Silicon Valley as we know it was born out of dim basements and depressing motels. Not just San Jose, Seattle, Austin, San Francisco. The tech bastions of the United States would still be tepid mid-sized ponds without the tech boom, and the tech boom wouldn’t have come around without the efforts of a small, isolated community, staring at blinking screens and asking what can be done. Far from the Zuckerbergs of today slipping into White House dinners and smirking on the cover of Forbes, the architects of tech culture spent their time confined in an attic soldering circuit boards while their parents wondered if they’d ever get married.
Andrew Bujalski, billed by some as “the Godfather of Mumblecore,” puts a surrealist light and lens on the tech nerds of 30 years ago in his new film Computer Chess. Set over the course of a weekend sometime around 1980, the story follows a few groups of computer chess aficionados competing in a tournament at a sad-looking motel to try their programs against the human chess master present. Far more than a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, the film was made with Sony cameras true to the era and covers technology’s place in culture, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the intersections of computers and spiritualism.
Obviously Bujalski’s got a lot on his mind. His conversation with Tiny Mix Tapes covered around 30 years of tech and film culture, as well as making film as you get along in your years and computer programmers as ascetics. Check it out below.
[An automated voice from my call recording app played prior to the call starting]
Hi, hello. Andrew?
Hi, this is Matt Biancardi over at Tiny Mix Tapes.
How you doin’? You know when you called me a computer told me you were recording the call.
So we’re off to a thematically correct start.
I’m excited, I had never heard that before, I mean I’m sure I’ll hear it again in the future.
Just for the readers could you delve a little bit into the story of Computer Chess and what it entails?
The story of the making, or the story that’s on-screen?
I make something, put it on a screen, and I go away; I’m not in the room when it happens. I have no idea what’s it like for you in there. But even that removed, it’s still an attempt to connect.
The narrative of the film, what’s going on in it.
Oh, who knows [laughs]. There’s a lot going on in it, and it’s certainly an adventure to try and keep up on it. On the most basic narrative level it’s about computer chess programmers circa late 1970s, early ’80s. Most people familiar [with the era] have heard of the “Blue,” the IBM program that beat Garry Kasparov in ‘97. It was the first time that a computer had ever beaten a world human chess champion, and so these are the guys who were working towards that about 20 years earlier. [They] still had a long way to go, but I think this was the era when it became maybe clear to those people that they were going to succeed, although there was still some room for doubt and certainly plenty of room for questioning what success means exactly. So it’s kind of about the dawn of artificial intelligence and the dawn of our own computer age, but I think, as anyone who’s seen the movie would probably agree, it’s a lot stranger than that.
Yeah just in the course of an hour-and-a-half there’s so much to parse through, as you said the inception of the tech culture of artificial intelligence [with] these very surreal images involving the new age spiritualists. How did you come to include that as a thematic element of the film? How did you find that relationship between the new age spiritualism of the early ’80s and the dawning of the tech culture of artificial intelligence?
Most of how this movie came together was pretty intuitive, and a lot of it happened in my subconscious, so I can’t give you any kind of rational answer for why I included one thing or another. In retrospect the more I talk about it, the more it feels like both of the movements in our culture, although we look at them as very separate, I think are very more more entwined than we realize. I don’t work in the tech industry myself, I don’t live in Northern California, but I think that the reverberations of hippie culture can be surprisingly strongly felt in the tech culture. I think there’s this kind of pop culture view of history where everybody listened to Elvis in the ’50s and everybody was a hippie in the ’60s and everybody went to the disco club in the ’70s and on December 31st, 1979, you hung up your bell bottoms and started playing Pac Man. Obviously, these cultural movements are a lot more fluid than that, and so I was interested to get at the facts of these early tech guys and maybe later end of the Encounter Group folks could very well be coexisting and have some strange things in common.
Most of the guys who were playing computer guys know their stuff, which to me was the best shortcut to them [the actors] seeming convincing. When people talk tech it’s very specific, and you can kind of know bullshit, you know?
One thing that I really noticed was the painstaking degree of detail to authenticity, point in case using those Sony cameras. How did you decide on using those and what was that like using them shooting the film?
It was challenging. That was the first idea for this movie, that I’d spent a decade making movies on 16mm, and being asked over and over again why I still shot film when the world had moved onto video. There was some contrarian streak in my thought that went, “OK, you fuckers want video? I’ll show you video.” [chuckles on both ends] So I just started thinking about how “video” doesn’t have to mean the latest and the greatest. There was all this other stuff out here, and I saw these Sonys that were introduced in the ’70s, and I just fell in love with that camera. So I started to fantasize, “What would be the movie that I could tell in this language?” That was at the heart of this thing: pulling it off, there were all kinds of technical challenges. Very difficult to make something work perfectly well from 30 years ago and bring it into the present and incorporate it with all the contemporary technology that everybody uses just to make the movie presentable. For one thing we couldn’t record the ¾” tape as you would have 30 years ago because all of the ¾” tape decks have chronic malfunctions; it’s very hard to keep one running. And even if we had them, at some point you have to bring it into the digital world. It would be excruciatingly difficult to keep projecting the thing from a ¾” tape [laughs]. We found challenges at every step of that, I mean there’s still challenges: every format we have to master it to, whether it’s a HD tape or a DVD or a Blu-Ray or a DCP (which is the only way people want to show movies now), there are all these new digital formats and there are hurdles we have to clear with all of them because [the camera’s] not designed for any of these formats.
I really enjoyed the feel of the footage and the editing techniques. That grainy black-and-white made it feel like I was traipsing through some old cardboard boxes in a computer science wing of a college and set them up and watched a documentary on the start of this culture of computer chess and artificial intelligence. That’s another thing: I remember reading the idea for the film was really fortuitous in that you picked up a book on computer chess trivia?
General chess trivia, and it had a little section on computer chess. This book was from the mid ’80s, so around the era we’re depicting. Reading these random facts, there was no context; I didn’t know anything about anything. But whatever little hints of information were embedded in those questions and answers did put a spark in my imagination for sure.
So it’s kind of about the dawn of artificial intelligence and the dawn of our own computer age, but I think, as anyone who’s seen the movie would probably agree, it’s a lot stranger than that.
I also remember hearing that you had like eight pages of written material and that everything, the production, the script, was very impromptu. Did you have a script going into it, or were you working as you went along? I heard it was a long work in process getting everything up and running.
Well in the beginning, getting everything up and running, actually happened ridiculously quickly. I had an eight-page treatment, and that’s what we worked from, so there was never a full script, although in many ways working from a treatment [first draft of a screenplay] required us to be better prepared than we would be working from a script. So the structure of the shoot was still very formed, and we knew what we had to go do everyday, and we knew more or less how most of the scenes worked. That said, it was never, as far as dialogue goes, down on a page; we would figure it out as we go. It was surprisingly similar to working from the script, inasmuch as you’re always striving to figure it out with the actors, no matter what your reference point is. It’s something that has to be brought to life and worked out in real time. The script is a very handy and convenient document when you have it, but the work is pretty much the same. It bounced around in the back of my head; the idea gestated for years and years and years, and in the end it just seemed like most of the work was done by my subconscious. But the production itself, it was kind of insane how quick [it went]. In May of 2011, we tried to gear up and raise money to make a much more expensive, much more conventional kind of movie, and we just ran into a wall with planning and things for the idea. So I said, “Ok, that’s not going to get shot in twenty-eleven.” I was anxious to do something because I had a son who was one year old and I thought, “If I don’t direct something soon, I may never again” [laughs]. So I pulled the eight-page treatment from the drawer and said, “Let’s make this happen,” and 3 months later we were shooting. We had an eight-page treatment with no script, we had no money. It was a period piece; we had about 40 speaking roles or something, none of which had been cast. It’s on this esoteric topic that I don’t really know anything about, we had no locations. I mean, it was a ridiculous thing to try and pull together in that amount of time, but I think probably if we had more time, we would have had more time to realize it was in vain.
Another thing I wanted to bring up was the actors. It really felt like they were individuals who had spent their entire lives in musty basements surrounded by computer equipment.
Yeah, I mean some of them are. I tried to cast as many real computer guys as I could. Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Schoesser, he is a computer science professor at University of Chicago. James Curry, who plays the British programmer Carbray, he knew all the ’80s programming stuff so well, even though he’s a little too young for it. He was I think some kind of child prodigy programmer in Britain, and so he was doing all that stuff when he was 8 years old and still remembered all of it. Most of the guys who were playing computer guys know their stuff, which to me was the best shortcut to them [the actors] seeming convincing. When people talk tech it’s very specific, and you can kind of know bullshit, you know? Certainly, if I had sat down and tried to just look things up on Wikipedia and tried to write it myself I never would have gotten it nearly as legit as those guys; it’s their nature.
In the dialogue, listening to their expertise and their degree of investment in the culture there were points when I was reminded a little bit of Christopher Guest’s films. It felt like a treatment of this very insular culture that didn’t get a lot of previous exposure that all of a sudden felt like a light was showing on it.
[few seconds pause] Hm. To me there’s a very kind of particular… pleasure that comes from hanging out with real-deal nerds, you know, the guys who really know the stuff deeply. You can never keep up with what they’re saying, but it’s always kind of fun just to hear them go and go and go and go and see their passion radiating off of them. I wanted to get some of that feel into the movie.
Yeah, I had no idea that this [era] was the foundation, the springboard for the culture that gave rise to. I’m so used to in modernity seeing high-powered young hotshots starting tech companies, and when that culture started, it was these guys, very passionate individuals, sitting around and talking for hours just about their interests.
Yeah, and obviously the culture has changed a great deal, and much of it can be traced back to this era. Computer science majors in colleges, all over America and the world today, you know, might be very fashionable people with good haircuts who go to the gym and who have good-looking girlfriends or boyfriends. Not that that was impossible 30 years ago, but I think that it was much more… you know, I almost think of the old school guys as monks, in a way. They were so dedicated and so committed, and much more isolated from the general culture. There’s something kind of beautiful about their commitment, something that I certainly admire. It’s just that it’s much easier to be a [pauses and chuckles] fully socialized computer person today.
Getting to the last thing I wanted to ask you, what do you want an audience of Computer Chess to take away from it?
Oh man, that’s up to you guys [laughs]. I could never predict an audience’s experience. I mean obviously I hope that it bounces around in your head somehow, but you know, everybody’s reaction is gonna be personal, I just hope you have a good time with it. That’s all I can ask for with any of these movies. And that it means something to you, whatever that is, whether it’s just goofy or profound or whatever, I’ll take purely goofy. I think if you make anything like this, you make it in the hopes of connecting in some weird, vicarious way. Filmmaking is such a funny art form, you know? Because certainly I know people who are stage actors, or who are singers who get up and communicate quite directly to their audiences and know what the audience is thinking. I make something, put it on a screen, and I go away; I’m not in the room when it happens. I have no idea what’s it like for you in there. But even that removed, it’s still an attempt to connect. I put a bunch of stuff into it, and I’m fascinated by the process of, “What do you take out of it?,” although it’s always unknowable to me. That was a really long-winded answer.
Well I can tell you right now I can never look at any old computer equipment from the ’80s again, not knowing what to expect what’s going to pop up on the screen.
Right, right, you know they’re wily little creatures.