"Would we have made this in a non-COVID world?" ponders Andrew Bujalski. "Probably not. It's too crazy. But it's not about COVID."
The Massachusetts-born independent filmmaker is talking about his latest dramedy, There There. The film, Bujalski's follow-up to 2018's acclaimed Support the Girls, was conceived and shot during the COVID-19 lockdowns that rocked the world in 2020 and 2021. Bujalski, the so-called "the spiritual godfather of mumblecore," is no stranger to dealing with low budgets and difficult production schedules. Across his 20-year career, he has helmed everything from low-scale independent films like his debut feature, 2002's Funny Ha Ha, to more star-studded efforts like 2015's Results, with Cobie Smulders and Guy Pearce, and the Regina Hall-starrer Support the Girls.
However, even Bujalski is quick to note the strangeness of There There. The ensemble comedy, which counts actors like Lili Taylor, Lennie James, Jason Schwartzman, and Molly Gordon among its cast, was shot while each of its performers were still in isolation. The film never directly acknowledges that its actors are all in different locations, though. Instead, it simply cuts between the different sides of its scenes without ever addressing the fact that, in doing so, it may have just jumped back and forth between two rooms that are painted totally different colors.
For Bujalski, it was the experimental aspect of There There that most excited him. "I wasn't excited about it because I wanted to make a pandemic movie. On the contrary, I saw this as something that was a real, cinematic experiment," he says. "Films always stitch time and space together, and directors are always trying to make a truth out of a lie. For this film, I thought, 'Well, let's just push that to a real extreme and isolate everybody entirely.'"
What Bujalski hoped might emerge from such an experiment is a film that, he says, is "about connection across disconnection." Whether or not he succeeded in conveying that will, of course, be decided by There There's viewers. Either way, knowing that he actually followed through on a film that he himself admits is "unique and strange" seems to be reward enough for Bujalski. "I don't expect anyone else to ever do this again," he says. "But I'm glad we did it."
In conversation with A.frame, Bujalski discusses There There and the challenges he faced while making a film in isolation.
A.frame: What made you decide to attempt making a film during lockdown?
It was something that started as a sanity exercise and turned into an insanity exercise. [Laughs] When the lockdowns hit, there was a period of about three months where nobody could do anything, and then people started to come back and do these bubble productions. It was all very nerve-wracking. Things were getting shut down all the time. But during those months, this idea crept into my head. I thought, 'Is there any way to twist this into an opportunity? What's the thing that we can do now?' For better or worse, by the time 'normal production' was coming back, I was already down a rabbit hole of excitement.
What was your initial pitch to the film's stars? How did you convince them to join you in this experiment?
One thing I've learned in my career is that, in some ways, casting tends to be self-selecting. You don't have to worry too much about convincing people to be in your film, because the people who don't want to do a weird little indie movie aren't going to return your call in the first place. In general, the people you talk to are typically already weirdos. [Laughs] We couldn't have gotten luckier, though. We got such an extraordinary cast from top to bottom for this.
They're all not only remarkably talented, but we also asked them to do what is, I think, by far the most grueling and difficult thing I've ever asked actors to do. They were all on set for these 12-hour days where the camera was never not on them. We were just drilling this material over, and over, and over again. That was the only way to do it. It was these 15-page scenes, and we were shooting take, after take, after take. It was more like rehearsing for a play, in a way, than a typical movie production where everything’s very broken up and segmented. They were all not only extraordinary in their talent, but also in their patience and adventurousness, because there was never a normal day on set for any of us.
The film feels very loosely structured. Were the scenes in it always organized the way they are in the final film? Or did the order change at all while you were editing it?
I had a fairly early cut that I showed to some friends. A very smart filmmaker had an idea that he pitched me that was basically, 'Hey, what if you switch the order of this and this?' That was kind of a mind-blowing idea, because it changed so much. I gave it some thought and tried to do a rough version of it, but then I ultimately decided against it. The structure you see on-screen is the structure from my script because, as you can imagine, doing a major structural shift opens up a lot of exciting possibilities. In this case, I thought doing so also created more problems than it solved. In a way, that was a bit of a relief because I thought, 'I wrote it this way for a reason. It makes sense this way.'
There's one moment in the film where a character literally sets his computer up between two desks that have been stacked on top of each other. Did the film's unique, remote production process make you more open to trying unique setups like that?
That was one of those funny things where, even though I was on Zoom, I wasn't actually there. I wasn't in any of the film's locations. We had an art director, Caitlin Ward, who was phenomenally helpful in helping us figure out and strategize our shooting process, but she wasn't running an art department that could go in and actually transform a place. In many ways, the film brought me back to where I started 20 years ago when there was no art department and no art director. You would just walk into a place and say, 'What's here? What sings for us?' Most of the time, we'd leave the places as they were, because we couldn't afford not to. In a way, that method oddly feels more intuitive to me than any other.
It's very scary to me to walk into an empty room with a big crew and say, 'Okay, let's build this from scratch,' because whatever is made is going to be errorless. The problem there becomes: 'How do we take that and make it come alive?' Those desks were already there and Avi [Nash] had the idea of that space being his character’s little programming nook. We looked at it and loved it because it was so weird and specific. It's the kind of thing that'd be tough for me to write too. Just the idea that this guy has made a little hacky nook out of a couple of tables stacked on top of each other is so odd. But when you see it, you go, 'Oh, that's perfect.'
There's one scene in the film that is lit so similarly that I wondered for a moment whether the three featured actors were actually in the same bar or not, even though they obviously weren't.
We had so little equipment that we literally used a bulb in a China Ball for that scene. There's very minimal lighting in this film, so credit must be given to Matthias Grunsky, the cinematographer I've been working with for 20 years. Every movie we've done in one way or another was an insane challenge, and there are not a lot of cinematographers out there who have the same warrior spirit that he does. There's so little ego involved. I'm always like, 'I'm going to ask something impossible of you and we’re going to make some very weird and difficult images here. It's not all going to be stuff that you'll want to put on your reel, because it’ll be too weird.' He lives to serve the project though, and it was so much fun to work with him on trying to technically figure out this whole movie.
What was the most difficult sequence to put together editorially?
Just in terms of PTSD triggers, I remember feeling like the scene at the cafe with Lili Taylor and Annie LaGanga was kind of cursed. At every stage, there was something particularly, extraordinarily difficult about that scene. But we got through it and they're both so good in it that it's a pleasure for me to watch now. It was a rough one to figure out though.
Did you look to any other lo-fi films for inspiration while you were making this?
In a way, we were so far out on a limb that there was no obvious precedent, you know? We couldn't look at anybody who had done this. That said, we knew that it was ultimately only going to be the actors on set with their micro-crews. And because the film is so much about isolation, we wanted it to feel like the actor was alone. The truth wasn't that far off from that, and we knew that meant we were going to end up with a lot of weird-looking stuff.
One film that I remembered fondly, for whatever reason, was the Lars von Trier movie, The Boss of It All. It's one of his less beloved ones, because it's the lighthearted von Trier. But the ridiculous and wonderful thing about that movie was that, von Trier was saying, 'This is a revolutionary new movie that we shot with a robot D.P. [a.k.a. Automavision].' He claimed that a robot had framed every shot in that movie. I don't know whether or not that's true, but it certainly looks like it is. The film has a lot of very weird compositions and people are just in the corner of the frame at times. I enjoyed it so much. [Laughs] I had so much fun with that movie, so that was something that was in our minds. I just remember the joy of how it felt to see such off-kilter camera techniques. Of course, what I find in the edit is that sometimes that stuff works for us, and sometimes it works against us. There are plenty of times when you have an off-kilter frame and you think, 'This is not nice. I'm not using this.' But if you put the camera in the right place, there are other times when it can become quite magical.
How long did it take you to actually shoot There There?
About six months. This definitely wasn't a conventional production at all. We had to approach it like it was eight miniature productions. We tackled each performer one at a time. In many cases, our scheduling was dependent on availability. We started with Jason Schwartzman in March and then wrapped with Lili Taylor in September, so it was a long haul. I was able to start editing the film as we were making it, but only once I had both sides of a scene. As a result, there were plenty of moments where a performer was acting and neither they nor we knew who was going to be on the other side of their scene yet. For instance, in the first scene between Lili and Lennie James, Lili hadn't been cast yet when Lennie shot his side of the scene. He had no idea who he was talking to, and we tried to stay fairly equitable on that front. Lili didn't get to watch Lennie's footage, even though it existed at that point. She may or may not have even known that he was in the movie.
Last question: You've been making movies for a fair number of years now. What continues to inspire you?
It's always a surprise. That's the magic of it. You know, my first movie came out 20 years ago and, at that time, Big C 'Cinema' was already in decline. You already felt things dying around you. Things have, of course, gotten even worse now. And yet, artists keep managing to make things that are magical and special. Every time I get very depressed about the big picture of it all, I go to the movies and I see something come alive on-screen, and it's always a mystery. I always ask myself, 'How did they do that?' I don't know if I've figured out how to do it, but I'm always reaching for that feeling. I’m always thinking, 'Is there a way to make some magic up there?'
By Alex Welch