Film, Anxiety and Legalese: An Interview with Andrew Bujalski

· Joanthan Poritsky

Andrew Bujalski

Earlier this week I had the good pleasure of sitting down and chatting with director Andrew Bujalski about his new film, Beeswax. A very humble and quiet person, you’d never expect this kindly character to survive the rigors and torments of the filmmaking process. However, if you are familiar with his previous two films, Funny Ha Ha from 2002 and Mutual Appreciation from 2005, and especially in this new film which opens today, it would become immediately clear that this bespectacled, anxious young man is the perfect candidate to make movies that deal with such emotional introspection. In other words, it is the burden of filmmaking that creates his most evocative work.

I was immediately struck by how quickly our conversation would turn from discussing the characters in his films to talking about himself. It would seem that Bujalski and his creative work are woven together. Beeswax is a story of two twin sisters living in Austin, Texas, one of whom is the co-owner of a vintage clothing store. Jeannie, the wheel-chair bound (hardly bound is more like it) twin who runs the shop, learns early on that there is the possibility of a lawsuit coming from her business partner, Amanda, a close friend who has drifted away towards her fiancée.

Does this legal dispute come from something in real life? Something close to you? It comes from fears that I have. What’s the nightmare version of a daydream? Knock wood, I’ve never been involved in a lawsuit like that. Every time I’ve ever signed a document, I get this terrible anxiety about it because if you look at the language of a contract, it’s not the way that human beings commuicate with one another. It’s written in this other language which is designed…You know, I just watched Nashville again recently and there’s a line where the Hal Phillip Walker trucker is driving around Nashville and he says “The Lord’s job is to do one of two things: to clarify and…” the only word that is coming to mind now is obfuscate. What’s the other word that means obfuscate? Anyway…

I keep hearing the the phrase “legal thriller” being applied to this film. I’ll cop to responsibility on that.

Does that work for you? It works better than other labels people have given me. You know, there’s something a little cheeky about presenting it that way because there are many obvious legal thriller beats that the movie does not hit. When I was writing it, it was certainly in my head, that was a kind of model I conceived of structuring the story. When I go to see those films, I don’t know what was the last one I saw, not just legal thrillers but political thrillers, these films where it’s all about building connections. Somebody is always talking about “well this evil corporation is in bed with this senator” and there’s so much shit that’s happened off screen in those movies. And it’s people trying to figure out what’s hapened off screen and make all the connections. You know that once you’ve made all the connections you’re going to uncover the ultimate evil thing. In a way, that resonates with our experiences to some extent. I think in daily life you find out that things connect in ways that you don’t understand.

Like most people I know, I was a huge fan of “The Wire”. It’s a great delight on “The Wire” to watch, to learn those connections and see how the city works. On a very personal level, I also felt like my life, my experience of life is not just about making the connections but is also about missed connections or incorrect connections. I mean the way that people learn to understand the world around them is not about learning to get it right and see the big picture. It’s about getting it wrong and seeing the little pictures.

For better or worse, I’m addicted to a kind of chaotic worldview in my work. This sort of was my version of a legal thriller. Also, anyone who has ever been in a lawsuit does not find it thrilling in the least.

In Beeswax, adults, or parents, rather, have a power that the main characters don’t. Why? Part of that has to do with this concepton of who has the money. Certainly in my films the people ages 50 and up have the money. I think to some extent that everything I’ve done, although I don’t go into them thinking this way, has been this sort of fear of adulthood. It’s clearly kind of central to all of this stuff. Part of that is anxiety about money and what you have to do to get it and control it. I have such ambivalence about money and I guess I pass that on to my characters. I’m just rambling here because I don’t quite have an answer to your question.

I relate to that. Some younger people might have a lot of money and lead very boring lives, while your characters have very interesting lives. Certainly it represents a kind of middle class perspective that I wouldn’t expect everybody who watches these movies to understand. It’s where I come from and It’s probably where a lot of people who watch these movies are going to come from. So many people I know, and maybe it’s just because I know a lot of people with “artistic temperaments” (his quotes),aren’t as financially secure as ur parents were at our age. And in other ways. I mean my folks were both in their mid-20s when they had me. They set about having stable careers and being responsible parents. I’ve obviously made very distinct choices. I want to make these films. I know that these films are not going to make me money, and I have no regrets about that. I’m kind of amazed by how much we have been able to get the films seen and it has meant everything in the world for me to be able to do these. There’s also some kind of anxiety about that. Why can’t I just be able to pay for things like my parents did. Why am I still sweating about being able to pay the rent? Aren’t I too old for this shit? I don’t know. A lot of that goes into the film. The adults do seem to be the people who have chosen to be “responsible” within society. But the kids are struggling to be there. If they want to be there or not. And I don’t know if I want to be there or not.

I love that you know what I mean when I say adults even though the main characters are well into a adulthood. Yeah. That’s how I think of it now. Yeah, we’re all adults now, but people my parents’ age will always be adults, really.

Would you want to make the jump to Hollywood? My experience so far has been that selling out is as much, if not more, work than doing what you believe in. What my films have done is they have gotten a certain amount of attention and established some level of credibility, or whatever. What they have not done is make money. If either of those films had grossed a million dollars, then I think selling out would be easier; it would be something that’s handed to you because people trust that the money is going to come back.

I knew going into _Beeswax _that I might be shooting myself in the foot here, career-wise. Which I kind of wanted to do. There was sort of a perverse aspect of choice in that. You know from a social perspective, from a business perspective. You know, there are people who care about the films and might want you to go make another personal film; people who love you personally and want you to do whatever you need to be happy. But most of the world wants you to go make money so that they can be involved and, maybe they can make some money too. And that’s great. But feeling that little bit of pressure, I started to feel that if everyone is expecting me to take it to the next level, then what happens if I don’t do that?

I hate the idea of calling card films. It’s fine and it often works out for people, but it’s also kind of sad when somebody does something that is a surprise hit, and then spend the next five, six or seven years of their lives stuck in Hollywood turnaround. Trying to get something else off the ground.

While we talk about this the name that keeps coming to mind is David Gordon Green. Pineapple Express was a film that I looked at and thought “Well, shit, if I could do a studio movie and have it turn out that funny, that would be great.”

All of your movies have been shot on film. Are you going to stick with film or are they any plans to move to video? ** **I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s so many things I don’t know. This is a question I’ve been answering since 2002 when we finished the first film. Since then, video has evolved so much and it will continue to evolve. It’s hard to put my finger on what video is. That’s one thing that I like about film. I always know what it is. It’s not like some film looks good and other film looks shitty. I mean, films can look shitty, but it’s not because the medium looks shitty. Video is just much harder to get handle on. Will they ever make video that’s a perfect simulacrum of film? Yeah. To some extent they already have. I don’t feel that comfortable with the technology yet. If you’re trying to get video to look exactly like film, it’s a silly thing to do. You might as well just go and shoot on film anyway if you’re using the super high-end stuff. Film just does something realy specific, and really beautiful to me. I just love it. It’s so much time making a film and there’s so much work, it’s unbelievable. To spend years on a film is such a pain, I want look at something that makes me happy with the images every day. I only have real limited experience working on video, but it doesn’t bring me the same joy in every image.