Last week we checked out Mutual Appreciation, the new flick from low-budge darling writer/director/editor/actor Andrew Bujalski. His previous celluloid offering, Funny Ha Ha, told the story of a college graduate trying to get her footing in the real world; it also happened to get critics’ hearts aflutter and win the young auteur the “Someone To Watch” Award at the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards. Mutual Appreciation continues in the same vein, delving into the plans, desires, and relationships of the lives of a couple of kids swimming in the ocean of unknowing that is THE POST-COLLEGIATE WASTELAND. Only this time in black and white, and in a much funnier way. For some, heavy accolades early on in a career can derail true potential, but Mr. Bujalski hasn’t succumbed to any sort of post-award slump; we chatted up the new movie (and Rocky III, Rocky IV, Star Trek II AND Star Trek V) with it's creator, and you can read our conversation after the jump.
How did the idea for Mutual Appreciation come about?
Well, the very first seed of the notion for it was that I wanted to do a film with Justin Wright, who’s an old friend and someone who has a particular sort of charisma. I just thought there was a funny movie to be made with him in it.
How did that generate? From you talking to Justin?
Not much. There’s this great advantage inasmuch as we were roommates ’98 to ’99, and knew each other a little before and have known each other since, so I just had a lot of history with him. The movie’s not biographical, but you have a sense of the person in your mind, and when I sit down and write, I find it much more satisfying to write with the person in mind than to try to really invent a character absolutely from scratch. I mean, I still am inventing a character from scratch, but I can picture these mannerisms or these things that he’s going to bring to it.
So was he game to do it from the start?
I think I talked to him a little bit at some point and said, ‘Hey, uh, would you be game for doing one of these?’ And he said, ‘I think so,’ and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go away and write it.’ Then I spent however many months kicking out a first draft and then talked to him again. But it is scary. I mean, you never know. At any point he could’ve said, ‘Eh, I don’t really feel like it,’ and that would have been his prerogative, absolutely. But as much as I take a leap of faith in him, he takes arguably a greater leap of faith in me.
Do you think you still would have made it if he hadn’t been interested?
Absolutely not. And the same thing with Funny Ha Ha. That was written with Kate Dollenmayer in mind for the lead and there just would have been no way to do the film without those people.
You’re doing screenings now, but how long ago was Mutual actually finished? What was the timeline after Funny Ha Ha?
Funny Ha Ha had such a weird, extended lifespan. That film was finished in early ’02, but I couldn’t get anyone to show it anywhere until late ’02. And then we played a few regional film festivals and I figured, ‘Well, that was it. We had a good run, we played in a few different cities, people were nice to us, and that’s the end of that.’ But then whenever I thought it had run its course, something would come along and breathe new life into it.
I think we’re really lucky in that by the time Funny Ha Ha had its ‘official release’ last year, which was three years after it was finished, I’d written, shot, and edited Mutual Appreciation—we were still in this kind bubble of naiveté when we made Mutual. And I’d like to try doing another one in this vein, but I think it’s going to get harder the older we get, and the more there’s a sense that someone might see these, you know? I mean, when we made the first one—of course when you make a film you want people to see it—but we didn’t have any idea what that actually meant.
What was the impetus to move from color to black and white?
I’d envisioned the film as kind of a comedy, a peculiar comedy, and so black and white seemed right for me for that. There’s a great deadpan humor to black and white; and it also just looks great; and it’s fun, too; and it handles the lighting differently.
Both of these films don’t have much lighting, partially out of necessity and partially because I always want the actors to have all the room to roam around and be less constrained. And that often leads to lighting schemes that look harsh in color in a way, because you’re just looking for the simplest thing, but black and white is hard to light wrong. It wasn’t necessarily what I was thinking going into it, but it was a great thing to learn from watching the rushes when they came back.
There’s something natural about the whole set-up, not only about the lighting but also about the incidental sounds—when Justin’s on the phone with his dad, for example, and there’s a siren in the background. And the music in the film is basically all live— there isn’t much of a soundtrack. How do you feel about letting those things happen?
It’s great when it feels right, which is most of the time. There’s no ADR in the film, we didn’t re-record any dialogue, there’s very few sound effects. There’s some, but that siren was just there when we shot it. If were making a certain other kind of film that would be a problem and you would say, ‘Shit. The siren—we need another take.’ But you learn to love those things, especially if you sit with material and edit over the course of however long you work with the thing, you get to know those sounds really well and you get to feel like they’re a big part of the texture.
That subtlety is also reflected in the actors in your films, who aren’t necessarily actors. Besides Alan, how did you cast Mutual?
I did write my character for myself, but everybody else, you just kind of keep your eyes open once you get in that zone. So, Rachel Clift, who plays Ellie, is another filmmaker. I actually met her on the street when we were shooting Funny Ha Ha. Seung, who plays Sarah the DJ, she was dating a friend of mine at the time and I thought she was funny and I asked her to do a screen test. Kevin, who plays the drummer, is a guy I grew up with.
Bill Morrison, who plays Walter, was a great blessing because I was having a lot of trouble finding someone for that part. I needed a 40 year-old hipster, basically, which New York is crawling with. I talked to a few people about it. And they weren’t right, but also, 40 year-old hipsters are busy people, so sometimes they couldn’t commit. But Bill, we’d had a little correspondence because he’d seen Funny Ha Ha. So we traded a couple of emails, and he wrote, as a joke I think, at the end of one of his emails, ‘If you ever need a bald, 40 year-old, karaoke-singing whatever.’ And I wrote back, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I need. Can you please meet me?’ He was really heaven sent for this thing. He really took that part and made it his own in a way that I’m hugely grateful for.
How does putting yourself in your films come about?
Partially it’s just pragmatic. We had a twenty-day shoot on this film, and I think I was acting for ten of them. It’s nice that it’s one less person that you have to get this big favor from and get to work for free. But also, I did write that part for myself to do partially because of my history with Justin. I thought, you know, it’s just kind of a no-brainer: I can play Justin’s old friend. And when you’re editing, you get past the self-consciousness pretty quickly. Of course the first time you see the rushes, you think, ‘Why am I such a shitty actor. I can’t actually look and sound like that.’ The knee-jerk impulse to say, ‘Well, maybe I can cut myself out of the movie,’ or, ‘I’ve got to cut out all the parts where I look stupid.’ But you get past that pretty quick and it’s surprisingly easy to edit yourself as you would anyone else, I think.
What’s your relationship with Bishop Allen? Justin’s in this movie, and in Funny Ha Ha you used Christian Rudder. How exactly are you involved with those guys?
Well, they’re just my friends. I was roommates with both of those guys on Bishop Allen Drive in Cambridge. And that’s pretty much it. Going into Mutual and doing the thing with Justin, I mean, I am a great fan of the band and so I know that I could use his musicianship and use his songs. When you asked me, ‘Would you have tried to do the film anyway without him?’ I can’t imagine getting an actor and saying, ‘Alright, learn guitar, learn to sing, have stage presence.’ I think what makes that performance scene interesting is the fact that he clearly is doing something he’s very accustomed to and has worked on for a while.
At one point, Alan says, ‘I’m not interested in being happy; I’m just interested in telling stories.’ How do you think about stories?
Structure is certainly important to me. It’s hard to put your finger on because I try to be intuitive about it so I don’t write an outline, I don’t map stuff out when I write. Sometimes you kind of know where it’s going, where it’s heading, and sometimes you have a sense, like, ‘Oh, this is probably where it should end,’ and ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a scene where this happens and how can I work that in?’ But a lot of times you can’t get there, a lot of times your ideas don’t quite add up. You hit an impasse with the script. And you know it needs something and you don’t know what, and then you’re walking down the street and an apple hits you in the head and you end up grabbing it.
There’s a bent towards describing your work as emblematic of a generation.
How do you respond to that? As the sort of the up-and-coming voice in this post-college, not wasteland, but however you want to describe it.
It’s great if people…of course you want the film to resonate with people, and talking about the post-collegiate thing, obviously there’s something fairly common about that experience. But, to my mind, these are extremely specific films about extremely specific characters—I’ve never aimed or wanted to do anything demographical. I think this is kind of a general art maxim, that the more specific something is, the more universal, in some way. I mean, that’s always been a kind of guiding principle, I guess. That the more that we try to really grapple with the specifics of the situation with the specific characters, in this moment, the more solid that is, the more you can bounce your own consciousness off of it.
The characters in this film have trouble communicating. It seems like making people talk around issues is a unique problem to have when writing dialogue.
In my experience of life and conversation, I know that certainly I’m someone who tries to avoid conflict. So a lot of these things are things that, for better or worse, I’m well-practiced at personally. It’s the hardest thing to write because as a writer, you really want to finish that thought from the first thing. It’s so hard to let something wander the way that it does in life. Not that movies need to.
I know, when I’m revising the script, the part that won’t ring true to me is the part where someone crystallizes the point of the scene. Where the person says, ‘I’m angry at you because of this and this and you betrayed me and so now I’m going to do this in response.’ A lot of times I will put that in the first draft because as a writer you’ve got a point in your head and then you put it down. Then when you go back and read it you think, ‘Well, no one would really say this, so let me cut out that part—let me cut out the part where the person says what’s happening.’ And then what’s left, tell the story around that—the absence of that.
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of judgment of the characters in Mutual. Do you have an opinion of the characters in the film? If they were real people, and in a sense they are to you, are these people you know?
I think I would like everybody in the film if I met them. I mean, I feel that way when I’m cutting it, that I like all the characters. I think I’ve learned from making these that film is a medium in—and I guess all art is like this, but I feel movies particularly because you have this experience of sitting there, looking through a one-way mirror at people who you can see and scrutinize and who can’t see you—that seems to really invite judgment from people. I do it too when I watch movies, it’s just so funny to experience it on your own film. Because I just really try to put the characters up there with as little judgment from my end as I can.
But you get such interesting judgments from people. No two people see it exactly the same way. People come out of the film, and some people don’t like Alan because they feel he’s duplicitous, some people don’t like Ellie—people will tell you all about who they thought the heroes were and who the villains were, and I always say, ‘That’s very interesting, and I’m so glad you cared enough to have an opinion,’ you know?
What were your movie influences as a kid?
Rocky III, Star Trek II—by far the greatest Star Trek film—and E.T..
What about Rocky IV?
Rocky IV’s great. And Rocky III, as it turns out, doesn’t hold up so well. Rocky IV does hold up. It’s phenomenal.
Star Trek IV’s alright too. Isn’t that the rule, though? The evens are good and the odds are not as good? Because V is horrible.
I…I like V. V is fucking awesome. I’ll defend V. It was the one where they went in search of God, found God, and blew him up. That shit is amazing.
I should go back.
It’s good. It’s crazy. It’s got some faux Western stuff in it too. Directed by Shatner.
Right now you’re living in Boston? Writing?
Yeah. Living in Boston. I’ve got a script that I’m hoping to do next year. It’s a long way from here to there.
With somebody in mind again?
With a pair of sisters in mind.
Black and white? Color? All those things up in the air?
I guess color, but I don’t know. I mean, this is all, like, almost feels ridiculous to talk about it because we’ve got so far to go.
Will you be in it?
I’m pretty sure I won’t be. I feel like I’d really like to sit one out just because I feel like I’ve explored my full range as an actor and it’s extremely narrow. [laughs]