“A Giant Greenscreen Marvel Movie, Except We Couldn’t Afford the Greenscreens”: Andrew Bujalski on There There
“We’re not sure how to describe it,” Bujalski told the Cambridge Day‘s Tom Meek of his seventh feature, the Tribeca premiere There There. “We’re just gonna put it on the screen and let everybody else tell us what we did.” That promised a strange film, and There There delivers. After a disorientingly shot-at-home sax solo from musician Jon Natchez (whose quarantine-vibes solo sets provide interludes between segments), There There begins the first of six narrative sequences centered around pairs of unnamed characters with Lennie James and Lili Taylor, who’ve spent the night together for the first time. They’re introduced in rigorously locked-off shots from each others’ sideways POV and equally uncanny overhead views, and seem to be both right next to each other and impossibly far away—nearly every shot after the first one is, by definition, a reverse shot. It quickly becomes clear that, for whatever reason, they will never be in the same frame at the same time, an unavoidable clue to There There‘s pandemic-origins experiment in stitching solo performances (shot separately on iPhones, often months apart) into extended duologues.
The performers’ naturalism butts up against the clear artifice stitching them together, an unresolved non-synthesis that’s endlessly unmooring. Subsequent segments are darker, seething with more obvious hostility than Bujalski’s previous work has allowed. Taylor’s AA sponsor in the second segment, Annie LaGanga, has a parent-teacher conference in the third segment where she turns on teacher Molly Gordon in a ferocious attack as aggressively unpleasant as it is inexplicable. The film’s fourth segment, with Jason Schwartzman as a lawyer and Avi Nash as his techbro client, unexpectedly forges a connection via not people but a shared theme, while the sixth and final segment unexpectedly snaps the characters into one final, unexpected set of relationships to one another. Working with his longtime DP, Matthias Grunsky, Bujalski pushes the colors generated by iPhone shooting into literally dark, strange terrain. (Movies that popped into my head as plausible comparison points were all themselves strange: Alain Resnais’s Melo, Heinz Emigholz’s The Lost City and David Lynch’s Inland Empire). The film shows again at Tribeca today. I spoke to Bujalski the night after his premiere.
Filmmaker: I went back and looked at the Results interview, where you said, “If I get the opportunity again in life, I would love to scurry back to making strange and obscure things.” I guess you got your opportunity here. I don’t know if you just sat around for a few months before you realized you should do something.
Bujalski: It started as a sanity exercise that turned into an insanity exercise. In March of 2020, suddenly everything became impossible. Three months later, everybody else had gone back to work, but at that point I started to get myself entrenched in this idea, and this has been one of the really tricky things about figuring out how to talk about this movie. We’re acutely aware that everybody turns right off if you say, “Here’s this pandemic movie,” or “this COVID movie,” or whatever that thing is. I also knew that there were going to be people rushing out shooting things that took place on Zoom and getting them out the next week, and I knew how slow I was. So, if I was going to do something strange and in some ways suited to the moment, it couldn’t just be about that. It had to be something that had a deeper meaning to me than just convenience, and nothing about this was particularly convenient anyway.
It went to the heart of a cinema experiment, something I’d be interested in anytime. I don’t know if anybody’s done anything like this before—they might have, or maybe no one was crazy enough to try it, but it was an idea that I think was always hanging out there. I dug in and started to figure it out, maybe in a way similar to Computer Chess, where I started with this idea that I wanted to work with these weird, lost, unbeloved cameras, and form informed function, in a way. This had to be a similar thing, where I wasn’t going to try to find an unusual way to make a normal movie. I’d find an unusual way to make an unusual movie, and the movie had to be about what we were doing. That’s what the production was, and that’s what the movie’s about.
Filmmaker: How would you describe the idea of it? The title is your Michael Snow title [a la <—> aka Back and Forth, in which the camera whips back and forth for the entire running time]: it’s describing exactly what’s happening. It took me a second to pick up on that.
Bujalski: I’ll confess we had a different title the whole time we were in production, then had to scramble last minute because absurdly, we were informed that there was a big old movie coming down the pike with a similar title. So, I’m still coming to terms with the title. I don’t know how to describe it. I mean, that’s the fun and terror of making something like this—you go on an instinct that maybe you can do something, and the only way to find it is to do it. So, that’s what we did.
This took us six months to shoot. We started in March of ’21, when vaccines were just starting to roll out. Each performer would be in their own location with a micro crew, a maximum of four people. Generally the operator was doing everything, there was usually some kind of scene partner for them to read with and, depending on the shoot, there might have been an art person or a PA—tiny, tiny. Myself, Matthias, the cinematographer and the producers would all be on Zoom. We shot in New York, LA, Austin, Italy and Germany, and I never left my desk.
Filmmaker: It seems like it would be really tricky to figure all this out, because there’s all of these different framings, and they’re all pretty precise, and you’re thinking about shot/reverse shot continuity. How did you do that? Did you have somebody just walk around their house with their phone and show you the layout?
Bujalski: Some of that, yeah. We would try to get to know the place to the best of our ability. Most of these scenes we’d shoot in very long days and just bang it out. But before that, we would try to have a half day, essentially a combination of rehearsal and tech scout, and try to find all of our frames. Matthias did incredible math on this, trying to keep everybody’s eyelines straight and matching up. He has an incredible brain for that. We figured 10 or 11 setups was where we would max out. So, we would try to choose them wisely, figure out what we needed and run them. Then we’re off to the races and we got what we got. It was quite grueling for the actors, because I think they weren’t used to the experience of a day that was all them, all the time. In some ways it was just really drilling a play—15 pages of dialogue, over and over again. I often felt guilty tormenting them, but every piece of footage we got ended up being useful to me somehow.
Filmmaker: This is a really formalist project in a way that I wasn’t expecting, and the colors are kind of unreal. I’ve never really thought to peer into a Zoom image, but on a big screen there’s so much stuff in here.
Bujalski: It’s not a Zoom image, per se. We were participating on Zoom, but that’s the iPhone camera, and it has its own character. It gives you weird images, but it’s all real places. In some ways, oddly I think it’s not that different from what a lot of big production is these days, where things are digitally stitched together. It’s like we did a giant greenscreen Marvel movie, except we couldn’t afford the greenscreens.
Filmmaker: The movie dares you not to notice the way by which it’s made, and you toy with that throughout. That early moment of realization, that the characters are never going to enter the same frame, forces you to ask yourself questions about how this was made, even if you didn’t know.
Bujalski: I’ve been surprised—there are people who can and do watch this whole thing, and certainly understand that something strange is happening, but never put together that these folks are not in the same place at the same time. And it’s glaring! It’s not something that’s particularly subtle. In that first scene, she’s got white walls behind her and he’s got green walls behind him. So, we had to lean into that, and I thought those green walls were a great lesson. We didn’t paint those, those are the walls in the location we shot. I was so pleased with that, because I didn’t want to hide anything from the audience. We did have to play with this constant resonance-dissonance.
Filmmaker: When you thought about the structure of the movie and the way that it loops back on itself, is the architecture of how it works the starting point, or is it like you wanted to write these different kinds of segments that allow you the freedom to go in a bunch of different directions in 90 minutes?
Bujalski: It started with variations on a theme, these different relationships where trust is built and breaks down. Then it’s a fairly intuitive process of seeing how those things also build off each other, resonate with each other. This was all taking place in limbo: you never know where anybody is and, in some ways, they’re nowhere. That also allowed for these kind of resonances and echoes in the writing: I think it may be the only movie ever made in which two different characters do push-ups on beds. As I’m writing it, it’s not so much that I’m going out of my way to build a resonance. In a conventional script, I might avoid such a thing because it’s too odd. Here, anytime something lined up with something else it felt useful, because these characters are all bouncing around in the same purgatory.
Filmmaker: There’s basically a lot more darkness in this movie than I’m used to from your work, and that’s not a bad thing. There were some obvious ambient reasons why that might be. But I’m curious about that permission you’d given yourself in this movie to basically not be so nice about things.
Filmmaker: I mean, I’ve been terrified all along. To some degree, anytime I sit down to write something, you’ve got to turn off some of your super ego and self-censorship and let the id drive for a while. When I first had this thing written, I had a little bit of a feeling of, “Oh my god, can I even show this to anybody?” And, as you say, there’s plenty of reason to write dark and depressing things these days. When I started to talk to Roy Nathanson, who plays the ghost, I apologized and said, “Well, Roy, here’s this thing. I’d love for you to take a look at it. It’s kind of dark and depressing.” And he said, “You don’t have to apologize for that. I don’t blame the weatherman for telling me that there’s a storm outside.” And I appreciated that. I’ve tried to go with Roy’s weatherman metaphor, that maybe I don’t need to beat myself up for engaging in that stuff. But it surprised me, too, and it’s been nervewracking. I could only thank the cast and everybody else involved in this for taking it seriously and making something special out of it.
Filmmaker: I’m interested in Jason’s segment with Roy. It’s literally really, really dark.
Bujalski: I felt like the projection last night was a little dark. Matthias and I were talking about it afterwards. The scene’s supposed to be dark, but it felt a little dark even to us. But yeah, some of the stuff that we shot with Roy, for whatever reason—whether it was some natural properties of the camera in that space or whatever Roy was emanating from his soul—we shot some really beautiful stuff with him, where we had so many frames that looked like paintings. It’s a long, dark night of the soul, so dark felt like the way to go.
Filmmaker: You’re very specific about performances. Can you talk about how you made casting choices?
Bujalski: Ultimately, in a cast of eight people, maybe exactly half of them were the first people I thought of and went to, and we’re incredibly lucky that they said yes and jumped onboard. The other half were not the first people I thought of and had to seek to figure out who was available or willing to do something this crazy. And of course, there is this alchemy that happens, where by the time you find the person and go through the fire with them, it seems impossible that it could’ve been anybody else. Instead of it being one massive production, you have eight miniature productions. It took a while. We shot with Jason first, and at that time a few of the other roles had not yet been cast. So, it certainly happens on more than one occasion that someone was not only acting with an absent scene partner, but in fact, a scene partner that we had no idea who it would be.
Filmmaker: Are you a fan of The Walking Dead? Two of your actors were on it, which is kind of interesting.
Bujalski: I’m embarrassed to report that I’ve not seen The Walking Dead. That’s just a kooky coincidence. Avi Nash is someone who I’ve been in communication with for a while about a different project, so he was very much on my mind. He’s not as well-known as he ought to be, which I think is largely because he’s more focused on having a good life than a blockbuster career, but that also makes him a great resource for me. So, Avi was someone I thought of early.
Lennie, it’s one of those oddball things. Lennie was in Austin shooting The Walking Dead, and I got an email from his agent saying, “Would you ever want to meet my client?” This is pre-vaccine for me, so I hadn’t sat down with anybody, anywhere, for any reason in a while. But Lennie and I met for coffee outdoors. I sat diagonally across the table from him and had no idea how to talk to another human being. But we’d already started shooting this thing, we’re looking to find the right guy for that part and it seemed worth trying. That guy is an incredible professional. He’s like an acting terminator. He did this on his days off from Walking Dead, which was mindboggling to me: he had two days off of his show, did one of our scenes, went back to his show for a day and then came back to us for two days. I was like, “Lennie, are you sure you can master 30 pages of material that you have to do by yourself while you’re also shooting a TV show every day?” But he made it look easy.
Filmmaker: This is your return to editing your own material after Computer Chess, which I assume was baked into the conception from the beginning.
Filmmaker: Was it fun for you to do it again? It seems a little bit nightmarish because of all the stuff that you have to do to make it work. It’s either fun or torturous, I’m not sure which.
Bujalski: Torture, yeah. I think we had about 80 hours of footage, which I’m fairly certain is the most I’ve ever worked with by a good deal. Although I made the mistake of complaining about that to a documentary editor friend. She was like, “I had 700 hours on our last movie, so you can’t brag about that.” But yeah, for all the reasons you’d think, it was really tough, but that was also why I wanted to take it on myself. In part, it was also [that] we’re doing something very cheap and I was like, “We can’t afford anybody else anyway.” But mostly, it was this feeling of, if we’re going to fuck with cinema language at this level, I don’t know how to figure it out except by dealing with every little detail of it myself. I wouldn’t know what to say, I wouldn’t know how to delegate anything. I just had to struggle with it myself every day, so that’s what I did for however many months.
Filmmaker: I’m surprised to hear that you had that many hours of footage. Were you just rolling the takes over and over again and the monologues are long, so they add up?
Bujalski: That’s pretty much it. We’ve got maybe 10 or 11 places we can be. Some scenes have more movement than others and some scenes, like Lili and Annie at the café, they barely move, so we could run a lot of 15-minute takes. There are other scenes that are more broken up by choreography, which is a little easier on the actors. But in general, if we could run a 15-minute take, we usually did.
Filmmaker: I don’t think you’ve ever had this kind of time to roll this many takes with performers. Was that refreshing for you?
Bujalski: It didn’t feel like a lot of time. Certainly it’s the most footage we’ve ever had, but I don’t know if it was refreshing. It felt tough. I was sitting however many miles away, watching on a laggy Zoom screen. I couldn’t necessarily see or hear what was happening all that well, and we’re all communicating through one channel, so if Matthias needs to say something to the camera operator, I can’t go grab the actor for a sidebar. We all took our turns. It took a lot of patience and a huge amount of faith from everybody—which again, that’s why we made a movie about faith.
Filmmaker: The closeness of the dialogue editing, and how they’re almost sometimes coming close to stepping on each other, is a complete simulation.
Bujalski: This is a mountain of a project for Eric Masunaga, who’s done sound work on all my movies now. Poor Eric has, I think, spent a couple of months not sleeping or seeing his family, trying to stitch all this together. I knew we were dumping a huge mess in his lap—and, to a large extent, a huge mess in my lap as I was editing. At some point early on I thought, “Well, this’ll be like a filmed play, like you turn on PBS and somebody shot some nice production.” The deeper I got into it, I thought, “No, that’s not right. That’s not what interests me as a filmmaker and it’s certainly not how I am inclined to edit.” I’d also had a thought: maybe nothing looks alike and nothing sounds alike. I think I might’ve expected to play more with dissonance and sound, then ultimately that went against what I knew how to do as a filmmaker and I thought, “I have to make the scene work on a sound level.” That is something that’s always fascinated me about movies. Any edit is like a crazy abstraction: you’re going to leap across space from here to anywhere and anything, and you’ll accept and process all that. The ear does not work the same way. The ear gets very unhappy when it leaps across space. So, we had to be building something that felt coherent, and that would be the thing. In that sense, I treated the sound edit more or less like I would treat any sound edit on any movie.
Filmmaker: Could talk about that opening shot, with the left side out of focus and Jon Natchez on the right? It’s very cool, like an amateur split diopter thing, and it’s not entirely clear what it is.
Bujalski: Oh yeah, the crystal. We were trying to think of how to approach these interstitials with Jon and knew we had leeway to get pretty dang experimental and abstract with all his stuff. Matthias had the idea of, let’s have some crystals to refract light. We were gathering footage for the end credits—we knew we were going to have abstractions under the end credits and weren’t sure exactly what those would be. So, initially, we’d shot that crystal on its own there, and it happened to be in the same setup where we’d shot Jon playing the clarinet. Later, I was looking at the clarinet shot, and there was something bugging me about the left side of the image. I thought, “Well, I’ve got this other shot. What happens if I slap these together?” It was a nice example of something beautiful falling in your lap: two images that were not meant to go together, when put together, made sense and started us on this journey the right way. The smaller thing represents the bigger thing—synecdoche.