Real genius
DIY sensation Funny Ha Ha operates at the speed of life.

By Cheryl Eddy

ANDREW BUJALSKI, the writer-director-editor of Funny Ha Ha, has one small request: Enough with the John Cassavetes comparisons.

"I adore Cassavetes's work," the twentysomething filmmaker assured me over the phone from his hometown, Boston. "But his name gets trotted out in most of the reviews that the film has gotten, which I always bristle about a little bit. I think any person who makes any kind of artwork wants it to be taken on its own terms. The hundredth time you read 'Cassavetes-esque,' you start to compose a list in your mind of all the ways it's not Cassavetes-esque."

Point taken. But these days, most young directors aim for self-conscious quirk with calculated shots of malaise, in movies like Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite. (It could be worse: Remember all those Tarantino rip-offs we endured a decade ago?) "Cassavetes-esque" doesn't get tossed around so much. And it's not an inaccurate comparison in this case – nor are those that liken the film to Richard Linklater's Slacker. Shot on 16mm by a skeleton crew, Funny Ha Ha represents naturalism at its best, with an ensemble cast of nonactors, dialogue that sounds as casual and clumsy as anything you might encounter in real life, and a meandering plot that captures postcollege malaise with occasionally hilarious, occasionally cringe-worthy accuracy.

That the film wasn't entirely improvised surprises some viewers. "What you see on the screen keeps pretty close to the structure of the written script," Bujalski admitted. "But there certainly are plenty of moments in there that I would not have predicted." This includes "two or three times when someone flat-out forgets their lines" – flubs the filmmaker kept in during the editing process "just because it felt right for whatever reason."

At the center of Funny Ha Ha's vérité world is Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer), a recent grad who shuffles around Boston in search of career and relationship fulfillment. But Marnie's not entirely without direction, and though she may be prone to drunken overshares – revealing the identity of her secret crush, for example – she's not incapable of change. A to-do list of physical goals ("Fitness initiative!!") parallels Marnie's deeper desire for improvement in other, more internal parts of her life; her floundering journey from overgrown adolescent to newly formed adult comprises Funny Ha Ha's emotional core.

Bujalski wrote the role of Marnie especially for Dollenmayer, a college friend whose lack of experience is belied by her subtle, insightful performance. "I was pretty confident that she could carry the film, just based on who she was and the kind of charisma she had," he said. "But she had a technical ability above and beyond, a natural talent. And that was pretty fortunate, to stumble onto that."

Though some of Funny Ha Ha's other first-timers are less naturally gifted, none hail from low-budget cinema's school of distractingly bad acting (thank Bujalski's script, which is devoid of any long, pretentious speeches). Even if he'd had the funding to cast big stars, the director said he wouldn't have gone that route. "I think in order to work, it has to have a freshness to it," he said. "I don't think the film would be very interesting with professionals, because it's not designed for those sort of performances."

Like real life, Marnie's daily routine is shaped by random moments and unexpected encounters. While temping, she meets Mitchell (played with an utter lack of vanity by Bujalski himself), an awkward character who sets out to win her despite her obvious lack of interest. "It made sense on a purely pragmatic level to put myself in there," said Bujalski. "I also liked the idea because it was all people who weren't used to acting – I thought it was some kind of show of solidarity."

Since Marnie's a genuinely nice person, she continues to hang out with Mitchell even after she leaves her office job – though their interactions are filled with tension (and not the good kind; witness their sushi-restaurant détente, ruined when Mitchell presses the issue: "How is it possible that you don't have a boyfriend?") Meanwhile, Marnie's own unrequited love, Alex (Christian Rudder), keeps her hanging on, and on, and on – even after he suddenly decides to wed his ex-girlfriend. One of Funny Ha Ha's most heartbreaking scenes occurs when Marnie stops off at the grocery store and bumps into Alex, his oblivious new wife (Vanessa Bertozzi), and another couple, who excitedly tell Marnie of their plans to cook dinner together. Dollenmayer plays it low-key, but her character's embarrassment is palpable; the meager contents of her shopping basket (tampons, hot-pepper raspberry preserves) might as well be a neon sign advertising Marnie's lonely, single-gal status.

While other filmmakers have seized upon digital video as a way of translating "reality" to the big screen, Bujalski is resolutely old-school. "I think film really suited what we were trying to do, because it is just this movie with kids talking to each other," he said. "Film has this painterly quality that kind of throws a veneer of artfulness over all of it in a way that video wouldn't." If shot on video, he said, Funny Ha Ha would be "a lot less compelling, a lot easier to dismiss."

If what Bujalski called Funny Ha Ha's "incredibly long and strange and unpredictable lifespan" is any indication, the film won't be dismissed anytime soon. He filmed it in 2003, took it to over ten festivals (including last year's San Francisco Independent Film Festival), and picked up "Someone to Watch" honors at the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards. A private investor is funding Funny Ha Ha's current distribution. "It's pretty overwhelming," Bujalski said. "For someone to be that enthusiastic and care that much about getting the film out has been an inspiration."

Though Funny Ha Ha is still going strong – in addition to its theatrical run, the DVD comes out August 16 – Bujalski has already finished another film, Mutual Appreciation, produced using a "similar methodology" to Funny Ha Ha, though with a male protagonist this time. And the director said he'd love to keep making films. "I'm definitely in a pretty fluxy position right now, having spent the last five or six years pretty single-mindedly making films. So between all the work for that, and the fact that I've run out all the get-out-of-jail-free cards I have and am completely broke – I definitely have vague notions toward another film like this. If I can pull it off, I'll certainly do it."

'Funny Ha Ha' plays Aug. 12-18, Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight, SF. $4-8, (415) 668-3994. See Movie Clock for show times.