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Vadim Rizov interviews Andrew Bujalski, the director of Funny Ha Ha

Andrew Bujalski shot Funny Ha Ha—a tale of mid-20s awkwardness, shot in nervous (and expensive) handheld 16mm at a time when video is all but dominant in micro-budget indies—in 2001. The movie, which included Bujalski in a key part as geeky Mitchell, possibly the most excruciating participant in the whole film, was coolly received at first, even with early praise from sources as rarified as Dusan Makavejev and Ray Carney (who were quoted in blurbs on the film’s website). In 2003, frustrated by its erratic reception at festivals and buoyed by positive word-of-mouth, Bujalski took it on the road, hitting up a variety of small venues to show the film personally. Finally, two of his most enthusiastic fans—Houston King and Gary Stewart—came together to form a distribution company (Goodbye Cruel Releasing) for the sole purpose of putting the film out. In the meantime, Bujalski’s made a new film, Mutual Appreciation, which has played larger festivals and gained more attention faster. Having pimped for his debut ever since seeing it in a tiny coffeehouse back-room/auditorium in 2003, I was especially gratified to see the film finally getting some kind of meaningful national distribution, and called Bujalski—far more straightforwardly articulate than his character—to discuss the movie that just wouldn’t die.

VR: So are you sick of living with the movie yet?

AB: Oh absolutely, yeah. I’m hugely gratified by the absurdly long lifespan it’s had, of course, you can’t get too grumpy about it, but of course I would like to live in a world where it wasn’t daily business.

Has it lead to greater exposure/success with the new film?

It’s hard to tell. I think definitely with Funny Ha Ha we were coming out of nowhere and the first six months the film existed I couldn’t get anyone to screen it anywhere because we had no connections anywhere in the world, and that’s a little different now as opposed to Funny Ha Ha where we sent it out to every fest in the world and were rejected by most of them. The new film has been equally difficult to sell, literally and figuratively. So it’s still an uphill battle, but at least the first barriers were a little easier to break through.

Does it have distribution yet?

Not yet. We’re talking with some small distributors. We will see what happens with that.

How did you get a quote from Dusan Makevejev? He’s been out of the public eye for a long time now.

Dusan was one of my professors in college [at Harvard]. Every intermediate film class my junior year he was my teacher, and he certainly made a big impression on me. So in the early days of the film when I couldn’t get anyone to pay attention I showed it for him and that quote was in an e-mail he wrote. That wasn’t him offering a blurb. I wrote him back—I was desperate for any way to publicize—and asked for permission to use it. I never heard back from him, actually, but I figured he wouldn’t mind. And I like it a lot too, in terms of one of the ridiculous things about the lifespan of the film is that there’s so many things I’ve had to do, like become my own press agent. At this point, with the little release we’re doing I don’t have to be my own press agent, I don’t have to read every review that comes out (although I still tend to do that). In the early days—two years ago or whatever it was—I had to read everything, because I was the only one that would put everything in the press kit. So one of the nice things about Dusan’s quote is that it’s personal and weird. And in the ultimate word, a press kit should be more interesting than the usual dull plot synopsis. Our movie especially doesn’t sound good when synopsized.

I guess you decided to cast yourself as much for financial reasons as anything, but why did you choose the most unflattering, geeky part?

Definitely the idea of putting myself in it had a lot to do with resources, and because I was short on professional actors. And also the idea was that I wouldn’t just look at my actors under a microscope but put myself under that same microscope. As far as that role, you’ve got to figure out at some point what you’re qualified to do. And it’s hard. For better or worse you know that you wear glasses and can play it, a geeky awkward guy, better than the other stuff in the movie.

Did you ever consider shooting on video just to save money?

Yeah, we thought about it. I don’t know exactly what it would’ve cost on video, but it would’ve been a very different feeling film. To do it on video, it’s obviously not just a financial decision, it’s probably the profoundest decision you can make starting your initial approach. I think it absolutely affects the way people watch it, and within video there’s so many different kinds of video. How you process the video affects how it feels, but I didn’t know a whole lot about video, but I knew how film felt and what I was seeing in mind was what I was seeing and I didn’t know how to approach it on video. I often wished I could wake up with an idea that I could feel in video.

How did your film-school background affect the film, which flies in a lot of conventions about narrative structure, etc.?

At Harvard, the program is there are additional classes you can take and lots of different things, but the essential structure in the intro class is really heavily—basically it’s documentary. There’s 10 of you in the class in the first semester, and in the second you all collaborate on one big film. We had an unusually harmonious class. In fact, one of my producers on Funny Ha Ha I met in that class, and we’ve been working together for 10 years now. Junior year the intermediate class, I had Dusan for that class, and the classes there rely really heavily on the personality of whoever’s teaching it and how they shape it. Hal Hartley was there recently, after my time. Basically it leads up to you making your own film pretty free-form—fiction, documentary, whatever. You have the know-how to do it technically. I made a fiction film in there with Dusan, a pretty goofy fiction film. The last year, my senior year, I did a thesis film. Chantal Akerman was my thesis advisor. Again, I did a 26-minute fiction film which I think was the start; probably a lot of what I learned on that film informed Funny Ha Ha.

There’ve been complaints about the technical roughness of the film, even after you blew it up from 16mm to 35.

The prints that are in release now are 35 and that makes the hugest difference in the sound. 16 optical sound is really limited and it really depends on the venue. I’ve seen that 16 print in places where it sounded great, and in others where it was horrible. The sound still does have kind of a documentary quality for sure, but that’s just the nature of the design of the film. And how it looks too I think.

How was traveling the festival circuit?

The film’s played at a variety of different venues and types of festivals and different places. I mean, different things are fun for different reasons. Some festivals are kind of glitzy and well-funded and those can obviously be fun because everyone treats you very well and you got lots of free meals and others... I really loved the Olympia Festival. When I was there in 2002, it had such a tremendously diverse slate; one thing was that it was not just all new films. They had a lot of stuff going out of the vault. It was a true film festival, not geared at selling you the new film. It was a lot of fun to just hang out for a week and really watch stuff from across the board.

Would you consider yourself a cinephile in addition to a filmmaker, or just someone who prefers the medium of film but isn’t really a cinephile?

I guess I’m a cinephile. I think if I knew how to do any other kind—I think I’ve at least found some kind of voice in filmmaking, which I wouldn’t say for anything else. I’d love to have the ability and enthusiasm to do something else, but it’s not that pragmatic to sit down and for example write a poem, which is not to disparage that. In film there’s an infinite number of financial and technical and practical difficulties, but film is the only place I feel I know how to express anything and have it be any good.

The movie seems to sort of buck current indie trends and be more of an early ’90s film, like a Caveh Zahedi work or something.

I certainly would not intentionally try to hearken back to the early ’90s, but one of the nice things and probably our greatest blessing and the most unrepeatable one is that we were really working in a vacuum and didn’t have any reason to believe that anyone would see the film and couldn’t imagine how people would’ve come to it. So there was not an intentional attempt to place ourselves in any particular position for its own sake. But of course it is a little out of step with the time, but no one was yelling at us or telling us to get with the times. I think that only comes afterwards.

In some recent interviews you’ve said that maybe you won’t even make a third movie, since it’s been so hard to make these first two.

One of my big fears is that there’s a great tendency among people who attempt to work independently is to get subsumed into frustration. Certainly in recent months with the ongoing promotion I’ve been known to grumble. I want to do a third film, the question is how will I do it and what will it be. At this moment I’m personally open to lots of different things. I think a big part of making a film is that you have to strike some weird Zen balance between chasing a pipe dream and knowing very well what your resources are. I think you always want to be reaching just a half-step beyond your resources. So I’m trying to figure out what my resources are at this moment. A lot of what we have doing is by design unsustainable. You definitely can’t keep making films that way forever. The films are extremely cheap by film standards, we still haven’t figured out how to make them profitable per se. Of course I want to make a third film, but I’m also just trying to be aware of everything and simultaneously not be aware of everything. I often fantasize about getting a great opportunity to go away and do something completely different, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

Have you gotten any offers for director-for-hire work?

I haven’t gotten any yet; it’s unclear to me how hireable I am in that respect. Last week I was in New York and meeting with some production companies. I would actually want more to be a writer for hire than director gigs. On the one hand I can kind of get in the door to meet with these people about this stuff, but on the other hand it’s still an uphill battle. I don’t have a proven commercial track record; I have the proven ability to make films, but not films that return an investment. And that’s obviously the cornerstone of any production business. So which is to say I’d have to really sell myself to get one of those jobs. I don’t think I’m considered the hot young guy in that world.

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