The gulf separating the 2002 première of Andrew Bujalski’s debut feature, Funny Ha Ha, and its official, highly limited U.S. distribution deal spanned three years. Major festivals rejected it, and more regional festivals couldn’t offer the same media platform. But a handful of critics responded to the film’s offbeat, conversational rhythms—a style that would later be identified as “mumblecore”—and Bujalski was recognized as an original voice in the independent-film scene. While his subsequent efforts, 2005’s Mutual Appreciation and 2009’s Beeswax, weren’t widely viewed, they were widely celebrated as smart, perceptive character studies with their own unique verbal and cinematic cadence.
But with his latest, most ambitious film, Computer Chess, Bujalski takes a giant leap of faith. Following the action at a chess tournament for computer programmers in the mid-1980s—where brilliant minds from places like MIT and Caltech go to field-test their latest chess programs—Computer Chess is a period comedy that detours into science fiction, surrealism, and freeform experimentation. For extra verisimilitude, it was photographed using the Sony AVC-3260, a black-and-white tube video camera invented in 1969 and used throughout the 1970s. Bujalski talked to The Dissolve about his contrarian streak, the agonies and advantages of shooting with ancient technology, and the uncertain meaning of “artificial intelligence.”
The Dissolve: What inspired Computer Chess?
Andrew Bujalski: It’s certainly the most intuitive, peculiar thing I’ve ever done, and I really feel like most of the heavy lifting was done by my subconscious over the course of years, so it’s hard to trace it. I was just a fan of the project. It lived in the back of my head for a long, long time. I’d spent a lot of the last decade-plus trying to figure out how to have a “career” and trying to find a place in the commercial marketplace, and I don’t have great intuition for that. It’s not my strong suit. I often feel like I’m banging my head against the wall trying to figure it out. And so as a kind of refuge, as a kind of fantasy place to go and feel safe, I would go with what seemed like the least commercial thing I could possibly imagine. And that was this movie. And it was a lot of fun for me. For years, it was my dream fantasy project: “I could never actually do this, because it’s too crazy, but wouldn’t it be great if I could do this?” And then somehow, two years ago, the stars aligned, and it seemed possible to try to do it. I have no idea how we pulled it off. In retrospect, it’s quite insane what we tried to do, but of course, that’s the only way insane things happen. You just jump off those cliffs.
The first part of it was certainly just the fantasy of shooting on video cameras. I’d been making movies on 16mm for a decade, and for a decade, being asked, “Why do you still shoot film?” There’s often a current of anger in that question, like “Who do you think you are?! Why won’t you get in step with the times?” So my contrarian impulse ran toward thinking, “All right, you fuckers want video? I’ll give you video.” And just fantasizing—maybe in a more sober frame of mind, thinking why it was important to me to shoot those films in 16mm, because I always feel that whatever medium you’re shooting in, not that one is necessarily better than the other, but whatever it is, you need to know what you’re dealing with and how the images feel and move and what that does to your story. A huge part of storytelling is how the colors and shapes align on the screen. I started to think, “Well, video can mean the latest and greatest, but it doesn’t have to.”
There’s all this other stuff out there I stumbled onto. Michael Almereyda made a documentary about William Eggleston [2005’s William Eggleston In The Real World] that had clips of this Portapak footage Eggleston shot in the ’70s. And that stuff is amazing. Eventually, they released an edited version of that called Stranded In Canton, but just seeing those clips of it really stuck with me, and I got really excited about the idea of what story I could tell in that language, the old analog tube video cameras. It’s sort of a lost language of images. From the late ’60s to the early ’80s, nobody was really doing big, commercial work with that. As far as I know, nobody ever shot a narrative feature on those cameras, but they were at schools, and there were some documentaries made on them. And then, as happens with all our modern technology, it gets obsolete pretty fast, and when the newer cameras came out, that was the last you saw of those kinds of images. I liked the idea of digging that up. It has such a unique character. As far as making a period piece goes, it certainly felt like a free pass for time travel. To use a kind of image no one had seen in 30 years—it couldn’t help but transport you.
The Dissolve: Did the camera cause technical issues? Was it difficult to edit the material?
Bujalski: It’s been a massive headache at every stage, and it’s another interesting thing about the technology and how quickly things do become obsolete. Everything, certainly in post-production, moves quickly nowadays, and something that was state of the art five years ago, it’s probably not a great idea for you to try and use it now, because you’re going to find headaches. And to use something that was state of the art 40 years ago, you’ll have worse headaches. Migraines. [Laughs.] And there was always a solution. I was working at every stage with really smart, dedicated people who were also very sensitive to what we were trying to do. We weren’t trying to take a 40-year-old camera and make it look like we shot it this morning, but we were trying to retain the character of those images. It’s kind of absurdly challenging, but luckily, we’ve been able to push through at every stage.
Initially, I thought this would be easy. William Eggleston can go out with his Portapak in 1973 and it all worked fine, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t work fine today—and that’s sort of true, but not really. First and foremost, he was recording with three-quarter-inch tape, and although you can find a camera that works if you’re lucky, it’s pretty close to impossible to get a three-quarter-inch tape deck that works today. And it’s certainly not a good idea to rely on one. I think only archivists are able to keep those running at all. So we ended up rigging this absurd series of converter boxes and ports and so on, such that we had this relatively lightweight camera that had 20 cords coming out the back of it to a tray full of equipment. Ultimately, we were capturing to the hard drive, so it was a very 21st-century operation in a lot of ways. And then at every step of post-production, every time we have to master a new format, whether it’s DCP or DVD or Blu-Ray or for online streaming, there are different headaches that come with that, because none of these formats are designed for this kind of video.
The Dissolve: I feel the proper way to edit this movie would have been on two VCRs.
Bujalski: I cut it on Final Cut, and I cut my last three movies on a Steenbeck, so I thought maybe I should have cut it on old linear video, but I wasn’t hardcore enough.
The Dissolve: Do you still feel a pretty strong resistance to the way people are shooting movies today digitally?
Bujalski: Well, I feel resistance to everything, because I’m a jerk. I’m a contrarian. I never want to do things the easy way. But not necessarily. I think certainly if I’m to sustain any kind of career, at some point, I will be shooting on whatever the latest and greatest is, and I’m sure I’ll be finding a way to make it work. It’s never that I thought the new cameras were bad. I don’t. I think the new cameras are great. I just always thought I needed to be aware of what the cameras did, what kind of images they produced, and how that felt. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the cameras, it was just that I was making movies that needed other cameras to get what I was trying to get at.
The Dissolve: It probably would have been obvious if you were to try to manipulate a modern camera to fake this particular look.
Bujalski: Plenty of rational, smart people advised us to do that, and there was some half-assed testing of that at one point. I’m sure you could do an impressive simulacrum of it. But this camera comes with so many oddities, there are so many surprises for us. So many glitches in this movie never could have been invented—they just had to happen and be a part of the texture and character of the thing. There’s a joy to that. Also, there are digital things that go into the edit here—again, I’m used to 16mm, so I’ve never really dealt with a digital effect before.
All of my previous movies, everything was done in an analog world. All the color correction was done in analog. So forth and so on. In my other movies, if a boom mic crept into the frame, either I had to say “Okay, I hope nobody notices,” or I had to use a different shot, because I was working in that 20th-century vein of, “The camera takes the picture, and that’s the picture.” But on this movie, I did pull a boom mic out of a shot, and I did some other monkey business in there, and it was fun to be able to do it. Most Hollywood movies are composed almost entirely on the computer, and the result feels computerized to me, and I don’t like it that much. But I started to feel like George Lucas. It’s addictive, once you start to do it. It’s intoxicating.
The Dissolve: Beyond the technical aspects, was this film as big a departure for you as it seems? Did you have to go about other things differently than you have in the past?
Bujalski: Yeah, everything was different. But that said—again, the contrarian part, and I never know how people are going to react—I thought my last movie [Beeswax] was different from the first two [Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation], but that wasn’t necessarily the response it got. So for this one, for people to hail it as terribly different from the others, there’s that part of me that then wants to run the other way and say, “No, see how it’s like the others? See how I’m still the same director in themes and concerns?” But yes, certainly on a technical level, everything—from the fact that we were shooting video to the fact that it was a period piece, which meant working with a production designer and a costume designer in a way I hadn’t before.
The first three movies, part of what we were doing was trying to craft stories that lived and died by the performances. And our job on the other side of it, everything we did with the camera, everything we did with the edit, was meant to be as seamless and invisible as possible, to stay out of the way of the performances, to let those tell the story. And obviously, the people who respected those movies responded to them on those levels, and the people who don’t respond to them are frustrated because the camera and the editing aren’t telling them what the movie’s about. And this was a different deal. If the other movies required us to be tasteful in that sense, there was absolutely no reason to be tasteful on this one, and any kind of cockamamie idea we could think of, we threw it at the wall and saw it stuck. And that was a lot of fun.
The Dissolve: There is a more conventional film here that would focus entirely on this tournament, and these rival programmers battling each other. But the reality of the film is that it’s much stranger and more discursive. What were you trying to capture beyond this arena of competition?
Bujalski: A lot of it probably came from my own childhood fantasy life. I was a very small child at the time the movie takes place, but I think like pretty much everybody my age, I was fascinated by computers, and how they were coming into our lives and seemed so exciting, and it was a little scary. Or you had some sense that the adults were a little scared. [Laughs.] I was also a big science-fiction kid. I read a ton of sci-fi, and I love the unanswerable philosophical questions. I love the fact that nobody really has a good answer for “What is artificial intelligence?” On the one hand, it just seems like this very technical problem that computer scientists try to figure out, and something like computer chess—if you don’t know anything about it, it can seem crushingly boring. Lord knows, I wouldn’t understand the fine details of what those guys do, but ultimately driving this is this huge philosophical question, “Can we create an artificial mind, and what does that mean?”
How can you create an artificial mind if you don’t really understand how your own organic mind works? What exactly are you trying to create? What are the goalposts? And the goalposts are always moving. For 50 years, it was assumed that if you could get a computer to beat the world’s human chess champion, then surely you had created intelligence. There’s nowhere else to go from there. For a computer to do that, it would have to be so brilliant that that’s it, you’re done. You’ve matched the human brain, or exceeded it. And of course, once you got there in 1997 it was a big deal, but nobody thought we’d beaten the human brain. We just thought, “Well, we’ve gotten a computer to be very good at one thing.” And it went on Jeopardy!, but does that mean it’s intelligent? Who knows? Depends on how we define intelligence, and it’s impossible to define. The 14-year-old in me loves that question, and loves playing with it, and loves blowing my own mind.
The Dissolve: You were very young at the time this movie takes place. Do you have strong personal memories of the computers of this period? Do you come from a household that had some Texas Instruments computer or Intellivision, or anything like that?
Bujalski: Yeah, I think I had the [Commodore] VIC-20. I think I got that for Christmas one year. And I think at summer camp once, being told how to write some kind of program on a Radio Shack TRS-80 that recorded to audio cassette tape. I vaguely remember that stuff. In my elementary school, we were taught to write some programs in BASIC. And that’s funny to me, too, in retrospect. At the time, there was some assumption creeping into the public school system that this was going to be a skill everybody needs in the future: You’re going to need to know how to program a computer. And of course that ended up being a highly specialized thing. I don’t know how to program anything. Some do, and the rest of us have incredibly convenient Macintoshes that do everything for us.
The Dissolve: It was wonderful to see some of that old hardware resurface in this movie. What was the prop-gathering process like?
Bujalski: We were really lucky—certainly with the computers, tremendously lucky. The majority of our computers came from a place called the Goodwill Computer Museum, which is associated with the same Goodwill that you buy and sell your used clothes at. And often, they have the computer store where you can bring in your old computers, and they’ll harvest them for parts and sell them off. I guess over the years there were enough people that brought in really old computers that they decided, “We can start a little one-room museum.” So they did, and it’s great, but behind that museum, they have a big warehouse with a bunch of old computers, and we were so lucky to tap into that resource and have them be as good and helpful as they were. In general, the whole production was one lucky break after another. A lot of hard work, too, but the hard work doesn’t mean anything unless you have the lucky breaks to back it up.
The Dissolve: In the cast, you have people with some screen experience, like Wiley Wiggins of Dazed And Confused, but you also have film critic and scholar Gerald Peary, who isn’t really known as an actor. How do you get everyone to a place where they can give you what you need?
Bujalski: It’s different for every person. First, you just ask yourself whether there’s some overlap, or some sense of that person’s energy that will make sense for the character. And then there’s a screen test that happens, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to that energy when you put a camera in front of it. Some people shut down completely, and others come to life in ways you can’t expect. But if we get through that, then I start to have a sense for the raw material I’m dealing with, what that person does when the camera’s on them, and we start to see how we can work with that in the story.
Wiley’s the oddball exception in some ways. With all respect and admiration for his acting career, I think of him more as a computer programmer, because I think that’s where his spirit is. He’s incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly into computers, but has also been acting since he was a kid. But I think in the story of his life, that’s a little more of a beautiful accident. Certainly he has tremendous passion for technology, which is why I wanted to put him in there, because I needed guys who knew computers up and down.
I didn’t want to get actors and then have me go on Wikipedia and learn things about computers and try to explain that to them. I knew it wouldn’t sound or feel right. I needed guys who knew what they were talking about, so Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Professor Schoesser, is a computer-science professor at University Of Chicago. James Curry, who plays the British programmer Carbray, he actually worked with Wiley in developing a videogame together, and just is a real hardcore programmer. It’s great to have James around, because in theory, he’s too young for this, but he knew all the early-’80s stuff so well. I think around age 8 in Britain, he was doing all this stuff, and he remembered it all. It was great to pull details out of his mind that we could use. But then on the other side, a lot of the folks in the cast were real actors and professionals and folks who made a lifetime career in pursuit of this: Chris Doubek, Cyndi Williams, Bill Wise, Tishuan Scott. For that group, I wanted the energy of actors, and I like the idea of taking that actor energy and that non-professional actor energy and slamming them up against each other and seeing what happens.
The Dissolve: Your other films were shot in 16mm, so you had to be conscious of how much footage you were burning through. Did video give you that kind of freedom to loosen up a bit and allow things to develop without having that pressure?
Bujalski: Yes and no. I always found that to be a sort of productive pressure. Lord knows these cameras were difficult and temperamental enough that they brought their own kind of pressure with them. You never knew if the thing was going to survive until the end of the day. But I remember having the feeling when I shot the first movie in 2001—and that was the lowest budget I had, and the least amount of film I’ve been able to work with—I remember thinking at the beginning of shooting that I wish we had more money to buy film, and more time to just shoot and shoot and shoot. And then once we were actually in production, I thought, “It’s not just about how many frames of film you run through the camera. There are resources that you have to be careful with.” To do 27 takes with an actor, you better have an idea of what you’re trying to get out of them. You can be Stanley Kubrick and have a plan for wearing somebody down over 27 or 50 takes or whatever, but for the most part, two or three or four or five takes—unless you have a great idea for what you’re going to get on that sixth take, you really don’t need it. Unless you’re trying to gain something productive by exhausting your actors, it’s good to keep it moving. Computer Chess, as much as we were shooting on video and as much as we were loosey-goosey in many ways, it also was the most compressed shoot I’ve ever done. It was the shortest shoot, so there was a lot of running, and certainly a sprint.
The Dissolve: There was a point at which you were looking to adapt a book, Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, which would have been a larger-scale project. Is that still a possibility, or are you looking for something?
Bujalski: I’m exploring. I’m looking at things at a lot of different levels. That was a studio gig, which was great. I got paid to write that script, and I would love to have more gigs like that, and I would have been delighted to make that movie. I’m sorry that we couldn’t make it happen. But that world is wildly unpredictable. Computer Chess partially came about because we took the early months of 2011 trying to pull together what would have been a more expensive, much more conventional movie. And it seemed like we were close to pulling the money together, but then we ran into a brick wall. And so realizing that movie wasn’t going to be shot in 2011, we turned on a dime and did the smaller, cheaper, crazier thing instead. For better or worse, I get impatient, so I go out there and try to figure out how to play in the system. And it’s more and more important. Right now, I’ve never been more worried about money in my life. I have a wife, a son, and a mortgage, so I really want to make money right now. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort in trying to do that, but obviously the movie business is not a viable or easy thing to crack.
So what seems to happen is that I go out there and I try, either something goes and I make money, or nothing goes and I get frustrated and say, “Fuck it, I need to go and do something of my own again. I need to get out of the house and do something.” It becomes infuriating to work on things that don’t happen, and at some point, you just need to relieve that pressure by going and doing something of your own. Even if it’s going to lose more money. [Laughs.]
So who knows? I could end up on any side of that. There are things I think would be a lot of fun to do, and that could possibly be commercially viable, and then there are things that would be fun to do that would not be commercially viable. I do whichever one I can pull off. I’m trying to pull off both, but unfortunately, I do much better when I’m focused on one thing, and ultimately, that’s what happens. You take half a dozen things, throw them up in the air, but eventually you just do one of them. Eventually, one of them has to consume your full attention, and I think I might be narrowing in on that now. But we’ll see.