Andrew Bujalski on Playing for Keeps in “Computer Chess”

When going over the career of Andrew Bujalski thus far, one might be hard-pressed to come up with the film he thought of as a caper when they have all generally been driven more by the rhythms of life than by plot, but ask about the time he really felt he cased a joint and he’ll start telling you about “Computer Chess.”

“I do look back and have no clue how we did it, how any of these pieces managed to line up as fortuitously as they did,” Bujalski says now on the eve of its tenth anniversary. “It’s impossible to reconstruct anything, but that’s almost the most exciting thing about ‘Computer Chess.’ It’s wonderful to have that document of having gotten away with such a heist.”

“Computer Chess” is both decidedly of its era and not at all, only made possible by the burgeoning ability to crowdsource its seed money at the time in order for Bujalski to embark on the most formally arcane experiment in his career — or perhaps now rivaled his most recent feature “There There,” in which he playfully got around the pandemic by making scene partners out of actors that never met one another until the premiere. The comedy’s timelessness is now rooted in its adherence to period when Bujalski and longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky filmed on a Sony AVC 3260 video camera that actually would’ve been used at the time in which the film was set, embracing its visual quirks and turning it into a character among the many others populating a 1980 chess tournament where the players aren’t only challenged by one another, but in competing on the entirely new battleground of PCs, the ability of the machines to pull off the moves they have in their heads.

The programmers may be frustrated by the limitations of working with such finicky equipment, and further flustered by the couples therapy retreat going on elsewhere in the hotel where reason has no place amongst the free-spirited attendees, but Bujalski employs the tech of the time to truly fascinating effect and the director also came into “Computer Chess” with a more open mind than the single-minded coders of the film who are both excited and aggravated by what they are able to achieve. After building a career on tightly-scripted comedies made to sound off the cuff and getting creative in casting professionals and nonprofessionals alike who could deliver that naturalism, the filmmaker took his biggest risk to date in handing a slim scriptment to his ensemble, made up primarily of those with as much computing experience as acting experience — even the most famous member of the cast, “Dazed and Confused” star Wiley Wiggins, was a game designer by the time cameras rolled — and letting them run wild. Having shot the film in his home of Austin where the shadow of Dell Computing looms large and Goodwill collected so many vintage machines they opened a computer museum (sadly shuttered this year), the film captures the spirit of the community and reenters circulation at a time when the world now seems ready for it with the cultural conversation abuzz with talk of AI.

With the film launching “The Color of Black and White,” a series of instant monochrome classics such as “Frances Ha,” “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and “Ida,” at the Metrograph in New York this weekend, Bujalski reflected on what ended up being a turning point in his career, loosening up his ideas about filmmaking before a series of higher-profile films such as “Results” and “Support the Girls” and gaining confidence from daring to do something different and being able to pull it off.

I think the last time we connected was actually the 10th anniversary of “Funny Ha Ha,” and you’ve been a great custodian of your old movies, but did you know that’d be part of the gig as a filmmaker?

I’m just compulsive, and so many of the really successful people, there’s a spirit of always move forward, never look back that I admire and I envy, but I don’t quite have it. I always want to take care of these things and make sure that they stay out there because it’s so easy for things to be disposable these days. I’ve just always tried to resist that and do what I can to keep them available. So here we are, and it’s been pointed out to me many times [since] we just put out a new Blu-ray of “Funny Ha Ha” and we’ll put out a new Blu-ray of “Computer Chess” soon, now some of these things I’ve been flogging for half of my life. [laughs]

Well worth it though because they’re such great films. And this one seems to particularly relevant when everyone’s talking about AI. Is it exciting to be coming into the conversation now?

It is, man. And boy, did that develop fast. It’s been interesting. We’ve had a few screenings this year already in partnership with the Sloan Foundation, [who has] sponsored the Science on Screen series, so I’ve already gotten to hear a few AI experts talk in relation to some of these screenings. And even the people who’ve been in the field for 50 years seem to be a little stunned by the speed which things are moving now. I’m as terrified as anybody — maybe more terrified, but of course, I’m selfishly happy if it gets people to watch the movie while movies still exist and while humanity still exists.

So where were you in the scheme of things when this came about?

It was such a wild leap. I had an eight-page treatment, and that was kind of it. I knew I wanted to shoot on an experimental camera rig that we were going to have to figure out. And I didn’t have any cast, and I wanted non-professional actors, but I didn’t have a full script, I certainly didn’t have any money, and I’m trying to do a period piece on arcane subject matter that I’m also not particularly well- educated. So this was an insane thing on every level to try to do. Of course, that was the fun of it. The only resource that I knew I had here in Austin was nerds and I needed a lot of nerds to make this movie and I found the best of the best nerds to come and participate in this movie.

One of the things that really continues to boggle my mind about it too is not just the level of our cast in the movie who are all extraordinary, but I think it’s some of the greatest extras ever assembled too. We just put out the word to computer enthusiasts and chess enthusiasts in Austin, and we got some amazing people to show up. Some of them ended up having little speaking roles in the movie, and there’s a texture there that, I guess whatever last gasp of that era still existed, it turned up for us in a big way.

Is it true they actually helped on the technical side as well, as far as making this old equipment work?

Yeah, of course. People like James Curry, Wiley Wiggins, Gordon Kindlmann, all of them are giving these beautiful performances in the movie and doing a huge amount of work just as computer advisors. Wiley was programming some of the things that you’re seeing on screen, and as far as the actual dialogue in the movie, I knew what I needed dramatically. This programmer is having this kind of issue and needs this explanation given to him by his mentor. but [I would say to the actor] you tell me what that could sound like? And the other amazing thing with this particular group is that, of course, these were people who were all very smart and very well-educated. Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Professor Schoesser, is a computer science professor at University of Chicago. But they also had a great historical sense because we’ve got to be sending ourselves back through the mists of time. They knew how to talk about a 1980-era computer, and that level of programming. That’s a rare find, but we needed it.

That scene you allude to where there’s a talk between the two guys about putting together the compiler and they’re hashing it out and how information is processed is embedded in the edit, what was it like to work with the particular format of video you were?

Yeah, there are a couple aspects. One is shooting on this unique, very weird format and then this was also the first movie that I’d actually cut on the computer. Of course, that was completely conventional at that time, but I very late to that because I had been editing on film for as long as I could, but I figured if I was gonna go the other way, I might as well go all the way the other way. So we made a unique looking thing and then to have the computer consciousness of Final Cut Pro affected things. I know there’s some very, very peculiar edits in that scene that in some ways were a result of working on a computer, the kind of edits I wouldn’t or couldn’t have made on film. So whatever your circumstances are when you make a movie, you try to find a way to invite them into the storytelling and make them work for you.

It was actually nice to see this film after “There There,” and it seems to come after a couple more formally conventional films. Do you like to shake it up every so often?

I think so. It’s always a coincidence, and in both of those particular cases, I had something more conventional and more expensive that I was trying to put together and when I ran into roadblocks, there’s a part of your brain that goes crazy and says, “Well, I’ve got to do something,” so I come up with the weirdest leap off a cliff that I can. I’m so grateful in both these cases to have gotten through them and to have gotten them on screens. And I’ll always scurry to the crazy idea whenever I get a chance. Then I spend years after that going, “Oh wait, what have I done? I’ve got to do something that pays for my house.” But yeah, let me run off into a corner and do something weird and I’m a happy camper.

The ingenious narrative element of this is having the computer chess gathering coincide with a couples therapy retreat. Did that come to mind pretty early?

I don’t remember. I do remember thinking that if you were to do a story about early computing, there were certain cliches or certain ideas people had about computers in the ’80s and “Revenge of the Nerds” and Casio keyboards and all these things that didn’t seem quite entirely accurate to me, or at least not the full story. And that this computing culture that maybe grew dominant in the ’80s when we all got personal computers had come out of something else — there was a lot of overlap between the early computing people and these more kind of hippie movements that we don’t associate them with. So I just started to play with those ideas and bounce them off each other.

I think making movies is always a kind of art of arrangement. As a director, you’re not a dictator, you’re a director, so you’re taking different energies and trying to place them in relation to each other. And I think similarly, when you conceive of something or when you write something, you’re just looking for things you can get to affect each other’s gravity. And that was a fun one once we got the idea going.

Did you actually have the run of an entire hotel?

I don’t know about the full run, but we were very lucky with the places we had. Ultimately, it’s pieces of three different hotels, and they were all extremely kind and generous to us. We might’ve had most of a floor of a Super 8 for all the scenes in rooms, but they were also active hotels at the time we were shooting, so for sure we were interacting and working around real guests there and just very lucky that these hotels were willing to put up with us.

Do you remember if anything happened that might’ve been unanticipated or took this in a direction you didn’t expect?

Look, the biggest surprise was that any of it worked. We had no idea if we’d get away with any of it. But it was wildly improvisational. As I said, I had an eight-page treatment, and in many ways, that required me to prepare more rigorously than I would have with a conventional script. It’s not that we were just showing up and making it all up on the fly. There was a lot of forethought that went into it. Nonetheless, it was a hugely collaborative project. There are so many aspects of it that I could not have begun to predict at the outset. And that’s a very fun way to work with that level of openness. Frankly, it’s harder to do on a more conventional shoot. The bigger your crew is, the more money that’s around… film shoots can tend to almost follow like a military model of hierarchies and departments, which is fine and very efficient and often works, but it also can be limiting in how flexible you can be. This was a movie where we really hit a pretty good and in some ways unrepeatable rhythm of just staying as open and creative as we could at all moments. It was great fun.

“Computer Chess” will screen at Metrograph on August 11 and 13th and will screen later this year at the Screen Door Microcinema in Tampa, Florida on August 19th and Enzian Theatre in Maitland, Florida on November 9th.

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