Before his Beeswax began its theatrical premiere run at Film Forum, this past weekend, Andrew Bujalski spoke with The L Magazine's Nicolas Rapold.
The L: The low-key thing, is that a product of your approach or is it more about the type of people you're depicting?
Andrew Bujalski: More and more I'm inclined to believe, and more than I care to admit, a lot of that just comes from me and my temperament. I feel like I've been struggling making sense of people's interpretations of my films. I'm sure in many an interview I've made tortured attempts to justify why there are not grand theatrics in the film. I can still do that but I just think that ultimately it comes from that: I have a calm temperament, so that gets imposed on the films.
The L: There you go imposing your calm temperament!
AB: Yeah, I know. What's fascinating is how much it can infuriate people. That's something that I didn't see coming the first time around, but I've gotten used to it now.
The L: The new story takes place in Austin, Texas. You've moved away from Northeast postgraduate settlement grounds.
AB: And that was a legitimate if minor concern about shooting in Austin: this is the most easygoing place I've ever lived. And knowing my own temperament and the kind of characters I've written, well, is it just going to be too damned easygoing? Are we going to have to ratchet up the tension ourselves a little bit because the environment is going to be working against us?
The L: Throw in a car chase or something.
The L: Incidentally, I think Frederick Wiseman was shooting a documentary in Austin — was that at the same time?
AB: I heard about that, I don't know when he was there. His wife is a law professor at the University of Texas. For the part of the lawyer, I'd gotten in touch with her, trying to get her to screen-test for the lawyer. I'd never met her, but somebody recommended her. It didn't end up working out; she was out of town.
The L: The legal wrangling in Beeswax is stuff that doesn't ordinarily make for a movie premise. But it's interesting to watch relationship dynamics backlit through these matters: Jeannie tells the lawyer about the Amanda situation in terms of her degrees of friendship with everyone involved.
AB: I had a lot of fun with the lawyer scene. I think a lot of what's driving the movie is this tension of the lawsuit hanging over them: the difference between how Amanda and Jeannie relate as human beings, and then what they've put on the document — that neither of them understand but that, when it comes down to it, will supersede everything that's been between them. Certainly any time I've signed a legal document in my life, it's filled me with terrible anxiety. Because I always look at the words on the page and think, That's not what I'm trying to do here at all. I don't even know what this means, and I'm going to put my name to it.
The L: You cast twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher as the sisters Jeannie and Lauren (which gives you a bit of value-added — they echo each other in some of their facial expressions). Is this another situation where you had a person you thought would carry a movie well?
AB: It's the same exact trick I pulled on the other films. I have known the girls for about ten years. Like everybody I was fascinated by twins, and particularly fascinated by these twins because I find them both so intensely charismatic, and not in exactly the same way. They're wildly charismatic apart, and then you put them together and they're a whole different thing.
The L: Jeannie is an interesting character — she can be hard to like at points, and I liked that.
AB: So much of the engine of the movie is the off-screen conflict with the Amanda character, and I liked the idea that the audience is going to be inclined to sympathize with Jeannie because she's our protagonist, but it was important to paint a portrait where you could begin to understand that Amanda's grievances have merit. That's another thing that not every audience is going to like, not knowing, or being uncertain. It would be one thing if Jeannie were the hero and Amanda were the bad guy and that were it, and I think there's also a way you can say, "This is a flawed character" and everybody gets that. And we're not really doing that either.
With Mutual Appreciation, this anecdote always leaps to mind. We played it at a film festival and I was eating breakfast one morning, and a guy came up to me. And he said, "I'm not supposed to be talking to you, I'm a juror, and I was wondering, could you tell me in the scene where Alan plays the rock shows — I don't know anything about pop music, is that supposed to be a great performance or a terrible performance?" And I couldn't answer the guy. It's just a performance. I don't have a particular agenda, if you think it's great or terrible. And yet I think people want to have their attention steered, and that's kind of the point of art in a way, but on the other hand, everybody brings their unique things to it. And maybe I get in trouble going too far down that path of allowing ambiguity.
The L: The anecdote reminds me of something Amy Taubin wrote about Beeswax: she saw it as partly about taste.
AB: Amy has been so good to my films. Obviously she didn't like the bright colors. I got where she was coming from and it made sense to me. It had nothing to do with my thinking about designing the film. I didn't think to myself, Let's make a movie about a store with horrible clothes in it. But by the same token, I get that we are using the brightness and poppiness of the store. It's not muted and tasteful colors. I don't think she's wrong, but that wasn't in my mind while making it.
The L: I liked the colors. You put together a palette that suggests a sense of place without showing landmarks or whatnot.
AB: There's no production designer on the movie. We sometimes move things around or we frame things in a certain intentionality, but we didn't paint a single wall in the movie. We knew that we were looking for colors and certainly were finding them everywhere we went. There was a certain Austin palette. I've done three films now and we've never shot a film in the city where I was writing it. But every time, when we've picked the city, it ends up being [like] a character. To me Beeswax is definitely an Austin movie, and it would have been very different if it was set anywhere else. And whether or not the city is a "character" is very similar to casting actors: once you plug someone in a world, the world becomes theirs.
The L: This is your third film working on a small scale. How was it this go-round — is the hustle getting old?
AB: I've only begun to scratch the surface of the world of big movies, and I don't think you have to hustle any less in that world, at least not until you're really fully established yourself. We might have passed the historical era where it's possible without hustling to get a film made. In many ways I'm a lazy person, so I would love not to have to climb a mountain every time, but I think that's the name of the game. It's felt like it's gotten more difficult every time: even though we've had a little more experience and a little more credibility, the challenges have mounted faster than the comfort or ease of getting it done.
I certainly feel like I'm at some sort of crossroads, but I don't know what's next for me. Broadly speaking, it seems that there are three categories of options, and within them a million subcategories. You know, try to do what everybody's been telling me to do since the first film: go big. Or try to stay on this path that we've been on, which I kind of like, perversely, because nobody will ever advise you to keep making smaller and medium-sized films that lose money. But part of what's always appealed to me about the films I've made is that I like making the film that nobody else is going to make. Either I'd do it and it exists in the world, or it doesn't exist in the world. And it's kind of maybe what's kept me from trying to sit down and write a more conventional genre piece. I have yet to figure out how I would do it in a way that couldn't be topped by a thousand other struggling screenwriters who are trying to do the same thing. The third option of course is that I should be making smaller, cheaper, weirder things, and that has an appeal too.
The L: What would the smaller, cheaper, weird stuff be like?
AB: I have some fantasies that it's hard for me to articulate, but I'd love to play around. I've had an autonomy that few filmmakers have, let alone three times, and I'm massively grateful for that. But it is fairly conventional narrative filmmaking. So I fantasize about things that aren't necessarily attainable, about having even more freedom, and freedom from the process in a way. I think that's a common and unattainable filmmaker fantasy.
The L: There are conventions to your narrative filmmaking, but you also take away some of the expectations or sinewaves or rhythms of many dramas — even just how when you're shooting conversations, you hold on one person.
AB: If anything I probably did that even more in the earlier films. Part of it is that I like watching people listen. That's a big part of it. And it's also utilitarian, when I'm cutting the scenes together, sometimes one take has a great rhythm and great feel to it and you want to stay there. And in the end, every cut should look and feel intentional, but it begins with seeing where the good material is and building the scene around that.
The L: What projects are you working on now? A recent profile mentioned a romantic comedy idea, and the adaptation of the novel Indecision [by Benjamin Kunkel].
AB: Both of those things are at the moment writing jobs that I've been paid for, and that's been great. That's how I've earned my living for the last couple years. But Indecision was something that I am attached to direct, but I have no idea whether it'll ever get made. That whole world is kind of a black box to me, and I don't live in L.A. or New York and don't really know what's going on behind those closed doors. I'd be thrilled if it got made, but I don't know if it's possible for me to say how likely that is at this point. The romantic comedy is something that a buddy and I have been co-writing, and again I have no idea what the future is.
The L: What's it about?
AB: Eh, it's about the same thing as what they're all about.
The L: You got married recently. Is that going to come up in a future film? I mean, not your marriage specifically.
AB: Somebody told me that was one of the only sure bets left now: people are still willing to bankroll movies that have the word "wedding" in them. Oh, I have no idea.