Middlegame: An Interview with Andrew Bujalski


By Phil Coldiron

Here’s a human point: this little introduction to the following interview with Andrew Bujalski on the occasion of the Sundance and Berlin premieres of his extraordinary new film, Computer Chess, has given me more sleepless nights than just about anything I’ve ever written. In a way that very few films have ever managed, Computer Chess is truly playful; i.e., it seems to constantly respond with surprising and inventive moves to every perspective that it’s viewed from—it’s no accident that Bujalski has filled a room here with cats for no other reason than that it felt right to him. The process of thinking through Computer Chess feels very much like how I imagine partaking in a high-level chess match must feel.

Bujalski has always shown a tremendous talent for letting big ideas work themselves out in mundane scenarios; this film takes both of those to their furthest limits. The plot is typically simple: a bunch of programming nerds get together at a motel in Nowhere, USA for a weekend of slugging it out computer vs. computer in a quest for early-A.I. glory. Various, and increasingly odd, narrative curlicues abound, but nothing much happens. Computer Chess’ main force of narrative thrust comes not from any event, but from the its subtly dynamic formal movement from something like mockumentary toward out-and-out abstraction; a movement aided by Bujalski’s totally logical choice to shoot on the Sony AVC3260, one of the earliest analogue video cameras. As Bujalski moves from flatly recording panel discussions and chess matches into a paranoid world of sentient machines and uncertain destinies, the soft, hazy quality of the black-and-white video comes to feel ghostly rather than quaint. Glitches abound: characters are split in two along jagged analogue fault lines; every movement leaves a smeary trail, as if the camera was somehow dragging a piece of the past into the present. Just as Bujalski’s first three features avoided the retro fetishism that’s attached to so much 16mm filmmaking these days, his use of antiquated video here has nothing to do with nostalgia.

Which isn’t to say that he’s not interested in the past. Most obviously, he’s assembled a cast of faces and bodies and clothes and hair and overall demeanours that feel more like 1984 than anything produced a decade into the 21st century should have any right to (even a recognizable face like Wiley Wiggins is subsumed into this thoroughly rendered ’80s milieu). For the film’s first half hour, it would be entirely reasonable to believe that this was in fact a recently unearthed oddity from an era when pitting processors against each other at chess seemed like a true test of computational power. This naïve brand of early-’80s techno-utopianism is placed into direct contact with the last sad remnants of the American ’60s via a group of free love proponents staying at the same motel for a weekend retreat to get in touch with their inner selves (their journey naturally led by an obscure African guru). Bujalski toys with this conflict before bringing the two sides crashing together when a couple of the swingers coax Peter (Patrick Riester, the closest anyone comes to being the film’s protagonist) into their bedroom with the hopes of introducing him to their world. As they engage in some pre-coital chit-chat, the wife laments Peter’s inability to really feel the world—it’s all numbers and rules and squares—to which he responds that there are 10,123 possible games of chess, and that there is beauty in all that possibility. The limping traces of the last era of widespread American radicalism, now left with nothing but hedonism to convince themselves that they’re outside the system, are confronted with a new wave of thinkers looking for beauty inside of structures. Fittingly, the old folks scare the hell out of this kid, and he runs for his life.

But even that reading is too clean and schematic; the thrill of Computer Chess is in the way that it sets up these contrasts and dichotomies and then puts them into play without ever approaching endgame. There is man vs. machine. Machine vs. machine. Thought vs. computation. Free will vs. determinism. Video vs. 16mm (one character, short on cash, returns home in search of money and upon his arrival the film suddenly shifts to colour 16mm, eventually locking into a loop that traps him in a formal purgatory where he remains for the rest of the movie). Order vs. chaos. Presence vs. absence. Black vs. white. But these are, in the end, all the same question; one which perhaps can’t be spoken, but can only be enacted. It first arises when, frazzled by his team’s computer’s strange tendency to voluntarily lose when playing against another computer, Peter decides to see what happens when he matches it against a human (Robin Schwartz, the only female among the programmers, and the object of Peter’s tentative desire), and it suddenly begins to play. Here’s a mechanical point: that’s true love.
Cinema Scope: You shot Computer Chess from a short eight-page treatment rather than a full script, how much did that change your working process?

Andrew Bujalski: It differed in as much as the first three were all made from very conventional-looking screenplays, where I wrote several drafts and tried to get it as perfect as I could, all of which sort of goes out the window on set. So in that sense, it was surprisingly similar, because whether you’re working from a worked-out script or just a couple of paragraphs, you still have to make sense of it with the actors; that process is still the same, of talking it through with them and finding out what works for them. In fact, really the only difference was that I had to be better prepared because there wasn’t as thorough a document to rely on if my mind went blank. So I had to have a slightly better sense of what we were doing. But the process was strikingly similar.

I haven’t read the treatment since we shot, but it was most of what’s in the movie, in one form or another. Obviously not every specific, but certainly scene by scene, that’s where we started. All the things in the tournament hall, while the games were going on, those days were so unwieldy, we had so much going on: 30 or 40 extras, and all the old computers, and there was a lot of choreography that had to be done. Those days had to be really well worked out, we had to know exactly what we were doing at the beginning of each day, because it was very frightening trying to get through it all. That’s the extreme end of preparation. Then at the other end, there are two scenes in the hotel room with the philosopher stoner guys, and the second one was the scene that I knew the least about; we showed up that morning, and I knew which actors were in it and I had some ideas about what they were going to talk about, but in fact most of my ideas didn’t work out that well, so that was a scene that was largely figured out by the actors, on the fly. That was my least prepared day, and we managed to survive it.

Scope: I wanted to start with the structure because I think one of the film’s real strengths is the way that it moves from something blocky and informational—it feels entirely like it could be a document of this little gathering of computer programming enthusiasts—into something much more slippery and strange without there ever being any obvious shift in tone or style.

Bujalski: Well, I probably wrote it down more or less like you said. I think it’s written in the treatment that it starts out as something that ideally could be mistaken for found footage and then we drift away and go somewhere else. There’s nothing more exciting—you know, in a goofy way—but there’s nothing more exciting than when you watch a movie and it seems to shift and change forms before your very eyes. An audience can feel betrayed or annoyed when you do that, but hopefully the groundwork was laid enough here that in some ways, as bizarre as it is by the end, I hope that the thing is coherent enough that there’s some hint of that in the first frame. I think it’s odd from the beginning; that oddness just flowers and flourishes more as it goes.

Scope: There’s something off, it’s just being captured in a very flat way, and as it goes along it begins to come into line formally a little more with that offness.

Bujalski: Part of that is that we’re working with a format that I’ve certainly never worked with before; as far as I know it’s the first narrative feature ever shot on the Sony AVC3260. So for me that really meant, just in terms of the way it felt, that there was no clear template, and that really made it a challenge in terms of editing. Sometimes when you’re making a movie, whether or not you care to admit it to yourself, in the back of your mind you have some movie you’ve seen, or some movie you’ve dreamed about, where you think, “OK, if this feels enough like that then we’re probably done.” With this I can’t think of a movie specifically that I was thinking of. Obviously you’re always taking things from all over the place, and we can sit here and probably start naming influences, but there was no other movie that it was supposed to feel like. On a very visceral level, the way that the footage looks just doesn’t look like anything I’m used to looking at. So in terms of finding the rhythms of it, it was all shots in the dark, and trying things out and seeing what felt good on its own terms.

Scope: You edited your first three films on a flatbed. How much do you think editing digitally changed things for you?

Bujalski: I think it changed things a lot, but the game has changed so much already, just in terms of the shooting format and the formal oddities of this movie and the fact that my life has changed so much since I cut the last movie—I’m a husband and a father and a homeowner now, so that alone makes everything different.

I cut this one on Final Cut, and I had a big, beautiful old CRT monitor which I’m sure was state of the art and very expensive when it came out, and I got it for free because this post-production house in San Antonio was throwing it out. So I just lived with that big monitor on my desk everyday. You know, cutting on a computer—I haven’t given up my affections for my Steenbeck. As I speak to you right now I’m looking at my poor Steenbeck, with a sheet draped over it in the corner of my office. I felt guilty because I worked every day editing this movie with my back turned to that Steenbeck. This was a different project though, and it required a different workflow.

One luxury I used to have, that I don’t have in the same way anymore, is time. The post-production process on my last three movies has been about the same every time in terms of how long it’s taken, but I think the convenience and the quickness of working on a computer was offset by the inconvenience of being a husband and a father and a homeowner. I’ve always been a slow editor, all of that just makes me slower, even though the computer is very fast. That’s another reason why I think it was hard to pin this thing down—not that this movie would have been any easier to edit on a Steenbeck, because that would have been nonsense—but there is something about film, and editing film, where there does seem to be more certainty in that process. It’s easier to be confident about when an edit is working or not. All the editors that I’ve talked to who lived through that transition from the film era to the video era complain about that same thing, that the speed and the infinite possibility of digital editing make for a constant feeling of uncertainty. You just get jittery: if you can undo everything in a moment, you do undo everything all the time. You never know if it’s right.

Scope: That seems particularly resonant with regard to Computer Chess in particular, even more than most digital movies; the idea of free will in the editing suite seems to line up with the ideas about free will and desire that people are concerned with in the movie.

Bujalski: Absolutely. The edit of this movie was a collaboration between me and a computer. Strange things happen when you try to get the human consciousness together with a computer brain; at best it produces oddities. The scary thing about the 21st century at least as far as the arts are concerned is that it has all become entirely too artificially intelligent. Certainly you feel that when you look at what’s coming out of Hollywood, it often seems designed and programmed by robots in a way that doesn’t communicate to my kind of human. Obviously it communicates very well to vast numbers of humans, so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much.

Scope: I think that points toward something a bit utopian about your film. You look at a computer-programmed movie from Hollywood and maybe it connects with lots of humans in some way, but what they’re really interested in is connecting with the market. And here you have a computer that possibly gains some sort of sentience and the first thing that it wants to do is engage one-on-one with a human being.

Bujalski: It’s very old-fashioned. That’s the period-piece part of it, I guess, this old-fashioned way of wondering about these questions. The funny thing is that I feel like all of those mid-20th century sci-fi ideas that started to seem quaint, now, at this moment, just seem to be coming back into vogue. I keep reading about how think tanks are wondering now about, well, what if The Terminator (1984) comes true? Which maybe ten or 20 years ago seemed goofy and now you think, “Well, shit, why not?”

But I think you’re right in that we’ve somehow learned to communicate right with the market—that’s my Terminator fear of where we’re at, not that the robots have become self-sufficient and are set up to destroy us, but that the robots have made capitalism so efficient that it’s become sentient and is going to destroy us.

Scope: To go back to this utopian impulse, after the frequent financial worries of the characters in your previous films, there’s something that does almost seem utopian about seeing professionals free of those concerns, chasing their own strange goals.

Bujalski: I’ve always thought of these early programmers as very monkish in their dedication and their focus. I did feel with the first three movies that, for better or worse, I’d very clearly tracked where I was professionally or personally at any given moment. I haven’t thought about it extending to this movie; I don’t believe that I’m as monkish as these guys. I admire it, and I envy it, but I don’t think that’s the direction that my life is pointing in.

Scope: This seems like a slightly less psychological movie than your first three.

Bujalski: Or maybe just more broadly psychological. The earlier movies burrow so deeply into one way of thinking about characters in the world, and you really have to go deep with them or not go with them at all. There are a lot more intuitive leaps in this movie; it’s more scattered, less focused. I don’t mean that in a bad way, at least I hope not. It’s a different kind of thought process driving the whole thing, and I would imagine a different kind of thought process that it requires to watch it. I’m hoping it doesn’t require the attention span than the others require, because for better or worse that’s sometimes a deal-breaker for some audiences.

Scope: Just as far as needing the attention span to watch people talk to each other at length in not always the most articulate ways?

Bujalski: Something like that. I think what happened with Beeswax (2009) was you had to be ready to go in and be quiet, and lean forward in your seat and engage with these people, and not everyone who went to see that movie could find their way into it. Whereas I think this movie offers a lot of entry points. I have no doubt that it will frustrate a lot of viewers, but I think it will frustrate them in a new and different way.

Scope: It certainly feels like your strangest film, as far as it’s not immediately concerned with the inner lives of a group of clearly defined characters, which I think has calcified into the thing that we expect from American independent cinema lately—this whole generation that’s convinced there’s no higher aspiration than character studies. The closest character you have to that here is Peter.

Bujalski: I can’t speak for everyone else, but the first three movies that I did I pulled the same trick of writing them with the lead actor, so all those movies were built around my imagination of how a specific performance was going to feel, and this is not that. I had no idea as I was writing this who was going to play any of the characters, and it was a huge break to find Patrick Riester to play Peter in this movie. And quite honestly, I think if I had known he was going to play this role I probably would have written it differently, and I don’t know that it would have been better. It’s just a different process, and one that requires this great stroke of luck of finding the perfect person. He was one of the last people to be cast; it was just a couple weeks before we started shooting that we locked him in. To me he is the closest thing to a lead character, but it’s really that he’s the heart and soul of it in many ways. I have no idea what this movie would be without that performance, so that’s just a gamble, a leap into the void.

Scope: I’d like to talk about a few of the more immediately strange moments in the film. Let’s start with the trip to the Papageorge household, when the film suddenly switches from black-and-white analogue video over to colour 16mm film and finds itself stuck in the cinematic equivalent of a locked groove.

Bujalski: I’m sure that will remain the most baffling sequence to a lot of people. Movies going from black and white to colour happens all the time. As long as colour has existed this is a trick that’s been pulled over and over again; I believe there’s a colour sequence in Raging Bull (1980), and there’s that one in She’s Gotta Have It (1986), but I think my favourite is the one in The Women (1939), where the movie just stops for a fashion show in colour, it’s amazing—and so it’s been going on forever, but it often signifies the world bursting into something beautiful. Of course the goofy example is that movie Pleasantville (1998) where once people can experience their feelings things turn to colour. What’s funny about it to me here, even if we couldn’t get our hands on any old film stock, is that we’re moving from a ’60s technology back to a ’30s technology—we shot that on a Bolex—and I sort of love that in this case black and white gets to represent cutting-edge modernity, the future, and colour is this strange past of going back to the womb of his mother’s house.

Scope: And the cats?

Bujalski: Why are cats avant-garde? Why do filmmakers like cats so much? I haven’t done a scientific survey of this, but they do. I would assume that the average American at least will take dogs over cats 75% of the time at least, but the average filmmaker easily 90% of the time goes for cats. I’m not sure what that is. It’s just one of those things: you can’t make an avant-garde film without one silly colour sequence and cats. Cats are cinema.

Scope: Cats are harder to control than dogs.

Bujalski: I wonder if most commercial filmmakers prefer dogs, since they can be directed.

Scope: And it’s not even strictly the avant-garde; I think there’s probably at least one cat in every Jacques Rivette movie.

Bujalski: I think of Agnès Varda as a great cat director too.

Scope: What was it like going back to Academy ratio after shooting widescreen for the first time on Beeswax? With such a big cast here it seems like it might have made sense to shoot widescreen, but then there’s the obvious resonance of the 4:3 frame with the squares on a chessboard.

Bujalski: I thought less about the ratio than the look of the video. I’m very happy in 4:3, I’ve done three out of four movies that way; it’s really good for putting a human face in. I’m not an epic filmmaker, so the human face is usually what I want to look at anyway. That was one of the challenges of Beeswax: I would think, “OK, I’m going to put the face here, now what am I going to put over here?”

Scope: How much was done in the way of research on recreating specific effects like the split screen or the text inserts?

Bujalski: No, there was no specific research on those sorts of things. If anything, without having gotten too heavy into research, there’s certainly a very heavy public-access influence at play in the movie. Speaking of public access, that’s another great thing that probably won’t survive much longer in the 21st century. There’s this wealth of avant-garde material on your TV 24 hours a day. I don’t turn on the TV very much, but when I do, I’m most likely to pause on public access; it’s the most likely to be something fascinating. It doesn’t always stay fascinating.

When I was living in Boston I had a roommate who was playing in an amateur baseball league, and one time one of his games was broadcast on public access and I turned it on and I watched some of it and it was just so fascinating, the editing was so weird. I couldn’t put my finger on what was strange about it. Normally when you watch professional sports on TV you really get it all; it’s pretty masterful in terms of storytelling—you absolutely understand what’s happening and who it’s happening to and why you’re paying attention to it. And there was something about the way it was done on public access that felt a little arbitrary, I felt lost in terms of where the camera was and why they were cutting at a certain moment, and I found it thrilling because at every moment I was being forced to reconsider what this baseball game was. It takes a particular taste, not everyone enjoys that kind of disorientation, but for me it was one of my television highlights of whatever year that was.

I think this has been true in all of my movies, but it really comes to the fore in this one: I think disorientation is a great tool that every filmmaker has access to, and you can get some magic out of it if you use it right. Most of my favourite movies are ones where I feel like I’m a half step behind, or a full step behind, and I feel like I’m trying to catch up with what’s going on. Obviously if you get too many steps behind you give up, and you say this is stupid, but there’s some sweet spot of disorientation where you want to know what’s happening, and it’s a pleasure to try to keep up with it.

Scope: That idea of opening up the possibilities of a baseball game certainly seems to have made its way into the film.

Bujalski: A movie is like a chess game in that sense, in that like any form it has limitations; one of the frustrating feelings you can have when you’re shooting a movie is like, OK, I’m shooting a conversation between these two people, so I’m going to shoot over this guy’s shoulder and then we’ll have a reverse over the other guy’s shoulder and then maybe we’ll get a wide shot…and you just start to think, “Good lord, millions of people have gone through this, isn’t there another way to do this?” And of course there is, but most of them probably aren’t better. So there are times when you can start to feel like it’s just like working in a factory, going through the same motions, but of course that’s not what reads on the screen if you do it right, if you do a good job with it. So there are certain mechanics that you feel locked into as in chess; you can’t be a creative chess player and decide, “Well my rook moves diagonally.” There are forms to follow, but there’s still infinite space within that.

It’s fascinating too that you’re formulating these sort of philosophical questions based on the movie, and it’s so interesting to me that those are in there; they were in my mind, and then I never said it out loud, and we went out and we made this movie and went through these formal strictures—I shot over somebody’s shoulder, and then I shot over somebody else’s shoulder—but somehow these weird ideas and these weird feelings come through, and there’s something very mysterious about that. How does that happen? How does intent end up in the movie? And obviously that’s the difference between the movies we love and the movies that bore us.