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Shall we play a game? An interview with Computer Chess director, Andrew Bujalski

Pretty sneaky, bro...
Kino Lorber

Computer Chess

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A computer chess tournament that takes place in 1980 isn't what immediately comes to mind when thinking about the films of Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation), who is, arguably, the most important American director of his generation. Bujalski is a member of a small group of filmmakers responsible for creating back in the early aughts what's come to be coined as "mumblecore," a movement in which a typical movie plot relies heavily on nothing more complex than a group of early twenty-somethings who do, well, a lot of talking while awkwardly dealing with everyday situations, including trying to hook up, romantically or otherwise. Yet, if you look closely, the slackers and hipsters that inhabit these stories are slaves to the same modern social trappings that rule your social life and mine: cell phones, social networks, the internet in general. In fact, the "plot" of a lot of these films is spurred on by some technological fixation complicating a relationship.

So rewind some thirty years and instead of slackers and hipsters we have nerds and geeks at the fringes of the mainstream, fixating on a relatively new technological marvel: the personal computer. It's this set-up in his latest film, Computer Chess, that manages to fit Bujalski’s sensibilities to a tee, as normally reclusive individuals are forced to interact with one another over the course of a weekend in the hotel that’s hosting the tournament. (Incidentally, the hotel happens to be crawling with those other anti-social misfits, cats). As the contest progresses, teams of programmers and players test out and try to improve on the artificial intelligence they've created for the tournament and in doing so exhibit - to an exponential degree - that social awkwardness that has come to define the quintessential Bujalski character, only this time it's while trying to hook up a cable to a piece of equipment or resigning a chess match; that is, until they run into the other group that's also rented out the hotel for a convention and whose members are there not to compete, but to get closer to one another. "Without black we, can't have white," a member of the aging lovey-dovey New Agers tells an introverted young computer chess programmer, perhaps the hero of this story. And indeed, in this thing called life - and in Bujalski's movies, in particular - we are all just inching closer in an attempt to try to figure each other out.

Director Andrew Bujalski was kind enough to take some time out to answer some of my questions regarding his latest film, which also happens to be shot with a black and white analog tube camera from the early '70s.

Marvin Miranda: You know, I usually don't like to read the press releases or Google what a movie is about. I like to go in without any preconceptions. But about after five minutes of Computer Chess I had to stop and go hunting for that press release to figure out if all of a sudden you had uncovered some found footage you wanted to share with the world. The analog feel of the black and white footage, the level of detail and accuracy, it's all amazing. The realism is very mundane, in a great way, I mean - right down to the LED watches. How were you able to achieve such a great level of detail and authenticity?

Andrew Bujalski: Thanks! First and foremost, we had a brilliant crew - production designer Michael Bricker, costume designer Colin Wilkes, hair and makeup, Charli Brath - these were all "departments" that didn't exist on my previous movies so I was nervous about integrating them into my cockamamie way of moviemaking, but all were a delight to work with and handily exceeded expectations. Secondly, I think the camera goes a long way. If you shoot on a camera that no one's used in 30+ years, the resultant images can't help but be evocative of a lost era. Lastly, I swear we have the greatest group of extras ever assembled in this movie - mostly genuine computer guys and/or chess enthusiasts. Those fellas are absolutely perfect.

MM: Speaking of the camera you use, you've returned to black and white, which is interesting since you seem to be going back and forth. And if anything begs to be in color it's that period of the late seventies and early eighties with disco, punk and new wave, just to name a few of the more colorful pop culture movements. Yet, there was this whole other fashion going on: the nerds, not the cool nerds like today with Comic-Cons and Warby Parkers and tech accessories, but the old school nerds - the Revenge of the Nerds nerds - with the ill-fitting brown suits, pocket protectors and, well, their tech accessories. And Computer Chess succeeds in that black and white and nerds go together like peanut butter and jelly. Nerd noir, perhaps? At what point did the combination become art for you: When you first visualized it in your mind, as you were putting it together in the editing or as you were watching it on the screen?

AB: This whole thing began with the camera - before I knew I wanted to make a movie about computer chess, I knew I wanted to shoot on the old black-and-white analog tube cameras. I'd fallen in love with the look, and wanted to dream up a story that would make sense to tell in this language. It looks incredibly antiquated now but of course was cutting edge, state-of-the-art upon first manufacture - and somehow I can still smell that freshness on it, that excitement of, "Hey, look, we invented a video camera!"

And yes, certainly, it was a wildly different era for nerds. I think of the guys we're portraying almost as monks. They've taken various vows of fealty to their mission, with the understanding that it means alienating themselves from much of society at large. Whereas today's nerds are not only integrated into our society, but, of course, run it.

As for my process...well, it all begins as a fantasy, a cloud of an idea, and then there's this very strange and painful process of trying to drag that into the pragmatic, material universe. But when it's all done, you (should) have something better and more exciting than the fantasy.

MM: It's interesting that for a filmmaker who has had this uncanny knack of realistically depicting the complicated relationship and courting habits between the sexes in his three other feature films, your new movie, however, isn't the usual pageantry of subtle exploration that occurs between men and women, save for three brief encounters, two of which turn out to be pretty artificial (yet deep in an unsuspecting way). Rather, the relationships between the men - and most of the cast of Computer Chess is men - at first glance aren't exactly obvious Bujalski relationships in that the tension is (mostly) no longer sexual. It's a tension of a different kind. It seems like it would be easier to explore these relationships between guys who share a common interest but I don't want to seem presumptuous. What were the challenges in depicting the way men interact in a mostly male-dominated environment and how was that similar or different than your real-life experiences?

AB: Sometimes I think that if I were around in 1930s Hollywood I might have had a shot at a career as a "women's director" a la George Cukor--I do love telling stories about women, though with each passing year I feel less and less qualified to pretend I understand them! Computer Chess is probably the most dude-centric movie I'll ever make, as the subject matter necessitated. Really, it's not that long a step from computer nerd to movie nerd - if anything, the latter is probably more antisocial. So I did feel I could bring some intimate knowledge to this world.

MM: Not that I want to ignore the other part of the movie: the touchy/feely spiritual convention that serves as a great contrast to the cold, analytical mechanics of the chess players, programmers and their world. It's an inspired meeting. How much research was involved versus just general knowledge and interest about both of these very different worlds?

AB: Most of the original conception of both of these conventions came from my imagination. But as we geared up for production we did get more serious about research all around. By convenient coincidence, a friend of mine, Jessica Grogan, happened to write a terrific book about the encounter movement, Encountering America, so I was able to pick up some terrific information from her. Then the actors brought brilliant details from their own research - the "violating-a-loaf-of-bread" came from a photo book of spiritual exercises that Chris Doubek dug up. That was a godsend.

As Doubek's character says in the movie, "We're all kind of like seekers here," and I do believe there is some significant overlap between the tech people and the hippie-dippies. So far as I can tell, the entire culture of Northern California is based on the intersection between these two. And as cold and clinical as it may seem, I do believe that the quest to design an artificial intelligence is on some level a spiritual one - you don't devote yourself so intently to building another mind unless you're hoping to learn something about your own.

MM: You're known for preferring to work with "non-professional actors," who actually make up the bulk of this cast. Does that mean that they have some experience in acting but just aren't making a living at it or are they people who have never acted before? Is there a lot of "Be yourself - don't act!" type of direction or are you in essence helping them gain some acting skills?

AB: Most of the encounter group folks in the movie have serious, hardcore acting experience. I liked the idea of contrasting their performance style with that of the programmers, who are primarily played by folks with limited or no experience. (Of course, Wiley Wiggins, who plays a programmer, is much beloved for his performances in Dazed and Confused and Waking Life--but I tend to think of him much more as a passionate computer nerd than a dyed-in-the-wool actor.) But regardless of their commitment to "craft," I'm always at pains to point out that every single person in this movie has to do the same work that Robert DeNiro or any actor does, and it's not easy. They might not have spent years honing their abilities, but every person I cast has a brilliant natural ability to act, and they all work hard on our set.

I do love actors--and had a blast working with very experienced folks like Chris Doubek, Cyndi Williams, Tishuan Scott, Bill Wise, and Jonny Mars on the encounter stuff--but my predilection for non-pros essentially comes from the fact that I believe actors are trained to always bring clarity to a scene. The actor is taught to help guide the audience, and I usually am pushing against that in my movies - I don't want to eliminate the confusing/confused parts. Those are my favorite parts.

MM: Because of such level of realism and period detail, were the actors transformed by your brilliant crew or did they already have a certain physical/stylistic quality that made them a perfect fit?

AB: Well, a lot of them are computer programmers, which perhaps is evidence of a lack of imagination on my part, but, y'know, I figure if you want to get somebody to look like a computer programmer, computer programmers are a good place to start. Gordon Kindlmann ("Prof. Schoesser") teaches CompSci at University of Chicago. James Curry ("Les Carbray") is a serious, old-school coder. One of the delights of working with him was that, even though he should be too young to remember all the minutiae of early ‘80s programming, in fact, he was a child prodigy programmer in Britain, doing this stuff at age 7, or whatever, and he retained all of it. That kind of knowledge was invaluable on set.

MM: Computer Chess is such a wonderful, unexpected departure - part period piece, part science fiction, part David Lynch! - that I hope your next film is yet another departure. I'm thinking Western or Musical. So...what's next?

AB: Before we premiered Computer Chess, I feared that no one was going to get it and that I'd probably have to spend the next couple years apologizing for it. But it's been much better received than I could have imagined, and my new fear is that someone's going to ask me to do it again. I'd have no clue how to go about making another Computer Chess. So as for what's next, I think it's safe for me to guarantee that it won't be a damn thing like this one. Other than that, who knows. Western or Musical both sound great to me. I've got pitches for both if you want to invest.

Computer Chess opens in L.A. on Friday, August 2nd and will play at The Nuart for a one-week engagement.