A chat with ‘Computer Chess’ Director Andrew Bujalski

Posted July 17, 2013

Andrew Bujalski’s work has made a major impact on independent film during the last decade. His first two films, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), inaugurated the “mumblecore” movement, a genre utilizing minimal production costs and an extremely naturalistic approach to dialogue to create intimate studies of the lives of 20-somethings.

His new film, Computer Chess (T/F 2013), is something rather different, a formally perplexing period piece. Through what seems to be documentary footage, we are invited back in time to the very early 1980s. A motley assortment of computer programmers have gathered at a motel to pit their programs against one another in a computer chess tournament. Down the hall, a New Age encounter group is attempting to expand its collective mind. But it soon becomes clear things aren’t quite going as planned. The chess programs start making inexplicable moves, leaving their bewildered creators to interpret the meaning of their strange behavior.

Computer Chess opens today at Film Forum in NYC. In anticipation, I chatted with Andrew about his odd and hilarious film, via computer.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Andrew, thanks for chatting with me! Your previous films are all set in the present. How did you get interested in making a film that takes place in the past?

AB: Well, the whole project began with a fantasy of shooting something on these beautiful old black and white analog video cameras. I held the notion in the back of my head for years and at some point stumbled onto the historical fact of these computer chess tournaments which, for whatever reason, ended up lodged in my subconscious right next to this camera pipe dream. I didn’t go out seeking a period piece per se. It sought me out I guess.

It was certainly daunting to take on a period piece given our limited resources, but I was comforted by a belief that a good period piece is never really about a “perfect” recreation of any particular era. When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about Abraham Lincoln, as vast as the research and the capital that goes into historical “accuracy” is, the intent is never truly to transport us to 1865, but to open some wormhole between 1865 and now, to use then as a metaphor for now. If you build your wormhole right, hopefully the audience won’t get distracted by whatever little anachronisms creep in, and I’m sure we have a few.

It helped of course that, though I was very young at the time, I was alive at the time we were depicting, as were many of the cast and crew, so we could draw on a more personal relationship with the era than just what we’d gleaned from books.

T/F: The programmers are all such vivid characters. Could you tell me a little bit about the casting process? How did you go about finding the right people to play 80s computer nerds?

AB: The casting process is always just a walk in the desert with a divining rod. Every time I’ve done it I feel like I’ve been praying for miracles and miracles have been laid at my feet. I wish the rest of life worked that way.

The short answer is I thought, if you want guys who look and sound right talking about computers . . . why not approach guys who know a lot about computers? James Curry certainly seemed like a godsend when Wiley Wiggins introduced me to him at a party. Not only is he remarkably charismatic (and a brilliant natural actor), but he had been a child prodigy programmer in England. So even though he *should* be too young to know this stuff, he actually had crystal clear memory of all the early 80s programming-speak in the movie.

Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Dr. Schoesser, is a computer science professor at University of Chicago.

Wiley is known to movie people for his iconic (I swear it bugs me when people abuse that word, but I think it’s earned here) performance in Dazed & Confused, and later in Waking Life, but he’s incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about technology. He was a terrific adviser for us at every stage of this process.

T/F: How did the encounter group become part of the story?

AB: I wish I could tell you about some Eureka moment where all the elements aligned, but I do believe it all assembled very slowly over the course of years.

That said, we never specify the date that the movie takes place. It’s clearly somewhere on the cusp of the 70s and the 80s, and I liked the idea of exploring that as a “transitional” era. The pop culture view of history would have it that everyone hung up their bellbottoms on Dec 31 ’79 and started playing Pac Man on Jan 1 ’80, and of course our experience in real time is much more fluid. Indeed, both the “touchy-feely” encounter stuff of the 60s and 70s, and the tech revolutions of the 80s continue very much to resonate in our culture today.

Dramatically of course it just made for a useful contrast. As one of the characters in the movie says, “We’re all kind of like seekers here.” I do believe that the quest for artificial intelligence, as incredibly technical and dryly scientific as it can be in its particulars, is essentially a metaphysical pursuit. In building a new intelligence we must be, on some level, seeking to understand our own. And these hippie-dippies are up to the same thing, just employing a wildly different methodology.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

AB: Oh boy. You know, at the risk of being pretentious (and, cautious as I am in other facets of my life, I am a *daredevil* in that one), I’ll go ahead and say that all cinema is True/False. And that that’s the secret of its magic. The camera is by its nature a documentary recording device. Of course you can do all sorts of artful things with the it, but its essential function is to represent the True. Editing, meanwhile, is by its nature a narrative device. Every edit is a convenient Falsehood. And in that sense, everything from a Fred Wiseman piece of “direct cinema” to Star Wars is built on that same continuum of truth and lies, and draws energy from both poles.

That’s part of my fear about the digital age that’s upon us! As movies are increasingly built in the simulacrum environment of the computer, the documentary aspect seems to risk getting weeded out of movie making altogether. Soon enough we won’t need actors . . . then we won’t need writers, or directors. The movies will still make money somehow, because that’s what they’ll be programmed to do, but what the fuck will they be about?

T/F: Formally, Computer Chess appears at first (to me at least) to be a hodgepodge of found footage, ostensibly shot by a video team hired to document the tournament and its opening panel discussion. We see a camera operator rebuked by one of the organizers for aiming his camera at the sun. But the film very quickly evolves into something much stranger. How do you understand the POV?

AB: For whatever influences and reference points were bouncing around in my head going into this project, one comparison that I never expected, which came up at our Sundance premiere and often since, was to Christopher Guest’s work. Of course, and probably rightfully so, he pretty well seems to own the concept of mockumentary. But I was surprised that people were so anxious to categorize the movie as mockumentary when, as you point out, that conceit gets (mostly) abandoned quite early on. Odd shifts in perspective throughout the movie, and the unanswered questions that come with them, provide much of its texture.

But in retrospect I am realizing that beginning, as we do, with the most “real” looking footage in the movie has a really powerful grounding effect. It is part of how we watch movies that we spent the first several minutes hungrily absorbing context. I think it’s why we so often find ourselves bored an hour into a movie (when we think we understand everything that has happened and is going to happen), and almost never feel bored in the first ten minutes of anything (when anything still might be possible). Because Computer Chess begins with straightforward enough mockumentary, we seem to stake a claim in “realism,” which becomes increasingly absurd as we make our way a million miles away from it.

T/F: Your work has been praised for another dimension of “realism”, your approach to dialogue. In your movies conversations stop and start awkwardly, thoughts are left half finished and at times multiple discussions are layered on top of one another. The result is a style of deadpan hilarity completely different from the now ubiquitous Christopher Guest style direct-to-camera confessional. How do you go about directing dialogue? Are your films scripted?

AB: They were all conventionally scripted until this one; here we just worked from an 8 page treatment. Ultimately though the process with the actors was close to identical, the main difference being that I just had to show up *better* prepared, lacking as I did a document to bury my face in when instincts failed me.

Directing a scene is always just problem solving, and the more you do it, the more you develop (for better and worse) go-to solutions . . . . But I don’t know that there’s any secret formula for it. Indeed a director tends, in most measurable senses, to be the least talented person on any given set! The only things you’re really bringing are (a) the necessary hubris to think you deserve to be in charge, and (b) your eyes and ears, which tell you when things are feeling “right” and when they aren’t. You steer by that and hopefully figure out how to clear all the obstacles in your path, given (inevitably) limited time and resources.