Getting Strong Now: Andrew Bujalski on Results
Andrew Bujalski’s first three features — Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax — were all more or less of a piece: illusorily casual 16mm portraits of young people in ambiguously comfortable stasis in, respectively, Boston, Brooklyn and Austin. Computer Chess, released in 2013, was a total UFO both in relation to his work and in relation to just about everything else. Film was out, but instead of clean digital, Bujalski shot on three 1969 SONY AVC-3260 cameras, its unfamiliar type of black-and-white grain making even denser a complicated comedy about a computer chess conference happening sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s.
Stuffed with improvised asides, editorially fragmented and allegorically elusive, Computer Chess was a clean break that, for now, must stand as a remarkable anomaly. The Sundance-premiering Results is recognizable as a conventional romantic comedy with many new elements for Bujalski: name actors, a love triangle resolving in a happy pairing-off, honest-to-goodness popular song cues, crisp and clear digital cinematography. Trevor (Guy Pearce) is an Australian fitness instructor with a manically sincere belief in the power of inspirational poster bromides. Enter, in the first scene, Danny (Kevin Corrigan), an instant millionaire (via inheritance) who uses his newfound wealth to no greater end than smoking weed alone in his mansion.
So hapless he’s willing to pay a Craigslist stranger $200 to make his TV work, Danny instantly falls for Trevor’s star instructor Kat (Cobie Smulders). Sitting alone at night, Danny watches the gym owner’s embarrassingly amateurish YouTube video promoting his philosophy of exercise, pausing it to gawk at Kat, whose failed romantic history with her boss has left its renewability an open question. The resulting uneven love triangle is seemingly sidelined by Trevor’s plans to move his gym to a much larger new space. When he drives east to Marfa to meet with his instructor idol, Grigory (Anthony Michael Hall), Kat and reconciliations follow.
In his third of three stylistically dissimilar Austin-based films (he now lives there), Bujalski is still fascinated by the collision of different forms of dysfunctional communication, staging trademark moments of awkward comedy with seemingly counterintuitive confidence and precision. Alongside greater narrative signposting and other audience-friendly elements, Bujalski gets to try out new sequences that wouldn’t have fit into previous films — broad, faux-found ineptitude in Trevor’s YouTube self-promos and, following a Rocky reference, an entire montage sequence. Even with a slightly greater glossiness, Results remains recognizably Bujalski, embracing the haphazard collision of the relatably unmoored without letting anybody off the hook. The film is out May 29 from Magnolia Pictures.
When Computer Chess came out, you mentioned that you had been working on a “more commercial” script that didn’t get financed. Is Results that script? No. [Laughs] Results was in some ways a product of going back to the lab and thinking about the road blocks I ran into last time and trying to figure out something I would have a better shot at actually getting away with. But, there’s not necessarily anything obvious about this one, either. I mean, it was indeed conceived as a Guy Pearce and Kevin Corrigan vehicle, and it only occurred to me once I’d written it that that was also not actually a terribly commercial idea.
Were those performers attached to the film first? In my mind, they were attached first. That really was me sitting down at a coffee shop thinking, “All right, if I’m going to do something where there’s money going in and coming out, then we need professional actors. Who do I know? Who do I like?” I had met with Guy a few years earlier about the other project. I really liked him and found him really fascinating. And I’ve been a huge fan of Kevin’s for 20 years and friendly with him for the last few years. So, the idea of those two guys, and what movie could possibly contain the both of them, came to mind and made me laugh. But, there was really no reason to think that I’d actually be able to get either or both of them at the same time. Of course, when you go to an actor and say, “Hey, I wrote a movie for you,” there’s a certain degree of flattery there, and you might have a better shot than otherwise. But, still, they’re both guys who work a ton. It was not necessarily obvious that they would be available or want to do it at all, so I felt very blessed to actually have them show up for it.
I’m curious, you say you’ve been a fan of Kevin Corrigan’s for 20 years. What does that go back to? I guess I might be fudging it a little. Let’s say 19 years, because Walking and Talking is ’96. That’s the one I remember sitting in the theater, seeing him onscreen and waiting for the credits to roll thinking, “I’ve got to find out that guy’s name because he’s my new favorite actor.” I just fell right in love with him and then, for a while, was seeking out anything he was in. That became difficult, because at a certain point, he was in everything.
How quickly were you able to write this screenplay once you had the seed of the idea? I can never keep track of how long it takes to write anything, partially because there’s all this mulling it over before I actually can chain myself to the desk and write a word. But, you know, pretty quickly. This was certainly, from conception to premiere, the fastest thing I’ve ever done. Because I started thinking about it right before we premiered Computer Chess, there’d been a bit of a spark of fear. I’d never been to Sundance before, and people were telling me, “You gotta have your next thing ready to pitch,” which turned out not to be particularly true. [Laughs] Maybe it’s a testament to my own lack of hustle, but at no point during Sundance did I find myself pitching anything to anybody. But with that little spark under me, I thought, “Okay. I’ve got to think of something. I can’t. I’m not going to try to go make Computer Chess again for all sorts of reasons.”
What would some of those reasons be? I can think of some obvious ones. Yeah, so we’ll start with the obvious ones. [Laughs] I can let you answer that for me, probably. I have two kids. That’s the first one. Also, if you took [making a living] out of the equation and said, “Here’s a million dollars. Do whatever you want with it, but meanwhile, go make another Computer Chess,” I would still have no clue where to start. That’s a movie that I knew how to make once. I would have no clue how to do it again. On the practical side, there’s the fact that I’ve been making movies for 15 years. I love those movies. I’m so, so grateful that I got to do them. And frankly, if I get the opportunity again in life, I would love to scurry back to making strange and obscure things. I mean, Results may well be strange and obscure, but it’s my best effort to make something that can exist in the marketplace. Certainly making movies that I’d spend three or four years on and earn four figures for was so rewarding in so many ways, but there were some compelling reasons to see what it would be like to not do it that way.
I’ve interviewed you a few times before, and after your first couple of films, every time you’d say, “That was really hard. I’m not sure if I have it in me to do it again.” Oh, yeah, well, I was 24 years old on the first movie. I thought, “It was too hard, I can’t do it again.” That’s also just my temperament. Some people get off on the stress and strain of production, and perhaps on the stress and strain of how difficult it is to get anything made in the first place. But, I don’t have that kind of warrior mentality. I love making movies. I love what we’ve come out with. I brim with gratitude at all the work people do. That’s probably what keeps me coming back, that it’s just so exciting to gather around this group of incredibly talented people and set them to work on this fantasy I had. That’s a lot of fun for me. But I’ve always been somebody who would rather kind of just sit around at home [Laughs] than go to battle.
You’ve talked about trying to play “by the book” on this. Did you have any particular reference points structurally or tonally that you looked to as guidelines for romantic comedy? It was less about storytelling, because we certainly break all kinds of storytelling rules with this movie. It was more about the mode of production, and knowing that that was going to affect everything, starting with this very, very basic idea: we’re going to seek out professional actors who, regardless of the fact of their celebrity, do this for a living, 365 days a year. They’re all different, of course, because it’s not like nonprofessional actors do it one way and actors do it another way. There’s an infinite variety of ways. However, I had some sense of what you get from people who don’t have specific acting training, and a fair guess at what the contrast would be with people who have all kinds of training and experience. So, I was designing my script very differently. Results is a movie that I think would not make much sense to try to go do with nonprofessionals, for exactly the same reasons that it would not make much sense to do Computer Chess with professionals. They’re built differently and built to contain different kinds of performances.
Because all these people have pretty busy schedules, did you have time to bring them down for any kind of extended preproduction rehearsal? I insisted on getting the three leads down for a little more than a week before we shot, which was not a lot of time. I put my foot down about it. We need them to meet each other; we need them to hang out, to spend time getting to know this world, rehearsing, etc. And then, of course, we were so ridiculously slammed and it was such a painfully indie kind of shoot, that much of my week was absorbed with last-minute location scouts and this and that. I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with the actors in that week as I’d wanted. But, I do think that it was useful for them just to be here and start to get their head in the game.
This movie rhymes a little bit with Beeswax, in terms of learning about dealing with lawyers and business and similar pragmatics. Do you have a research process for those kinds of details? I’m sure there’s a perversity in the fact that business and the mechanics of business are a recurring theme for me, but it’s also a tremendous mental block in my own life. My father is a businessman, Harvard Business School educated, and that’s how his mind works. I have an extraordinary mental block on all things business and money related. For a lifetime now, my father’s been explaining to me what he does for a living, and I can’t process any of it. Maybe that’s why I keep writing about it. Maybe I’m trying to force myself to focus and concentrate. But to some degree, I can identify. In both Beeswax and Results, you’ve got small business owners who are in over their heads. For both Tilly’s character in Beeswax [a vintage clothing store owner] and Guy’s character here, you get the impression that they love what they do, and that’s kind of their curse in a way. You can draw a pretty obvious parallel here to my own career, in that I’m a little too in love with what I’m doing to be much good at the business of it.
This is your third movie in a row that was shot in Austin, but in Beeswax, I could barely tell because it’s not the part of the Austin I grew up in. It’s very rooted in the residential neighborhood daily life of people who don’t have cars and don’t get around much. Computer Chess is also shot in Austin, but that’s not really significant to the movie, and you don’t name it. In this, you actually go downtown and see the Frost Tower in the background, which is now one of Austin’s markers. Are you taking a more panoramic approach to the city? The first three movies, I really cared very deeply about character and the interaction between these people and the lower frequencies of those interactions, and that was really all I was interested in. I wanted to do everything else right, you know? It was important to me that we shot it well and edited it well. It wasn’t that I wanted to skimp on technical things, but that everything else had to be at the service of this deeply character-based kind of storytelling. This was much more explicitly about Austin. I think Slacker is, was and forever shall be the ultimate Austin movie, but I was certainly aware that a lot of time had passed since then, and that there was a whole new kind of character of Austin that I don’t know that I’d seen represented as such in a movie. It is a yuppie paradise, and I am living in that yuppie paradise. That was something that I thought would be fun to make a movie about.
Let’s talk about some of the specific locations that you found. Where is Kevin’s big millionaire’s house? That was one of the last locations we locked down. Obviously, it’s very major. Something like a quarter or a third of the movie takes place there, at least it felt that way when we were shooting. It’s a 40-minute drive from central Austin. We looked all over the place. It’s hard, you know? We did not have a huge budget, obviously. To find somebody who had a great big house, who was willing to let us take most of the stuff out of it and run roughshod over it — we knew it was going to be tough, and we looked at all sorts of places. Actually, that was a great education for me. You live in a place and you think you know the town you live in. To go location scouting in that town is to realize that my idea of Austin is the half dozen places I ever bother to go. There’s a whole lot of it that I never see until I have to location scout. You’re from Austin, so you probably grew up with the Austin cliché of everybody complaining how great it used to be and how it’s all over now and it’s all over-developed. I always used to laugh at the people saying that because I thought, “Come on. Austin is still Austin. It still feels the same. The spirit is still alive, even if things have changed.” I finally got old and crotchety during these location scouts, because everywhere we drove, I’d see new construction and see things change pretty rapidly. I finally became one of those complainers, so now I feel like I’m a real Austinite.
Where did you find Guy Pearce’s gym? It’s a place called HEAT Bootcamp down off South Lamar. Oddly enough, this seemed like one of those karmic things. There’s a little coffee shop in that same parking lot, called Fair Bean Coffee; I used to go in there when I lived in South Austin. The owner of that shop is a guy who, I don’t know, I liked his spirit. He’s a very engaged small business owner, who always seemed to be in the shop giving pep talks to his employees. I loved his positivity, and I think he was kind of in the back of my mind as I was conceiving of Guy’s character. So it seemed like a weird piece of karmic fortune that we ended up finding a gym in the same little complex.
In the film, you take two trips out of Austin. You go to Marfa and you also shot a sequence in New York, which really surprised me. You don’t normally expect people to location jump like that on a limited budget. Why was it important to you to make your production schedule that much tougher by going to Marfa? Why did I do it? Because I’m insane. I don’t know, because I’m an idiot, because I thought we could get away with it and because it was just energy. Even as I was writing it and going into subsequent drafts, I would definitely come back to this question of, do I need this? Why can’t this all just happen in Austin? But, I couldn’t get past it because I felt like first of all, it’s just something I respond to. There’s something very powerful about location shifts in movies. At best, they can really reset an audience’s compass, and maybe their expectations. Given where the movie was going structurally and tonally, we kind of needed that. For these characters to come to this weird breakthrough that they do in Marfa, I needed them to be out of their comfort zones and in the desert and disoriented.
So, we did it. It was a crazy shoot, not least because we just didn’t have the time to scout Marfa. Somebody from our locations team was able to go out there and look around a little and take pictures and, of course, we were able to talk to people out there. So, we weren’t flying completely blind, but myself and the d.p., we had not been able to go on a scouting trip until the night we arrived there for the shoot. Luckily, it’s not a huge town, but we just got in the car and drove around for an hour and said, “Oh, this looks good.” We’re very lucky that we got away with it.
This is your first properly “digital” movie. What was your acclimation process like for learning how to get what you wanted visually out of the camera? There’s nothing set in stone that said we had to go make this movie digitally. It was certainly a choice that was made early on. I’d been very attached to certain ideas for a long time. Maybe it does come with having kids. When you have kids, your ego takes a battering over and over again. In some weird way, I was trying to embrace that with this movie and say to myself, “Let me throw out a lot of my assumptions about what choices I need to make to make a movie that is my voice and that I believe in.” I was trying to participate in the 21st century a little bit. I have great resistance to the 21st century and am much perplexed by the 21st century. Because the movie is very much about this time and place, it would’ve been eccentric and somewhat pointless to try to do a movie that really feels like 2015 in a medium that’s screaming out 1975 or what have you. From there, we were very lucky to get a grant from the ARRI ALEXA folks, which helped us out a lot. It’s a beautiful camera, and certainly, for somebody who’s coming from film, it’s visually pretty intuitive. It feels good. I like the image it produces. I have no idea what the future holds, you know? Part of me just wants to run back into a little cubbyhole and make 20th-century movies again, but I’m certainly happy that I took a crack at living in the present.
In your first three films, the look was very much defined to a certain extent by 16mm grain and the interiors that you were shooting in, which limit framing possibilities. Computer Chess was very much dictated by the 1969 Sony camera you used. Here, you’re working with something that looks very clean. In general, I always have an instinct to try to make the image less clean and less balanced. I probably held that impulse in check more on this movie, not just from a commercial standpoint, but also because it was kind of a design of the movie. Guy’s character is trying to live in a very well-organized, systematic way. In an odd way, that’s something this movie has in common with Computer Chess. They’re both about people who are looking for very efficient systems with which to make decisions and organize their lives. We were trying to build a certain degree of tension between organization and disorganization into the movie at every level, and the visual strategy was certainly part of that. I mean, you don’t have to look far in Austin to see a lot of very nice, contemporary design. We tried to bring a lot of that in, but we were letting disorder nibble at the edges.
Did you find yourself doing standard coverage on this? Master shot, reverse shot, two shot — just to make sure you’ve covered all your bases? We’ve done that on all the movies. I mean, sometimes you feel like you’re working in a factory. It gets boring and you think, “My god, is this going to work? I can’t believe we’re doing shot reverse shot again.” When Soderbergh was making a big noise about quitting filmmaking, that was the impression I got from him — that he was just going insane from doing these same setups over and over again. I understand that, but then, you watch a movie and they work. This comes up with my students [Bujalski has taught at Boston University and UT-Austin] all the time: it seems so boring, and then it works so well.
The parody Rocky montage is a new kind of sequence for you. I wasn’t going for a Naked Gun-style parody. I wanted it to do the things that a montage is supposed to do, which is move the story along. We come to a point where I need about six months to pass, and that’s a fine way to do it, especially if you’re doing an exercise-themed movie. I think the big joke, the existential joke, is that not much changes. Rocky is usually in better shape or better suited to go win the fight at the end of the montage than he is at the beginning. Our montage, things happen and there are little adjustments in people’s lives, and so we accomplished some of that. But in terms of people being better off at the end of the montage than they were at the beginning, I don’t know that that’s clear at all, so that was fun for me.
What about Guy’s YouTube self-promotional video? Did you watch a bunch of terrible ads and do that yourself? I’ve seen my share of YouTube promotional videos. The music in our videos comes from a friend of mine named Eugene Joe, who writes music for commercials. That’s his day job. So, it just sounds perfect. He’s got a ton of commercial music lying around, which he controls the rights to. So that was another one where I just said, “Hey, man, can you send me a grab bag of stuff that sounds like a car commercial?” It was all perfect, and it really goes a long way. That was great fun to do because you get to say, “This should look semi-professional.” Then you get to go shoot it semi-professionally, and that’s fun and liberating. I enjoyed those shoots.
You edited up on a flatbed right up through Beeswax, and then you had a very complicated postproduction workflow on Computer Chess. This time you worked with an editor. The last two movies we cut on Final Cut Pro. On this one, workflow here was fairly standard, for once, and very efficient. The very major difference was that I was actually working with an editor, Robin Schwartz, who was great. She acted in Computer Chess, and she’d edited a few films by friends of mine. I was very nervous about working with anybody as an editor because I felt like, more than anywhere, that’s where my voice is felt. But, I like Robin a lot, and I thought she would be the right person to try to do this with. There was also some pressure to get this thing done much more quickly than I’m used to. From start to finish, from initial idea to premiere, was almost exactly two years, which for me, is very, very quick. I have a daughter who was born right at the end of the shoot, which did not make for great efficiency on my part. But, Robin was working basically round the clock for six months to get this thing done. For the first few months, because I was so deep in baby world, we did a lot of work via correspondence. Robin would send me things and I would write very long emails and we’d go through things that way. Finally, we got to a point where I could actually go and sit down with her all day. It’s been a big adaptation for me, and this was true on Computer Chess, too, because Computer Chess was the first movie I made as a parent. I’m still wrapping my head around what it means to not be 24 hours a day working on the movie — the idea that I will go home and see my kids at some point and other people will keep working, I still feel strange about it, but I’ve had to learn to accept that that’s how it’s going to go and that it’s okay for other people to be working when I’m not.