Flavorwire Interview: Andrew Bujalski on ‘Computer Chess’ and the Legacy of Mumblecore

Austin-based filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, whose 2004 directorial debut Funny Ha Ha is widely considered to be the first mumblecore film, is tired of talking about mumblecore. That’s possibly why his fourth film, Computer Chess, feels so different from his first three (which also include Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax). Taking place at a computer chess tournament in an anonymous hotel conference room in the early ’80s, Computer Chess is more akin to a Christopher Guest comedy than an indie movie about young Brooklynites in emotional distress. But Bujalski’s recognizable cinematic touches are there: shot on vintage video cameras with a surrealist aesthetic, Computer Chess, like Bujalski’s previous features, is at its heart a film about human interaction and connection. This week, I met with Bujalski to discuss his new film as well as the cultural impact of the mumblecore movement.

computer chess

Flavorwire: What was the major inspiration behind Computer Chess? Was the convention based on a real event you had heard about?

Andrew Bujalski: Well, the first spark [was] that I wanted to work with these cameras. I’d been working with 16MM cameras for the last ten years and people kept asking, “Hey, why do you still shoot on film?” The contrarian streak in me made me think, “Well, if you fuckers want video, I’ll give you video.” Video doesn’t have to mean whatever is hot right now. And not to disparage those new cameras, but the reason I was shooting on 16MM is that I’m a big believer that the format matters and so does the texture of the image. I had seen some old Sony Portapack footage, particularly some that William Eggleston shot in the ‘70s, and I fell in love with the camera and thought it’d be great to do something with it. But I’ve never seen a narrative movie shot on these cameras. I don’t even know if one exists. After stumbling onto a minor mention of the existence of computer chess tournaments, it lodged in my head near this video idea. It’s hard for me to explain: it’s a common first question about the movie, and I don’t know. Most of the heavy lifting here was done by my subconscious.

This film is a departure from your earlier films: it’s very cerebral and not about young people in relationships, but it still deals with the issues of how people interact with one another. Was that deliberate on your part?

I knew we were doing all kinds of stuff that [was] dissimilar from the earlier films, but it wasn’t a calculated thing. It was a leap off the cliff, so in that sense it was supposed to be a departure not from my oeuvre but from my sanity. Again, that same contrarian streak — when Beeswax came out, the general consensus from the press was, “Here’s the mumblecore guy and here’s another mumblecore film from him.” It frustrated me at the time, because no one could see how it was different from other movies. Now everyone is in a hurry to say how different Computer Chess is, and I want to say, “Can’t you see how it’s so similar?”

That’s what I thought was so interesting about Computer Chess, though! I didn’t know much about it before I started watching it, so I expected it to be a lot like your other films. When you think about mumblecore, it’s an aesthetic that usually has a specific subject matter, yet this is a period piece and it’s much more surreal.

I don’t even know if that’s an aesthetic! When you think about grunge, for example: Pearl Jam and Nirvana don’t sound anything alike.

Sure, it’s become a catchall term to describe a group of filmmakers rather than define a cinematic aesthetic. Were you surprised at the reaction you and your cohort received after those first few so-called mumblecore films?

I was 24 when I made Funny Ha Ha. I was shocked at the response. I’m not a provocateur; it’s a very gentle movie, and it surprised me that it was capable of making people furious. I never anticipated that it would happen. I could anticipate people not caring, but not getting angry. But it seemed like the people who really hated it were people my age. They said, “You think you know my life, but that’s not my life. You got it wrong.”

It’s very clear that this is a movie, rather than a document of supposed realism. That’s what frustrates me about the found-footage trend, even with narrative features. The idea that it’s absolutely realistic really bugs me — it’s pretentious almost. Whereas with Computer Chess, you’re always aware that the camera is present and you’re watching a film.

There was certainly an imperative in the earlier films to be tasteful, and for better or worse the aesthetic design was that the camera and editing were never supposed to be on display. The movies were about the performances. With Computer Chess, there was no need to be tasteful. We could goof off and could pull off as many stunts as we wanted.