After the critical success of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, writer/director Andrew Bujalski‘s third film, Beeswax, (Trailer After the Jump) premiered at SXSW this spring. The New York Times praised the “mumblecore” film (a micro-budget indie with a DIY aesthetic that focuses on subtle shifts in personal relationships more than major plot points) as a ‘remarkably subtle, even elegant movie,’ calling Bujalski ‘an artist who knows his business.’ The film opened in New York this weekend, starts in L.A. on August 21 and expands throughout the fall.
You’ve said it’s painful to read the synopsis of your own films.
My fantasy has always been to get a poet to write it. Not that they would necessarily do it more accurately, but at least it would have some spirit. There never seems to be any spirit in a synopsis. The same synopsis could easily describe a movie that I don’t want to see.
As a third film, does Beeswax feel like a transition in storytelling or filmmaking process or use of budget?
Yeah, it’s kind of harder on every level you just mentioned. It’s a tougher story to pull off. All of the films have been very scripted, and then we allow room on set for people to play with it and bring it to life. But we had more flexibility on the others, because there’s so much information crammed into this one. I hope it doesn’t feel like that. I hope it feels every bit as organic.
There would certainly be days of shooting where it was harder to know what you have. You think, ‘Today was a blast,’ and then get in the editing room and it’s not that good. The opposite happens, too. But there were many days I thought, “I don’t know if we were inspired today. If the script works, the scene will work.” I had to rely on the script much more than in the past. There’s no way to know if the information is coming across and is interesting until you put it together later.
As a director, is it interesting to need faith in yourself as a writer?
Certainly. And then you really have to say, “I hope the me who’s the editor can make sense out of this shit.” I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to make films as autonomously as I have, but I’m there for every piece of it. Every step is an opportunity for me to cover up how badly I screwed up the previous step. As a director, I’m always like, “Let’s not let anybody know how badly written that scene is.” And then you get in the editing room, and you’re like, “God, I really fucked up directing that.” You’re glad to be able to bury things.
Did the film turn out to be the one you thought you were making?
Yes and no. You start with a dream-like image. My dreams are kind of fuzzy, and my films are kind of fuzzy. What makes me excited about making films is that you learn about what you’re making by making it. It is the film I wanted to make, in that it’s the journey I wanted to take in learning what this film is. I couldn’t be happier with my experience.
The aesthetic, story and budget of your films all seem part-and-parcel. Do you work backwards from any of those elements?
To some extent. If you write a scene that involves 200 extras, it would be very difficult. Pragmatic things inform what we’re doing. But you’re right, I think I’ve been very lucky that the means and the method have always gone hand-in-hand. I think you can only make this film cheaply.
I’ve found a little territory where I can tell stories that are very personal to me. I wasn’t seeing a lot of movies that did what I wanted to see. Steven Speilberg is a guy who really wants to see those movies he makes, and in his best films there’s a genuine passion for what he’s doing. Because it’s so personal, there are stylistic things that people recognize in my films, and that’s where people begin to peg you to something. That’s frustrating, though sometimes it’s accurate.
You were working on adapting the Benjamin Kunkel novel Indecision. As opposed to your more organic process, what was it like translating a completed story?
Very different. On my own films, I’ve been serving one master, myself. On Indecision I was being tugged in three different directions. There was what I responded to and really enjoyed in the novel. And then trying to make the people who were paying me happy, which is something I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to not have to worry about before. Lastly, and really the hardest thing, was also trying to make myself happy. That part I didn’t anticipate. I’ve really tried to write the best version of Indecision that I would want to direct. So it still had to be my movie while it was also Ben Kunkel’s movie and Scott Rudin’s movie. It gets a little schizophrenic, but it’s an interesting challenge.
Was that an interesting process compared to what you were used to?
It was very valuable to go through that rigorous process of lots of rewrites and lots of notes, the intellectual exercise of how to give them what they want. The cynical way is to just ask and try to do it, and damn it if I think it’s shitty. But I tried to figure out the third way, where it’s not necessarily my first instinct, and maybe not literally what they were asking for, but what’s going to make us both happy. Ideally, that’s the most creative thing.
Did this make you more or less interested in working on studio or production company-driven films?
I’d like to make a studio film, and Lord knows I’d love to get a studio paycheck. The trick is finding a way to do it where whatever talent I have comes to bare as useful. No studio wants me to be in a situation where I’m going against all my instincts. Indecision may still get made and turn out great. It would be a great experience and I’d learn a lot. A lot of that process would be painful, but I’m ready, willing and able to go through it.
I’d be curious how much the Indecision experience and the studio script you’re writing now will inform your process.
I hope it’s made me a better writer. I think it has. Just surviving the rigor of having it tossed back to you so many times and having to move everything around, it’s certainly opened my mind up to more possibilities.
When you’ve made low-budget films everybody asks, “When are you going to take it to the next level, kid?” I knew there would be a perception that, “Oh, Beeswax is another little, character-based thing with no story.” But part of me has that contrarian spirit of, “You don’t want me to do this? I’m going to do it.”
I didn’t make these films so I could then get a job that would make me rich. I made them because I believed in them. There’s more in this style of work, and I’m going to prove it by doing it again while I can. It’s not easy or always pleasant to make films that are not great profit-generators. The window of opportunity might not be forever. This was the hardest to make. If I can keep working in this style, I’d be delighted to. I’d also be delighted to change it up. I just want to keep making films, and there are a lot of different ways to do that.
It’s refreshing that it’s not all mapped out with some master plan.
It REALLY isn’t mapped out. Some of that is me being stubborn, and some is me being bad at planning. Maybe 10 years ago there was an obvious path: You make your little films and you get attention and some money and establish yourself. This market is in a real free-fall now, and there’s not a clear path to take. That’s scary, in that I don’t know where the money comes from. But there’s also great opportunity. I can think of five different things that my next project can be, and that’s fun. Of course, then you pick one and don’t get to do the other four. But hopefully, you’re still trying.