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Filmmaker Andrew Bujalski made his name with two films, 2002's Funny Ha Ha and 2005's Mutual Appreciation, which told tales of inarticulate post-grads fumbling through their 20s. Other films in a similar vein followed—made by like-minded directors such as Joe Swanberg and Kentucker Audley, often with overlapping casts and sometimes with Bujalski himself acting—and coalesced into the movement labeled "mumblecore." Bujalski's new directorial effort, Beeswax, follows two sisters in Austin, Texas, at what could be either a turning point in their lives or just another cluster of unremarkable days. One sister is on the precipice of being sued by her partner in a clothing-store business; the other might go teach in Africa—or not. The legal angle, though hardly Grisham-like, lends the film a sense of forward motion, with its characters tentatively embracing the responsibilities and challenges of adulthood. Through it all, Bujalski sharpens his comedy of passive-aggressive manners into a newer, more accessible point. In advance of Beeswax opening on Friday at Film Forum, The A.V. Club spoke with Bujalski about changing times, how he feels about his characters, and the questions people will never stop asking.
AV Club: You have been hesitant to offer any specific interpretations of, or guidelines for, the characters, motivations, or even the titles of your films. Do you have a clearly defined stance toward your characters?
Andrew Bujalski: I'm reluctant to pass judgment on the characters in the same way I'm reluctant to pass judgment on most of the people I meet. To a fault—and I believe people consider it a fault—I tend to assume that everybody has their reasons for doing things. When somebody angers me, I always really want to know what could possibly be going through their head. I feel like that's a curiosity that can be tormenting, but that's also how I try to build the films and characters. I have compassion for the characters, because I do think of them as real people, so I love all the characters in my films, even though they're often at cross-purposes with each other and not acting in their best interest. I haven't answered this question at all. I walked around it.
AVC: Your new film is a little faster and punchier than Mutual Appreciation is. Was that a stylistic goal?
AB: It's a really different kind of script, I think. There's so much exposition and information that has to be done as subtly as you can. That's always the misery of exposition. I've been trying to support myself writing commercial stuff, and I hate exposition. I'm always trying to avoid it and get around it, but this film has a lot of it. In the press kit we call it a legal thriller and that's something we have to take out of the kit now, you know, it could get us into trouble. In weird ways, it is built like the kind of movie where every scene has pieces of information in it that are meant to tantalize the audience, and you start to put it together and realize everything's connected and okay, here's the grand conspiracy. We have all that same information in this movie but the grand conspiracy isn't there. So this is like all the anxiety of a legal thriller without the payoff.
AVC: The characters in the film seem really ill-prepared to deal with lawsuits.
AB: These are people who live in a world who aren't used to suing or being sued. And, maybe more than I'd like, probably every film I've made has had, at the kernel of it, a fear of adulthood. And that's part of moving into a world where the personal rapport breaks down and you're left with a legal document. Every time I've ever signed a legal document in my life, it fills me with unbearable anxiety, because it's never an accurate expression of what I'm trying to do. When I entered into a relationship with [distributor] Cinema Guild, from what I know of them, it seems like a great company, they're doing a great job, I'm very excited to be working with them. But then so I would like to sign a piece of paper that says, "I'm excited to work with you and I think it's gonna work out and let's both do our best," but that's not what the paper says. The paper says all kinds of shit that is not really intelligible. And you put that there in case the trust thing disappears, and then you're left with this kind of horrible parody of a relationship between human beings. It serves a purpose. It's all spelled out there, but you're never going to be relating to someone on that level.
AVC: The film also seems maybe a little designed to overtly address some common criticisms of your work, like that it's politically unengaged and always about unrealistically nice, slacker white post-grads. Was that a conscious choice?
AB: Yes and no. I've read way more criticism of my work than I ever should've. I think I would be better off and probably a happier person if I hadn't looked at the internet in the last seven years, but I have, a fair amount. So all that stuff is in my head, and I get how people respond to the work, and it's valuable. Obviously it's valuable to know how people respond to your work, and it can be very scary to see how people respond to the work, and sometimes you feel disconnected and sometimes you feel like you're getting somewhere. But I certainly didn't construct anything in the film as "Here's a response to my critics." I wouldn't do that.
AVC: Not like in fellow mumblecore movie Baghead [directed by Jay and Mark Duplass], in which a director, answering questions at a Q&A, mocks an audience member for asking about budget and improv methods?
AB: Which was hilarious, and was my favorite scene in Baghead. I think that movie helped in a weird way, because I haven't gotten the "What was your budget?" question nearly as much since Baghead came out.
AVC: And did people stop asking about how much you use improv?
AB: No, they'll never stop asking that.