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How Andrew Bujalski Shot a Pandemic Movie with One Performer at a Time Over Course of Six Months

Exclusive: Bujalski tells IndieWire how he landed on the "essential cinema" experiment of "There There," a movie he never intended to make.

“There There”

There There,” director Andrew Bujalski’s first movie since “Support the Girls,” is an ambitious lo-fi undertaking on several levels. The entire project comprises of conversations between two characters in a series of rooms. As the movie gradually adds more characters to the fray, some storylines overlap more than others, as Bujalski explores alienated people at odds with each other and their place in life. It includes winning, sensitive turns from the likes of Lennie James, Lili Taylor, and Jason Schwartzman.

But here’s the thing: None of the actors were ever in the same room together. 

Unlike countless Zoom-based projects or others shot outside to maintain COVID protocols, “There There” is a bold technical gamble from a master of American minimalism. “This is the wild experiment of the movie,” Bujalski said by phone ahead of the movie’s premiere at the Tribeca Festival. “Nobody is anywhere near each other. It’s like making a green screen movie without the green screen.”

And yet it works: “There There” is a probing look at how even intimate conversations can feel like they’re taking place at vast distances. It’s on a continuum with Bujalski’s continuing ability to explore the awkward fallacies of human communication, and you’d never guess the filmmaking stunt from looking at it. The movie begins with the extended pillow talk of a middle-aged woman (Lili Taylor) and the charming womanizer who wiggles away from her (Lennie James), includes a tense showdown between the mother of a teenager and his young instructor (Molly Gordon) in a parent-teacher conference and finds a neurotic man (Jason Schwartzman) arguing with his grandfather’s ghost in the dead of night. Scenes often crescendo with hilarious punchlines and withering takedowns that amplify the dissonance of two people on very different wavelengths, and indeed, none of the performers looked each other in the eye.

“To me, this was an essential cinema experiment,” Bujalski said. “It was something, to some degree, you could’ve done 100 or 150 years ago. I grew up with this notion that the camera is a documentary device and editing is a narrative device. It’s kind of bullshit when you cut between things. This was a way to take something that had always fascinated me about editing and push it to an extreme, then build a story around that.”

Needless to say, the micro-budget “There There” (which was shot in accordance with SAG’s low-budget standards) was not Bujalski’s initial vision for a “Support the Girls” follow-up. That 2018 comedy won raves for Regina Hall and registered as Bujalski’s biggest crossover effort in a career that had been previously dominated by less flashier character studies like “Beeswax” and “Mutual Appreciation.” After “Support the Girls” (which counted former president Barack Obama among its fans), Bujalski juggled some decent writing gigs, including the script for Disney+’s “The Lady and the Tramp” remake, and developed a TV adaptation of “Support the Girls” that’s still in the works. He was in New York trying to scare up financing for another original feature script, with Avi Nash and Dylan Gelula attached to star, when COVID hit. 

“So much changed so quickly and everybody ran into the same brick wall at the same moment,” he said. “As a fantasy exercise, I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something else I can think about.’” Back in Austin with his family, Bujalski started jotting down ideas for scenes in a notebook and thinking through COVID-safe ways to pull them together. “At first I thought of it as a side project and of course it became all consuming,” he said. 

Andrew Bujalski, writer/director of "Support the Girls," poses at the premiere of the film at the ArcLight Hollywood, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Andrew Bujalski

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

“There There” eventually became Bujalski’s longest production: He started shooting in March 2021 and finished in September. During those six months, he shot each scene with one actor while a stand-in read lines on the other side. “We had a phantom cast, all these people who are never heard onscreen running the other end of these scenes and they were great,” he said. “I can’t imagine the actors surviving this without them. My cinematographer was always acutely aware of eyelines and things like that. We had a lot of technical things we had to chase.” 

He also had to keep his actors sane. Bujalski decided that his camera should never move, which meant that the dialogue-heavy scenes required actors to simply sit in closeups and deliver lengthy monologues again and again. “It’s all in the performances and the edit,” he said. “The performers were often shooting 12-hour days with 15 pages of dialogue and they’re just doing it over and over and over again. I often felt like I was torturing them but when I got in the edit I had the most footage I had on everything. I needed it all and used it all to make this thing come alive in the edit.” 

Bujalski compared the experience to shooting his 2013 period comedy “Computer Chess,” which used its antiquated video effect to its advantage. “You start with a formal constraint and then find a story that flows from that,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d try to make this movie any other way.”

In the case of “There There,” the humanity of the story emerges from bickering and soul-searching conversations that fuel broader ideas about how people attempt to project confidence to the world around them (and often fail). “This movie more than anything is about trust and faith,” Bujalski said. “There are a million ways that can go wrong.” That mentality extended to the project itself as Bujalski let his actors find their way into the characters on their own terms. “One of the great joys of making collaborative movies is that I get these actors to do a lot of that work of finding the real person,” he said. “I’m just sketching out a blueprint on the page.”

That has been evident in Bujalski’s work ever since his cringe-comedy debut “Funny Ha Ha,” which became a sleeper hit on the festival circuit 20 years ago. The filmmaker recently attended an anniversary screening of the movie at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston, where it first premiered in 2002. “It’s clunky and strange,” he said. “I couldn’t begin to make a movie like that again, but I don’t want to fix it. I think it did what we set out to do. You often hear directors who are very focused on moving forward. I don’t feel that way. I hope that I’m a more artful writer now but I don’t think I could make that movie any better than I made it. Whatever’s wrong with it is inextricably tied up with what worked.”

After “Funny Ha Ha,” Bujalski was swept up by the festival scene and became a central figure of the erstwhile “mumblecore” movement (a term first popularized out of an interview he did with this site). Many of his subsequent projects reflected the collaborators he’d met while on the road promoting his initial work. That has left the now 45-year-old director at odds with the climate of the virtual festival circuit of the past two years, even though he didn’t premiere a movie during that time. “I’m so sorry for all these young filmmakers who have premiered things over the past two years who have been robbed of that experience,” he said. “All these online premieres seem like such a drag.”

With “There There” behind him, Bujalski said he was hoping to return to the script he was trying to get off the ground in early 2020, while tinkering with other side projects that could blossom at any point. “There have been both paid and unpaid things happening around there but there’s no masterplan,” he said. “I’ve wanted to make things that I’m excited about and I haven’t really known how to do it any other way.” 

He was still sorting out the juggling act of sustainability and creative fulfillment. After “Lady and the Tramp” was finished, he said, “I came out of that with just enough Disney money in pocket to take some months not panicking about money.” Later, he helped out with an English-language dub on the French animated Netflix film “I Lost My Body,” though he said that one involved minimal effort. “I basically listened to everyone talk and said, ‘Yes, that makes sense in English,'” he said.

He expected to continue developing his career in piecemeal while exploring more personal filmmaking endeavors. “I’m not a good career calculator,” he said. “There are plenty of things that would be fun to do with $10 or $20 million, but I tend to think about what it really takes to do something done I’m really excited about. The financial and career aspects tend to be a second or third priority.” He laughed. “Still,” he said, “I need to do more.” 

“There There” premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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