It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since I stumbled into a screening of Andrew Bujalski’s “Funny Ha Ha” at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Frankly, there wasn’t much difference between the outside world I had left and inside the theater where the twentysomething Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) floated through life, artfully attempting to maneuver out of one awkward encounter after another while putting a happy face (occasionally aided by alcohol) onto dim job and romantic prospects. Office conversations about Marnie’s familiarity with Excel and meandering late-night chats that devolve into teasing about lactating felt disarmingly honest and the opening and closing credits handwritten on sheets of paper were indicative of a homespun charm.
The film hit me at a particularly tender moment, just after my sophomore year of college, when it was already clear Bujalski’s film was all too prescient in imagining a future full of possibilities and bereft of opportunities. But you couldn’t say that applied to the writer/director himself, who found the sweet spot for humor in the restlessness of his characters, an impatience with life that seemed to extend into the very fabric of the film it was shot on, told in a way as if it were picked up and tossed off, always brimming with vitality. “Funny Ha Ha” would set the stage for Bujalski carving out an unusual corner of the film universe not just for himself and his equally touching features “Mutual Appreciation” and “Beeswax,” but for an entire wave of filmmakers such as Jay and Mark Duplass, Joe Swanberg, Ry Russo-Young and Lynn Shelton who were interested in loose-knit narratives and character studies in front of the camera, but complete control behind it.
As a result, there’s a real reason to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of “Funny Ha Ha,” which Bujalski has taken upon himself to resurrect this summer. After kicking the festivities off in Austin in late March, a print of “Funny Ha Ha” that the filmmaker says is the best the film has ever looked or sounded will circulate the country with stops in New York and Boston in the fall, Seattle on August 7th and 8th (at the Northwest Film Forum) and this Tuesday, June 5th at the Cinefamily where Bujalski will appear for a post-screening Q & A. But before he does, Bujalski graciously answered some questions via e-mail to reflect on the occasion, explaining how it came about, its legacy and how his latest film “Computer Chess” is coming along.
I’m overly sentimental about this kind of thing. Birthdays, anniversaries, whatever. But in this case really it was just an excuse to try to get it back on a screen. We have a couple gorgeous 35mm prints & I don’t like the idea of them collecting dust on a shelf. (And I have an absurd fantasy that maybe someday we can get the movie to break even financially — why not try to put a few little drops in that bucket?) As for milestones, I think mainly ten years signifies that it is probably too late to do a sequel.
When was the last time you saw it?
Well, speaking of those gorgeous prints, I had never seen the most recent one & wanted to check on how the color timing looked, so I sat through a screening in Berlin a few months ago. And it felt quite surreal. When we were making the movie, a decade ago, I don’t think it really occurred to me that it would be anything other than completely accessible to all potential viewers. I figured, I’m telling a straightforward story in a straightforward manner, so what’s not for everyone to get? But sitting in that screening a few months ago, I thought, Jesus Christ, this is so ridiculously personal, told almost in a private language, that it’s a miracle that it found any of the exposure that it did.
“Funny Ha Ha” has been cited as the start of the “mumblecore” movement, a term I know has come to be resented by some filmmakers including yourself, but putting aside the label, do you actually think you were onto something? And have your feelings about being seen as a pioneer in this respect or as part of a group of filmmakers evolved over the years?
Most of my bristling about the term comes from its being so totally reductive, such a convenient term for people who don’t give a fuck about the films to dismiss them. That’s fine, but I tire of answering questions about it. But that said, yes, sure, history marches on relentlessly and there are always generational shifts and while I think it’s an error to classify it as a “genre,” I’d agree absolutely that there are elements of perspective that a bunch of us share. I mean, when I read the word “mumblecore” in the New York Times, I understand what they’re referring to — I just think it’s the least interesting possible perspective to bring to these movies that so many have given blood sweat & tears to. But this is not unique to me. Nirvana and Pearl Jam both liked flannel shirts, but they didn’t sound anything like each other. Then again, I also like flannel — so just call me grunge.
How’s “Computer Chess” coming? Given the way that film came together through crowdsourcing, is it interesting to reflect on how “Funny Ha Ha” was put together by comparison?
[“Computer Chess” is] coming slowly but surely. The crowdsourcing thing worked out great, we were thrilled with the response, but for me the real downside & sadness of it was relinquishing the element of surprise. I would have *loved* to have never told anyone outside the cast & crew that the project existed until the day we premiered it. That would have thrilled me. Of course, that was the beautiful advantage we had on “Funny Ha Ha” — we could come out of nowhere, not because of any iron curtain of sworn secrecy, but because of our complete anonymity. You only get that once.