Andrew Bujalski wants you to know that the naturalistic dialogue in his 2002 microbudget masterwork, “Funny Ha Ha,” was not the result of an “anthropological exercise.” He was 22 when he started writing the picture and 24 when he shot it, though it would be at least a few more years until many audiences would discover it, and critics would label it as the first true “mumblecore” picture. The rhythms of Bujalski’s dialogue—the half-formed sentences and ambivalent stutters—are authentic precisely because they were the writer/director’s own.
I highly encourage any cinephile who hasn’t seen this marvelously endearing and squirm-inducing comedy to seek it out immediately. It features the only major film role for “Waking Life” animator Kate Dollenmayer, whose performance as conflicted college grad Marnie is the equal of any I’ve ever seen. Her scenes with the profoundly awkward Mitchell (impeccably portrayed by Bujalski) are as disarmingly funny as they are wrenchingly honest. On the heels of winning the Alfred P. Sloan prize at Sundance for his fourth feature, “Computer Chess,” Bujalski reminisced with Indie Outlook about his groundbreaking feature debut.
Q: I’m curious as to whether the verbal tics like “ums” and “likes” were part of your originally scripted dialogue.
A: I’m sure I had “umms” and “ahhs” in the script but I wouldn’t suggest that they’re always in the same places they ended up on screen. Ultimately the prime directive was that it sounded natural coming out of the actor’s mouth, and if that meant adjusting my precious dialogue, so be it. I ain’t David Mamet.
Q: How involved were the actors in the creation of the characters—were many of them written with the actors in mind?
A: I wrote Marnie for Kate Dollenmayer to play. That was the great breakthrough for me. In my early 20s I’d written a couple of other feature-length scripts, which were probably about as bad as the average 21 year old’s script, and though I knew I wanted to go out and make a movie—though I had no idea what commitment(s) that would entail—nothing I’d written quite seemed worth devoting my life to. Writing with Kate in mind seemed to ground the writing somehow and make it much better. Not that I was writing a biography of her, I wasn’t, but I could hear her voice as I wrote and that brought some life to the character and all the situations that surrounded her. If Kate had been sane enough to say, “No, I’m not going to do this,” then I would have put the script in my drawer and started over. There was never any way to make this movie without her.
None of the other roles were written with the actors in mind—though I suppose it dawned on me fairly early on that if I were going to act in this (which was appealing at least inasmuch as I knew that I could count on myself to work for free and show up on time), that Mitchell was the role for me. But of course, every time I cast any role, there’s some process of reconsidering the script and figuring out how to best maximize the overlap of energies between the performer and the role. I recall conceiving Jen Schaper’s character, Rachel, as a relentlessly bubbly, optimistic sort. Then I met Jen and started thinking of her for it, and was very happy to enrich the role by letting her make it something different, something of her own.
Q: Do you think Kate’s comfort level onscreen was enhanced by her own offscreen friendship with you?
A: Well Kate is certainly a natural. I don’t think there’s a frame of footage she gave me that I couldn’t have used in the final cut. Certainly she was better informed and more closely involved with prep for the film than the actors, by necessity, but I can’t take credit for her performance, or explain why she was as comfortable with these cockamamie situations as she was.
Q: My favorite scenes in the film are the ones between you and Kate. That personality type you capture—the hostility wrapped in politeness—has rarely been portrayed so realistically onscreen. I feel for the guy, but I wince at the same time.
A: I’d like to say that it was a flight of pure imagination but, y’know, I certainly had access to that.
I acted again in “Mutual Appreciation” and have done it a half-dozen times for friends since then, but I’m sure that “Funny Ha Ha” represents my crowning “glory” as an actor. I don’t know that I could play Mitchell again today.
Q: In what particular ways did documentary techniques/aesthetics influence your approach to making the film?
A: Documentary was the backbone of my training as an undergrad in Harvard’s Visual & Environmental Studies program, and it’s impacted everything I’ve done since. I completely drank the Kool-Aid there (not that they were pedantic about it—they were not) and firmly believe that, for me at least, there could be no better preparation for fiction narrative filmmaking than documentary. In both cases, you are always dealing with and adjusting to circumstances that are beyond your control. Documentary just brings that to the fore in a way that really wipes the scales from your eyes as a filmmaker and forces you to learn how movies do and do not work.
Q: How close was your collaboration with Matthias Grunsky? There is an attention to composition and camera movement that caused this film to stand out from the pack much like “Tiny Furniture” did.
A: I’ve made four movies with Matthias now and have come to regard him as my most invaluable artistic collaborator. I couldn’t feel luckier to have found him, though I often worry that his association with me has been a detriment to his career. The fact is, he lives-breathes-eats cameras and he can bring to you whatever the job requires. If you want a slick looking car commercial, he can do that, no problem. But he has very little ego about it, and so when the movie requires a rougher look, he does not try to impose car commercial aesthetics on it. And thus, unfortunately, not as many people hire him for their well-paying car commercials as probably ought to.
Q: How intentional was the occasionally murky sound quality in the original cut of the film? How is the 10th anniversary print different/altered?
A: We didn’t clean it up for the 10th anniversary, we cleaned it up for the theatrical release in 2005. The only difference was that we’d done the original mix entirely old school, analog, on mag dubbers, and when the opportunity rolled around in 2005 to make a 35mm print, we were able to go back and made some digital adjustments. I am, of course, very fond of old outmoded equipment and often whine about the steamroller of technical “progress” leaving quality behind…but analog sound mixes are one relic that I don’t harbor nostalgia for. I am happy to crow like George Lucas on this one and just say that a digital sound mix is better. It allows you much, much more flexibility—which can go a long way when you’re working from imperfect sources—and, at least as movies are concerned, does not sacrifice “warmth” or anything else ethereal so far as I can tell.
Q: Is there anything you would’ve done differently in “Funny Ha Ha,” had you made it today?
A: I couldn’t make that movie today if you paid me a million dollars, I wouldn’t know how. I would, of course, accept the million dollars and give it a shot, but something entirely different would result.
Q: Do you still prefer shooting on film as opposed to digital? What are the benefits—cinematically speaking?
A: It just depends on what the movie is. I believe it’s important to reckon with your format. If you’re shooting on the RED camera, compose—not just your images, but your whole story—as to make sense in the language of REDcam images. Ditto for the Canon, ditto for 35mm, ditto for 16mm, and ditto for the Sony AVC-3260, per “Computer Chess.”
For the last 20 years, video has been marching toward the ultimate goal of becoming a simulacrum of film, much as computer chess programmers worked (and succeeded) in building a simulacra of chess genius (which is now, in fact, much more successful in its realm than the old, outmoded geniuses). So sure, video is a lot “like” film now, but I don’t know that I’d ever cease preferring the real thing. Why should I? Because film works by all of these terrifically unlikely-seeming chemical processes, there is necessarily some organic quality to the image. There are aspects of that image that you cannot program in or out. And I’m going to miss that if it vanishes from the earth. The great challenge, I think, would then become how to bring something organic back to the digital image, besides doing what everyone is going to tell me to do, which is press a button for a filter called “ORGANIC” in Final Cut or whatever.
Q: I love the extras on the “Funny Ha Ha” DVD. Can you give me some background on the animated short comprised of the “Puppy Time” phone call, as well as the commentary from the “Russian scholar”?
A: Oh thanks! I never know if anyone watches DVD extras. I don’t know if there’s too much background to give. We won an award at the Northampton Film Festival in 2002, and the prize was free DVD authoring. I decided to exploit this as much as I could and load the thing up with extras—thankfully, the companies that were donating their time for this were quite generous about it. I think the “Puppy Time” thing just came from a desire to do some kind of “radio play.” I still like that idea though I haven’t picked it up since. And the Russian scholar was a Russian scholar friend of mine who seemed to have a lot of interesting and atypical insight into the movie. I like DVD commentary tracks but have never had any enthusiasm for doing one myself. I’d much rather get a unique perspective on the thing, and shift its axis a little bit. The movie, of course, remains there for you to watch sans commentary anytime you want.
Q: From your perspective, how has the world of indie film evolved in the last decade? Have the technological advances ultimately made it easier or harder for filmmakers to get their work seen by as many people as possible?
A: It just depends on your frame of reference. Certain things have gotten easier and plenty of things have gotten harder. I wouldn’t love my chances trying to introduce “Funny Ha Ha” even to the festival circuit today. But you never make these things because they’re rational or good business moves.
“Funny Ha Ha” will be screened on the second night of Indie Outlook creator Matt Fagerholm’s six-week microbudget film class, “Beyond Mumblecore: The DIY Generation,” on Monday, July 22nd, at Facets. “Funny Ha Ha” is available on DVD (you can find it on Amazon and Netflix). “Computer Chess” opened in New York City on July 17th.