For a decade and a half, Andrew Bujalski has been making some of the most exciting American independent films one can find, yet all of them seem to elude classification. What is a Bujalski film? They are funny and affecting, loaded with great performances, and intensely laced with an acerbic take on the death of the American dream. Did I mention they’re funny, though?
His latest film, Support the Girls, which had its world premiere at SXSW, is the story of Lisa (Regina Hall), the general manager at a roadside “breastaurant” called Double Whammies (think Hooters but local and a bit rougher), and the people that populate her life. There’s the bubbly waitress with a heart of gold, the new hire whose sexuality gets in the way of her better judgement, and the owner who couldn’t possibly be in a worse mood all the time. There are customers and neighbors and a husband who wants as much attention as the restaurant. There’s even a carwash. It is a film about growing up and finding one’s place in the world. Bujalski has a talent for finding laughs where none should exist, of bringing out the comedy of every day life. Support the Girls provides that and more, including one of his most ambitious comic setups to date. I sat down with the director to discuss his latest project. This is not the first time Heeb has spoken to Andrew Bujalski and I doubt it will be the last. He is extremely insightful on his own work and the work of others. It is almost a wonder that such an analytical mind, one that can see and articulate the political curves surrounding his work, is able to bring to life such a vibrant and expressive world. Others may get lost in the weeds, but Bujalski is able to cut straight through to the heart of a story. We spoke in the lobby of a theater as his film was unfurling for only the second time in front of an audience.
So…Jew? Not Jew?
Half. My mother’s family is Jewish, father’s family was Catholic, so I’ve always thought of it as the great guilt cocktail. We’ve got all the best guilt.
How did you come up with the idea for Support the Girls? Were you at a Hooters or something and this idea dawned on you?
Pretty much, yeah. I think I wandered into one of these places, maybe ten years ago. Something struck me about it, how odd and uniquely American it was. On the one hand it seems like a very simple concept. On the other hand, the more thought I gave to it or the more I tried to put it in context, it seemed bizarre, really, that there’d be two such different impulses rolled into one. You know, to simultaneously try to provide you with a turn-on and more to the point to provide you with a lot of comfort. I always think of them as being about ten percent strip club but ninety percent TGI Friday’s. It’s really not about the raunch. That fascinated me, because I thought only the United States of America in the last few decades…no other culture in history would have produced the demand for a place that is almost more about sublimating desire than provoking it.
Did the space come first or did any of the characters come first for you?
In this case I think it was kind of ruminating on the space, and then from that I found my way to this lead character. This stuff all becomes clearer in retrospect, it’s not so much a conscious process as you’re putting it together, but looking back I think where I ended up with this lead character, Lisa, who’s the general manager played by the great Regina Hall. I kind of needed someone who was a bit of an outsider, because, for sure, I was aware, going to those places, that it’s not…you know…I am certainly not…I’m not coming from the perspective of one of the girls who works there and I’m also not coming from the perspective of a regular customer. I can go in there, but I’m not exactly the target market. So I think that’s how I kind of ended up zeroing in on this general manager character who could be someone who could go in and be of the place but also not quite, in that sense. And that helped me to find my way around it. From there I just kinda started to pull a lot of different strands. It was years of dreaming, so I ended up with a very crammed full kind of story. A lot happens in a short amount of time in this.
At the premiere, you brought the cast on stage and I think there were maybe thirty or forty people on stage.
At least. Well, it’s also a locally shot film so we had a ton of people around. But yeah, it’s a lot of people and a lot of incident.
I get the sense that a lot of the small things that happen in the film are things that you witnessed or heard from other people.
Yeah, it’s a combination. I certainly talked to some folks at all kinds of levels of it and tried to get as much insight as I could. It was tough because it’s not the easiest thing to research, in part because I’m shy. Also because it’s not the most open culture. Everybody I talk to, I’ve got to say, was very nice and very forthcoming. So there’s a lot from imagination, but you do research however you can. You Google some stuff too. You find blogs of disgruntled former employees and things.
The story came to you maybe ten years ago…
I think it was about six years ago that I really started to kick it around in earnest and at one point there’d been a TV version pitch of this which ended up not going anywhere. Which was for the best because I’m much more comfortable in the feature realm and I knew better how to craft a story out of it there. A couple of years ago I sat down to reclaim that idea as a feature. At that time, I think, I worried that it would just seem irrelevant. I thought “People see these places on the highway but it doesn’t mean anything to anybody and I don’t think anyone is going to care.” Then we had a presidential election in this country and I remember I didn’t sleep that night, and there was a whole lot going through my mind the next day. But one kind of fleeting thought that crossed my mind that day was “Well, I think my script just became relevant for better or worse.” Mostly worse. And then, it kind of gets more relevant every day, which I have mixed feelings about. In a way I’d almost prefer to be releasing the movie into a world where it wasn’t going to get sucked into Twitter wars or whatever. On the other hand, I’m glad to have any reception at all. I’m excited to see what people will make of it.
The film comes out in a moment when movies in particular are going through an upheaval.
Yeah, for sure.
I’m not sure when you shot it in terms of all of this—
We shot in like April-May last year. It depends on what you mean by all of this. We were in the Trump era for sure, but certainly pre-Harvey [Weinstein] world.
It feels very relevant to Weinstein, but not explicit.
It’s not an advocacy movie. It’s about human beings. All of the characters are flawed. It’s not about building up heroes or tearing down villains. Nothing I’ve ever done has been about that. So I hope people will resonate with these people on screen, but they’re all flawed. I’m extremely sympathetic to the women in the movie. I hope and believe the audience will be as well. I didn’t make the movie to defend them against the evil customers, you know?
If I could put something on you from seeing the movie. Is the “Man Cave” Trump?
No, none of it lines up. I mean it’s all just what you do to survive. More than anything else I think this movie really is about working in a way that kind of goes beyond just the sexism stuff. I would hope anyone who has ever had a job that they didn’t feel was the truest expression of their deepest soul, I would hope people could relate to that. This is a job where you have to go and put on a certain face and you have to perform. This is a very particular version of that, but I think anybody who’s ever worked for money kind of knows what it is to, like, this is what I need to present to get through the day and some shifts are harder than others. The Man Cave is just a different approach. It’s kind of like chaos versus order; and in late capitalism which is worse? I don’t know.
How many films have you made in Austin?
This is the fourth one that we’ve shot here.
The film definitely feels like it takes place in Texas, but did you make a conscious effort to make it feel like it’s in a specific place or time?
It’s definitely Texas, yeah. We specifically didn’t want to set it in Austin, per se, just because Austin is so specific. In that highway-side culture it’s kind of, if you’re just a little bit out of the city and you’re on an interstate, whether it’s outside of Austin, outside of Houston, outside of Dallas, it’s just highway-world. That was our plan.
Your films tend to be about people who are at work or trying to find their place in the greater economy. What about that attracts you?
I don’t know. I obviously resent the fact that I have to make a living and I keep making movies about it. It’s this kind of super-structure that we’re all…it’s a part of life on earth. Navigating capitalism, certainly in this culture. I keep going back to it just because it’s omnipresent in our lives. We don’t always think about our lives in those terms. It’s there for everybody I know.
All of your films feel so different now. And now there are so many. I had no idea what I was going to see. Do you try to move down a different path every time you make a film?
Certainly there’s a contrarian impulse in me. So, for sure, if someone tells me, “I know what you do. This is your thing.” There’s a part of me that wants to zig and zag. But I also want to be careful with that. I think in a way, if that’s your only guiding principal, it’s not necessarily going to lead you to good work if all you’re trying to do is be unpredictable. On a basic level, as you metabolize these things, you’re always reacting to the last thing you did. To be honest, usually, the experience of making these things is stressful and exhausting. I think when I get out of one, part of me just thinks, “I’m not going to do that again.” Whatever it was. So you think what’s 180 degrees from there, and that’s the stuff that most excites you at that moment. Anything you can sink your teeth into.
When Beeswax came out, if I recall, I asked you why you were shooting on film. You said you just didn’t know another way. Now, it seems you’ve found another way.
I kind of had to. Beeswax, we released in 2009, which was just about the last time it was possible to release a movie on film. Of course you can go still shoot film today, but you can’t exhibit it. So that took some of the wind out of those sails. But it is different. It’s a different kind of filmmaking for sure. You feel it. As beautiful as this stuff is…I’m very pleased with the way this movie looks. I certainly wouldn’t rule out working with film again. But I would need to know why I was doing it. It is a statement and it’s a different kind of statement now than it was ten or twenty years ago.
With Computer Chess, was it important for you to jump way off to the deep end of video?
That was the first thing I knew about that movie, before I knew that movie would be about chess programmers, I knew I was…what was the movie I could make with this camera?
What camera did you use on this film?
This is the Arri Alexa. Which is a beautiful, contemporary camera.
And you’re just as happy shooting with that?
Well it’s different. I’m still plenty romantic about film. If I were the king of the world, we’d smash all the digital projectors and go back to film. But anybody who is making work, that’s part of the work, that’s part of your materials in the present.
You made up the word Mumblecore…
I didn’t make it up. I sat next to the person who made it up. He told it to me and I laughed. And then I said it somebody else, which was an error in judgement.
Is it long gone? I think ten years ago you were saying it was over.
Well, no, it never existed. It was always kind of a fantasy. But it’s been a useful fantasy in some ways. I assume the word will be etched on my tombstone, and that’s fine. I’m certainly more at peace with it now than I probably was ten years ago. The nice thing about it, to the extent that it’s about a particular community, I like that community. I’m happy to be associated with that. [Joe] Swanberg is in the theater right now watching this as we speak, so that’s great. I love that guy and I love his work.
How did you come to Regina Hall, or did she come to you?
We came to her. This is my sixth feature but it’s my second that I’ve done with pros, you know the kind of folks who have agents and so forth and so on. So that starts in this kind of unsexy way where you just kind of look at a list of names and you go “Who makes sense, who’s interesting?” I knew some of her work and I was interested and we set up a meeting. I’m sure I will tell my grandchildren that she actually took me to the Girls Trip wrap party.
I didn’t stay long because I’m shy and I don’t feel like I belong at somebody else’s wrap party. But she was very sweet. She brought me in there and introduced me around. We had a nice meeting in New Orleans and I fell right in love with her. I started to see the character come to life just as we sat down and had coffee and chatted. That’s an exciting moment when you go, “okay, I think this might work.” So we went from there. My expectations were high and she exceeded them.
You said you’re shy. The last thing I’d expect is you at the Girls Trip wrap party. Now you’re working with professionals and agents. Is that a very different experience? Is it more difficult? More fun?
It’s less fun, for sure. On the early movies, casting was a kind of game and going out into the world and seeking out interesting people or people who felt like… It was nice to do that in an unfiltered way. Of course going through agents…it all works and the people are all nice and friendly and stuff. But it’s inherently a less fun process for sure. To go through layers of management to get to talk to somebody. But once you get there, once you’re in the room with Regina: it’s good.
Are you working on another script right now?
I’ve got a job right now. So I’m writing for money. Which is great and it’s a great job and I’m very grateful to have it. After that, I don’t know. I think I can go two or three weeks without knowing what I’m doing and really like that. On the third or fourth week I can’t take it anymore.
Writing for money?
It’s a studio feature. We’ll see what happens.
Support the Girls has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures. It will be released later this year.