Aug 02, 2013 Web Exclusive
When we last spoke with writer/director Andrew Bujalksi four years ago, in conjunction with the theatrical release of his third feature film, Beeswax, the Austin-based filmmaker said that he didn't have a strong sense of what his next project would be. But, as it turns out, the idea for his fourth feature, Computer Chess, had been floating around in his head at the time. The film is set circa 1980 and revolves around a group of chess software programmers who have converged on a hotel for a weekend computer chess tournament.
Bujalski's first three films—Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, and Beeswax—all had been shot on 16mm. During a period when most other indie filmmakers had embraced digital video, he seemed to be a staunch holdout. For Computer Chess, Bujalski finally made the decision to shoot on video but chose to use an outdated camera that predates the era of the film by about a decade. And though director of photography Matthias Grunsky's handheld, black and white imagery in Computer Chess oftentimes resembles that of a '60s documentary, Bujalski took the liberty of incorporating psychedelic flourishes that weren't even hinted at in his other films.
Under the Radar spoke with Andrew Bujalski earlier this week, in the lead-up to the Los Angeles theatrical opening of Computer Chess.
Chris Tinkham (Under the Radar): Did the idea for Computer Chess predate some of your other films?
Andrew Bujalski: I honestly don't remember. I'm sure it was kicking around somewhere in my head before or while we were doing Beeswax. I can't say beyond that. Somewhere in the early to mid-aughts I guess is when I started to fantasize about it.
After you made Beeswax, were there a group of ideas that you were contemplating for your next film?
There always are. For better or worse, part of being a filmmaker is being always engaged in the question of what you can or cannot pull off at a given moment. There are always a dozen fantasies occupying parts of my attention at any given time. The business way of approaching it is just to say, "Well let's kinda sit on all of 'em and see which one goes somewhere," and of course, typically, none of them go anywhere until you decide to commit yourself fully to making that happen, which is more or less what happened with Computer Chess. There just came a moment when the clouds parted and it seemed, for whatever reason, this was a moment to grab if we were ever going to try to do this. So we rushed into it, and it was fun.
Did some of the film's visual and stylistic choices come to you during the writing?
Before I knew anything else about the movie, I knew that I wanted to work with the old black and white analog tube cameras. Before I knew I wanted to make a movie about computer chess, I had seen some of the footage that William Eggleston shot in the '70s. I'd seen a few clips of it in the documentary about Eggleston that Michael Almereyda did [William Eggleston in the Real World], although since then I've seen the complete released version of [Eggleston's '70s footage], which is called Stranded in Canton, which is amazing. And that was what really sparked the fantasy for me of, "Gee, I wonder what it would be like to construct a feature narrative that spoke in the language of these images." And from there, I think I stumbled onto some piece of information on computer chess, and that kind of lodged adjacently in my subconscious.
You felt that the material or subject matter gave you an opportunity for some of the more experimental and psychedelic imagery and editing?
Yeah, for whatever reason, I think from day one of this thing, I was imagining it as a great venue for psychedelia, which certainly my previous films were not. This was also for years my anti-commercial fantasy project. I've spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall, trying to figure out how to build something like a capitalistically viable career, and typically I find that pursuit very frustrating. So, this would be my fantasy refuge. I would just go off and think about something that seemed wildly un-commercial, and it gave me great pleasure.
Would it be easier to make more projects like this if you tried something extremely commercial first?
I don't know if I have it in me to do anything extremely commercial, but, in the beginning of 2011, we spent the early months of that year trying to pull together a movie which would have been more expensive and more conventional—if not exactly down-the-middle commercial—but we were trying to put together a much more normal movie. And I still hope to make that movie. It's a script that I'm very attached to, very fond of, but we ran into a brick wall for financing it in 2011, and that was the moment that I said, "OK, I want to make something soon. And if it's not going to be the 'bigger' movie, let's go out and make the smaller movie."
Wiley Wiggins as Martin Beuscher and Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton in a scene from Computer Chess.
Are chess playing and computer programming part of your background?
Not in any significant way. Not in any way that deserves mention. I certainly played chess as a kid but never competitively and never well, but I always enjoyed it. And computer programming, I think that the era that I grew up in, it's fascinating to me to think back and remember. At least, where I grew up, it was part of public school curriculum, just learning very simple programming in BASIC or Logo, which seemed so primitive by contemporary standards. But I think there was an expectation at that time that everybody was going to have to learn to program computers in the future, and of course that's not really how it worked out. [Laughs] We all have extremely convenient devices that were built for us by other people who know how to program them. I think the average kid today doesn't know anything about programming.
In terms of authenticity, did you do a bunch of research or did you have advisors?
Yeah. When I was first fantasizing the project, my research was pretty light. When I wrote the treatment for it, with little pieces of information I was picking up, I was mostly relying on my imagination. But once we started seriously gearing up for production, we got much heavier into research. And a lot of that came from the cast. Most of the cast on the computer side are people who do have a computer background one way or another. So, they can go out and research their own characters and what kind of programming those characters might have been doing. And that was hugely helpful to me. And we also had advisors, but in particular there's a guy named Peter Kappler, who was hugely helpful to us, both on the programming side and the chess side, who we vetted all our technical stuff by, and he also designed all the chess games that you see in the movie. All the games that appear in the movie are coherent from a chess perspective, and that's all due to Peter, who made them so.
Did you get the kind of camera that you wanted initially, or did you have to search through others?
Before that moment when I decided that for sure we were going to do this, I just decided to poke around on eBay. Well, first I think I did a little bit of cursory research. The Eggleston footage I'd seen had been shot on a Sony PortaPak. Now, Eggleston, being a brilliant photographer, had actually done a fair amount of retrofitting and adjustments to his camera, so his stuff has a particularly unique look. So first I started to look for the PortaPak and learned that that was going to be a tough way to go, that I'd be be better off shooting on a slightly older model, the Sony AVC-3260. So I hopped on eBay and was very lucky to find one and didn't think much of it. I can't remember what I paid, but I think it was something like 50 bucks. It showed up at my house, and it was beautiful, and I fell in love with it. Then later, when we decided, "OK, we're really doing this," we thought, "We're gonna need backup cameras. We can't necessarily trust this 40-year-old thing to not crumble." So we started searching for backups and realized how lucky I had been that first time, because they are not that easy to come by. But we managed to get three in hand for our shoot, including the one I found on eBay.
Once you had those, were there peculiar challenges or roadblocks during the shooting and editing?
Constantly. Yeah, daily, and there still are. I thought it would be easy. In my mind, I figured, "Well, if this thing worked just fine in 1970, it'll work just fine now, as long as we can keep it mechanically running." Which was sort of true, but we needed 20th century tech to interact with 21st century tech, and as anybody who's ever had a laptop that was outdated by just a few years knows, technology doesn't always bend over backwards to stay compatible with old stuff. So it's been a challenge at every stage of postproduction too. We've had to master the movie for different formats: for DVD, for Blu-ray, for DCP, for online streaming. None of these formats were designed to accommodate this kind of old video footage. So we've had to come up with weird fixes and workarounds at every step, which has been a hassle but in its own way kind of fun.
Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton in Computer Chess.
Did you approach casting differently this time?
Yes and no. Mostly no. [Laughs] I guess I would say no.
Do you just get on the phone and call people?
Yeah, that's a lot of it. There are some parts, like Papageorge in the movie. I don't remember at what point I thought Myles Paige would be good for it, but I think that notion popped into my head pretty early on. If Myles had said, "No, I don't want to do it," or if he hadn't been able to make it fit in his schedule, I would have been bummed out, because I loved the idea of him in that part. But then there are others that I had no idea where to go. One thing that I realized quickly is that I've gotten old. For the Peter part, which is the closest thing the movie has to a lead role, I needed a guy in his 20s, and I realized I didn't know anybody in their 20s. So that was just a matter of asking around. That was me writing emails to people saying, "Hey, do you know anybody who you think fits this description?" And I feel incredibly blessed to have found Patrick Riester, who played that part. He was one of the last people we cast. It was a terrific stroke of good luck that he fell into our laps at the last moment. At this point, of course, I can no longer imagine what that movie might have been without him.
We've seen some of the directors that you've collaborated with in the past working with name actors now. Do you see that in your future?
I think I have to. I need money. [Laughs] That's the short answer to that question. So, yes. If I've resisted that in the past, it's not because I don't like name actors. We can sit here and name hundreds of brilliant working name actors who I'd be thrilled to work with, but it's because the kind of stories that I was telling in the previous movies, I thought I could tell a lot better with unfamiliar faces. So I would just approach the filmmaking differently. And, again, this movie that I was trying to get together two years ago was something that was designed to showcase a few name actors, and I was very excited to jump into that.
Do you have any interest in directing for television?
Sure. It's less intuitive to me. It's interesting, one part is completely counterintuitive: the idea that you show up, you work for two or three weeks, and that's it. It takes me about 50 times as long as that to make a movie, so it's hard for me to conceive of doing anything that quickly. [Laughs] But I'm certainly interested.
Computer Chess is now playing in select cities. It opens in Los Angeles today at Landmark's Nuart Theatre. Andrew Bujalski will appear in person tonight for a Q&A after the 7:30pm show and to introduce the 9:45pm show. He also will appear on Saturday, August 3 for a Q&A after the 7:30pm show and to introduce the 9:45pm show.