Andrew Bujalski

Writer and director of Mutual Appreciation

Sep 01, 2006 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Boston filmmaker Andrew Bujalksi directed his first feature, Funny Ha Ha, on a minuscule budget over the course of 20 days in August 2001. Filmed on 16mm and starring nonprofessional actors, including Bujalski in a character role, Funny Ha Ha first was screened for its cast and crewmany of them friends and acquaintances of Bujalskiin March 2002. For the next three years, Funny Ha Ha toured film festivals and colleges and earned accolades for writer/director/actor/editor Bujalski and its lead actress, Kate Dollenmayer, a college friend of Bujalski's, but the film did not enjoy a traditional theatrical run until April 2005.

Funny Ha Ha drew comparisons to the work of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh for its unpolished yet intimate vérité style and the remarkably nuanced portrayals of its characterspost-grad twentysomethings with careers and loves in fluxbut the film's confrontational moments, both dramatic and comedic, are punctuated with self-conscious apologies rather than punch. Funny Ha Ha has a casual, lighthearted air about it; characters drift in and out, their romantic advances stammer just as their words are stuttered and retracted, and conflicts aren't so much resolved as they are diffused. These quirks, along with Funny Ha Ha's achingly empathetic tone, caused critics also to reference the dialogue-driven films of Richard Linklater and Éric Rohmer when praising Bujalski.

Instead of riding into Hollywood with his enviable press clippings in tow, Bujalski directed his second feature, Mutual Appreciation, in Brooklyn in October 2003. Mutual Appreciation, like Funny Ha Ha, was filmed on 16mm with cinematographer Matthias Grunsky and stars Bujalski in a notable role, along with another cast of amateur actors and friends. But this time Bujalski chose to shoot in black and white, and the lead character in the film is male, a musician named Alan. Justin Rice, who plays Alan, is a friend of Bujalski's and a member of the indie-rock band Bishop Allen. Rice also has a brief but comical appearance in Funny Ha Ha.

I spoke with Andrew Bujalski days prior to the Los Angeles opening of Mutual Appreciation, asking him to discuss his new film and the challenges of making and releasing films independently.

When did Mutual Appreciation have its first public screening?

March 2005 at South by Southwest.

How much of the last year have you dedicated to getting the film seen?

A lot. My previous film, Funny Ha Ha, began a theatrical run in April of last year, so I've spent quite a lot of time [laughs] answering questions about it. You start to feel like a bit of a fraud, being asked questions about filmmaking when at some point you wanna say, "I don't really do that anymore."

Does that get in the way of starting new projects?

Yeah, sure. But by the same token, the whole reason you make a film is 'cause you want people to see it. And we've been self-distributing these with a private investor backing us. And that investor is obviously taking a huge leap of faith with these films. You feel you have to reward that faith by giving your own best effort.

Are you still based in Boston?


How do you earn a living in the meantime?

It's been patchwork for the last several years. At the moment, I've got my first-ever film industry job. I got a job adapting a novel into screenplay form, so that's paying my rent at the moment, which is great. It's far better money than I'm typically paid for temping or substitute teaching or my usual day jobs. But who knows? I don't know when that money will run out, or if that establishes a foothold and I'll be able to get further writing jobs like that. I don't know.

Was there anything about Funny Ha Ha, either in the writing or filming process, that you wanted to do differently with Mutual Appreciation?

I think you always kind of kid yourself that you can correct the mistakes of the last projects. And, of course, no two things are the same. Once you get into a new project, the mistakes you're making are entirely different than what happened last time around.

I actually wasn't even talking about mistakes. Perhaps there were things that worked out really well that made you think, "Been there, done that, let's try something new."

Yeah, I think absolutely anyone who makes things is always working a little bit in reaction to the last thing they did. It's hard to quantify that. Even as you're doing it, you can make up arbitrary rules for yourself-you can say, "Well, I did this last time, so, definitely can't do that again this time"-but, you just go with your gut on it, I suppose. You have certain intuitions about what you want to try to repeat and what you don't want to try to repeat. I think it's important to stay aware that- whether or not you want it to be, it's going to be a completely different situation.

Why did you shoot Mutual Appreciation in black and white and in New York?

Black and white, it's a decision you make in the time it takes to snap your fingers, but obviously it has such a huge impact on the way people read the film, and the way that you work with the film. I found that we were a lot more comfortable with lighting on this film. I always wanna minimize it. My main objection to it is that it's big, heavy stuff that gets in the way of the actors, and I really want all the focus to be on them. But in terms of working with lights, because black and white has this inherent abstraction to it, you can do all kinds crazy stuff and it will still look beautiful.

As far as New York, it just sort of worked out pragmatically that way. When I wrote the first draft, it wasn't necessarily intended to take place in New York. Justin Rice, who plays Alan, lived there. Ethan Vogt, who's one of the producers I work with, lives there, [as well as] several other people who just started to seem to make sense if that was the place to do it.

I've read that some of your creative decisions are based on budget limitations, but yet you shoot your films on 16mm. Is that a lot more expensive than shooting on video?

Yeah, almost certainly. Video is quite the Wild West. Video changes from day to day anyway, and there's a million different ways you can approach it. There's a very cheap way to do video, and super-expensive ways to do video. 16mm's a little more stable in that sense, but definitely, that's where the bulk of our budget goes, to shooting on film.

I wouldn't say that my aesthetics are dictated by budget so much. I would say that I'm very lucky to have an aesthetic that fits pretty well with the kind of resources I've been able to scrounge up. There's a kind of Hollywood mentality that says a million dollars is better than half a million dollars, which is better than a quarter of a million dollars-that the quality is directly proportional to the budget. I can't imagine that I could have made either of these films any better for a million dollars. And, of course, I'd fear that they'd be fairly worse. But you never know. Obviously, there are plenty of times on set when you wish you had extra cash.

How does being the editor of your films affect the writing process?

It's two steps removed. Of course, it's a comfort to know- it's good and it's bad that I'm always gonna be there. When I'm directing, I often find myself trying to cover up for all my shitty writing, and then when I'm editing, I try to cover up for all my shitty directing. And that's a big part of the job. I am, I guess, fairly precious in my screenwriting process; I do try to make every word perfect. But when we get to set, all that kind of goes out the window. And most of the time, your most perfect piece of writing clearly won't work when you get there. So it feels great to let that go, to find something better with the actors.

I often envy writer friends and wish I could be a novelist, but I don't think I have the stamina to stay in my own head that long and never really be able to feel of the energy of others.

Early in the film, you cut certain scenes before they're resolved. Is that how they're written?

Yeah, I would guess that probably the majority of the time, the cut points are pretty similar to the way they're written. It's nice to leave questions hanging. And often it's also a matter of economy; you've gotten all the information you need out of the scene and so you move on to the next one.

There's a scene where you cut to Ellie (Rachel Clift), for just a second, catching a fly. How does something like that make it into the film?

I certainly did not write that. When you sit down to edit, you look at all the material you've got. In that case, I think, we just had a take that happened to begin with her going for a fly, and I liked it. I enjoyed watching it, I enjoyed that look on her face when she was doing that, and it also seemed to cut well into the next shot of Alan kind of giving her a look. That's really the beginning of the editing process, just me sitting there with a notebook and writing down things that I like. And you get a big list of things that you like, and you say, "How can I string these together?" Sometimes they fit together easily, other times you have to make hard decisions. Often you have two things that you love, and you can't use them both; there's no way to cut it. So that's when you kind of roll up your sleeves and start figuring it out.

In the film, Sara and Dennis are brother and sister, but she is Asian and he is Caucasian. Did you come up with backstory to explain this to the actors, or is it just something that's inconsequential?

It's a kind of thing that obviously is peculiar, but it only takes you five seconds to think of something. Either somebody's adopted, or maybe they're step-siblings. There's a hundred explanations that are all perfectly logical, and none of them are really necessary. I believe they do the same thing in [The Lost Word:] Jurassic Park, I think Jeff Goldblum has a black daughter in that movie. They never explain it, but you know, you just assume she's adopted or something. And they don't really need to explain it. It is what it is.

[Editor's Note: Another example is Barry Levinson's 1992 film Toys, starring Robin Williams, in which LL Cool J plays Michael Gambon's son. The difference in their race is never addressed.]

Was Mutual Appreciation written with Justin Rice in mind?

Yes, that was the first seed of a notion for the film, that I wanted to do something with Justin. And then, knowing that, I also knew I could plug in his musicianship, and write a scene like that performance scene.

Was that challenging to shoot the live show?

Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It was one of my favorite days on set, 'cause there was very little for me to do. Justin and Kevin [Micka, who plays the drummer Dennis] had one rehearsal together and learned two songs, and we had them go up there, play [the songs] either three or maybe four times, and we ran two cameras: Matthias Grunsky, the cinematographer, [ran one camera] and Ethan Vogt, who's one of the producers but also trained as a cinematographer himself, ran the other camera, and it wasn't too planned out. Matthias and Ethan and I, beforehand, put forth a very vague strategy, like Matthias will stick to the stage and Ethan will hang back. Both of them were moving around for all the takes. And that was it. I let [Justin and Kevin] go on stage, I let the other guys go with cameras, and my job was just to act like I was watching a concert, and that was easy enough to do. It was a great day.

At first I thought Alan's glasses were an affectation for his performance, but he wears them off and on in the second half of the film.

That wasn't really my design necessarily. To be perfectly honest, I've never understood why Justin puts on his glasses at certain moments and not others. We just kind of left it to him. And then in the last scene, [laughing] he takes them off at a dramatic moment. But even that wasn't necessarily planned. It just sort of came together that way.

What can you tell me about Rachel Clift, who plays Ellie?

Rachel was a film student. She went to graduate school at BU [Boston University], and I met her on the street when we were shooting Funny Ha Ha. We happened to be shooting on a street where she lived, and she's a very friendly person, so she walked up and started chatting, 'cause she saw a film crew. But I never caught her name or anything and I was kicking myself about that. And then a year later or so, I ran into her in the film festival world. She had a short, her student thesis, which is called Take It From Me, which is a documentary portrait of three different women artists: a dancer, a singer and a painter. As this film was coming together, I started to do a screen test for it, and plugged her into it. And currently, she's living in New York and working in television, producing.

It was fun to see Kate Dollenmayer from Funny Ha Ha in the film. Has she entertained any acting offers outside of your films?

Certainly, people have approached her. Very often, because people don't know how to find her, I've gotten a lot of requests sent to me, which I just forward on to her. I couldn't speak for her- She doesn't have ambitions to pursue professional acting, but I don't think she's ruled it out either. I would love to see her in something else for my own entertainment, but there's also part of me that enjoys the fact that, for now, I've got the only Kate Dollenmayer performances. We shall see.

I just saw the film again on Sundance Channel, and obviously this a credit to you too, but I think her performance is fantastic; she's so good in it.

Oh yeah, well the credit mostly belongs to her. She really is a phenomenal actor.

A special thanks is given to Chantal Akerman in the credits to Funny Ha Ha. This might come as a surprise to those who don't know your background. Can you explain how she helped you?

I studied film at Harvard, and she was teaching-I think it's the only year she ever taught-and was my thesis advisor my senior year. And, in addition to being a great filmmaker, is also a great person, and someone whom I'm really fond of. And so, there was a brief period in which I was living in Los Angeles, trying to get Funny Ha Ha up and running, and during that time Chantal just helped me out and put me in touch with some people she knew in L.A. That was a pragmatic thank you more than a spiritual one, although I suppose that too. But if I'd made a special thanks list of everybody who'd ever inspired me or been good to me, then the film would have been another 10 minutes longer.

There's the school of thought that says you don't need to go to film school to make films, which is true to a degree, but how beneficial was it to you?

Pretty huge, in as much as, Harvard's program is, I think, unusual. I've never been to a more traditional film school, but the sense I have is that Harvard is geared more toward handmade filmmaking than most. On a very basic level you learn how to run the camera, how to run the sound, how to edit, which puts you in a position where everything really feels like your own, and you don't get overwhelmed by the process. Filmmaking has so many thousands of parts, it's very easy to lose the personality of a piece. No one person can really master every single possible aspect, but to get the nuts and bolts of it, it helped in terms of giving me the confidence to feel like I could handle a film, and I didn't need to go out and hire 15 different people to tell me how to do it. On a basic level I could understand what was going on. I'd never claim to be a great cameraman myself-luckily I work with a great cameraman-but even to have had that little background that I do, I have a common language with him. I don't know every detail, but I basically know what he's talking about. That gives me the power to really shape the film.

Is film what you intended to study coming out of high school?

Yeah, I'd been a film-crazy kid as long as I can remember, and that was always where my interest and enthusiasm was, and I never gave a lot of thought to doing anything else for better and worse. 'Cause it doesn't really feel like this path is something that I've contemplated and chosen, it feels like something that I just pointed my nose at when I was five years old.

Before you had entered Harvard, when you were thinking about the kind of movies that, potentially, you'd be making, could you have imagined something like Funny Ha Ha?

Absolutely not. I have no idea what I was thinking about then, but these films are so organic that it's hard for me to imagine too specifically in advance. I'd like to do another film in a similar methodological way. Even though now, having done two like this, I have a bit of an idea how we make them. I want to try and get the same core group of collaborators together. I kind of know what that's like. But you still never know what something is until you do it.

Actually, one of my worries about the films that I've done, my greatest fear for them, is that they're elitist, or that you need to have a certain background and seen other films to understand it. I don't think that that's true, but I don't know if I would be making these if I hadn't been exposed to a lot of the things I was exposed to in college, and since, and before.

You told me about the novel you're adapting. In terms of directing new features, is there anything on the horizon?

In addition to that job, I have written something my own, which would be intended to be made in a similar style to the ones we've done.

Shooting on 16mm?

That would be the idea, yeah. There's still a long way from this stage to actually doing it; there's a long way to go. But I'm sincerely hoping we can pull it together to shoot next summer, and then we'll see what it is. When it's done, then maybe I can try to describe it.

Mutual Appreciation is playing now in selected cities.

Funny Ha Ha is playing on Sundance Channel in September.

To hear Justin Rice's band, Bishop Allen, visit


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