Andrew Bujalski’s debut film, Funny Ha Ha, celebrates its 10th birthday this year. For some of us, it’s hard to believe it has been so long since this startlingly original, subdued, and altogether honest portrayal of post-collegiate malaise first saw its very limited release. Since 2002, the film has gained a significant following, garnering high praise from the likes of A.O. Scott (The New York Times) and Robert Koehler (Variety), and has served as something like a rosetta stone for the now-constant slew of Mumblecore films that followed in its wake. Before Funny Ha Ha enjoyed public accolades, Bujalski released his second feature in 2005, Mutual Appreciation, another film that managed with equal parts eloquence and terseness to capture a young, relatively thoughtful person’s response to the dullness of life as an underpaid adult on the East Coast.
Bujalski will be visiting with The Cinefamily in L.A. for a 10th Anniversary screening of his first feature film on June 5, which provides me with a wonderful opportunity to ask the director a few questions about his seminal early works.
You studied film at Harvard, in a program which focused pretty heavily on documentary filmmaking, and Funny Ha Ha embodied some of the energy and aesthetics we normally associate with documentarians. So I’m wondering, how much did your experience with documentaries at Harvard inform your first feature?
Hugely. I’ve been movie-obsessed for as far back as memory stretches, so I imagine I would have pursued this path one way or another, but it’s very difficult to imagine what sort of work I might be making without that specific education to inform it. In some way I do believe that documentary is the purest sort of filmmaking — inasmuch as the lessons it teaches about shaping material that ultimately is not 100% under your control, not anywhere near it, are applicable to all forms of filmmaking, even animation. And perhaps even more germane to my own path, the Harvard program really imbued a DIY ethic. We were taught to operate the camera, to operate the sound, to operate the editing table, and then go out and do something. Of course we’d collaborate and help each other, but we were never taught any hierarchies of command, we were never taught to build fiefdoms out of our “departments,” we were never taught, in the least, how to be “professional.” This may well have something to do with why I am essentially unemployable to this day. But I do have a confidence about making films, that’s all they taught me.
Darren Aronofsky came out of that same program and little hints of that aesthetic turn up in his work. I remember loving the scene in The Wrestler where Mickey Rourke is working behind the deli counter, I think largely because it roused a great nostalgia in me about that program. I wished that the movie had been 2 hrs of that and had been called “Deli Counter.”
Many have referred to you as the “Godfather of Mumblecore.” Does this piss you off at all, taking into account how much meaning that term has lost, or is this something you’re totally cool with? Is it flattering?
When I am promoting something and have to answer a lot of questions about it, my temper gets short. But on the average day I am a mellow fellow.
I think every artist is always, consciously or subconsciously, producing their new work in response to whatever their last one was or wasn’t.
Kate Dollenmayer’s performance in Funny Ha Ha was both exhilarating and completely natural. You wrote the part for her, but I’m wondering how many of her lines were improvised?
Well, there’s never been a mathematical formula for it. Essentially I believe that all acting is improvisation — even when you perform Shakespeare, you might find something new in it on the 10th night of performance that you didn’t feel on the 9th. Now obviously that’s a far cry from, y’know, hiring Vince Vaughn for your big goofy comedy and telling him to invent something new to make you laugh on every take. But in my mind it’s a matter of degree. All of which is to say, I couldn’t tell you which words that came out of Kate’s mouth were precisely the ones on the page and which weren’t — but they all certainly hewed closely to the structure and the intent on the page. And when they didn’t, it was, of course, because they were great improvements.
Was it at all difficult for you to allow her character to develop independent from the script during a tight shooting schedule?
My recollection is that Kate has tremendous control as an actor. The magnitude of her talent is something of a cosmic irony as she’s never had any interest in acting and has not pursued it. But I have every confidence that she could go toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep or whomever and do just great. I love all of the performances in Funny Ha Ha and will praise them to the moon, but everyone had their own strengths and tricks for getting through the scene, and I distinctly remember that Kate had the ability to do the “same” thing 10 times in a row and have it feel completely fresh every time. That’s a very professional kind of skill. I felt incredibly grateful to have her holding the center of my movie — honestly I knew she would be good, but I didn’t know how good until we started shooting.
Part of Funny Ha Ha’s charm lies in the way it touches on some of the hallmarks of a classic comedy-of-manners without taking itself as seriously as, say, a Lawrence Kasdan film. Personally I saw a little of the same vibe in both Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation that I enjoy in the films of Whit Stillman (another Harvard grad). Was he at all an influence on your work?
I liked his movies, particularly Metropolitan, but couldn’t cop to a specific influence. I suspect his Harvard experience was very different from mine!
Mutual Appreciation was more blatant in confronting the negative effects of (main character) Justin Rice’s ambivalence than was Funny Ha Ha with Kate Dollenmayer’s. Do you think your experience in seeing Funny Ha Ha to its completion made you a little more bold for your second feature?
Well, they’re different movies. I bet you can find someone out there on the Internet who’ll tell you that the first movie is bolder than the second. But in a broader sense, yes of course the experience of the first influenced the next one. I think every artist is always, consciously or subconsciously, producing their new work in response to whatever their last one was or wasn’t.
You’ve said before that the inspiration for your first two films arose from your relationships with their stars (Dollenmayer in Funny Ha Ha & Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation). At what point during your friendship with Ms. Dollenmayer did you know you wanted to make a film about her?
In 1999 we were roommates in Austin, Texas, both a year out of college. I’d written two or three screenplays and knew I wanted to make something, but… I wasn’t sure what making an independent feature entailed, but I was pretty sure that it was not the kind of thing you could half-ass; I was going to have to give it everything I got — and the scripts I’d written just didn’t quite seem worthy. I don’t recall exactly when the inspiration struck that I should write something for Kate, but once that was in my mind, it seemed to strengthen my writing. Hearing her voice as I wrote made it all much more real and urgent to me. I can’t remember how far down this path I was before I got the gumption to ask her if she’d be willing to do it — it was my great good fortune that she was crazy enough to be up for it.
I was in my 20s and didn’t have much else to motivate me or define myself by. So every breath I took was supposed to be in service of the movie somehow.
You played a fairly significant role in Funny Ha Ha. What was it like acting in your first feature? And, more specifically, how weird was it to edit the scenes you were in?
I didn’t necessarily write the role with myself in mind, but we had limited resources, I did like the idea of acting, and as we got closer to production it was quite obvious to me — make of this what you will — that of all the male roles I’d written, I would be best suited to playing the weaselly, desperate, self-destructive guy. The experience itself was fine. I’ve found that acting for myself is actually, paradoxically, less stressful than acting for other people, largely because I am so stressed out about directing that I don’t have time to worry about my performance. When someone else is calling the shots, there’s a lot more sitting on my haunches and making myself miserably self-conscious.
Editing was also surprisingly fine. I may be lying to myself, or more likely this is a symptom of some kind of mild autism, but I really don’t think I had much trouble seeing my performance clinically.
We’re coming up on Funny Ha Ha’s 10th Anniversary. Looking back over the 10 years since you made your first film, and its now-legendary slow-burning success, can you comment on some insights that’ve come to you during this time about the filmmaking in general and your debut in particular? BONUS QUESTION! Is there going to be a sick commemorative BluRay release of the film to celebrate?
It’s only been 10 years; I haven’t had time to think.
Re: BluRay, as soon as someone volunteers to pay for it, we’ll make it happen. Meanwhile, what we *do* have are beautiful new 35mm prints that, I can promise, look and sound better than any previous release of the movie. There seems to be a conventional wisdom that effects-driven blockbusters “need” to be seen on the big screen and quieter movies are fine to watch on your tv or computer screen, but I’d make the opposite argument — so I do hope people will turn out for some of the 10th anniversary screenings we’re having. (Already did one in Austin — L.A. at the Cinefamily/Silent Movie Theatre on June 5 is next… New York, Boston, Seattle, perhaps some others to come… )
Your films display a fairly refreshing amount of love/concern for their characters. Character drives their narratives. Could you go into a little bit of what led to your seemingly intuitive grasp of the truth of your characters?
I want to see everybody’s side of every argument. It drives my wife crazy.
What are some things of interest to you that we might see in upcoming works?
Can we construct a tautology here?: If it’s in an upcoming work, it’s of interest to me.