indieWIRE’s Bigger Project of the Day: Andrew Bujalski Explores the 1980’s “Computer Chess” World

indieWIRE's Bigger Project of the Day: Andrew Bujalski Explores the 1980's "Computer Chess" World
indieWIRE's Bigger Project of the Day: Andrew Bujalski Explores the 1980's "Computer Chess" World

Here’s your daily dose of an indie film in progress; every Friday, we’ll be spotlighting a bigger project, usually from an established filmmaker or affiliated with a bigger production company.

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“Computer Chess”

Writer/Director: Andrew Bujalski
Cinematographer: Matthias Grunsky
Producers: Houston King, Alex Lipschultz, David McClafferty, Scott Colquitt and Drew Xanthopolus

For more information and to contribute to this project:
United States Artists Crowdsourcing Page

Andrew Bujalski, self-described movie nerd and director of such low-budget indie hits as “Funny Ha Ha” and “Beeswax,” is crowdsourcing for equipment fees and post-production for his new film “Computer Chess.”

Set around 1980, “Computer Chess” is the fictional account of the computer programmers and chess players that tested artificial intelligence through computer-human chess tournaments. These were the days of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, slightly before the IBM computer Deep Blue took reign.

But Bujalski’s film is not about these real-life people; it’s an exploration of the environment he imagines for these programmers. Speaking with indieWIRE, Bujalski says, “We’ve certainly done research, and a few people in that community have talked to us and helped us out. We’re not setting up to do a documentary or a slavish interpretation of the truth. I certainly have tremendous respect for those guys and for what they accomplished. I hope some of that will come through whether or not we get it right for them.”

Though Bujalski says he was never a computer nerd, he admits this film is a way of him exploring the geek that never was. “Perhaps deep down it’s my attempt to vicariously peek into the fantasy braniac life I ought to have pursued as a kid.”

Speaking with iW, he elaborated on arriving to the story: “I was only a little kid at this time. I saw the same headlines as everyone else did about Deep Blue. I was never terribly invested in the topic in those days. The idea for the film really came when I was at the New England Mobile Book Fair — Newton Highlands, MA. They have this great remainders section. I’ve been going to that bookstore since I was a kid. There are books waiting for someone to love them, and many of them have been there for 25-30 years, if not longer. I found a book on chess trivia — it was $1 or $2. I’m not nearly enough of a chess enthusiast to buy it at full price. The book was from 1986 or so and there was a section on computer chess trivia. It started to plant images in my head, of these guys and what they were up to.”

And as life went on, Bujalski kept returning to this story:  “I spent so much of the last several years growing up. I’m married, a father, have a mortgage. I’m spending so much time figuring out how to be responsible and make a living and I’m not very good at that. My refuge for a while would be thinking about this project.”

As for casting, Bujalski is taking an unconventional route. “The half dozen folks I have already ‘attached’ as cast include a University of Chicago comp sci prof (specializing in biomedical imaging modalities), a braniac novelist/essayist who’s never met a research project he didn’t get lost in, and a former comp sci student turned treehouse-dwelling chocolatier. In short, I have cast many of the most interesting people I know, most of whom would be considered unfit to act in any other movie, but will be right at home in this one.

“Meanwhile, there are supporting roles in the film—hotel personnel and the couples therapy patients—in which I would like to cast more experienced actors, creating a contrast between the styles of performance to further heighten the oddity of the whole affair, and the sense the world outside the programmers’ bubble might be stranger than the one inside.”

Surely recreating one of the last centuries most gaudy decades can be distracting, but Bujalski is intent on avoiding the cliches. “We don’t want to do this thing where we have everyone wearing the T-shirt for the coolest band in 1986.  We’re not trying to make jokes about the time period.”

After all, in an age where there would be little doubt of a computer’s ability to outwit a human chess player, Bujalski added, “I don’t think it’s possible to do a period piece of any sort without making a commentary on today.”

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