Andrew Bujalski shot his microbudgeted first film “Funny Ha Ha” in 2002. It earned both high marks from critics, and a nickname for the youthful, talky indie sub-genre it spawned: mumblecore. A.O. Scott named it one of the most influential films of the 2000s.
A decade later, Bujalski has made a semi-historical piece about some decidedly un-hip subjects. “Computer Chess” focuses in on a group of ’80s engineers, competing to create the first computer program able to beat a human at chess.
He tells Rico about making a movie about the ’80s with technology from the ’60s, setting limits on those new-fangled “wheels,” and the consequences of repeating an innocent joke to a journalist.
Rico Gagliano: What inspired the topic of your new film?
Andrew Bujalski: It’s so hard to reconstruct how this movie came about. And it’s a funny thing now to see how people are responding to it. It’s very exciting, because I think people seem engaged and interested in what we’re doing, but it hadn’t occurred to me until we did it that people love their computers and want to see a movie about their computers.
And everybody remembers their childhood computer. It’s almost like I’ve made a movie about people’s teddy bear.
Rico Gagliano: Did you expect to be making a nostalgia movie? It doesn’t feel like it’s a nostalgia movie.
Andrew Bujalski: No, to some extent that stuff is all still present in my mind. I mean, I remember being a kid and I remember those computers, and not so much nostalgically, but just the feelings and questions that went with them about what these computers are going to do to our lives.
Even though we’ve gotten very accustomed to our computers and we’re not afraid of them the way that maybe we use to be, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be afraid of them! The questions were never really answered particularly about what they’re doing to us, and those questions I think still very much resonate.
Rico Gagliano: I have to say that to me, the movie is a comedy. But by the end of it, there’s almost a melancholy to it. It feels like you’re documenting the moment when we give our humanity over to technology. First of all, do you think that’s accurate?
Andrew Bujalski: You know, I don’t think it’s a done deal; I think some of our humanity is still with us! Maybe you would’ve said the same thing about the invention of the wheel. I mean, I think that’s kind of part of the human story in a way, is that we are always attracted to these things which seem to chip away at our soul.
And yet, it’s one thing that I felt like I learned making this movie. I went into it as an outsider, not a computer programmer, I’m a terrible chess player. So I came to it largely as a skeptic about artificial intelligence, at least. There’s a part of me that thought — and still on some level thinks — “Why are we teaching a machine to play chess? I thought chess was supposed to be you know, a fun game, you and me sit down and we enjoy playing each other. Why do I need to program something to demolish me at it?”
Rico Gagliano: “Why are we programming ourselves out of the equation?”
Andrew Bujalski: And yet, the more time I spent learning a little bit about it, and learning a little bit about the people who did this, and then also working with them — a lot of my cast is real computer programmers — I came to have a real, not just respect, but also affection for these guys.
Particularly the early days.Today there are a lot of good-looking, fit, well-dressed computer people who fit into society just fine. But in those days, the serious people, the people who were at the forefront were, in my mind, almost like monk with just this incredible dedication.
Rico Gagliano: Very fringe.
Andrew Bujalski: Very French? Oh, fringe! I was thinking, “I didn’t know that they were all that French!”
Rico Gagliano: Well, they have attitude, some of them.
Andrew Bujalski: Yess yes yes. Yeah, very fringe, and it’s just like any other human endeavor. I mean, it’s like, “Why do you program a commuter to dominate chess? Why do you climb Mount Everest? Why do I keep making indie movies that, you know, society is not really asking for?”
You do it because you feel like you have to, or because you feel like there’s something to that accomplishment. And that’s a very, very human desire to conquer a task.
Rico Gagliano: Despite what it may wreak upon you.
Andrew Bujalski: Oh absolutely; every time! I think there’s a cultural and a personal cost to all of these things.
So yes, I mean these guys, these computer geniuses who brought all this technology — I think a lot of them were quite philosophical and did think a lot about what these things meant — nonetheless, obviously computers have had great effects on our lives and also many unintended consequences, and there are a lot of us who think, I can’t believe when I die… When I’m laying on my deathbed, if I think about the percentage of my life I’ll have spent responding to emails, it will be very, very depressing.
Rico Gagliano: You shot this movie on old black and white tube video cameras from the early 60’s. The image quality is very degraded and sort of primitive-looking. But I was thinking about it, and it’s not that much different than your previous films, all of which were also shot in what is now considered an old technology: 16mm film.
You take that, and the sort of ambivalent feeling about technology that you express in the movie, and it feels — in general — that you’re somebody who’s resistant to technology. Do you think that’s accurate?
Andrew Bujalski: Well, we were joking on this movie, because I’ve been shooting on 16mm film, and now were shooting on these video cameras. So basically I went from 1930s technology to 1960s technology. And I’m like slowly inching my way toward the 21st century.
Yeah, well sure, of course I have all kinds of ambivalence about technology. It’s funny, I have a 2-year-old son, and if you put an iPhone or iPad in front of him, he’s completely absorbed in it. He goes a little bit insane. You cannot take it away from him.
We were at dinner the other night, and a friend had a phone. Dessert came to the table, a big brownie with chocolate syrup on it, and also a cherry cobbler with a scoop of ice cream on it. And this is a 2-year-old who could not have been less interested in the dessert because he had an iPhone in front of him.
Rico Gagliano: Oh my God.
Andrew Bujalski: And it was really scary! But I also remember, you know, when I got… I think I got a VIC-20, was the first personal computer I had when I was a kid.
Rico Gagliano: Commodore.
Andrew Bujalski: Commodore VIC-20. I mean, I remember staying up into the wee hours of the night just… already.The technology has always, always been completely riveting to us. We’ve always been fascinated by it even when it did things that by modern standards you would think of as incredibly boring and useless.
And again, I’ve got to imagine, you know, it’s probably the same way for the caveman with the wheel or the fire. He probably just spent all day rolling that wheel around, because it blew his mind.
Rico Gagliano: And he was probably saying to his of kids,” I’m only gonna let you play with the wheel for one hour a day, or it’s gonna ruin you!”
Andrew Bujalski: Exactly, exactly.
Rico Gagliano: I wanted to ask you a question we ask everyone on the show: If we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question would you least like to be asked? Like, what’s the question that you’re asked about too often?
Andrew Bujalski: I’m just not good… I mean I’m a terrible self-promoter, and so people say, “Oh, you make movies, what’s your movies about?” And I always say “I don’t know.”
If I could describe it, then I wouldn’t have wasted all this time making it I guess. I’m not… I can’t do the elevator pitch. I get worse and worse at it every year.
Rico Gagliano: I’m actually interested that you didn’t choose asking you about the term “mumblecore.” I would think that you would hate that term at this point.
Andrew Bujalski: That can, that… I’m less mumbly on it, if you will.
To me, it’s been so fascinating to see that word infuse the culture, because this is a word that came from a joke that the sound mixer I work with — Eric Masunaga, who I love, who’s a great guy — he made this joke to me, and I repeated it to a journalist. So I made this terrible error of repeating it to a journalist, kind of also in the context of a joke, and then it caught on. But it caught on hugely.
I was in Berlin a month ago at the Berlin Film Festival, and I was talking to journalists from Poland, and from Chile, and from all over the world. There are literally millions of people on this planet who speak this word to each other, and it’s amazing.
I mean in a way, as much as my films I hope are seen by lots of people and mean something to people, my having been present at the birth of that word is probably the most global, powerful thing I’ll ever be a part of. Even though I don’t like the word or really understand it.