Andrew Bujalski Explores Disconnection in His Pandemic-Crafted Film

Touching from a distance in There There

Andrew Bujalski on the "set" of There There (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The pandemic isn't over, but everyone's finding new ways to live through it. Take Austin filmmaker Andrew Bujalski. "I'm starting to be a bit more cavalier," he said. "I was just walking around a coffee shop with no mask."

There haven't been many films about the pandemic – a subject that has seemingly made filmmakers squeamish. Yet even within that small catalog There There, the latest movie from Bujalski (Computer Chess, Support the Girls), stands out. Most others, like British horror Host or Peter Hedges' La Ronde-esque ensemble piece The Same Storm, explore how people found proxy connections through technology, through Zoom and FaceTime. In There There the characters are never onscreen together, and the audience must discern how they are sharing a space – virtually, or socially distanced across a coffee table or restaurant bar. The real secret is that there was no point in production where the actors were in the same space – or even the same city. "The chemistry is all movie magic," said Bujalski.

He described the Tribeca Film Festival-selected There There as "a screenplay that was devised for a very specific method of working." About three months into lockdown, film production became one of the first industries to come back, due to the use of heavily regulated bubbles on set. Big-budget movies are already pretty segregated on set, Bujalski noted, "and Hollywood just went, 'Let's throw another $10 [million] or $20 million and we're good to go.'" But, he added, "because I'm a lunatic" he started to think about the underlying concepts of cinema, and one idea stuck in his head. "Every time you edit, there's a lie that tells the truth. Maybe one actor who is gazing lovingly into another person's eyes, that actor went home hours ago. … Can I take the natural dissonances there and really pull them apart? Just like taking a piece of taffy and yanking it apart, so I'm making a much greater disconnection by literally isolating everybody."

Bujalski assembled a star-laden cast, including Lennie James, Lili Taylor, and Jason Schwartzman – but assembled is the wrong word. Each cast member recorded their half of their scenes in a state of splendid isolation, from wherever they were using an equipment package shipped to them in a padded Pelican case. There would be one technician in the room, and usually another actor reading the other character's lines ("We call them 'phantom cast'"), but everyone else – Bujalski, his longtime director of photography Matthias Grunsky, and the rest of the production team – were on Zoom. "It certainly wasn't conventional," the director said. "It was like eight microshoots. We'd do one performer at a time, figure out everything we needed to figure out for that person, and usually be in some phase of prep for the next person, whenever that was coming up."

From a technical point of view, There There was a completely fresh challenge for Bujalski, and he ended up with 80 hours of footage of raw performance ("by far the most I've ever had") to craft into a film by melding these disconnected monologues into dialogues. "It's a testament to what actors do," He said. "When I'm watching Lili Taylor and Lennie James in that first scene, it's like I'm watching Lili imagining Lennie, and then I can cut to her imagination."

So while There There was definitely born of the pandemic, Bujalski rejects the idea that it's about the pandemic, but instead about "strained intimacies. … About the feeling you can have at any time of standing in a room with somebody and wondering if you're in the same place at all."

There There is available on VOD now, and opens Fri., Nov. 25, 7:30pm at AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35, with director Andrew Bujalski in attendance for select screenings. Read our review.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Andrew Bujalski
AFS Spotlights the Early Work of <I>Support the Girls</I> Director Andrew Bujalski
AFS Spotlights the Early Work of Support the Girls Director Andrew Bujalski
Three from the heart

Kimberley Jones, Jan. 4, 2019

Andrew Bujalski Pumps Up With <i>Results</i>
Andrew Bujalski Pumps Up With Results
Microbudget auteur increases marketability with fitness fable

Michael Agresta, May 29, 2015

More by Richard Whittaker
The Liminal Lone Star State: Iliana Sosa’s El Paso in <i>God Save Texas</i>
The Liminal Lone Star State: Iliana Sosa’s El Paso in God Save Texas
HBO docuseries screens at AFS Cinema this weekend

March 1, 2024

Opera Fights, Puppet Plays, and More Arty Events
Opera Fights, Puppet Plays, and More Arty Events
Get an arts fix this week

March 1, 2024


Andrew Bujalski, There There, AFS Cinema

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle