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Better Than OK 'Computer'

Andrew Bujalski's 'Computer Chess' is an unlikely winner

By Dan Solomon, Fri., Aug. 23, 2013

Better Than OK 'Computer'

It's been a hell of a year for Austin films, between the high-profile success of movies like Mud and Prince Avalanche, and the indie breakout of movies like Zero Charisma (which was picked up for distribution by Nerdist Industries last month) and A Teacher (out in September via Oscilloscope Laboratories) – but perhaps the most surprising Austin film to reach a wider audience this year is Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess. The feature about a computer chess convention in 1983 was shot on a vintage black-and-white video camera and tells its story about obsessed misfits in an observational, faux-documentary style that allows the film to wash over an audience – and this has helped the movie garner gushing reviews from outlets like Variety, The Guardian, Wired, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as theatrical runs all over the country. We caught up with Bujalski to talk commercial filmmaking, awkward people, and why the creative limitations that come with making a $100 million feature scare him much more than having to shoot in a hotel somewhere.

Austin Chronicle: When you first started telling people that you wanted to make a movie about a convention of programmers in the Eighties who trying to build better chess computers, did they tend to get it right off the bat?

Andrew Bujalski: It's such a kind of cockamamie thing, I don't know if I got it. It was a real exploration. To some extent this is true of everything I've done, but it seemed the most true in this case: This was really just following some instincts that were pretty deep in my subconscious. I feel like my conscious mind had very little to do with the making of this movie. Which, of course, makes it hard to explain, but I think I was, if nothing else, honest with people about the fact that we were all going to be diving off a cliff together. I think everybody who got on board got on board in that spirit. 

AC: In a lot of ways, it's a risky movie. You're working with a weird aspect ratio, in black-and-white, with actors wearing bad haircuts who are playing awkward people. Did you go into this movie looking to take some chances?

AB: I feel like everything you just mentioned is run of the mill for me [laughs]. But yes, of course we were taking chances, although it just depends what your perspective is. It was in no way, shape, or form intended to be a commercially viable product for the marketplace. Quite honestly, I've been pleasantly surprised, with the emphasis on surprised, on how well it has been received. In some strange way, it turns out to be more commercially viable than my previous movie, which on the surface of it would seem to be the more accessible thing. So who knows? I find that all wildly difficult to predict. I'm the last guy who can explain marketing to you or what drives an audience out the door.

AC: It's fascinating that this black-and-white movie about awkward nerds is one of the year's breakthrough indie films. Would you have ever guessed that for this movie? 

AB: No. We spent the early part of 2011 trying to pull together what would have been a much more conventional, expensive movie. It still would have been a strange little indie in its own way, but not quite as strange and not quite as little and not quite as indie, I suppose. Ultimately we ran into the same kind of financing nightmares that so many people do when trying to make that kind of movie, so we put it on the shelf for the short-term, and I decided to just go for this. After banging my head against the wall trying to do something in the semi-conventional marketplace, this was a way to run away from all that. And, of course, it's terrifically liberating. But this did seem like we were making things about as difficult for us as we possibly could. In May 2011, I called up Houston King and Alex Lipschultz, who became the producers on the movie, and I said: "Hey guys, I've got an eight-page treatment. I don't have a script for this movie. I don't have any money for it. I don't know how we'd get money. It's got something like 30 speaking parts, which I haven't cast yet, and we'd need an additional 50 or so extras beyond that. It's a period piece. I want to shoot it on an experimental camera rig that we haven't designed yet. It's about an arcane topic that I don't really know anything about, and we start shooting in about three months. What do you say?" And they said OK. I feel incredibly blessed to have the movie we have from that.

AC: This seems like an unlikely subject to make a movie about if you don't know much about it. Where did this come from?

AB: Before I knew anything else about it, I knew that I wanted to do something on the old, outmoded black-and-white tube video cameras. I'd seen some footage that William Eggleston shot in the Seventies as a hobbyist on the Sony Portapak – incredible documentary footage, but also incredible imagery. I just fell in love with the look of the camera. Something about that footage really stuck with me, and really got me enthusiastic about the idea of, "I wonder if we could do something. I wonder if there's a narrative story to be told with these kind of images." Because there's a ghostly quality to the old black-and-white video. If you point the camera at a bright light and then pan away, that bright light will stay burned into the image for a while. So in a way, all these images leave trails, and there's ghosts everywhere. There's a very spectral quality. It almost feels like it's making literal some kind of metaphor about moviemaking, that we're always watching ghosts onscreen. So I loved that, and I started to dream up what would be the story I could tell in there. For years people had been, sometimes with a soupçon of anger in their voices, asking me why I was still shooting on film, because I'd made three movies on 16mm. People seemed to want me to account for it – who did I think I was to not catch up to the video era? Some contrarian impulse in me too thought, "Alright, you guys want video? I'll show you video." Because video doesn't have to mean the RED cam, or whatever's hot this year. There's a lot of different kinds of video out there, and a lot of different ways to make an image. To me, they're all different ways of telling a story. I have no beef with contemporary video. My beef is with people thinking that all formats should be, or are, interchangeable. I think they all tell the story a different way. So I just wanted to bring awareness to that.

I think I just talked to you for five or 10 minutes about the genesis of this idea and did not mention computers or chess [laughs]. The fantasy of doing a movie on the old tube camera videos came first, I think, and then at some point I read something somewhere about computer chess, which just struck me as such an interesting notion. I wondered what the culture of that would have been. That obviously lodged somewhere adjacent in my subconscious, and the two things kind of melded together. This was over the course of years. I really don't remember most of how this project came to be because it was mostly happening in a place my conscious mind didn't have access to.

AC: Are you drawn to the sort of awkward people that this movie is about?  

AB: I guess I must be. People keep telling me that all my movies are about awkward people; I think of them as normal people. I guess I don't interact very much with the smooth talkers who must outnumber us weirdos.

AC: Between Sundance and South by Southwest, and bigger films like Mud and Prince Avalanche, this has sort of been the year that Austin movies have stormed the beach together. What's your take on this moment in Austin film?

AB: Who knows? I've never known a more supportive filmmaking community, and I don't know if one exists anywhere else in the world right now. So that's thrilling. That's a great thing about living in Austin is that it feels like people will really drop whatever they're doing to run and help you with whatever you're working on. People are friendly all over the world, but that ethos of doing everything in people's power to make something happen seems unique to this town at this moment. I don't know if it'll last, but certainly I've been thrilled with that, and I don't think we could have dreamed of pulling off something like Computer Chess without that kind of community around us. So that's good, and obviously there's a tremendous amount of talented people around. There's a tremendous amount of resources. There's a tremendous amount of good will in the town. But who knows, these things are so hard to pin down and so ephemeral in a way. But it's also nothing new. If you can say this year's a breakout year, you could probably say that about any of the last 20 years, and hopefully any of the next 20. Austin's had a real great tradition of filmmaking in the last few decades.        

AC: Computer Chess looks like the sort of movie that embraced its limitations – like you rented some rooms in a hotel somewhere, brought people in, and shot it fairly quickly. Is that accurate?

AB: I guess so. That's filmmaking. You're always trying to use your limitations, whatever they are, to your advantage. Even the shape of the screen is a limitation. Length is a limitation. It's all limitations. You try to find a way to make those things work to your advantage. I like that. To me, making a $20 million movie or a $100 million movie is a much scarier affair because the limitations are a good deal more severe. You can buy more stuff that usually comes with a hefty load of limitations. The kind of limitations that come from having no money – those are limitations I know how to work with. Those are fun ones.

AC: Having done that with this movie, what's next? 

AB: I've got a few different things I'm throwing at the wall. Quite honestly, what I'd like to do next is figure out how to earn a living. My experience is that there are always at least half a dozen things cooking in my mind, which tend to range from something that I think is wildly commercial that I want to sell for money, to something that I think is wildly un-commercial like Computer Chess. The further that you go down that scale of commercialism, the more likely it is that it becomes something that I could personally push through.

AC: Do you think that the response that Computer Chess is getting is going to open doors for you?

AB: If we're talking about doors with money behind them, probably not. I'm sorry I keep talking about commercialism and money. It's terrible. There are other doors out there.

AC: The commercialism and money are interesting in regards to this film, though, because it's been getting so much attention and it's very singular – it doesn't have any interest in being all things to all people. It feels like something that you felt compelled to make, and it's interesting that something so idiosyncratic is what people are responding to.

AB: I feel very blessed and very fortunate that the thing is having the reach it has. I've never made anything zeitgeist-y or relevant before. I felt like I stumbled into it this time. I don't know if I'll ever make anything culturally relevant again. I noticed that if you put the word computer in the title of your movie, a lot of people get excited, because a lot of people have very deep relationships with their computers. As do we all, that's just the 21st century. So I do feel like we tapped into something somewhat unknowingly on my part. It's been fascinating. It's always such a mystery to me. I'm always the last person to know or understand how an audience is going to react to any of these things.


Computer Chess opens in Austin on Friday, Aug. 23. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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