that, Guy asked me politely, “Would you mind going to video village?” It was in the next room, but it made things easier for him to not have me in the corner.
Filmmaker: Did you get better at speaking different actor languages?
Bujalski: Yeah, there are several. That’s another thing that became very clear on Results. Even on the stuff that had non-pros, there were still some people—the encounter-group people in Computer Chess were mostly people of acting backgrounds. But to go into Results where there’s all these big-time pros, who’d been doing this thing for a living for 20 years, certain things were different and certain things were not different at all. One thing that has not changed is, no two people are the same; that’s true of non-pros, too. But everybody has their own idiosyncrasies, everybody has their own approach, everybody has their own things that they want to help them be their best. They communicated in different ways, and everybody has their insecurities; that was the big lesson on Results. I think part of me thought, “I’m going to go into this, and everybody’s going to be so confident because they do this for a living, and there will be nothing for me to talk about.” Only to quickly realize, oh, actors never shed their insecurities. That’s like the coals they’re shoveling into the flames to keep the thing running. That’s part of how they run. Which was a relief, in a way, because I realized that’s also a lot of my job. We start from that place. It’s like, “What do we not feel secure about in this scene? Let’s have that conversation.” That’s where a lot of our work is done.
Filmmaker: Did you have more time to rehearse this time?
Bujalski: Not a ton. A little bit. We grabbed what we could;. Haley Lu and Dylan came down. I had them for maybe a week; I had Regina for most of that week. But it’s such a big cast. Again, because there aren’t a lot of sceney-scenes, it was more about talking things through. We kicked around a little bit of improv stuff, but mostly it was just about situating ourselves in the environment—talking about the characters, talking about the scenes—more than trying to run these scenes that would so often just be: I walk into the room, you say this to me, I walk out of the room. There are so many scenes like that, there was only so much we could get out of rehearsal.
Filmmaker: The ManCave commercial—
Bujalski: Yeah, we did that.
Filmmaker: That was fun?
Bujalski: It was super fun.
Filmmaker: What did you do?
Bujalski: We just got another location. We spun around a plate of wings. That was fun. A Lazy Susan, or something like that. [mimics turning a plate of wings] It was a delight. I love shooting those things. We’re hanging around all day, and it was a pretty easy, mellow shoot. At some point, it occurred to me, “We could be doing this and have it be an actual commercial and get paid so much more money.” But instead, we were making a little indie.
Filmmaker: Well, why not make a commercial? Why not make some money between movies?
Bujalski: It’s something that I’ve considered; it’s something I’m open to. I just haven’t really pursued it. One time I had a meeting with a commercial agent. She politely pointed out to me that my movies don’t really look like commercials. I had to agree.
Filmmaker: I found a lecture you gave in 2010 on the Cinema Guild website. You were talking about this thing that you’ve talked about a lot, which I had internalized without realizing where it was coming from: if you don’t have money, then it’s a lot better to write for people that you know, because you know what they can and can’t do. If you get some crappy actor off Mandy or something, you’re probably going to be in trouble. One of the things that I thought was really smart about Results—and some idiot on IMDB trivia pointed out that Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce are both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which turns out to be actually relevant—the movie needs two people who are actually super in shape, and they would be super in shape, because they make superhero movies.
Bujalski: It’s not fully intentional, but it also doesn’t seem coincidental to me that my two quote-unquote Hollywood movies—take that with a big grain of salt—are also about body image industries. They’re very different body image industries, but it’s easy enough to get actors to play people who are selling their hot bods. They know what that’s about, for sure.
Filmmaker: You didn’t start with any of the performers this time, right?
Bujalski: No. I don’t think there was anybody in the movie who I’d imagined in the movie. That’s hard. That’s scary. Even when you have a little bit of money, or whatever it is that we have that gets people to return our calls, there’s still nothing like any guarantee that you’re going to find the right person. The thing that drives me the craziest about that system, and that I find most difficult about trying to even imagine working in that system, is the idea that actors are interchangeable. The Hollywood model is, for each character there’s going to be a list of people who could play it. You’re going to start at the top with the most famous possible person, and you’re just going to go down the list until you get someone who says yes. That’s purely, whatever that is—financial marketing. That has nothing to do with the soul of the movie. Even Brad Pitt and George Clooney, that’s two different guys, who are going to give you two different movies. I think the Hollywood ethos is, “See which one you get and adapt. Figure it out.” That’s fine, but if you are only adapting to those circumstances all the time, it scares me as the guy whose job it is to try to make the thing make sense, that it can get moved in so many different directions on a dime. These things happen so quickly. That produces plenty of anxiety to me. I want the movie to be coherent, I really want that, and if you give me the wrong person, it just might not work anymore. Not because that person’s a bad actor, but it just makes it a different movie.
Filmmaker: Do you find yourself tempted to slightly rewrite words once people are cast?
Bujalski: I always think about it. As soon as somebody’s in, for sure, I can give another read to that part and see how it feels in my head. Imagining it. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything radical. But, I also wouldn’t be averse to doing something radical if I thought of it up.
Filmmaker: Is it something just like listening to the cadences of their voice, or what certain words in their vocabulary are?
Bujalski: Yeah, and also whatever sense you have of what they’re going to bring—in a very hippie-dippy way, what is the vibe? That’s frankly where I risk getting myself in trouble, because I tend to sit down with somebody, see what’s in front of me and get interested in that. I go, “Okay, I had lunch with you, and caught this vibe off of you, and that’s great. We can use that. That would be a key thing to build into the character here.” I think that’s fine, and most actors, one way or another, are open to that. It’s a part of the job. But they also want to be there; they want to transform. I think many actors love nothing better than if you say, “Okay, here’s who you’re going to be, it has nothing to fucking do with you. I want you to transform yourself 100%, be unrecognizable.” Actors love that challenge, and it rarely occurs to me to give it to them. I would rather take what they’re bringing and try to start working with that. That, I think, is more intuitive to non-professionals, just because most of the non-professionals I’ve worked with haven’t had that same desire to completely disappear. So, that’s a negotiation we have every time. It’s different for different people.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about Junglepussy, the breakout star to me. She’s the non-performer, though being a musician is being a performer. Was there anything separate about working with her as relative to the other cast members?
Bujalski: Not really. This was her first movie, she was totally professional. She’d done videos and stuff. Performing is obviously very familiar to her, and she came in very prepared. We shot her first take in her first scene in any movie ever, and we all just looked around at each other, like, she doesn’t need time to warm up.
When you’re dealing with the agencies and things, you get these lists. They say, “Here are the 10 people we represent and want you to consider.” And I always feel like it’s my duty just to at least do some kind of cursory think-through of who’s not going to be on this list; let me just do my due diligence and make sure I’m not only taking what’s being handed to me. I don’t remember exactly, but I think I probably just found her via Google. I’ve had a lot of good experience with musicians, and I always think musicians often make good actors. So in just thinking about that part, I thought, “Well, let me look up some young musicians I’ve never heard of.” With her in particular I responded a lot to her work—her videos, but also, you Google her and her giving lectures on nutrition at Columbia and Yale. And you’re like, “This woman is fucking interesting. She’s got a lot going on.” [laughs] We got in touch with her reps and said, “Shot in the dark, does she have any interest in acting?” She did, I came to New York and did a screen test with her. That went really well.
Filmmaker: Had you done screen tests before?
Bujalski: I try to do it with actors whenever possible. It’s tricky when you get to this world of people with reps. Some people, you can’t do it. But whenever I’m allowed to, I always want to just work with somebody for an hour. There’s a lot you can learn from watching someone’s work. Obviously there’s a lot you can learn from having lunch with somebody. But just spending 30-60 minutes working with somebody, there’s stuff you’re not going to get any other way, so I always request it if I can get it.
Filmmaker: My last question is really annoying but I have to ask it. The experience of watching it, coming into it with the knowledge that it was a project that had been on your mind before and then again after the election—
Bujalski: I wrote it before the election.
Filmmaker: I know you did. It’s just this unavoidable thing that echoes in the back of my mind. It feels like the first time you made a movie that’s self-consciously aware of itself as a political object.
Filmmaker: I figured you would reject that. I just had to ask.
Bujalski: You saved the hardest question for last. I don’t know. Everything is a political object now, as you’re well aware. That’s where our culture is at. I didn’t ask for that, but I do think you don’t get to choose the culture you’re working in. You have to work with it one way or another. The ground shifted so much, in a way that we have not seen in our lifetimes, over the many years of making this movie. Can you take a political view on this? There’s politics all over this, right? Where am I trying to go with this?
Filmmaker: I don’t know. That’s why I asked.
Bujalski: You said “political object.” I was not unaware that we were playing with some hot-button stuff, even in the halcyon days of pre-November 2016. But I can’t think of the movie as an object, be that a cudgel or tombstone or whatever. If it’s any good it has to be a living thing.
Filmmaker: It will inevitably be received as a film that has a statement about capitalism, or solidarity, or etc.
Bujalski: Yeah, but—it’s all about that only in the sense that it’s all built in there and all our lives are about that stuff. Capitalism, for sure. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Maybe it’s just that we’re all thinking about it more all the time now.
Bujalski: Well, I think about it all the time. We’re all forced to take a side on it. That’s the part that’s a little different, and that’s the part that’s a little scary. Because what I didn’t want to do with this movie—I know that some people who like this movie are going to want to say, “This is the movie that shows how shitty men are,” or, “This is the movie that shows how shitty business owners are.” It’s not an invalid interpretation, but it’s not the story I want to tell. I’m sure it’s doomed me commercially, but, for me, every character in this movie, and in everything else I’ve ever done, they’re all taking on their own problems and they’re all fucking up one way or another. This movie, if it’s about anything, it’s about a good person’s every best intention blowing up in their face, and yet they’re still a good person. There’s still a value in trying to do good, even when you can’t, even when you’ve fucked yourself up every time, which is probably as explicit a statement as I’ve ever made about anything. I’d much prefer to do a David Lynch and say, “You have to take from it what you want to take from it.” All of which to say, anybody who wants to take a bumper sticker message from this movie, and say, “Well, this is the overthrow the patriarchy movie”— you’re not wrong, and you can have that. That’s not not in there, but if I wanted to make a bumper sticker, I would’ve made a bumper sticker. I hope there’s something richer, and, ultimately, more useful than a bumper sticker in there.