By Paul Risker.
A film’s journey is comprised of multiple steps. The next step or chapter for writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s fifth feature Results (2015), following its warm reception at SXSW and Sundance, is one of continuation, as the transfer of ownership from filmmaker to audience continues.
Known for his comedies: Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005) and Computer Chess (2012), Results sees Bujalski continue to gravitate towards comedy. A filmmaker who has been embraced on the festival circuit, it was Computer Chess that singled him out as a rising talent: nominated at Stiges and SXSW, while receiving the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Award at Sundance and a special citation from the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. But if you ask Bujalski about the place Results occupies in his body of work, he’s more than happy to leave that discussion to the critical establishment. “Oh, I don’t know. I leave that to you all. The critics can figure that out.”
In conversation with Film International’s Paul Risker, Bujalski reflected on the filmmaking process, storytelling as a means to ask questions and the audience as the final piece of the puzzle.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational or defining moment?
There may have been, but it was before my conscious memory. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a movie obsessed kid. Every weekend I was begging my parents to take me to the movies, and they were usually obliging. So as far back as I can remember I was gorging myself on movies, and of course my relationship changed as I grew older. But for better or worse it was never something I gave much of a second thought to. I have always kind of and I wouldn’t say regretted, but I have certainly wondered about how it might have been otherwise. It is funny because the most interesting filmmakers are people who came from other fields and other kinds of lives. There is certainly a danger to single mindedness, but on the other hand there are obviously some advantages to having put in that time and thought.
As a filmmaker, do your experiences influence the way in which you watch films as a spectator?
Yes and no. Of course it is impossible to tease out and I can’t help but watch other people’s films without some thought about how they were made, why they were made and what is going on in them. But I think plenty of people who don’t make films also have some feelings about that. It may just be a condition of adulthood as much as being a filmmaker in which you get to pursue what drives people to do what they do, and work the way they do. But when I go to the movies I don’t go for professional development; I go because I love them.
The way in which ideas or stories take shape are divided between those writers who write through images, and those writers who perceive that stories are thought out through words. How does the process work for you? Does the idea emerge through images or expressions and words?
There is some of both. Certainly there are visual images that pop into my mind, but I also tend to be oratorically orientated a lot of times. Certainly with dialogue you hear it pretty clearly in your head, which doesn’t always mean that it’s right. You hear something and you write it down, and then you look at it a day later and it seems all wrong. So you change it. But I think in either case it is hard not to get too mystical about it. Your subconscious spews up all this stuff and you often feel like you are just receiving while the conscious part of it is trying to figure out how the pieces fit. You sit down with a blank sheet of paper and it is awful at first, but then you start seeing what comes out. I mean a lot of it is nonsense, but there are some pieces that you are going to come to again and again, and often for me writing is working on a puzzle. The puzzle is why do I care about this in the first place? Why do I think that there is a story here, and why do I think the story involves these elements? I am sure I have a deeply ingrained perversity where very often I am trying to build things out of disparate elements. I certainly seem to be disparate or difficult, and if I have a plan I don’t know it. But I am compelled enough to try to figure out how and why I thought of this to begin with.
Is the fascination with the creative process that it is learning a language which will never fully reveal its secrets to us, but one which we can’t help but pursue?
Oh yeah, and I am certainly inclined to agree. Although within a generation we will presumably have computers writing masterpieces, and it will not seem so mysterious after all. But for now it is still mysterious. I guess it will still be mysterious because we will not have any computers either at that point.
Mystery and curiosity are what drives stories – trying to understand interpersonal relationships and aspects that are the fabric of our own lives, which are played out in stories.
Yeah, and I am sure that I would not be doing what I am if I were not in some ways a confused person [laughs]. If I had life all figured out, then there would just be no reason to create anything like this, because this is all about asking questions.
How do the writing, directing, and editing processes inform one another? Are you directing while writing, and how does the editing impact your future approach from a writing and directing perspective?
As I go on, I’ve gained more and more experience, and it is impossible not to hold all of those things in your head. I have written things for hire, but I have never had the experience of seeing one of those things produced and directed by someone else. I can’t imagine how surreal that would be or I can imagine, but I would love to have this happen because it would be a fun kind of surreal. For the most part my work has been the kind where I see it through. I am there from the day that the seed is planted as something that might be interesting, to the day we get rid of the thing. There are plenty of surprises along the way. I am not a novelist and film is a very collaborate medium. Most of the fun of making these things is drawing other people in and having them make it a more interesting piece than I could make it on my own. But there is some level of control that I have been very lucky to hang onto.
Every time you are only trying to correct the mistakes of the previous stage. So as a director I am often trying to sweep the mistakes of the writer under the carpet, while post-production is mostly about trying to cover up what you got wrong in production, and so on and so forth. Then you go and make another movie which is almost invariably not like you meant it to be, and is kind of corrective to the previous one. If not corrected then it is at least an experiment based on what you did or didn’t learn from the previous one. I can’t imagine working any other way, and I think most people work that way. Whether or not it matters to an audience member, and it usually doesn’t, there is some kind of story unfolding across anybody’s career.
The ending of Results has been observed has a conventional one, although from my perspective the film was all about the journey, during which you sidestepped some of those predictable beats. The conventional ending here feels right, but the way you lead up to it through lively writing offers an impression that you were attempting to inject a familiar story with a unique edge.
Of course and not only would I say that it is a journey, but also if the journey works and makes any sense, then there is some kind of a world or thought beyond that ending. On some level I was attracted to making a ‘quote on quote’ romantic comedy where the beautiful people kiss at the end, but which is not necessarily a happy ever after. I hope that the movie is in some ways open ended enough so that there is still a question mark hanging over it. These people are smiling and enjoying each other now, but they will have broke up again two weeks from now. It is a complex and volatile relationship as the most exciting ones are.
I recall Billy Wilder being undecided if Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine would stay together beyond the end credits of The Apartment (1960). In and of itself this suggests a film is only a single chapter of a larger story, and beyond the end credits of which is the realm of the audience’s imagination.
It does seem like it will be a tumultuous relationship and it will not be the easiest of futures whatever happens.
Yeah, and anyone who has ever fallen in love knows that the story doesn’t end there.
I’ve spoken with filmmakers who have said that once you have made the film and once you have put it out there, then it is no longer your film. Do you agree that ultimately there is a transfer of ownership and a film belongs to its audience?
Oh, absolutely, and to me a movie is not complete until it is exposed to the eyes of the audience. I have gotten into the habit recently of watching the movie once with an audience, and then I don’t necessarily ever need to see it again after that. But I do want to be there for one screening because I feel that is it, that is when we’ve finished it and our work is done. At that point it belongs to anybody and everybody who is watching it.
While Results has a melodic dialogue, the three leads each bring a unique physical presence to their characters that are separate to the words. How do you reflect on the collaborative process with the cast to create this emphasis on performance?
I think that most good directors will tell you that casting is ninety percent of their job, and if you have the right people in the room, and this goes for crew too of course, then directing is mostly about just being there to be a sounding board. You are spending most of your time just watching people follow their own instincts. Then if those instincts are right, and more often than not they are, then you don’t have to do very much, which is good for lazy people like myself. But yeah I wrote this specifically with Guy Pearce and Kevin Corrigan in mind. I wanted to create an environment that was designed for them to do great in, and they are great actors, so they’ll do great in any environment. But my instinct was that it would it be fun and exciting to see them do x, y and z, and so that’s why I put it on the page. I had no idea who was going to play Kat. I knew that I needed that character in between them to make the story work, but that was much more daunting to find the right person who could make this whole thing make sense. I couldn’t feel more blessed to have found Cobie Smulders.
The filmmaking process is a huge undertaking in which, as a filmmaker, you are collaborating with numerous people who no doubt have different processes and working practices. It is a two sided process in which you have to mix your own expectations of what the final film will be with their interpretations. Could the filmmaking process be described as a balancing act that is a journey to discover the film?
That’s the job, and the fun part is seeing if your instincts are right. I’m picking up all these pieces, putting them in a pot, mixing them up and asking what is this going to taste like? You never know until you get there, but it is also a long, complex, and technical process. And this is the fun and the fear of the post production process, because that is where you really get into the very fine detail of trying to make everything balance right. I feel like post production is where you make the movie and the real serious authorship is. Much of what comes before that is fishing; casting your line and seeing what you get.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.