Indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski on his first period piece, the improvised comedy Computer Chess

Indie filmmaker Andrew Bujalski on his first period piece, the improvised comedy Computer Chess

In Funny Ha Ha (2002), Mutual Appreciation (2005), and Beeswax (2009), Andrew Bujalski turned his camera on twentysomethings fumbling toward romance and adult responsibility. Chronically over- or under-sharing, those characters won praise for their uncanny realism. Bujalski explores a new stratum of social awkwardness in Computer Chess, an improvised comedy set at an unspecified time (pre-1984) in the early days of artificially intelligent gaming. As groups from various universities pit computers against each other, they share the hotel with members of a New Age gathering—kindred eccentrics searching, in their own ways, for answers.

Professing to be an “embarrassingly terrible player” who never studied chess formally, Bujalski says he was attracted to the game for its metaphorical potential; he repeatedly likens the advent of this sort of programming to other forms of human progress. As if the film wasn’t enough of an outsider gambit, Bujalski shot it with obsolete late-’60s video cameras, which had to be procured from eBay and a private collector, then retrofitted to produce a digital output. The vintage-computer props were found at Austin’s Goodwill Computer Museum. Even the casting, which includes not only Wiley Wiggins (Dazed And Confused, Waking Life) but such non-pros as Boston film critic Gerald Peary (playing the tournament’s host) and documentary editor Robin Schwartz (as the event’s first-ever woman competitor), is a strange and audacious mix. During South By Southwest, the Austin-based Bujalski gave interviews at a hotel conference room—a setting not dissimilar from the one in which most of Computer Chess unfolds.

The A.V. Club: Maybe this is too strong, but do you consider this film a double “fuck you”? You have been asked whether your films were improvised, and asked why you didn’t shoot on video. Computer Chess is your first film to employ either technique substantially.

Andrew Bujalski: Yeah, but it’s not a “fuck you.” It’s a, “Hey, here you go. How about this?” I think it came to me more as a theoretical challenge. “Okay, well, what would it mean to shoot on video?” What I did react against was this notion that it’s all the same, and that digital video is so cheap and convenient, so surely it’s better or as good. Clearly, it tells a story in a different way, and not necessarily a worse way. But that, to me, was the question. If my earlier films were things that I’d conceived of in terms of 16mm imagery, what would it mean to shoot on video? What would be the right story to tell on video, and what kind of video? Especially these days, video is a million different things. So that was it—just a challenge for myself. I do like to make things as difficult for myself as possible. It’s really more of a “fuck me” than a “fuck you.”

AVC: It’s interesting—the DCP technology projecting the image will one day be as obsolete as the 1969 Sony cameras that you used.

AB: In a way, our entire culture has become infused with a certain artificial-intelligence approach. Movies are financed now based on these calculations that people make. There are number crunchers out there, and they work very hard to improve their formulas. This is endemic to humanity. We love perfecting stuff. On the one hand, the studios do pretty well with it. On the other hand, it’s still impossible to predict precisely what’s going to be a hit and what isn’t.

AVC: Not only is the movie improvised, but you cast non-professionals, like film editors and software programmers. They’re mostly not chess people.

AB: There are very few actual chess people in the movie—it’s kind of a funny thing. In that era, [this world] was primarily computer-focused people who had maybe limited knowledge of chess themselves. Part of it was about being able to speak that language. Because we were working without a conventional, fully realized screenplay, I needed to cast people who could talk about computers and sound like they knew what they were talking about.

AVC: Your other films, despite appearing off-the-cuff, were tightly scripted, and watching this film not knowing that it was improvised, it’s easy to think it was done in the same way.

AB: It’s really not that different. It’s a formal difference in how we approached it, but I will say—to my surprise, frankly—that in the course of working on this movie, I think I realized that directing from a conventional-looking screenplay and directing without one were very similar processes. If anything, not having the screenplay just forced me to be better prepared and to have more of the answers in my head, because I didn’t have a document that I could refer to.

AVC: What drew you to the chess world?

AB: The first spark of anything for this movie was that fantasizing about shooting on video, before I knew I was making a movie about computers or chess or anything. I didn’t sit there with a pad and a paper and try to crack it open. It just sat dormant, subconscious for years. There’s a bookstore in Newton, Massachusetts, called the New England Mobile Book Fair, which is my favorite bookstore in the world. They have a remainder section, which is very large and weirdly immune to laws of physics—because I think new books go in there, but I swear, the old books never leave. And there was a book of chess trivia from the ’80s that had been sitting on that shelf for 20 years. They’d marked it down to either $1 or $2. I don’t know why I bought it—I like to think about chess more than I actually play it. There was a section on computer chess, and that section was of that era. I don’t know why, but I just started to think, “Well, that would be a funny movie.” It always seemed like the most uncommercial, absurd thing I could do, and for that reason, it was very attractive. Over the course of years, I’ve tried to earn a living by coming up with and selling or writing more commercial ideas—and I’m not very good at that.

AVC: This came about after your adaptation of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision stalled.  

AB: And other things have stalled, too. I’ve had other “bigger,” more commercial projects that haven’t quite gone anywhere. I like working in that world, especially when I get paid, but it’s also very frustrating. I drive myself crazy sometimes trying to think of ways to get paid, and feel like I’m banging my head against the wall. So Computer Chess was just this fantasy place that I could run off to. It seemed impossible to market; though perversely, now, having done it, it almost seems like my most marketable film, because it turns out that people love their computers.

AVC: You bought two cameras from eBay, then had a worldwide search.

AB: They’re out there. The first one was just great luck—almost everything about making this movie was great luck. Before I had contacted any producers or anybody about seriously trying to do it, I think, I just thought, “Well, I should try to get one of these.” I went on eBay, and I found one instantly. I don’t remember what I paid, but I know it was less than $100.

AVC: Did you have to get tapes?

AB: This particular model, the AVC-3260, was originally intended as a studio camera, so it’s not meant to be handheld, although we retrofitted it to be a handheld. You would run out your signal from that to a three-quarter-inch tape deck. You can find the cameras today on eBay if you’re lucky, but even if you can find a three-quarter-inch tape deck, it’s very unlikely that it will work or that you’ll be able to keep it working. Those decks were—I think even at the time—notoriously unreliable, and are basically all dead now. So that was a big hurdle we had to overcome: We’ve got a camera that works, but how are we going to record anything? We ended up rigging up this absurd series of all kinds of wires coming out of the back of that thing. And eventually, in very contemporary fashion, we went straight to a hard drive.

AVC: Your other films are very much about characters in recognizable social settings, trying, maybe struggling, to interact with each other. The characters interact here, but a computer-chess tournament represents almost the opposite type of situation—it’s the ultimate in antisocial. You’ve compared this programming milieu to a monastic pursuit.

AB: It’s hard for me to judge, because I feel so close to the characters in all of the movies, even though in some ways the characters are more heightened in this movie. Or even just because it’s a period piece. You say, “This isn’t us,” because it can’t be us, because this is 30 years ago. And there are some broader comic moments in this. But in everything I do, I always relate to it on this very nuts-and-bolts level of character. 

I need to understand who these people are and what’s motivating them and what they’re going through at a given moment—no matter what the situation, no matter how silly the situation.  People felt like the people in my other movies were socially maladroit, and that’s hard for me to say—probably because I’m socially maladroit. They’re all about as smooth as I know how to make them.

AVC: At what point did the New Age group come in as a contrast?

AB: There’s something funny about the pop-culture version of history—we do tend to think of these pop-culture moments as very isolated. In the 1950s, everybody listened to Elvis and drank milkshakes. Then 1963 rolled around, and everybody listened to The Beatles and became hippies and smoked pot. Then we all started disco dancing; then we all played Pac-Man. Obviously it’s not quite that simple. Things don’t stop and begin on a dime like that. There’s that very funny scene in Boogie Nights where it transitions from the ’70s to the ’80s, and at the stroke of midnight on 1980, all these people whose lives were great in the ’70s, their lives all turn to shit instantly. It’s very funny how it’s done in that movie, but I think that is not exactly true to anybody’s real experience. I wanted to get at this moment. In our movie, we never state exactly the date it takes place. Clearly it’s somewhere in that late ’70s/early ’80s nexus, and I like the idea that as the nerd computer culture was rising that a lot of the spiritual values we would associate with the ’70s were still reverberating. That’s almost a lost story. A lot of those guys came out of that culture. Look at where Silicon Valley is now. There is still some weird, subtle, hippie-dippie influence in that culture even today.

AVC: You have one bizarre color sequence in the film.

AB: We do indeed. [Laughs.] I can’t explain what it means. There’s this whole tradition of oddball black-and-white movies that go for the color sequence. A ton of movies have done it. I think Raging Bull has it. She’s Gotta Have It has a color sequence. My favorite is The Women, from 1939. There’s this totally unexpected digression where they go to a fashion show, and suddenly there’s a five-minute fashion show in color, and then they go back to the movie in black and white. It’s amazing. That temptation to do that has been there since ’39 at least. What I liked in [Computer Chess] was that that’s the one time in the movie we leave the hotel, and that we’re going from shooting on these late-’60s video cameras—which, of course, at the time they were made were quite cutting-edge—to older technology. This character is going to visit his elderly mother. The color here is the past. We shot that on Bolex cameras, which are 1930s technology.

AVC: Do you see the film as ultimately skeptical of technology?

AB: Yes and no. Certainly I feel like I came into it with a healthy—or maybe unhealthy—dose of skepticism. There is some part of me that went into this thinking, and will always think, “Why are we teaching a computer to play chess?” Doesn’t that take the enjoyment out of chess? To sit down and to teach a machine to dominate me at it doesn’t sound like much fun. But the more I came to think about the subject, to think about the people who did it, to get to talk to some of the people who did it at that time and also talk to people who are doing it now, and also work with real computer programmers as actors in the movie, I certainly came to have a lot more real affection for what those guys did. It’s like any human endeavor. Why do I feel I need to make indie movies? Our society is not clamoring for me to do that.

AVC: How did you expect viewers to react?

AB: I’m thrilled and I’m shocked and genuinely surprised. I thought the movie would be much more alienating to many more people than it has been. People are embracing it more than I expected. I ran into my production designer the other night. I was saying this to him, and he was saying, “Well, there’s always next time.”

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