With his low-budget 2002 debut feature, Funny Ha Ha, writer-director Andrew Bujalski started a quiet revolution in the independent world, redefining naturalism through dialogue that doesn’t buff out the “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows” of everyday speech. By the time Bujalski got around to his superb follow-up, Mutual Appreciation, in 2005, the movement had a name (“mumblecore”) and a backlash, but he and a handful of other filmmakers—Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes The Stairs), the Duplass Brothers (The Puffy Chair, Baghead), and Lynn Shelton (Humpday), to name a few—have carved out a micro-indie niche for themselves.
Bujalski’s latest film, Beeswax, is his most accessible to date, but it’s still almost perversely low-concept, a funny, acutely observed character study in the guise of a “legal thriller.” Maggie and Tilly Hatcher star as twin sisters Lauren and Jeannie, respectively, one an unemployed post-grad considering a job teaching English overseas, and the other the paraplegic proprietor of a vintage clothing store in Austin. The film’s legal intrigue comes into play when Jeannie’s friend and business partner Amanda (Anne Dodge) vaguely threatens to sue her. That brings Jeanne’s eager law-student ex-boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky) back into the picture, and puts her relationship with Lauren on edge. Bujalski recently spoke to The A.V. Club about legal thrillers without the thrills and the advantages of not having a career plan.
The A.V. Club: How did the concept for Beeswax come together? Was this sort of your idea of what a legal thriller should be? Where did it start?
Andrew Bujalski: It started with the girls, with Tilly and Maggie Hatcher. I’ve known them for about 10 years, and I’ve always found them massively charming individually, and kind of mind-blowing as a duo. So I think it had been a fantasy in the back of my head for a long time to try to do… It’s the same trick I pulled on the previous films, starting with one person and trying to imagine ways to harness their energies into the movie world. That said, it is a kind of odd story to graft onto the vibes I get from them, because they’re these very sweet, big-hearted, open, fun people, and this is a story that’s all about anxiety. And the anxiety part all came from me. [Laughs.]
Thinking about them, I started to think about family, and trying to do a story about family, and the legal stuff in the film was all this kind of formality that’s at the opposite end of the spectrum from family. Family’s all about being stuck together and finding very human ways to get through things, and then the law is about finding inhuman ways to get through things. Or at least it’s a whole different side of humanity, the side that makes rules and tries to follow them. The legal system is a wonderful and miraculous thing, but obviously when it breaks down, it tends to break down in ways that make the whole thing seem ridiculous. And so it was interesting to me to try to put these two elements in the same story and make them interact.
AVC: Just the legal system becoming part of this story is a betrayal of sorts. The Jeannie and Amanda characters used to be friends and used to have a working relationship, and now the law puts that distance between them.
AB: Exactly. And it’s a complete recontextualization of something that started out as a friendship, and in a way, I think, maybe the movie on a lot of levels is about these very close relationships being recontextualized. The Merrill character, the ex-boyfriend, coming back into Jeannie’s life in a different context than before. And then the sisters have this bond which is about as deep as a bond can go, but this kind of subplot that’s hanging around through the back of the movie of Lauren trying to figure out how much distance she’s allowed to have from this crisis.
AVC: Beeswax opens in the middle of these situations, with characters who have a history together before the movie even begins. Did you spend a lot of time imagining who these characters are and what their histories are before you finally got to telling their story?
AB: I have pages and pages of notes, and I try to dream up how the whole thing fits together. I think it usually for me starts from a totally intuitive place: you just dream of something you want to see on the screen—and sometimes that’s a specific image, and sometimes that’s a kind of relationship—and then try to figure out what is the context that this thing fits into, and how does it relate to these other visions and dreams you’re having. So I guess it kind of starts out as a puzzle in your own mind, of “Why do I care?” and “What is it I’m fantasizing about right now that makes me think this is going to be worth x number of years of work?” And you don’t really know, and you just keep pushing and trying to figure it out, and of course, once you’ve hit on these resonances… Then again, as a screenwriter, it can be dangerous if you get a little too hooked on just finding things that resonate with each other, because then I think you risk getting into stuff that’s a little too neat, and becomes kind of stifled as storytelling. But you do feel like you’re on the right track when you start to have a sense of what goes with what.
AVC: Is preparing a screenplay a private process for you, or were you consulting with the actors while you were writing? At what point do they become part of the process?
AB: Very early on, the first thing I did was say, “Do you guys think you would be willing to even consider doing this?” Then we did a little screen test, and in fact when I was first beginning to conceive the idea, I wasn’t sure who was who in the story I was cooking up, so we did a screen test where I’d written up a little scene and had them do it both ways. I had Maggie play the store-owner and Tilly the unemployed sister. And then we flipped it, and it seemed very clear from that screen test that flipping it was the way to go. I think my first instinct had been to have Maggie in the more central role, and then it seemed so much more interesting the other way. But after that, I did more or less lock myself up in a dark room for months and didn’t seek that much input. I definitely ran some wheelchair-specific questions by Tilly, because she was definitely the go-to technical advisor for that. But for the most part, I went off and put it together on my own just because I wanted that freedom to try to figure out who the characters were and what they were doing in my own head, and then bring it back to them to make it much richer and more interesting.
AVC: Usually in movies, you expect a protagonist's handicap to be a central issue of the film, and here it’s a little more incidental. What was your thinking about how you wanted to handle that?
AB: It's a tough thing to navigate, because I agree it is and it isn’t incidental, depending on your perspective. But it obviously is kind of a huge presence in the film, and the chair is in 75 percent of this, or it certainly influences the camera placement in 75 percent of the film, so it has this big impact on what we’re doing. Obviously, the majority of people who see the film are probably not going to be in chairs themselves, so there’s some curiosity that comes with that. You want to be respectful of the curiosity, but ultimately, it just wasn’t going to be at the center of the narrative drive of the film. To some extent, I felt like, “Well, I don’t need to write a lot of scenes about the chair,” because it is in every scene, and it doesn’t need me to call more attention to it. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have written the script the same way if I hadn’t been writing with Tilly in mind, because I think my relationship to Jeannie in that chair is somehow informed by my relationship to Tilly, who is just someone I’ve known for a very long time, and known as a person, and it ceases to be the most interesting thing about someone when you’ve gotten to know them a little bit.
AVC: What’s the difference between the script as it’s written and how it comes out onscreen? Your films have that quality of not seeming written.
AB: That’s certainly been the goal. I think it’s not the only goal, but it’s really important to me that the films feel fresh. I’ve done three of these now, and probably people who have seen the earlier ones have a sense of where the thing might and might not go plot-wise, but I still want it from moment to moment to have a kind of unpredictability, because so much of this film is about people figuring out what’s happening in the scenes as they take place. And there’s so much confusion endemic to what the characters are going through that I don’t think you can begin to get at those things if everything is really nailed down and precise, and if you have the sense of people executing a plan. These movies, particularly Beeswax, are about plans going awry, or things not quite turning out the way they were planned, and I think the film needs to have that same kind of high-wire feeling.
AVC: What does that mean in terms of how you communicate with your actors? You’re using non-professionals. Are they better suited to perform in your movies than professionals? Are there actorly habits that professional actors might find difficult to break in order to be in one of your movies?
AB: I would imagine so. I don’t want to take shots at professional actors, because obviously the great ones are great. But I do think that given the kind of stories I’ve been telling in these films, it’s hard for me to imagine how professional actors would have done better. And it’s easy for me to imagine how they would have done worse. Because I think a lot of what an actor is trained to do and a lot of what an actor’s instincts point toward is clarification, is always making it clear what’s happening in the story, how the character fits into the scene, what the character wants. And there’s a kind of miraculousness to that when it’s really working, and really in the service of a story that’s chugging along. But on these films, I think I needed all the things that most actors would probably be working hard to try to avoid, all the lack of clarity and all the uncertainty. I needed all that stuff to tell these stories. And non-professionals are well suited to it, because they’re trying to figure out what’s going on as it’s going on.
AVC: Does a lot of work go into preparing them for acting in your films before things start rolling?
AB: Certainly. We do as much rehearsal as we can, and everybody who’s in the film had to suffer through some form of screen test or another. I’m always at pains to point out that although they’re not professional actors and although they’re not necessarily operating the way professional actors would, they’re still acting, and there’s still that same kind of job to be done, and if the performances work, that’s still every credit due to those performers who had to get up there and do it. Sometimes you meet someone, and they seem great, they seem exactly what you’re thinking of for the role, and then you put a camera on them, and they freeze. And other people come to life with the camera on them. I haven’t discovered any reliable predictor for that; I think you just have to try it and see what happens. And, you know, sometimes the people who freeze, if you find the right magic word to say to them, you can unlock them.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve gotten better at getting the kind of performances you want? How has your style as a filmmaker been refined between Funny Ha Ha and now?
AB: I don’t know. It’s a good question. I think the films are built differently, and certainly Beeswax had less room for goofing off and going far off script than the others did, because there is this kind of… it seems a little cheeky to people when I invoke “legal thriller,” but there was some of the structure of legal thrillers being borrowed in this. There’s a ton of exposition in the movie, and almost every scene has references to offscreen characters. In an actual legal thriller, that is meant to whip you into a frenzy of looking for the connections and trying to figure out the conspiracy, and here, there isn’t really a conspiracy. And the connections—some of them go somewhere, and some don’t.
AVC: The case in Beeswax would make for the least electrifying courtroom drama ever.
AB: Yeah, right. At one point, I was thinking of it as a legal thriller minus the thrills. And I think any average person who’s ever been involved in a lawsuit would tell you it was not a thrilling experience.
AVC: Your films have conflict and tension in them, but it’s very sublimated. A friend called you the poet of passive-aggression. Is that a tough thing to put across and have register with an audience?
AB: You just have to trust the material and trust your instincts. Obviously, as the Internet will tell you, these moments don’t translate for everybody. [Laughs] So I’m acutely aware that we’re making films where the drama operates on different frequencies than people are used to. And to me, that’s dramatic territory that I find very rich. And it’s surprising to me that more stories aren’t told that take place in this vein where people are trying to be good to each other and failing. And to me, that’s more interesting than people trying to destroy each other.
AVC: It's so much more true-to-life. Most people tend to dodge a lot of the conflicts that they might in a movie.
AB: It’s certainly more true to my experience. Also, in terms of hearing people, it’s been fascinating and occasionally frightening for me to deal with people’s responses to these films over the last however many years. I guess I’m not always looking for the same things in movies that most people are, which I wouldn’t have necessarily even really known if not for spending too much time reading about myself on the Internet.
AVC: How have you been able to process that? Are you pretty sensitive to people who respond unkindly to your work? Have you gotten better at it?
AB: I try to keep myself away from it, but then fail. If I had a better work ethic… Unfortunately, sometimes it just crops up when I’m trying to avoid working on something. I don’t know. It just kind of continues to be strange and interesting to me to try to understand what other people are looking for. And this also just comes from getting older. You look at the stuff certainly that’s coming out of Hollywood these days, and you go, “Did what came out of Hollywood when I was a kid make more sense, or was it just that I was in the demographic then?” But I certainly feel increasingly confused and disconnected from it.
AVC: Why do you continue to shoot on 16mm and not on video? Does that cause you some problems when you’re actually shooting and burning through film?
AB: It doesn’t cause problems. There’s a kind of stress that comes from it, but I actually find it productive. When we did the Mutual Appreciation DVD, we made an eight-minute short for the DVD, which we shot on video and cut on video. And it was really fun to do, but I was surprised when we were doing it how much it did seem to make a difference. When you would roll the camera, most everything about the setup was the same: You still tell everyone to be quiet and get into position, and you yell "Action!" and then you start. But it definitely felt like there was less on the line when the whir of the hard drive came up and not the whir of the film camera. And maybe that was just psychological for me, but certainly other people on the set seemed to confirm that it puts a little more juice in the room when you are burning that film, and you know how much it costs.
AVC: Funny Ha Ha took years to find distribution, and at the time, you had trouble finding a place for it even on the festival circuit. Now that you’re more established, do you feel like you’re in a groove in terms of getting your films financed, distributed, and seen?
AB: I think I’ve been wildly lucky with all of it, but I don’t know that it’s a groove. And maybe this is a flaw in my own psychology, but I tend to have an all-or-nothing feeling about all of these, that we’re going to put everything we have into surviving this one, and worry about the next one when we get to it. And that’s kind of where I’m at now. I’m starting to worry about the next one, and I’m not sure what the next one is, but there’s never been much effort toward sustainability on my part. I think a lot of people go into filmmaking thinking, “How can I make a career?” And so when they make their first film, they make it thinking, “Well, this’ll be the one that gets me to the place where I can make the second film the way I want to make it, and that’ll get me to the place where I can make $100 million on the third film.” And I thought, “Well, if I put sustainability at the bottom of my priority list, then what opportunities is that going to free me up to pursue?” And that’s what I’ve always done.
AVC: As you get older and have more films under your belt, is sustainability still at the bottom of that list?
AB: It’s creeping up the list. [Laughs.] I suppose it’s nice that I’ve made films that some people have heard of and respect. That’s great. And it’s certainly helpful in some regards, but they’re really tough economic prospects. They always have been, and that’s not necessarily getting any better. And not just the films, but it’s also been a rough 10 years for that [independent film] market. And so I have stumbled onto this point in the timeline where the kind of stuff that I’m trying to do is not… it was a lot easier to know what to do with it 20 years ago.
AVC: Where are things drying up? Is it a problem with distribution? Is it a problem just finding audiences? Or theaters? Where are your worries lying in that department?
AB: I never took an economics class in college, and I get kind of flummoxed trying to figure out how the economics work, and I wish I did have more aptitude for it. I don’t know quite why the terrain’s changing. What will always be possible is for someone to walk into a dark room and experience a film and connect to it. And that’s why I make my films— for people to go and have that experience. That’s really the whole dream for me, so that hasn’t gone anywhere. What has gone somewhere is making the numbers add up on each side of it. And who knows? I’ve had all kinds of freak-outs. I got married recently, and my wife listened to me go off the other day on this fear that maybe our culture has just moved beyond art entirely. Maybe we don’t need it anymore. I don’t know.
AVC: Do you have any idea yet what’s next for you? Or is that all still up in the air?
AB: It’s up in the air. I’m trying to write something now, and I have at least two other fantasies beyond that thing that I’d love to pursue, but I don’t really know. On one hand, I kind of feel like I have unlimited options right now, and obviously that’s not technically true, but when you’re at this place where you’re just kind of dreaming up stuff, your imagination is your limit. That’s where I’m at, which is great, but ultimately I think you have to make these decisions to close off some options to yourself. I think things only get done when you say, “This is the one thing I’m doing,” and you kind of kill the other ones in the meantime. So I haven’t done that yet, I’ve got to figure that out.