There’s also a broad humor that plays into that, too. The mockumentary style heightens it: here’s a bunch of nerds at a computer chess conference. It’s similar to a Christopher Guest movie in terms of the characters. Did your actors craft these characters on their own?
When you cast an actor, you’re putting your life in their hands, so that’s always true. A lot of the characters are tech guys. I’m not a tech guy; I’m the last person to tell you what tech guys are like. So I cast a lot of guys who were into that, and I could sit down with them and say, in my layman’s terms, what kind of programming the character would do, and they could take it and go way deeper with it and bring those characters to life.
Were most of the actors non-professional? Wiley Wiggins was the only guy I recognized, and I didn’t even realize it was him at first.
Well, we put a mustache on him. We even tried to get him a prosthetic nose! Wiley is an odd example; obviously, he’s had at least one iconic film role that everyone knows and loves. He’s a very good and committed actor, but he’s not a career actor. But he is, basically, a career tech guy. It wasn’t like I was casting my actor buddy and told him to go learn about technology. I was casting someone who was incredibly knowledgeable about technology who happened to have some great acting experience.
It seems like that could be a benefit of a low-budget film: you will hire actors who aren’t recognizable, and it makes the film a little more believable.
Oh, I’ve always felt that way. Even though I’ve seen 20 movies with Robert De Niro, if I went back to Mean Streets I’d still be blown away. Some of the best performances are by people who are cracking something open for the first time. Your relationship is purely with the character and you’re not thinking about what you read about them in the tabloids.
Do you consider an audience when you make a film? Does the expectation of who may go see it and respond to it affect your process?
Yes and no. That was a blessing with Funny Ha Ha — we’ll never have the perfect naïveté of not knowing who would see the film. I think it was a great thing to have, but I could survive without it. With Computer Chess, it’s a great and pleasant surprise that it’s been mostly well received. It may well be the most successful thing I ever do, which was not at all the plan. I went into this with the intention of possibly nailing the coffin on my career. I didn’t know if it would make any sense, if I could edit it into anything releasable, if anyone would see it. I didn’t mean to make something relevant: that was an accident.
The two of your earlier films that I know — Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation — seem to be ahead of their time in a way. Especially looking at the success of Lena Dunham and Girls: there’s a cultural obsession with the notion of being in your 20s and dealing with the uncertainty of that age.
The funny thing is that none of that is new. There were novels about that in the 18th century.
Absolutely! It speaks to our short cultural memory. As someone who is about to turn 30 and is so tired of thinking about my 20s, I wonder if the age of a person watching a film plays a part in their appreciation of it.
Someone just asked me this question the other day about Funny Ha Ha: “Were you setting out to capture the rhythms of 20-somethings?” Well, those were my rhythms. It wasn’t anthropology. It’s still a movie; I wrote it and it’s stylized, and it wasn’t ethnographic. It was interesting to read the reviews by “adults” who looked at it as a window to a generation they had to learn about.
In terms of mumblecore, do you think it was a movement that ended, that it was a specific artifact of a specific time?
I never thought it existed. I compared it earlier to grunge; I know what it means, but it doesn’t define any kind of music to me. It was more about a cultural moment rather an actual aesthetic. I also think the Sex Pistols don’t sound like The Clash, but they’re the titans of punk. I can appreciate the usefulness and convenience of assigning the word to some cultural something, and it’s crazy to me that this word has the currency it does. You can read it in the paper with no explanation required. It’s in the vernacular, and that’s amazing to me. I get what it’s referring to, but personally, as a guy who goes out and spends time and energy into making these movies, it doesn’t have anything to with my work. You can put it into any context you want, but that’s not how I’m building it. I don’t know how to make a mumblecore movie.
Was there a time you resented the term? Did you find it harmful?
Yeah. It made it very easy for people to dismiss my work. The major problem for me, and to anyone who is lumped into any movement, is that the commonalities that seemed to define mumblecore were the least interesting parts of the movies. The things I think made those movies good are the differences. The Puffy Chair and Nights and Weekends and both fantastic movies, but not because they’re “white people talking about their relationships.” If you’re going to say you don’t like movies about young white people talking about their relationships then… OK. But that’s not what those movies are about.