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Decade: Andrew Bujalski On “Funny Ha Ha”

Decade: Andrew Bujalski On "Funny Ha Ha"

EDITOR’S NOTE: Every day for the next month, indieWIRE will be republishing profiles and interviews from the past ten years (in their original, retro format) with some of the people that have defined independent cinema in the first decade of this century. Today, we’ll step back to 2005 with an interview indieWIRE’s Michael Koresky had with Andrew Bujalski upon the release of his “Funny Ha Ha,” credited by many as the first film from the “mumblecore movement.”

The Mumblecore Movement? Andrew Bujalski On His “Funny Ha Ha”

(August 16, 2005).]

The memorably misleading title of Andrew Bujalski‘s debut cheapie seems to have just kept popping up everywhere over the past couple of years. Videotapes passed between friends, the odd festival screening, Sundance-channel playdates, the occasional Greencine-linked critical endorsement “Funny Ha Ha”‘s reputation certainly precedes it as it finally opens in New York and Boston. Yet should any attuned cinephile wander into the theater expecting a definitive statement on twentysomething angst, they might be surprised by the film’s lack of any sort of moralizing. In an era when “Garden State” is considered “indie” or, God forbid, “truthful,” “Funny Ha Ha” may seem to not even stand a chance. Far more insightful into the beneficence of mundane daily interactions than any one moment in Zach Braff‘s overwrought Shins-endorsed generational “anthem,” “Funny Ha Ha” deserves an audience. In discussing his already attractively-aged new release, Bujalski remains as humble as his incisive 16mm slice of life.

indieWIRE: What were your distribution expectations upon making a project so refreshingly unpolished? What kind of an experience has it been securing distribution?

Andrew Bujalski: We had no expectations at all. We had no particular reason to think that anyone would ever see the film. Of course there’s a terrific boost of energy one can get from such willful naiveté, and it’s a terrific shield from external pressures. As for the distribution that has fallen into place, I would never have been able to predict the bizarre and circuitous path the thing has taken. I’m hugely grateful for the opportunities the film has had, over and over again through different unexpected channels. That said, though, like a lot of filmmakers I take little joy from navigating the intricacies of the business stuff.

iW: Why did you choose 16mm when so many see it as an antiquated form in the digital era?

AB: I love 16mm. It also happens to be the format that I’m trained in, having studied film at Harvard in a program that remains firmly rooted in 16mm. And, truthfully, I’m just not very knowledgeable about video. Especially in the last couple years, since “Funny Ha Ha” was finished, I’ve seen more and more video that does not bear the usual distracting hallmarks of ugly video. But I’ll always trust film more, at least for the sort of stories I try to tell. I think that “Funny Ha Ha” would have felt extremely different on video — the loose, improv-y aspects I think would be much more easily dismissed. “Oh, this is just a bunch of kids screwing around.” Whereas the inherent painterly quality of film lends a credibility.

iW: Technically, the film seems somewhat unfinished in a most defiant manner. Is there any sort of agenda here?

AB: The sound mix has actually been cleaned up a bit, digitally, for the new release, but the tweaks I think are mostly things that I and the mixer would notice, not the general public — we smoothed over some of the rougher edits, applied some filters to the noisier scenes, etc. I did not intend for the film to seem unfinished particularly, though obviously we are straining throughout against budget constraints, and probably there is some energy that rises out of that. Rough edges are always exciting, when they’re real. Of course there’s nothing sillier than fake rough edges, like the handheld camera you sometimes see on “NYPD Blue,” shaking and jittering around, unmotivated, way more than any actual documentary camera would.

iW: How much improv is there in the film, and how much was tightly scripted?

AB: This is the one question I’ve gotten at every single Q&A I’ve ever done, and I’ve tried to explain it so many times now that I no longer particularly trust myself to get it right. I’m growing less and less comfortable with the question, mainly because I think the dichotomy between “script” and “improv” is a great oversimplification. We could print out a transcript of the film’s dialogue and look at it side by side with the final draft of the screenplay, and with a computer we could figure out what percentage of the words in the film came from the page, but that wouldn’t begin to tell us anything about the actual interplay between the script and the actors and me and the brief rehearsal period and the conditions of the shooting and all of the weird things that go into making a performance. Not to mention the editing, which is where the real decisions are made as to which improvised moments will ever be seen, which scripted moments will ever be seen. And what about gestures? Inflections? Are they improvised or scripted? How can we tell?

Andrew Bujalski (right) with filmmaker Ben Coccio at the nominees party for the 2004 Independent Spirit Awards. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE.

All that said, a friendlier answer, and the one that I actually give at Q&As, is that of course it’s a hodgepodge. There was a conventional-looking script written, but we allowed plenty of room for happy accidents, of which there were several. But, all told, the scenes stick to the structure of the scenes as written closer than I even would have expected. Within that structure there are plenty of oddball moments I never could have anticipated. My favorite lines in the movie are ones that I did not write.

iW: Are there other directors working today with sensibilities that you find harmonize with your own in their final product?

AB: I think that there are a bunch of us coming up now who have many of the same influences, and the same anti-influences, i.e. some of the crummier aspects of the indie scene that we’d all like to bury. My new film, “Mutual Appreciation,” premiered at South by Southwest, and there was some talk there of a “movement” just because there were a bunch of performance-based films by young quasi-idealists. My sound mixer, Eric Masunaga, named the movement “mumblecore,” which is pretty catchy. I quite liked those other films that I saw, but I think it’s probably a little reductive and silly to actually group any of them together. And if it is a movement I’m sure I’ll want to get out of it and do something else. Again, not much point in making films that other people have already made, unless you’ve got something new to bring to it.

iW: Can you talk more about “Mutual Appreciation”? The buzz is great on the film. What sort of future do you see the film having on the festival circuit and perhaps an eventual release?

AB: I don’t know how buzz is measured but I am very gratified to hear that it’s good! Presumably the life span of “Mutual” won’t be quite so protracted and convoluted as “Funny Ha Ha”‘s, just because I am somewhat more quantifiable now as a commodity, for better and worse. So, for example, while it took me six months to get anyone anywhere to screen “Funny Ha Ha,” the first few “Mutual” fest screenings have come together quite quickly. As for a release, that’s anybody’s guess. Ultimately it’s no more commercial than “Funny Ha Ha” — in some ways, it’s less commercial. So, certainly gaining a wide release would be an uphill battle. Anything is possible, though; I’ve certainly learned that from previous experience. I hope people will enjoy the film.


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