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Don’t Say “Mumblecore” to Bujalski

Indie filmmaker screens his latest, Beeswax, at the Coolidge

| From BU Today | By Robin Berghaus

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The trailer for the latest film from Andrew Bujalski (pictured), Beeswax.

They’re not blockbusters — no big budgets, not a lot of drama. They’re quiet films, life unfolding, unafraid to leave questions unanswered.


In 2002, four years after finishing college, Andrew Bujalski, former College of Communication film production instructor, released his first feature film, Funny Ha Ha, — about recent college grads and young professionals searching for jobs, affordable rent, and love, behaving awkwardly — and cast, appropriately enough, with friends in the same boat.

Funny Ha Ha was praised, screened internationally, and won the Spirit Awards Someone to Watch Award in 2004 from Film Independent, which included a $20,000 grant. His first two features, Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, helped inspire the new film movement “mumblecore,” a term he helped coin.

Fast forward:

Bujalski’s newest film, Beeswax, is now out. Like Funny Ha Ha, its characters still swirl in life’s turbulence. The difference? They’ve grown up a bit, as he has.

Last week, he returned to Boston to show Funny Ha Ha at the BU Cinematheque, a weekly program at COM that brings filmmakers to campus. Beeswax started September 18 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

Bostonia: Where do you get your inspiration for stories and characters?
Story ideas have come from people I know. I’ve written the scripts, and they play the leads: Kate Dollenmayer in Funny Ha Ha, Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation, and now the Hatcher twins, Tilly and Maggie, in Beeswax.

None are professional actors, but I thought they had a charisma that could carry a film.

How did you know they had that charisma?
I run screen tests. I put a camera on potential characters. Sometimes people freeze up, and you can’t figure out how to unfreeze them. Sometimes people pick a part of themselves to exaggerate, often self-parody; you don’t know which part it will be until you aim the camera.

How do you elicit natural performances from nonprofessionals?
My films have been about confusion, characters trying to find their way through their lives, scene by scene. This is something that goes against a professional actor’s training, because it’s usually an actor’s job to clarify; they’re trained to express something very specific in every moment, so the audience knows the character’s motivation and placement within the story arc.

These stories don’t work that way. They take place on much lower frequencies. A lot is happening microcosmically, moment to moment.

You acted in your first two features. Why not in Beeswax?
Acting was a very valuable experience. But I didn’t feel like I had much left to give. I always want to get something that I haven’t seen from a person. When you’re working with nonprofessional actors, that’s not hard to do, because you haven’t seen anything from them before.

Also, my favorite scenes were the ones I wasn’t in. So I thought, why don’t I make a whole movie out of scenes I’m not in?

As an independent filmmaker, why do you shoot on film when video is less expensive?
It’s always hard to talk about distinctions between film and video, because video has evolved so rapidly. But I think in most cases you still can tell the difference.

I don’t know how much of it is cultural tradition or that the storytelling I grew up with is connected to film. It feels different than video. Film has a greater claim to beauty and authority. Maybe because I’m making these films with nonprofessionals and because they’re about a kind of confusion and misdirection, I need the authority of film to make the story stick.

There is also a discipline to working with film. When Mutual Appreciation came out on DVD, we made an eight-minute short on video. It was a great experiment, but video didn’t have that same spark and electricity when the hard drives start up as when the film magazines start up. There is something about film that snaps you to attention.

Describe the “mumblecore” film movement.
The mumblecore label has had a strange lifespan.

In 2005, Mutual Appreciation played at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, where I now live. There were a few films made that year by young filmmakers about young people in relationships. Jokingly, I said to Eric Masunaga, the sound mixer on my film, “Some of these bloggers think there’s a new film movement going on. What would you call that movement?” He came up with the term “mumblecore.” I thought it was funny, and made the terrible mistake of repeating it in an interview. The word lay dormant for a few years. Then in 2007, it seemed to be all over the place. Now we’re stuck with it.

It’s interesting to have been at the birth of a neologism. But I never believed it had anything to do with what I was doing. At best, it’s a convenience for people to say, this thing reminds me of that thing. At worst, it’s a way to take a group of filmmakers and dismiss them in one fell swoop.

It’s funny how far the label has gone. I saw it in the New York Times the other day in a Boy Crisis music review that had nothing to do with film, but suggested the song would be perfect for a mumblecore soundtrack.

Whenever I see Eric, I tease him about it. And then also kind of hang my head and wish that he had never said it.

How do you develop the title of your films?
Somebody told me an old superstition: “If you haven’t committed to a title by the first day of shooting, you’re always going to struggle with it. You’ll never know if it’s right unless you’ve lived with it throughout the shoot.”

Coming up with a title has been different for every film. With Beeswax, I used several titles while writing drafts. None of them stuck. Beeswax came into my head while we were shooting, and I wrestled with it through editing. And now I can’t imagine it being called anything else.

As far as what Beeswax means, I want to leave that to the audience. I keep reading interviews with Tarantino where he’s asked, “Why is the title Inglorious Basterds misspelled?” Because he’s Tarantino, he can get away with saying, “I’ll take the secret to my grave.” Inglorious Basterds doesn’t seem mysterious to me, but Beeswax doesn’t either. So if anybody finds Beeswax enigmatic, it will have to stay that way.

What advice do you have for student filmmakers?
It’s a time of great flux in the industry. Nobody really knows what’s coming down the pike.

I would encourage students to remember why they cared about filmmaking in the first place. If they care about it because they love movies and being creative, they should hang onto that, because there’s a tremendous amount of pressure to be commercial. Students should make the best work they know how, not let marketing concerns screw that up.

What’s next for you?
I’ve learned that if you get to a point where you make a lot of money, you can follow your whims. Until the money is flowing, nothing is going to get made without devoting your life to the cause. That’s a trigger I haven’t pulled yet. I’ve got a few ideas that go in a few different directions and would take my life in a few different directions, but I need to pick one.

Beeswax is currently screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Coolidge Corner Theatre ticket and schedule information is available here.

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