Beeswax writer/director Andrew Bujalski looks to get a trim.
Interview with the writer/director of Beeswax
Aug 10, 2009
When we last talked to writer/director/editor Andrew Bujalski, shortly before the 2006 theatrical release of his second film Mutual Appreciation, he had written drafts and shot screen tests for his then-untitled follow-up but was reluctant to discuss the details, other than expressing his hope to shoot the film on 16mm, as he did with Mutual Appreciation and his debut Funny Ha Ha. "When it's done, then maybe I can try to describe it," Bujalski said at the time. Three years later, the filmmaker still has difficulty describing his third feature, Beeswax, which he alternately has called a legal thriller and has said is about families.
Beeswax, which premiered at the 2009 Berlinale, is a meticulously paced drama that focuses on a pair of twin sisters living in Austin. Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) is a studious, wheelchair-bound co-owner of a vintage clothing shop who suspects that her business partner is preparing to sue her, which prompts Jeannie to seek advice from her former boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student studying for the bar exam. Jeannie's sister and housemate Lauren (Maggie Hatcher) is a sociable free spirit with a job offer to teach English in Africa. In exploring the shifting dynamics of Jeannie's relationships, Bujalski abandons the lighthearted romantic miscues that lent humor to his first two films, in favor of slow-building dramatic tension.
A departure for Bujalski not only in tone, Beeswax is also the first of his films in which he doesn't act. Still, as a writer/director, he remains an expert at eliciting magnetic performances from nonprofessional actors, in this case the Hatcher sisters (Tilly uses a wheelchair in real life). Bujalski's films always have been carefully scripted, but the wandering exploits of his post-grad lead characters in Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation gave those films an indie-cool, from-the-hip vibe. In Beeswax, the conflicts and decisions of his characters feel more adult and more crucial. It makes sense. Since the release of Mutual Appreciation, Bujalski has adapted Benjamin Kunkel's novel Indecision for Paramount, collaborated on another Hollywood screenplay and gotten married. He also relocated to Austin, from where he spoke to us about Beeswax last week.
When did you shoot Beeswax?
I shot it in the summer of '07, two years ago.
How long was the shoot?
It was 20 days, and then about a year later we shot two days of pickups.
I read that Maggie Hatcher appeared in your college thesis film. What's the name of that film, and have you made it available?
No. [Laughs] And I don't intend to. The film's called Close for Comfort, and I have a videotape here. A few years ago, I pulled out the videotape and I thought, "Well, it can't be as bad as I think it is." And I watched and thought, "Oh, pretty bad."
How did you meet the sisters? Did they attend Harvard with you?
Maggie did. My thesis advisor senior year, when I was working on that film, was Chantal Akerman. I think it was the only year that she taught at Harvard, and I feel really, really blessed to have had her as a teacher. And Chantal actually found Maggie walking down the hall. I don't know what it was about her, but Chantal stopped Maggie and said, [in Akerman's accent] "My student needs you for his film." That was how I first met Maggie, and I ended up working with her on that student project. And then I think shortly thereafter met Tilly. And I was already kind of blown away by Maggie and just found her to be a fundamentally charming person, which I still do. And then, to find out that she had a twin, who was also absurdly charismatic but in a very different way, was pretty mind-blowing. And I think it just stuck with me, in the back of my mind, for the next decade, this fantasy of wanting to do a film with them, to try to harness some of what I found so interesting about them.
But they don't have jobs in the arts, right?
No. Tilly is a schoolteacher. I think she's always messing around with some kinds of little artistic projects. The end credits, those collages you see are hers. I think she's a very artistic person by nature. And Maggie is too. Maggie's always got little projects, sewing strange clothing or things like that. But Tilly works as a schoolteacher and Maggie's an emergency room doctor.
Maggie Hatcher as Lauren (green shirt) and Tilly Hatcher as Jeannie in Beeswax.
I was surprised to read that the shot of Lauren running down the street wasn't planned, because I assumed it was a way that you were establishing a contrast between the sisters at the beginning of the film.
Right. It was not in the script. It was something that, as we were nearing the end of the shoot, and I was— [Laughs] I had several crisis of confidence on the shoot and a lot of worry about, "Is any of this going to work or not?" And I think a lot of that was because the nature of the script was— so much exposition in the script and so much reference to offscreen characters. We had less room to play around than we had on the previous films. And so I would start to worry. At the end of every day of shooting, I didn't necessarily know if it was working or not, because I had the feeling of, "Well, if the script works, then what we shot today works." But it was hard to keep it all in your head at the same time. So yeah, that was something that as we were nearing the end, I thought, "Well, what else can we use? What else would be helpful?" And that was the one thing I came up with; I said, "We don't have this in the script, and maybe we need it." But yeah, it was originally not part of the plan.
What were the challenges of shooting scenes with an actor/character who is in a wheelchair?
I think all of us on the crew had to learn from square one what that meant pragmatically, which actually was oddly helpful in terms of the filmmaking process, because when you get to a location, you have to figure out how you're going to shoot it and how you're going to block the scene, and the chair brought with it some of its own practical consideration. Tilly was our technical advisor. We would say, "How would you take this curb? What would you do to get around this corner?" All this stuff that would then influence how we shot it and help us to conceive how we were going to block the shot, where the camera was going to go, how we were going to do it. So, I think the challenges that I can think of were fairly straightforward. But, again, they ended up being useful restrictions for us.
Yeah, I was curious about that, because there's the scene where Jeannie looks for light bulbs and she leans almost completely out of frame for a couple seconds. Is that a shot that you discovered on set?
Yeah, I think partially that was because we had to put the camera in an odd place on the counter to get that shot. I think we have some takes where we did get the camera to follow with it, but I know I was happy with the idea of her leaning out of frame. I think I might have tried it a couple times with the camera keeping up with her and tried it a couple times with just letting her go out of the frame. And I liked the idea. That just seemed like it was going to be visually fun, and then I liked it on the editing table. But it was somewhat born of necessity, the fact that it was just a difficult follow to make, given where the camera was.
One of my favorite sequences is when Jeannie and Merrill visit Tom [Bob Byington] at the café. I found Jeannie's POV shot from inside the car so foreboding that I assumed something bad was about to happen. Then seconds later we get maybe the best laugh of the film when Tom thinks Merrill is leaving. Were you toying with us there?
In terms of?
Tension? Well, yeah, I think tension is always toying with the audience in a way. I think so much of the film is about anxiety and worry, and so that scene for me was not about terrible, awful things happening. It was more about the worry and anxiety and the fear and the annoyance of that moment. And then, you know, it doesn't take that long for a friendly person to come along and help her out. But that doesn't necessarily dilute the anxiety part of it.
When Corinne [Katy O'Connor] is discussing the protest rally with Jeannie, we hear the sound of tires skidding. Was that added in post?
I feel like I'm making a commitment to being coy about this. I'm gonna see how long I can go without it ever being revealed.
OK, I'll phrase it another way. Was that moment meant to complement another cosmic moment that occurs later in the film?
Huh, I'm wondering what the other cosmic moment—
The light bulb scene.
Oh, the light bulb. Ah. Interesting. Well, as I probably revealed by not knowing where you were going with that— [Laughs] But I love the tire squeal. It's one of my favorite moments on the film, for sure.
What about the bandage on Jeannie's arm? Was that a prop?
No. [Laughs] That was a continuity headache. That was Tilly. She has a handcycle, so a few days into the shoot, she went for a ride and fell off her bike and scraped up her arm. And we said, "Oh my God. We've already shot these scenes." We're shooting out of sequence, and we've already shot stuff where you don't have the bandage, and then we had to sit down and do a lot of math about [laughs] when now did we have to have the bandage on and when did we make sure to have it off, and how much would the wound have healed by then. But that's certainly an accident that I like, because it's another thing that's kind of— I hope it's not distracting, but it kind of gives a liveliness or a feeling that there are more things happening offscreen.
You've refrained from explaining the film's title, is that right?
Yeah, I didn't really think of it as being all that enigmatic when we settled on it. My previous two films, I'd known the titles when we were shooting them, and this time around I really didn't. I had a few contenders and names on different drafts of the script, but nothing that ever really struck. And when we were shooting, we were just calling it Sisters Project. And I hadn't heard this superstition before, but now it makes perfect sense, that if you don't have your title by the time you go into production, it's really difficult to settle on one; nothing will ever quite seem right. I've certainly gotten used to Beeswax now, but when we were getting near the end of post, and I was having to decide, it was very difficult, 'cause you spend so long avoiding deciding. And so, that was a title that had been in my head when we were shooting, and I wasn't quite sure if it was right or not at that time, but I didn't think it would perplex people. And I don't think it perplexes everybody, but certainly it's not completely obvious and direct. So, the fact that it does seem to raise questions in people's minds, again, is something that I'm inclined to just not mess with. I figure whatever Tarantino said about Reservoir Dogs, I would say as well.
Maggie Hatcher (left), Tilly Hatcher and Alex Karpovsky as Merrill in Beeswax.
Alex Karpovsky is very funny with Justin Rice in Harmony and Me, which I saw shortly after Beeswax. How did you get to know Alex?
Oddly, we went to the same high school [in Newton, Massachusetts], but we didn't know each other there at all. I moved around; I went to a couple different high schools, so I think there was only one year that we overlapped there. In 2005, he made a film called The Hole Story, which he acted in, and I saw it at a film festival and I really liked it, and I really liked his performance in it. And I liked his face. And I think at that time I was just starting to write the film, and I didn't necessarily have him in mind as I was writing the character, but as I was finishing the script and thinking about who could fit, the image of him in The Hole Story kept sticking with me. And I think we'd briefly met at that festival and made each other's acquaintance and would sometimes see each other around. I think, at that time, I was living in Boston, and I think he was sometimes living in Boston, so we knew each other a little bit from that. But I do think the fact that we were from the same town helped us to establish a common language very quickly.
Which film festival was that?
Oh, I think it was the Independent Film Festival of Boston in '05.
Did you consider yourself for the part of Merrill?
No, not really. I didn't know what else I had to give as an actor. When I'd acted in Funny Ha Ha, it had been somewhat out of necessity but also because I was interested in trying it and seeing how it went, and I thought I had something to give to that part. And on the second film I wrote the part for myself and again thought that I had something to give to it. And this time around I didn't really feel like— I wouldn't rule out acting again; I'd like to act again, but I'd only want to do it in a way that it felt like I was giving something to acting that I hadn't given before, and I didn't see that happening on this film. I felt no need to be in this one.
You've acted in a few films since Mutual Appreciation. Do you ever audition for parts?
Not really. At one point, there was a real casting director in L.A. who [laughs] seemed to like me. So a couple of times I sent in videotapes of myself, you know, reading pages for real movies. But that didn't really go anywhere, and obviously I didn't pursue it, and I don't live in L.A. and I don't live in New York. So, the stuff that I've done has all been for friends, people who [laughs] I felt like I owed them one way or another.
In Chuck Klosterman's Esquire article on you, he says that you asked him not to mention your adaptation of Indecision, out of fear that mentioning the title in print would stop it from happening.
Well, also because the producers hadn't officially announced it yet, and I didn't know if they wanted to have control over that process or whatever. I was trying to be ginger and not step on anyone's toes.
So what happened?
I don't know. I never heard that anybody was upset. I was somewhat annoyed at Klosterman, but I've gotten over it.
Actually, I meant the status of the project.
Oh, the project! Who knows? Obviously, getting a movie made at the studio level, there are so many moving parts. Again, I don't live in L.A., so I don't have my ear too close to the ground on what those machinations are and how those things work. The last update I have on it, the producers want to do it, and [laughs] it's not a high priority for the studio right now. So, I think it's stalled out but could come back to life.
Was the endeavor fruitful enough that you'd want to try it again?
Sure! It was a great experience. I'd never adapted a book before. I'd never worked with those sort of producers before. So I learned a lot from both of those experiences, and certainly there's a kind of rigor to writing a Hollywood script. You see a lot of movies where they've been so rigorously overthought that there's no life to it. So, I guess the trick is to really, really work the thing without killing it. And I enjoyed that process.
In my own films, I've had this incredible good fortune to have real autonomy. I show the things that I'm writing to the people I'm collaborating with, and they'll always give me their notes and their thoughts, but I haven't been obligated on my own stuff to take all those notes. I can usually take the 10 percent of it that I find really helpful and ignore the 90 percent that I don't feel is where I want to go with it. And on a studio script, of course, you have to take the notes. You don't have to take them directly, and that's the trick I've tried to learn: "OK, how can I try to give you what I think you want without giving you exactly what you said? Because I don't think that that works." So that's a really interesting intellectual exercise. And furthermore, it's also by far the best day job I've ever had.
I saw that [Funny Ha Ha star] Kate Dollenmayer was part of the Beeswax crew. What else has she been up to?
She was teaching. She's teaching in San Diego. She's traveling. I think she's about to move to Chicago. She's a wandering soul, so I never know exactly what she's doing from day to day. I know she's made some experimental films on her own, and I know she's working on another one now.
Kate Dollenmayer in Funny Ha Ha.
Her only acting performances are still in your first two films?
As far as I know, yeah.
Were there any developments in the industry or perhaps the bad economy that made working on 16mm more difficult than when you made Mutual Appreciation?
Not yet. I think that every film I've made has felt more difficult to make than the last one, but not so much because of the vice tightening. That's to do with us all getting older, I think, and me having worn out a lot of favors at this point. We also shot in 2007, when the economy was still robust.
Last week was a tough one for cinephiles in Los Angeles, because the County Museum of Art announced that it was ending its weekend film program, which had been running for four decades. And then another single-screen movie house in Westwood closed its doors.
The Festival. In the 1980s it was called the Egyptian and was very nice at the time.
What's the museum gonna do with the theater?
I think they're gonna use it in conjunction with art exhibits. So that's a bummer.
It's great that in Los Angeles Beeswax will screen at the Nuart, but I was curious if finding theaters for Beeswax is more difficult in 2009 than when Mutual Appreciation was released.
It's a good question. It's a slightly different situation for us, because the last two films we self-distributed, and this time we're working with a distributor called Cinema Guild, so thankfully we don't have to be making those calls ourselves this time around. And Cinema Guild has more relationships and more history with these theaters than we did. So, I'm sure that the market has been getting tougher and tougher every year, probably for the last 10 years, but the fact that it's Cinema Guild doing it and not us is a world of difference. I don't know if we would have gotten the Nuart on our own. I know we're very happy to be there.
Yeah, and you're going to be there in-person, right?
Cool! Since you began making your three feature films, how has the moviegoing experience changed for you? Do you ever make it out to the Cineplex for leisure?
Sure. Less and less to the Cineplex probably. And I do. I constantly worry and struggle about this fact that I feel increasingly disconnected from the big movies, from the Hollywood stuff. It's a little shocking to me sometimes, because I was a movie nut as a kid, and if there was a 12-screen theater, I would go to it and have this burning desire to see every movie in it and would do my best to do that. And now I go to a 12-screen theater, and I just feel terrible to look at the marquee and go, "God, I don't want to see any of those." And, obviously, some of that's to do with me being an old curmudgeon now. But it's so hard to tell. I think everybody who grows up goes through this, wondering, "Well, did I change or did the stuff really get much crappier?" And, at the end of the day, it's hard not to think that both are true to some extent.
Do you have any completed screenplays sitting around or any features in development?
Of course, the Indecision script is there if the studio ever decides they want to do it. And I did another professional job. A friend and I collaborated on a Hollywood thing, but that probably wouldn't be something for me to direct. As for myself, I'm trying to write one script now, and I've got at least another two in mind, but I really don't know what the next move is. To get something made, you really have to give your full commitment to it, and say, "I want to spend the next few years of my life doing nothing but this. And I haven't made a commitment yet to any of these ideas. So I'm kind of half-assedly juggling a few things. Hopefully soon I'll get it together to figure out which one is the one.
When Mutual Appreciation was released in the fall of 2006, you already had started on Beeswax, right?
I'd written a couple drafts, I think. And that's partially because the first two films took so long to- Funny Ha Ha had this incredibly protracted lifespan where, you know, we finished the film in 2002, and then it didn't have an "official" release until '05, by which time I'd already finished the second film. And then that took a year, or a year-and-a-half to make it to theaters as well. The process has gotten much quicker on this one, and this film took longer to make, so it's all kind of caught up to me. When I finished Funny Ha Ha, I had it in my head that I wanted to do a film with Justin Rice, and that became Mutual Appreciation. When I finished Mutual, I had this notion of doing something with the girls, which became Beeswax, and this is really the first time that I have a film about to do a theatrical release, and I don't have a really strong idea of what the next thing is. And there's a kind of freedom and liberation in that. I try to see the best in it.
Beeswax currently is showing at Film Forum in New York City.
Andrew Bujalski is scheduled to attend the night screenings of Beeswax at the Nuart in Los Angeles on August 21 and 22.
Read a 2006 interview with Andrew Bujalski here.