Act naturally

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I interviewed writer-director-editor-supporting actor Andrew Bujalski last year, prior to Funny Ha Ha’s August 2005 opening at the Red Vic. He’d actually completed his debut film in 2002; during its meandering journey into theaters (with stops at over ten fests, including the San Francisco Independent Film Festival), he was able to shoot his follow-up, Mutual Appreciation.

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Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation.

Though it’s shot in black and white, and features a boy-musician rather than a girl-office temp slouching towards adulthood, Mutual Appreciation (read Max Goldberg’s Guardian review here) resembles Funny Ha Ha in its deceptively low-fi storytelling. It’s also a leap forward for Bujalski, whose editing choices have grown more adventurous, while his characters are even more awkwardly real-life, if that’s even possible.

On the eve of Mutual Appreciation’s Bay Area premiere, I spoke with the Boston-based Bujalski again. This time I steered away from topics that had shaped our previous chat, including the inevitable, justifiable comparisons to other naturalistic filmmakers (in other words, not once was the name “Cassavetes” mentioned; if you’re curious, read my 2005 interview here).

San Francisco Bay Guardian: Your two films have some obvious similarities, but in what ways did you approach Mutual Appreciation differently than Funny Ha Ha?

Andrew Bujalski: It was a pretty similar process all around. Of course it comes out totally differently. And I'm sure it affected things that we’d sort of been through it before, both positively and negatively. On the one hand, having done it before and having had a lot of the same core crew members around, there was a little bit of confidence there that we might not have had before. But then with confidence also comes the fear, the worry, that it becomes a little too -- you’re not forced into inventive solutions. Certainly, obviously, our resources were limited enough that we weren’t so jaded yet. And I think given the timeline of these things -- Mutual Appreciation was shot in October of 2003. We never could have predicted the weird lifespan that Funny Ha Ha would have. So for Funny Ha Ha to keep going as long as it did, really most of the kind of press and hoopla and that sort of stuff surrounding Funny Ha Ha came after we shot Mutual. So I think we were really lucky, in that sense, to still be in our bubble of naivete when we made Mutual.

SFBG: Why did you shoot Mutual Appreciation in black and white?

AB: It’s a difficult thing to describe, because of course it’s a decision that takes you a split second to make, but basically -- I felt like the film was a sort of peculiar kind of deadpan comedy, and that black and white was funny.

SFBG: I noticed that the editing was a little bit different in this film. Scenes often ended at unexpected moments.

AB: I don’t know if there was a different strategy. I mean, I think it seems like a fairly intuitive sort of editing for me. I'm not trying to be too formally out there. In fact, I know that when I was cutting Funny Ha Ha, I'd had a sort of fantasy of cutting in and out much more harshly than I did, but I could never find a way to make it work. Because I like that idea -- I like watching films where I feel a bit afloat, and not sure what’s going on, and trying to catch up with it. But it’s a hard thing to do, and I don’t know -- I feel like my cutting is fairly conventional, but of course it depends what angle you’re looking at it from.

SFBG: I'm thinking of the scene at the party, where Alan (Justin Rice) somehow gets roped into putting on make-up and a dress, but you never see what happens after that.

AB: Right. It’s in the script that way. There’s nothing in the script about him emerging from there in the dress. That was kind of as far as that bit needed to go. Although by the same token, if it were a different movie, I would love to do a three-hour movie about that character at that party, because to me that’s some of the most fun material. But we had to keep moving.

SFBG: Was this film the same as Funny Ha Ha in terms of the dialogue -- which seemed improvised but was in fact fully scripted and structured?

AB: “Structured” is, I think, the right word. I write a full screenplay and it’s a very conventional screenplay. I try to be as precise in that as I can. But when we get to the set, of course, a lot of things go off the rails, so there’s a lot of room left for actors to bring things to it. There’s all kinds of great, off-the-cuff stuff from them, but it all hews pretty close to the structure as written.

SFBG: Mutual Appreciation has a male protagonist -- a first for you. Was it harder for you to write that character?

AB: I think it was, in as much as, you know, there’s this tendency -- when you write anything that’s kind of close to home, when you’re not working off established genre tropes, it’s very easy to fall into either autobiography or some kind of crappy form of therapy. When I was writing Funny Ha Ha I remember feeling that taking a half-step outside of myself, and writing for the female lead, made it easier in a way, just to have that little bit of critical distance between me and the character. To write for a male, it’s much more tempting to throw all of my own insecurities into that character. For me, this was a much more difficult film to deal with as an editor, just to have to grapple with the material every day for whatever reason. Also, there’s more material. It was a harder film technically too. It’s about 20 minutes longer [than Funny Ha Ha]. I’ve written something now that I'd like to do, which is very female-centric again. Somehow that feels more pleasant.

SFBG: Do you think that script will be your next film?

AB: I hope so, but we’re a long way from it being reality.

SFBG: In Mutual Appreciation, as in Funny Ha Ha, you cast yourself as kind of an awkward character. Is that something you think you’ll keep doing -- and what motivates you to do it?

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Andrew Bujalski in character, Funny Ha Ha.

AB: I'd like to make a film that I don’t act in now. Partially, on these two films, it was a matter of resources: one less head to count, one less person to worry about if they’re gonna show up on time and if they mind working for free and all that kind of stuff. In Funny Ha Ha, when I wrote the part, it was not necessarily written for myself to play, but it became that as we got closer to shooting. Whereas in Mutual, I definitely did write the part for myself. It was due to a number of things; partially, it was an experiment in some ways. Having done it on Funny Ha Ha, I was curious. I wanted to try to do it again to see what my range was. I think I learned that I don’t have a whole lot of range. [Laughs] I'm glad I did it. It was certainly fun, but my favorite scenes in both films are scenes that I'm not in.

SFBG: Will your next film be about different kinds of characters, or are you still going to be exploring the world of not-quite-ready-to-grow-up twentysomething types?

AB: I don’t know. Well, it’s hard for me -- I made a New Year’s resolution not to read any reviews or that kind of stuff, which I broke about a hundred times over. Definitely, it’s been messing with my head pretty badly, particularly in the last month because the film is about to come out. All these people do have these kind of broad, demographic, sociological, anthropological interpretations of the film, which was never -- that’s not what I was trying to do. I never set out to do a portrait of a generation, or portrait of blah-blah post-collegiate whatever. Of course, when you read that a thousand times, you think, “Oh, maybe that is what I do, and maybe I need to be conscious of that.” Of course, I think that kind of consciousness can be death for a writer. So, I don’t know. The thing that I’ve written that I'd like to do also involves people about my age, about my demographic, doing whatever they’re doing. But I need to treat them as highly specific characters and highly specifics situations. That’s what’s gonna make it worthwhile drama, if anything.

SFBG: Considering the way the quote-unquote grown-ups are portrayed in Mutual Appreciation -- Alan’s dad, who only calls to bug him about his credit card bill; Alan’s dad’s cheesy friend Walter, who has a swanky apartment and unclear music-biz connections -- it’s no wonder the characters have no interest in becoming full-fledged adults.

AB: For the Mutual Appreciation DVD, which I think is coming out in February, we wanted to load it up with crazy-fun extras. So we made a little short film with those two guys, the dad character and Walter.

SFBG: That friendship does seem kind of random.

AB: That’s why I wanted to do it, because their off-screen relationship is so mysterious. You know, they were in business together. Business makes strange bedfellows.

SFBG: Mutual Appreciation also, obviously, has a strong music theme, including a concert scene where Alan performs. Were you inspired by the fact that Justin Rice is a real-life musician?

AB: Yeah, basically. The first spark of anything for this film was that I wanted to do something with Justin in the lead. Knowing that, I knew that I could kind of plug in his ability as a musician. Also, I liked the idea of then having this inroad into dealing with music, particularly because in my films, we don’t use score music, but I think music and film is incredibly powerful, and this gave me a way to do it. And also, you see this all the time, as a cheap metaphor for one’s own artistic travails -- you see tons of movies where the lead character is a novelist because that’s the only thing the screenwriter can think of that’s similar to a screenwriter. Just having known Justin as long as I’ve known him, and seen him and his band go through what they’ve gone through with all their music stuff -- I’ve always felt a bit of a parallel, and maybe an obvious parallel. But it was fun to do, and there’s certainly a part of me that wishes I were a competant musician.

SFBG: What do you do when you’re not making films?

AB: For the last few months, I’ve been really lucky -- I got my first-ever Hollywood sellout job. I got hired to adapt a novel, which is great, and it’s been fun so far. I don’t know what will happen but that’s what’s been paying my rent the last couple of months.

Mutual Appreciation opens Fri/29 at the Red Vic and the Shattuck.
www.mutualappreciation.com

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