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Just shooting what, and who, he knows

Andrew Bujalski and friends capture a generation -- without trying.

October 01, 2006|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

INDIE filmmaker Andrew Bujalski spent three years trying to bring his 2002 debut picture, "Funny Ha Ha," onto big screens. Low on plot and high on loopy, broken charm, it earned him a 2004 "Someone to Watch" Independent Spirit Award and critical praise when it was finally released in theaters last year. Meanwhile he has temped, worked in a bookstore, held down substitute teaching jobs and made another movie: "Mutual Appreciation," a scrappy, bittersweet comedy about twentysomethings fumbling through the darklands of post-collegiate life that is currently making the rounds in theaters around the country to rave reviews.

Critics have crowned the 29-year-old Boston-based auteur the prophet of neo-slacker ennui, and he has just scored a job as a hired gun in Hollywood. That turn of events should feel comforting. But, as he struggles to balance adapting a book for a studio project and writing his next film, "I've been freaking out," Bujalski says over the phone from Boston. "My Hollywood writing gig has been paying my rent, but it's hard to find time to work on my own script -- that's the one thing that nobody's breathing down my neck about."

Relying on a coterie of friends for inspiration and to fill out his casts, Bujalski wrote, directed and edited the two micro-budget features. In scenes that don't necessarily climax but meander along according to their own droll logic, his nonprofessional actors converse in half-finished sentences but deliver verbal tours de force that trade in irony and randomness. A Bujalski character who can mouth off on math rock, debate the precise characteristics of "a dork" or wittily describe a pair of hopelessly crushing friends as "two asymptotes," turns inarticulate when it comes to communicating emotion -- "I mean ... ," "I don't know ... ," "It's like ... ," "Uh

And in the rhymes and rhythms of Bujalskian dialogue, which nails the vagaries of contemporary hipster speak and captures the tentative, self-effacing manner of the overeducated and the chronically careerless, critics have detected the voice of a generation.

It's an interpretation that the filmmaker doesn't flat-out reject. But, he points out, "I never set out to make an anthropological artwork. For me the characters need to be as singular and the situations as specific as possible."

Two close friends inspired both of his films: "Funny Ha Ha" protagonist Kate Dollenmayer and "Mutual Appreciation" lead Justin Rice were his roommates. In Bujalski's "community-based methodology," horsing around on the set, happy accidents and the spontaneous input of his cast and crew are an intrinsic part of the artistic vision. His scripts leave room for improvisation, and his characters "get reconsidered retroactively through the prism of whoever I asked to play them," he says. The Harvard film school grad professes no knowledge of "the traditional, larger-scale model of filmmaking ... as a sort of militaristic enterprise."

Bujalski, who also casts himself in his films, says that he feels as vulnerable shuffling between directorial and actorly duties as his non-pro collaborators. "I'm not terrifically authoritative on-set. It's very light and loose and goofy most of the time. I don't know how to direct based on craft -- so it's really just about having some rapport and giving it our best and uh ... , um ... , sorry, I lost my sentence there!" he says, momentarily distracted by a neighbor yelling at her cat in the apartment next door.

Trying the free approach

"FUNNY HA HA" took in less than $80,000 at the box office but it received sustained support on the festival circuit. Because it is available for free on the video-sharing website, it also benefited from online attention. And the alchemy of synergy worked for "Mutual Appreciation" too: Rice, who in the movie plays a musician freshly arrived in New York to reinvent himself after his band splits, co-fronts the NYC band Bishop Allen and contributed all the songs on the soundtrack, gaining a boost from the exposure.

As a "movie-crazy kid," Bujalski, a Newton, Mass., native, first used his friends in short films that he shot in his parents' backyard with a VHS recorder. At Harvard, he settled on the paradigm of allowing chance to partly guide his work. His 26-minute thesis project fell apart halfway through the shoot when he lost his main location. He was forced to reconfigure his script to achieve continuity between what he already had in the can and the fresh material he shot in a different location.

"The film I made was not my vision of the script that I'd originally written," he says. "And while I hope that kind of particular disaster doesn't repeat, it was a great lesson. I think it's useful, philosophically, that the filmmaker learn firsthand about what it means to work with what you have rather than what you want."

As for his next project -- expect Bujalski to continue writing about his friends and casting them to play fictional versions of themselves. "I feel like there's a lot of life left in this kind of methodology so I'd love to keep working that way, with people I'm fond of," he says. "I want to try and squeeze out one more round while I'm still young enough and naive enough."

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