Long Awkward Pause: Andrew Bujalski Talks "Mutual Appreciation"

The American director talks about the new restoration of his 2005 comedy, shooting on film, and writing for non-professional actors.
Andrew Northrop

Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation (2005) is showing June 14 - July 13, 2019 on MUBI in the United States in a new restoration.

Andrew Bujalski premiered his second film Mutual Appreciation at SXSW in 2005. Around the same time, his first—Funny Ha Ha—had its official theatrical release, a few years after it had premiered. The two films made their impression on rising independent filmmakers, bringing a focus on naturalistic conversation and self-reflecting portrayals of twenty-somethings that differed from the voicings of Generation X prior. Bujalski also appeared in Joe Swanberg’s seminal Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), alongside a then-unknown Greta Gerwig, and despite the under-recognition of those early films in the mid-2000s, it’s easy to see how they laid the foundations for the wider success and cultural impact of Swanberg’s Easy (2016–2019) and the Gerwig-penned Frances Ha (2012) and Lady Bird (2017). Bujalski’s most recent—Support the Girls (2018)—earned him and lead actress Regina Hall a string of commendations, and his video-tube shot faux documentary Computer Chess (2013) is one of contemporary American independent cinema’s most memorable films. Some of Bujalski and his peer’s films have been increasingly difficult to come across on home media and streaming platforms however, especially outside of the U.S.

Thankfully, Bujalski has recently teamed up with Arbelos Films to not only re-release Mutual Appreciation, but also to restore the film and present it in high definition for the first time. With a snapshot-like and free-flowing narrative, Mutual Appreciation explores the relationships that arise and develop around Alan (played by musician Justin Rice) following his move to New York City after the dissolution of his band in Boston. As Alan navigates his future as a musician and romantic interest from radio DJ  Sara (Seung-Min Lee), his hosts and long-term friends Ellie (Rachel Clift) and Lawrence (played by Bujalski) awkwardly try to address a slump in their relationship. In many ways, the film captures the uncertainties and anxieties about the future that linger beneath the surface of twenty-something individuals in a resolute and resonant manner, making for a film that is as much a generational reflection as it is a well-written and highly engaging piece of cinema driven largely by naturalistic conversations.

As a film that was shot on 16mm and previously only had a basic standard definition scan of it available, the new restoration allows both the performances and Matthias Grunsky’s proximate and calculated cinematography to shine more brightly. Subsequently, the re-release gives a wider audience the opportunity to see a retrospectively pivotal film in American independent filmmaking that perhaps flew more under the radar than it should have despite its clear influence. Speaking over the phone from Austin, Bujalski outlines what it was like debuting the film in 2005, its influences, selecting and directing its actors (including himself), and the process of restoring it.

NOTEBOOK: It would be useful to go right back to the start of making the film—around that time, MiniDV was picking up as a cost-effective tool for independent filmmakers on small budgets, and for a while was a definitive trait of the work of your peers. What were the motivations behind continuing to shoot on 16mm, and how did your experiences with Funny Ha Ha impact on that?

ANDREW BUJALSKI: I was luckily enough to be just old enough that that was the tradition I’d been trained in, but also felt acutely aware, as video was starting to pick up steam in those days, that mediums mattered—the movies made in video felt differently opposed to ones that were made in film. I couldn’t precisely predict the future from there, but I think I had a sense that the film world that I grew up in—just as a viewer, long before I ever made anything—was maybe not going to be there forever, and maybe we had an opportunity to tap into some magic that was still available.

I don’t know if those films would have worked on video. We might have found a way to make them work. We might have made a different kind of movie. But I don’t think you would have ended up with shot-for-shot the same movie in a video format and expect it to feel the same or look the same. And I love working on black and white. I was only just recently looking up the film stock we shot it on: Kodak Double-X. It was introduced in 1959, and it really didn’t change at all. The color stocks changed so much over the decades but the black and white was kind of the same. I was making a movie that looked the same way that plenty of movies shot in the 50s or 60s did, and I could tap right into that same feeling of so many movies I loved. That was a thrill.

NOTEBOOK: Since you studied at Harvard with Chantel Akerman, that follows in their tradition as well.

BUJALSKI: Yeah. I was very lucky, of course, to come out of that program, which was a great program and one where that was a big part of it. They showed us how to load the cameras and we got out there and shot.

NOTEBOOK: Mutual Appreciation has some improvisation in it, too. What was it like balancing that?

BUJALSKI: We were all there to make the best film we knew how to make, and certainly for me that meant I wanted something that felt alive on screen. And I kind of think all acting is improvisation anyway. If you’re doing Shakespeare and you can’t move a syllable around I think its still endemic to the process and to the art form that you’re supposed to be discovering something new in it every time you say it. It was much more important to me, that the performances feel alive, than that everybody hit all the punctuation exactly the way I wrote it. So sometimes it mirrors what was on my page word for word, and sometimes it didn’t, and I was very lucky to work with a great group of actors who could run with that freedom and make something that felt really special.

Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation

NOTEBOOK: How did the actors affect that improvisation? Did you write the role of Alan knowing that Justin Rice was going to play the role?

BUJALSKI: Yeah, I did write with Justin in mind, and I also wrote with myself in mind, but that was it. Rachel Clift, who plays Ellie, was certainly a big part too—we were very lucky. If you’re making a movie where you have three main characters and two of them are bespoke for the performers, you’ve really got to find…not only the right person, but a person who is not intimidated by having to go up against two people who had their parts designed for them. And Rachel is just great in the movie.

NOTEBOOK: There’s a certain nervous energy to Rice’s performance, too: there’s the feelings of anxiety and that come through in the two house-party scenes. Anxiety is something that a lot of filmmakers struggle to portray without it theatrically taking over the rest of the film, but I think you balance it quite well in Mutual Appreciation. How do you think you achieved that?

BUJALSKI: Hmm, I don’t know really. I think because we were all non-professional actors. The same as how I couldn’t imagine this movie being made on DV or whatever video format, I also certainly couldn’t imagine it being made with professional actors. Which isn’t a knock on professional actors—more recently in my career I’ve done a lot of work with a lot of great actors and loved it. But I do think there’s a kind of approach and a kind of method to working with non-professionals. I think professionals are largely trained to clarify things for the audience, to help guide the audience, and help them understand the story and what the situation is and the character and what’s going on. And so, they look for strong choices, they look for clear choices. And with Mutual Appreciation we didn’t have to do that, as non-professionals.

There was this inherent confusion to what we were doing, and we could use that—it could be part of the performance. So, a lot of the texture of those performances is rooted in uncertainty, and that was something I was seeking as a director and, of course, as an editor when I was cutting the movie. Any time a character seemed to have conflicting impulses or be confused about a situation—that was compelling to me. Because so much of what the movie is about is so much of what that part of my 20s was about. I don’t know how much that answers your question, but I think we took the natural anxieties under the surface and used them to our advantage.

Andrew Bujalski and Rachel Clift in Mutual Appreciation

NOTEBOOK: The scene where Ellie tells your character that her and Alan talked about being attracted to each other must have been challenging to shoot. Was it difficult directing a character you were also playing?

BUJALSKI: I don’t remember it being so, and I’ve realized since that I think I had a great advantage as an actor—because I also acted in Funny Ha Ha, which isn’t a role that I had written for myself—but in both cases I think I did a lot better as an actor. I’ve not done a lot of acting since, but I’ve done smaller things in friend’s films, and its always been a lot more nerve-wracking, in large part because if I’m directing the movie my anxiety is there, on directing. And I really don’t have a large amount of time or energy to worry about all the vain things that an actor worries about, you know? If I’m on a friend’s set and I have nothing else to do, I can have a lot of time to think about how fat I am or what a shitty actor I am! But if you take that away, I can get something a little more natural I hope [laughs].

NOTEBOOK: Bill Morrison (Decasia, Dawson City: Frozen Time) also appears in the film, as the man Alan feels romantically threatened by. It’s one of his few acting credits, and he’s not a filmmaker you’d necessarily expect to see acting in a film. How did that come about and what was it like directing him?

BUJALSKI: Oh, it was a delight. It was a great piece of luck actually. We’re going back some years now, so I don’t remember all of the details, but I’d been in touch with him. I think he’d seen my first movie and maybe we’d had an email correspondence around that. What I seem to recall is that it was something as straightforward as him writing something like, “if you ever need a bald guy in his late 30s whose a decent karaoke singer.” Something like that, and I was like, “yes I do, when can you meet?” And he was just perfect.

NOTEBOOK: Funny Ha-Ha—if I understand right—took a few years to pick up steam and was getting a limited release around the same time as Mutual Appreciation premiered at SXSW. That’s quite an unusual situation…

BUJALSKI: Yeah, it was a funny circumstance where I finished Funny Ha Ha in 2002, but it didn’t have its official theatrical release until 2005, which was around the same time when we were premiering Mutual Appreciation. So, it created an illusion that I was prolific [laughs]. Which was nice. I mean it was great to have two things out at there at the same time and feel like something was going. And then Mutual Appreciation had its official release in 2006. It was certainly the long and difficult way of doing things, and I don’t miss the uphill battle of that, but I do miss the kind of organic nature of it. It was nice for those two films to build on really nothing more than word of mouth.

NOTEBOOK: How did it feel to be on festival circuits at that time? Back then, independent American cinema was for the large part associated with certain familiar faces and there were a lot of popular productions from pseudo-independent studios like Fox Searchlight. Did it feel like you were fighting against the grain much?

BUJALSKI: Yeah, always—even when I made the first movie. I think in retrospect people applied these labels to it, and people will prescribe it to whatever indie movement of the time that they feel fits. But when I was making it, I felt very out of step with times. It certainly didn’t feel like I was doing anything new. In many ways it felt like I was making the last indie movie of the 80s, I was just fifteen years too late. And so, whether then or now, I’ve never felt particularly in step with the times, I just look for these little cracks where you can sneak something through.

NOTEBOOK: Something that always stands out in your films is how natural so many of the conversations feel. I think if someone went into Computer Chess without knowing anything beforehand, they’d be forgiven for initially presuming that it was a documentary. Have documentaries had much of an impact on your practice?

BUJALSKI: Oh yeah, documentary has certainly been hugely influential on me, and part of it was certainly that program at Harvard. It was a program that had a very strong documentary backbone, and I found that to be a very useful way to think about cinema in general. Because when you go out to make a documentary, in the starkest way possible, you learn an important lesson that the movie you think you want to make is not always what you’re going to get in practice, and you have to listen to the material.

You can’t stick to an idea that’s going away, or that’s not actually present in the footage. And I learned a lesson that can and must be applied to everything. It gets weirder now when you enter the digital age and everything becomes a sort of super high tech animation, but even there you have to pay attention to that simple rule that the thing in front of you is going to diverge from the thing in your imagination, and you need to track that. And it sounds simple, but it’s kind of always the challenge of filmmaking.

And I realized part of my struggle in continuing to work as a filmmaker, certainly in the professional environment, is that I think half of me wants to be a documentary filmmaker and half of me wants to be a novelist—and I’m neither [laughs]. And neither of those are necessarily what the industry is asking for, but I try to make my own little mishmash of those instincts and see what we come up with.

NOTEBOOK: Did you do much documentary shooting on the Harvard course?

BUJALSKI: Yeah, it was certainly part of our background. At a certain point in the course we had the opportunity to make narrative stuff, and I did that as soon as I could. I kind of wish I’d spent more time in documentary, but I did have some coursework and was around that it because that was so much in the air there.

NOTEBOOK: Lastly, it’d be good to hear about the process of restoring the film. In many ways, it’s not the kind of film that people would usually associate with restoration and preservation efforts because it’s of fairly recent memory, and because of the budget of it. What was that process like?

BUJALSKI: Well, it’s not so much that the original elements were falling apart or anything, but it was mainly a desire to have it available in the digital age. It was something that had never been available in high definition. The only video master was a fairly cheap one that we’d gotten made immediately after we’d finished the movie way back when, so I just wanted people to be able to—with their nice TV screens—see it looking as nice as we could make it, and very luckily the folks at Arbelos— who have done a phenomenal job with it—were interested in working with us on it. So, it was a real pleasure to go back and revisit it.

There’s a nice thing about being a filmmaker working in such a collaborative medium: it’s not exactly like picking up old diaries and being mortified. There’s certainly some of that, like, “wow that was a long time ago and I don’t know what I was thinking here,” but I’m also looking at the work of so many collaborators, dozens of other people who put so much great work into it, and for me none of my enthusiasm for that has faded. To watch what Justin and Rachel are doing in the movie alongside others—there’s certainly not a weak link in that cast. And Matthias Grunsky’s camerawork continues to thrill me, so all that was great fun to revisit. It had been years since I’d seen it but watching it again, I’m noticing what books are on the shelves and things like that. There’s so much detail in the image and things that I hadn’t seen in a while!

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