By now, the term ‘mumblecore’ is widely seen as a dated and derided way to describe a type of filmmaking that emerged in the early aughts known for its improvised life grumblings, low production values, and non-professional acting talent. One of those films was Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (the term was coined by his sound mixer, Eric Masunaga). But Bujalski, along with fellow mumblecore “members”—Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, and the Duplass brothers among them—have distanced themselves from the term both professionally and in interviews. Bujalski’s latest film, Computer Chess, which opened yesterday, is set at a 1980 Californian computer chess tournament, and strings together vignettes surrounding a weekend of computer programmers and their chess algorithms, each competing for the top spot. But Bujalski has always trafficked in human theater, and this film is no different. The starkly contrasting scenes of a hippie discovery group exploring themselves in the same space at night are particularly hilarious and telling of more universal themes at work. “There is a certain kind of weird pleasure that goes along with a whole profession talking about technology you don’t understand that I tried to capture in the movie,” he says. Peculiarity and deep-cutting insights are of course, where he flourishes, and our conversation was full of much the same. Read on for more on the director’s love of true originality, creating for the sake of creating, and playing the money game.
Were you well aware of the computer chess world? The film gets pretty technical.
It does. I tried to cast people who had as much legit technical background as possible, so there are real guys in the cast who can say these things a lot better than I could even write it. Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Professor Schoesser, he’s a computer science professor at the University of Chicago and James Carver who plays a British programmer, he’s the real deal too. It couldn’t all come from my head, not even a tiny fraction of it.
Why did you choose a hippie encounter group as the foil for computer chess participants?
As Dave’s character says in the movie, we’re all kind of seekers here. I think that even though their pursuits might seem radically different, I think ultimately they are strangely on their own versions of a quest. I don’t think you set about building an artificial intelligence without on some level trying to solve the mystery of organic intelligence, of your own intelligence. I think you kind of build that computer brain on some level to try get to know your own brain better. In some way, the encounter group folks are taking a very different route, but to a similar goal.
How authentically did you make the movie? Did you Mad Men it and not allow anything that wouldn’t have been around that year?
Well we certainly didn’t have Mad Men’s budget, but we did our best. I’m sure anyone who wanted to be a hardcore stickler could find plenty of anachronisms in there, if you’re looking for them. My feeling was that period pieces are never really truly about recreating the past and certainly I think that’s true of Mad Men. I think Mad Men, as much as they do a beautiful job with costumes and set, it doesn’t feel that much about the ’60s. To me it’s a very, very contemporary show. It’s about today. Whether you’re looking into the past or looking into the future, it’s a convenient metaphor for today. So I wasn’t so much worried about doing a perfect job of bringing back the past as I was just trying to open up that wormhole between the past and the present.
You prefer a very stripped down aesthetic that highlights idiosyncrasies quite well. Why do you think you love them so much?
[Laughs] Because I’m idiosyncratic, I guess. I think you’ve more or less boiled down my quote unquote career. That’s what I’m always seeking, even when I’m doing my more conventional looking movie. I’m interested in the oddities in the parts that make you stop and cock your head and wonder what you saw.
What do you think about the nickname “The Godfather of Mumblecore?” Is it going on your tombstone?
Probably, but I won’t be the one carving it.
Even after years of critical acclaim, you didn’t have a film show at Sundance until this past year. Obviously, there is an aspect of recognition necessary in the film world. Was that something that bothered you?
No, not at all. I was happy to be there this year, certainly, but I don’t know, all that stuff I’m kind of trying to train myself to care about it because I am not getting any younger, and certainly I have a wife and a house and child now, so I have plenty of reasons to want to play the status game and the money game and all those games, but none of them have ever been intuitive to me.
Do you think you’ll ever try your hand at more commercial films?
Oh, sure. Lord knows if there’s any chance of me doing this sustainably, I would have to at some point. But I don’t know, there’s the desire to make a living and be a responsible citizen and just that desire to do something and make something. Certainly Computer Chess came from that place.
What was the last bigger-budget project you pursued?
Two years ago, we’d been trying to get together a more conventional, more expensive, presumably more commercial kind of movie and we just kind of ran into a brick wall of financing, and it became clear that we weren’t going to shoot it that year. I’d still like to make that movie someday, but when it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen in 2011, we really turned on a dime and I pulled this eight page treatment our of my drawer and said, “Okay let’s go shoot this right now.” And I think that’s probably always my way—I will try and try to do things responsibly, and when those don’t work out, at some point, I get frustrated enough that I have to go do something exciting and crazy and financially disastrous.
Computer Chess is now in theaters. For more on the film see here.