As Mutual Appreciation is seeing a DVD release via HVE this month, I'm reposting a brief interview with its director, Andrew Bujalski, I conducted shortly before the film's Chicago premiere in the fall of 2006.
Mutual Appreciation is in black and white. Funny Ha Ha was in color. How is Mutual Appreciation more a black and white film than Funny Ha Ha? Was it something you intended while writing the film?
My quick answer is that I believed Mutual to be a (peculiar) comedy, and that I thought black & white would be funny. I can't remember at what stage in pre-production I settled on [black & white] but I'm sure Bob Dylan/Don't Look Back had something to do with it; that said my great fear was that people would read it as merely an allusion, a tip of the hat, to all the great cinema in that format, and I didn't mean it as such. The fact that [black & white] is relatively rarely used for narrative features these days doesn't mean that the medium isn't still alive and kicking and packing a punch. It's a great thrill to get [black & white] rushes back from the lab and project them on a wall; contrary to what that one Paul Simon song says, I'd argue that everything looks better in black and white.
We've reached a point where video and video-editing has developed very far--far enough, in fact, that it's a separate medium and a separate approach to the world from film-based editing and shooting. Why have you choosen film?
Because it's still better! I was hanging out with a friend the other night and we turned on the television and stumbled upon a very peculiar episode of The Monkees, which deviated from the regular sitcom-y format, this one was just a psychedelic documentary of the group on tour--the footage was all gorgeous, the editing was bizarre and gripping (old school avant-garde, there's an oxymoron for you), and whatever technology has come since to replace all that hasn't won my heart the same way.
I've read that Chantal Akerman was your thesis advisor. Has she been an influence on your work?
Chantal was indeed my thesis advisor. I'm hugely fond of her personally, am sure I learned a lot from her directly then, and of course [I] am a fan of her oeuvre as well. That said, as a cinematic forebear I don't think I've taken more (or less) from her than I have from 100 other filmmakers whose work has stuck with me.
Did you make any films before Funny Ha Ha? Shorts and the like?
Sure—my Chantal-advised thesis was a 26-minute fiction film. Not very good! But an incredible learning experience all around, there's no question I couldn't have made Funny Ha Ha without getting through that one first. Also a handful of other student shorts, both on my own and collaboratively. Some documentary work, which I think has been massively influential on how I approach fiction.
What was the documentary work like?
We learned from the ground up: here's how you load film in the camera, here's how you run the Nagra, here's how the Steenbeck works. Go out and shoot. The observational tradition.
A friend of mine once said that at a certain economic level, every movie becomes a documentary: i.e., with a low enough budget, filmmakers rely on places they actually know and the day jobs of their actors for material. Do you feel that there's a documentary aspect to your films, that in a way you're portraying the lives of people you know in a fictional manner? And is this your primary interest, or, as the friend suggested, a question of economics?
Most good fiction films borrow some energy from documentary, just as the reverse is also true. Which doesn't mean necessarily that I am "fictionalizing" my friends' lives, on the contrary, I'd more likely say they're "documentarizing" my made-up story. I sort of agree with your friend but think he's looking at it backwards—it takes a lot of money to bleed everything resembling life out of a film.