The director Andrew Bujalski talks about the Mumblecore movement, his latest film and why he avoids narrative closure
An unlikely story
The American independent movie scene has all but imploded over the past 24 months as major studios close their speciality divisions and funds for smaller projects dry up. But Mumblecore has bucked the trend. The filmmaking movement is characterised by ultra-low-budget movies. Scripts are usually improvised, casts made up mainly of non-professionals, and shooting lasts for only a few days. Stories typically focus on personal relationships.
Some of the brightest new directing talents around are associated with the movement, including the Humpday director Lynn Shelton and the guys behind The Puffy Chair, Joe Swanberg and the brothers Jay and Mark Duplass. But Andrew Bujalski might be considered the leader of the movement. His 2002 film Funny Ha Ha was the first to get noticed - but only after he and his friends decided to self-distribute the film. The venture was so successful that, in 2005, they also distributed his sophomore effort, Mutual Appreciation.
The 31-year-old filmmaker's latest attempt, Beeswax, shot in Austin, Texas, stars the wheelchair-bound actress Tilly Hatcher as a vintage clothing store owner worried about her business partner's motives. Her real-life twin sister, Maggie, plays her sister on screen. Bujalski, who looks something like a young Francis Ford Coppola, with a big black beard and teddy bear paunch, grew up in Boston as an only child. He wrote the Beeswax script for Hatcher, whom he has known for some years, and relied heavily on her for advice on life in a wheelchair and on sibling rivalry.
Yet there are autobiographical elements in Beeswax, most notably in the idea that business decisions can impinge on personal life. Bujalski calls the story a metaphor about "the frustrations of the business of filmmaking". "We distributed my first two films ourselves, and that is something we did out of necessity. We never wanted to be distributors but the opportunity arose and we believed that we were in a position to do it better than others - not that there were a lot of other people interested in doing it. I pour a lot of my own business frustrations into the film."
Some have argued that Mumblecore members' works are too similar to each other, and Bujalski does not deny it. "I've made two other features, and they've been produced in a similar vein," he says. "To my mind they are wildly different from each other, but then I go see Spider-Man and I realise that, compared with that, all my films are pretty much the same. This style of filmmaking is obviously where my enthusiasm as a filmmaker lies. I'm excited by something that moves off the screen in a way that is different from the norm."
Certainly, few blockbuster directors would attempt to work with non-professional actors. "There is a freshness that comes out of that because the people don't have habits," Bujalski says. "What comes out of people is usually good instincts. With trained actors, when it's bad, it's bad - and recognisable. But untrained actors can be bad in ways that you've never seen before, and that can be something that is really exciting. Obviously they can also be great in ways that you have never seen before, too."
Bujalski says it's unlikely that he'll make a bigger-budget film with stars any time soon. "I wouldn't rule out the possibility. However, when you make this type of film and get some attention, the inevitable next step is that people come to you and say: 'OK, kid. You have to take this to the next level now.' There is a contrarian streak in me that always wants to say no." He clearly has no end game in mind for his career, then, and this is perhaps reflected in his open-ended tales (which differentiate him from his fellow Mumblecore directors).
"It's hard for me to put my finger on where that comes from," he says. "Obviously it's something that I'm attracted to and in one way or another do in all my films. I feel an aversion to traditional narrative closure. Closure is not something I really relate to very much in my own life. I think that day-to-day things evolve, but I've never really experienced it and never felt closure on anything. For example, my life is unrecognisable from 10 years ago, but I don't feel like what I was doing 10 years ago is closed. It may just be dormant."
Or it may just turn up in one of his movies.