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Why “godfather of mumblecore” Andrew Bujalski is worried about the word “content”

The director of Mutual Appreciation and Support the Girls looks back at his early work.

Justin Rice in Andrew Bujalski’s “Mutual Appreciation,” which is being released in a 2K restoration.
Justin Rice in Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, which is being released in a 2K restoration.
Goodbye Cruel Releasing
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

To say Andrew Bujalski burst onto the scene with his two early movies, 2005’s Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, might be an overstatement; after all, he was soon dubbed the “godfather of mumblecore,” not a genre known for its spectacle.

The term “mumblecore” emerged in the mid-aughts to describe films with a few key elements. Mumblecore films take a naturalistic approach to telling stories about young people trying to navigate their relationships, occupations, and aspirations in a world where old rules didn’t seem to apply anymore. There is often a distinct “homemade” quality about them — sometimes the dialogue is improvised, but even if it’s scripted, it sounds improvised. Some are shot in black and white. Their characters are often underemployed recent college grads with creative aspirations, living in walk-up apartments in places like Boston and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Characters talk about love and politics and creativity, as if they’re in a French New Wave film but with a decidedly American air. They’re sure they’ll make it, someday.

Looking back, it feels like early mumblecore films managed to capture a slice of the “elder millennial” (or maybe “young Gen-Xer”) experience: young people who were in high school or college during 9/11 and figuring out how to navigate the world after as they were graduating into adulthood.

Kate Dollenmayer in Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, which came to theaters in 2005.
Kate Dollenmayer in Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, which came to theaters in 2005.
Goodbye Cruel Releasing

The early mumblecore world was also a collaborative one. A central group of filmmakers sometimes appeared in each others’ movies — Bujalski starred in Joe Swanberg’s 2007 film Hannah Takes the Stairs, alongside future Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig (who first broke out in mumblecore) and actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass. Duplass and his brother Jay (who now stars on Transparent) would become forces of their own in film and TV, producing features like Safety Not Guaranteed and Tangerine, creating and co-directing HBO’s Togetherness, and acting in numerous projects.

And the net spread pretty wide. Before he won Best Picture with Moonlight, Barry Jenkins made the 2008 drama Medicine for Melancholy, starring Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins and set in San Francisco. Lena Dunham’s 2010 feature Tiny Furniture fits into the genre, and her HBO series Girls feels like at least a cousin of it; Alex Karpovsky (who played Ray on Girls) was a staple mumblecore actor.

Today, you can detect mumblecore DNA in TV shows like High Maintenance and Broad City. Another frequent mumblecore director, Lynn Shelton (Hump Day), went on to direct episodes of what feels like every TV show imaginable, from GLOW to New Girl to The Good Place.

But it was Bujalski, according to some, who started it all, and that’s why he ended up with the “godfather” nickname. Funny Ha Ha was a hit with critics on the festival circuit in 2002 but struggled at first to secure get distribution. The movie was finally released in 2005, and at the New York Times, A.O. Scott named it one of his best films of the year.

Also in 2005, Bujalski’s follow-up to Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation, premiered at South By Southwest and opened in theaters a year later to strong reviews. It’s the story of a quartet of young people: a teaching assistant named Lawrence (played by Bujalski), Lawrence’s girlfriend Ellie (Rachel Clift), a disc jockey named Sara (Seung-Min Lee), and a musician (Joe Rice) who moves to New York after his band breaks up so he can figure out his next steps. They’re thinking about their futures, navigating various relationships, and hanging out with one another a lot.

Bujalski has gone on to make several more features with mumblecore elements, including Computer Chess in 2013 and the critically acclaimed Support the Girls in 2018. He also has worked as a writer on several studio projects, including, most recently, the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp.

And while several of Bujalski’s films have long been available to stream or rent digitally, Mutual Appreciation has been an exception. The film recently went through a 2K restoration and will now begin streaming for the first time on May 1, exclusively on Kanopy. (Kanopy is available for free to cardholders at many public libraries and university library systems across the US.)

In honor of the movie’s streaming release, I spoke with Bujalski by phone while he was at home in Austin, Texas. We talked about what he was going for when he was making Mutual Appreciation, the inherent horror of the word “content,” and what it’s like to watch your younger self on screen. And we talked about Lady and the Tramp, too. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Premiere Of Magnolia Pictures’ “Support The Girls” - After Party
Bujalski with Support the Girls star Regina Hall at the film’s premiere in August 2018.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

I was rereading some old reviews of Mutual Appreciation, from when it first was released. You were compared to several American independent filmmakers as well as the artists of the French New Wave, who were making films about ordinary people — often young people — but with an eye toward making a political statement.

Interestingly, some reviewers didn’t think Mutual Appreciation was at all a social or political statement. But now, looking back, it seems obvious that the movie had something to say about the years just after the turn of the century.

The characters are just beginning their post-college lives. They’re a little aimless, looking for meaning and purpose and authenticity in their work and relationships, but they’re also able to do that because they’re living in the years just before the recession, during a time when it was plausible for a young artist to live cheaply in a place like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which now is all high-rises and luxury apartments that I can’t afford.

When you were making Mutual Appreciation, and Funny Ha Ha before that, did you at all think about capturing the lightning of that time in a bottle? Or was it just what happened?

Andrew Bujalski

That’s one of the things I find exciting about cinema, in general — all art, really, but movies in particular are just extraordinary time machines. And when you’re building a time machine, you can’t be too conscious of what you’re doing. I mean, I wasn’t thinking, This’ll be a great portal for future citizens.

You do hope that the movie will stick around. You hope that it will ultimately serve that purpose. Hopefully, you make something that, if it’s about human beings, will stay relevant, no matter how much the culture changes.

But it’s going to have its culture written into it in ways that you could never understand or anticipate. Lord knows, no part of me in 2003, when we were shooting Mutual Appreciation, imagined the present day, or myself in the present day.

I don’t know if that answers your question. That’s vague and philosophical. That’s how I think. Vaguely and philosophically.

Alissa Wilkinson

It makes perfect sense to me. I feel like the characters in your early films have 9/11 and the George W. Bush years hanging over them very clearly. But young people had to get used to the reality of a post-9/11 world so quickly that it was sometimes hard to realize how it was affecting them.

Andrew Bujalski

Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. It was all in the air, and it was what we were living with.

I will tell you that I remember, in the mid-aughts, thinking that the personal is political. That there were elements to this story that certainly could be interpreted through any number of political lenses or as any number of statements.

What exactly those were, it’s harder for me to say now. Watching Mutual Appreciation now feels more personal than watching it back then; I’m kind of communing with that 20-something kid who made the movie.

It’s not something I’m pulling off the shelf all the time. but we had the opportunity to do this fantastic new 2K scan of it, and while we were doing post-production on that, I spent time watching it again. There was real pleasure in revisiting it, everyone’s contributions, everything the cast and crew brought to it.

That’s the nice thing about not being a novelist. I’m not picking up an old book off the shelf and just grimacing at my youthful mistakes. I get to relive all of those collaborations.

It’s so completely personal. Everything about that movie — it’s real organic farming, you know? There’s nothing professional about how we made it. There’s a social aspect to that; it was kind of a community project, rather than whatever [the filmmaking world] is morphing into now. The “content” sphere.

Alissa Wilkinson

There’s something compelling and persistent about that kind of youthful, collaborative spirit. I live in Brooklyn, and I do still see people making art this way. But what they’re making and how they’re doing it has shifted, partly because the technologies available to them are different. Big-time filmmakers are shooting digital films now. Steven Soderbergh’s making films on his iPhone. So why shouldn’t some 20-something kids shoot their film on an iPhone, right?

Andrew Bujalski

Yeah. And what we were doing at the time — I mean, we were already out of step. We shot Mutual Appreciation on Kodak motion picture film in 2003. Back then the technology available was not as nice as it is today, but tons of young people were still out shooting digital video with an eye toward web distribution even then. Those technologies have developed in the years since, but people knew it was coming.

But I think I saw that there was still this little window to an older way of working, and it was still cracked open just enough that we could get in there. It seemed a little more mystical and magical to me. I wanted a piece of that magic while it was still around.

It’s not particularly forward thinking; it’s the opposite. It was me trying to just salvage something of the past while it was still available.

Mutual Appreciation was shot on black-and-white film, which was unusual in the mid-2000s.
Mutual Appreciation was shot on black-and-white film, which was unusual in the mid-2000s.
Goodbye Cruel Releasing

Alissa Wilkinson

Which was a still considered a pretty bold move at the time, when independent films were starting to become star-driven vehicles instead of the DIY projects they’d been for years. Mutual Appreciation was an example, at the time, of a movie that still maintained that indie spirit.

You’ve gone on to make other films in the years since. What themes and ideas do you think still show up in your work that were present back then?

Andrew Bujalski

I still have that enthusiasm to get something on screen that feels alive and unique and special. I think that would certainly tie together everything I’ve done.

Most successful filmmakers I know are all people who live to be on set and love nothing better than just working, no matter what they’re working on. Unfortunately I don’t have that gene. I’m grumpy on set. I’d rather be at home with my kids, at this point.

So, if I’m going to get out of bed for a project, I think it has to feel like something that isn’t going to happen otherwise. My biggest fear is making a movie that somebody else is making better at the same time.

My knee-jerk reaction is always, well, there are a lot of people out there who know how to do superheros better than I do. So, always it has to feel like it’s coming from me — and that can be a scary thing, and there’s certainly a risk of being solipsistic.

But you hope that there’s something in [your film] that will speak to somebody else. That’s the other side of it. It has to be personal, but you also want to give people the experience you’ve had on your own, sitting in the theater, watching your own favorite movies. That feels special and worth doing.

I think it’s obvious in my early films that they’re wildly personal, but they’re certainly not autobiographical per se. There’s nothing in Mutual Appreciation that is a direct representation of some particular experience I had. It’s all representation of feelings that I had, and I hope that’s still true even has the projects grow more professional.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah. It feels like there’s a vulnerability, and maybe even a danger, to making a film that is so personal. Two decades later, you look back and think, Oh, no, that was me, and everyone saw it.

Andrew Bujalski

Yeah. We screened it in Austin a few months ago. It is certainly scary to do a Q&A for a movie that’s that old. When you’re making it, you don’t anticipate being held accountable for the rest of your life.

Somebody asked me a question about the unflattering billowy shirts that I wear in the movie. And, those were my shirts. That’s how I dressed. That was before I was married. Somebody did [eventually] tell me not to wear those shirts.

It’s not all pure performance, in that sense. There’s plenty of reality that creeps in at the edges that can be embarrassing one way or another.

Rice, Bujalski, and Clift in Mutual Appreciation.
Rice, Bujalski, and Clift in Mutual Appreciation.
Goodbye Cruel Releasing

Mutual Appreciation is the longest movie I’ve done, at 109 minutes. It’s certainly not afraid to be boring. Plenty of people, then and now, found it boring. But I’m so grateful that I was able to be fearless about making it. For me, it’s a movie that still has a lot of magic. Most of that comes from having plugged into that group of people, at that moment, in what felt like a very organic way. I’m glad I didn’t waste too much time worrying about whether or not people were going to think it fit a particular mold of what entertainment should be.

Alissa Wilkinson

You’ve been working in indie film for a long while now. What changes have you seen in the industry that you think about?

Andrew Bujalski

I think my big freakout these days is about how “cinema” morphed into “content.” The word “content” gives me terrible chills down my spine.

That’s also because I’m a middle-aged fuddy-duddy, so I’m trying to stay optimistic about it. I’m trying to remember that no matter how people are watching these things, no matter where they’re watching them, no matter the weird business structures — as long as that spark is still happening, as long as somebody sits down and watches and is touched or moved or freaked out or anything — that’s still what got me into the boat in the first place.

Alissa Wilkinson

That strikes me as not unrelated to Mutual Appreciation, which is about the youthful optimism of young artists. I’m 35, an “elder millennial,” and it seems to me like my peers and young Gen-Xers are particularly freaked out by using the word “content” ...

Andrew Bujalski

It’s horrible.

Alissa Wilkinson

... to refer to things like cinema. But what is so bone-chilling about it?

Andrew Bujalski

The idea that the delivery system is now is the experience. That the content is interchangeable. I think that’s what unnerves me about the word. That there’s this tube that you stick into your brain and it just feeds in all this stuff. It doesn’t really matter what the stuff is, but there’s an infinite need for stuff.

We’re in this bizarre situation right now, where it certainly seems like more audio/visual storytelling is being done than than ever before. It’s an extraordinary gold rush. And a lot of people are getting a lot of opportunities and doing a lot of good stuff.

But you don’t get the sense that there’s been a great increase of magic in the world, you know? That’s the unnerving part: That you can do more and more and more, and somehow still be losing something.

Bujalski returned to black and white for his 2013 feature Computer Chess.
Bujalski returned to black and white for his 2013 feature Computer Chess.
Kino Lorber

Alissa Wilkinson

I don’t want to be a “theater experience” purist myself, but the difference between exhibiting the work and “consuming” the content is frustrating, if you care about how a movie looks, sounds, and feels to the audience.

Andrew Bujalski

Last night, I went to the Austin Film Society, which was showing an old Hitchcock movie from the 1930s. It’s great. And it still works. It still holds up. It brings its time alive on screen in an exciting way. And an audience can have an investment in that film.

A few years ago I saw Dracula, with Bela Lugosi. And it’s very slow. It’s adapted from a stage play. It feels very stagey. Not much happens. They sit around and talk about Dracula a lot. By contemporary standards, it’s certainly nothing anyone would consider a “horror movie.” But then, you know what that did to people’s imaginations back in 1931. It truly haunted people. It got into people’s dreams.

That’s a cultural context you can’t revive — kind of a holiness of movies, something that’s tough to get back to when we’re glutted by images.

But you adapt and you work with what you’ve got. There’s always an opportunity to do something new and exciting. I can complain all day, and I often do. But, the fact is that every year, dozens of movies come out, one way or another, that are really special to people.

Alissa Wilkinson

Speaking of all those movies: You wrote a draft of the Lady and the Tramp remake for Disney.

Andrew Bujalski

Yeah. Oh, I just got really lucky. There’s a producer named Brigham Taylor who’s had a long career, first within Disney and now kind of Disney-adjacent, who I met with. We chatted about what he was up to. He was going to pitch a Lady and the Tramp remake to Disney. Obviously, right now they’re redoing everything they’ve ever done. And I was intrigued.

I went back and watched the original with my kids and I had a few ideas about it, and that’s what I wrote. It was a fascinating experience. I’ve had Hollywood writing jobs before, but never one that was actually going to go anywhere. It was very different to be working on a Hollywood job where I could tell they were actually motivated to [make the movie].

I haven’t seen it yet. They’re still cutting it. And I don’t expect it to feel like my voice. A half-dozen people, if not more, wrote the original well before I was born. They really did the heavy lifting. Then there’s me, in collaboration with the producer and the director and Disney executives and whichever writers they brought in to do clean-up passes after my draft.

So, I don’t know what is going to be on screen, but I’m excited to see it. I think the dog will be cute. I can guarantee that.

Shayna McHayle, Haley Lu Richardson, AJ Michalka and John Elvis in SUPPORT THE GIRLS
Shayna McHayle, Haley Lu Richardson, AJ Michalka, and John Elvis in Bujalski’s 2018 feature Support the Girls.
Magnolia Pictures

Alissa Wilkinson

I have plenty of qualms with Disney’s way of doing things, but I am happy to see them bringing in interesting, voicey directors and writers to make their big-budget franchise movies and reboots. Ryan Boden and Anna Fleck with Captain Marvel, or Taika Waititi with Thor, or Rian Johnson with Star Wars, or Alex Ross Perry doing Christopher Robin. For me, it’s interesting to watch those movies and see the bones of the studio system battling with the flesh the filmmakers try to put on them.

Andrew Bujalski

Right. Yeah. I mean, no question. I think when you watch Lady and the Tramp, you will definitely be watching a Disney production. That’s what it’s supposed to feel like. And I took my [4-year-old] daughter to Christopher Robin, and I certainly wouldn’t take her to most Alex Ross Perry films. I didn’t feel like his voice was the dominant voice in there, and I don’t think it was supposed to be. I know he had a great time writing it and I know he was grateful for the experience.

And, I can certainly say that I was very happy working with all the people I was working with at Disney. It was a fun project and I always felt I knew my role in it. I knew that I was being a team player there, and I can wear the team player hat.

But that’s different from when we make Mutual Appreciation or Support the Girls or anything like that. There is no other North Star to look to except my own preoccupations and instincts and feelings about it. We have to do it my way, because there’s just no other model. That’s when I get to be the auteur and the weirdo and insist on whatever my vision is.

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