FUNNY HA HA
Kate Dollenmayer as Marnie in Funny Ha Ha
I caught up with Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha Ha last July when it screened for two nights at New York's Pioneer Theater. Completed in 2002, the film had no distributor (it still doesn't) but was slowly building a dedicated following through festival and college film circuit screenings. Down from Boston, Bujalski and his producer Ethan Vogt hung out in the lobby, talking with audience members, many of them back for a second viewing. "I've never seen a movie before that was exactly like my life," said one Lower East Side repeat viewer.
Indeed, not since Richard Linklater's Slacker has a film captured the experience of post-higher-education limbo, when, excepting a few driven careerists or dedicated artist types, everyone is terrified of making commitments to a job or a mate. As Austin, Texas is to Linklater, so Boston, Massachusetts is to Bujalski - a home base vividly transposed to the screen, filled with the rituals of daily life and with real people and real places: cramped apartments, Spartan start-up offices, a cavernous Chinese restaurant, and a neighborhood diner. Oh, and that never-to-be-forgotten supermarket, where Marnie, our heroine, desperately tries to keep her cool while suffering a humiliation so agonizing that I could feel my own face turning red as I watched.
If Slacker was a tapestry, Funny Ha Ha is a portrait of one young woman, traveling from one boring temp job to another to pay the rent, in love with a guy who likes her too much to feel romantic about her. Played by the appealing, slightly eccentric Kate Dollenmayer, who, from certain angles, looks like a human version of Scarlett Johansson, Marnie is impulsive, ambivalent, bright, and vulnerable. She drinks to overcome her shyness and winds up flinging herself at people who are bound to reject her. If she weren't such an American girl, she'd be a Rohmer heroine. Bujalski's affection for Marnie and the actress who plays her is happily contagious. He shapes his narrative around character rather than plot and builds the film as a series of extended, pretty much real-time scenes, where crossed purposes are the rule, but everyone survives the excruciating positions in which they put themselves so that they can screw up, but perhaps not as badly, the next time around.
Funny Ha Ha is so low-key in its narrative and filmic elements that I didn't realize how elegantly it's constructed until I saw it a second time. To describe the camera style as fly-on-the-wall suggests something colder and more clinical than what Bujalski and his cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, are up to. It's more like a big-old-family-dog non-judgmental, occasionally excited point of view. You find yourself completely absorbed by the way, moment to moment, the characters avoid saying or acting on what they really want until they're in such a state of inner turmoil that they blurt it out or make a pass just when their object of desire is least receptive. At first, the film focuses on Marnie's pursuit of the evasive Alex; later she finds herself in Alex's position when Mitchell, a fellow temp worker (played by Bujalski himself, sporting thick glasses, a terrible haircut, and burdened by a profound adenoidal problem) pursues her. If Mitchell meets rejection with more anger and less grace than Marnie, it may be because he lacks the community of friends that she relies on for comfort and emotional support.
While Bujalski is fascinated by the shifts of power within relationships, he never tries to impress or overwhelm the audience with his own power as a filmmaker. Rather, his DIY aesthetic and celebration of community allows the audience to feel a part of the process and the world of the film. In the two years of its "non-release," Funny Ha Ha has accumulated a dedicated fan base and a set of reviews (from critics of all ages) that most first-time filmmakers would die for. It was named one of the best undistributed films of 2003 by Film Comment, indieWIRE and The Village Voice; Bujalski was the winner of the IFP's 2004 "Someone to Watch" Spirit Award and Filmmaker magazine selected him as one of the "New Faces of Indie Film."
For the rest of July and throughout August, Funny Ha Ha is playing on Sundance Channel. For dates and times, check the film's website, www.funnyhahafilm.com , where you can also purchase a DVD of the movie and find out about 16mm screenings, possibly in a theater near you.
The following telephone interview took place in June 2004.
I looked at Funny Ha Ha again on tape last night, and now I feel as if I'm talking just like the characters in the film. It has that kind of effect. In the notes about the film on the website you wrote that the actors aren't exactly playing themselves but they're not playing characters either. Does that description apply to your own performance in the film as well? When I met you last year after a screening of the film at the Pioneer, I was struck by how different you look in life from how you look on the screen playing that anxious, socially inept character.
In order to play that character, did you give yourself a different kind of direction than you gave the other actors?
That's likely, although it's hard to say what was going through everyone's heads and everyone is approaching it personally and "actorishly" from their own perspective. I think half of my performance is about being panicked in general about everything going on. I think there were upsides and downsides for my performance in my being so distracted. Also, because I knew where I fit in the story more than any of the other actors did, I could bring that perspective to my performance. Only Kate Dollenmayer, who plays Marnie and is in virtually every scene, and I had read the script in its entirety. Again, I don't know if that's necessarily a good thing. A lot of what was so interesting about what everyone else does is that they were totally fresh and able just to focus on their own parts of it. On the other hand, hopefully, it ends up being an interesting thing that everything about my character is a bit different from the world of the film.
Maybe what I should have asked first is why exactly did you cast yourself in the film?
I fear it sounds a bit glib, but the biggest reason I'm in there is a question of resources. I knew I would work for free. In a film like that where everything is dependent on the good will of friends, it's really important what your resources are and what you can get away with. To go a little deeper than that, I believed that I could pull it off, and part of me felt that if I was going to put all these nonprofessionals through this, it would be good to be in the same boat. Of course, you realize that you're not in the same boat, because no matter how much you think you're under the same kind of pressure they are, inevitably it's a slightly different kind of pressure.
When you said that the actor who played Marnie had seen the whole script, does that mean the script was entirely written in advance and there was no improvisation?
The script was complete and looked like a conventional script. We didn't have a lot of rehearsal - with people not being professionals, they couldn't commit to a rehearsal schedule. But we took whatever we could get and definitely some things developed there. And then there was plenty of room for things to go wherever they were going to while the camera was rolling. There wasn't a huge master plan for that. To what degree the film was based on the script and to what degree on improvisation gets shaped more in the editing when you see what works. Sometimes the take where it's word for word from the page is great and sometimes the one where it's not is great. And also, every person has a different style. I discovered that some people were at their most brilliant when they were making stuff up, and others, four takes into it, would nail what was on the page.
I assumed a lot of it was improvised because none of the line readings sound false or stilted. It's very hard to get nonprofessionals to sound so real, or to take so much time on the screen to fumble around as if they don't know what to say or as if they're not be able to say what they want to say. Those are things that actors work very hard at - creating a subtext for the lines and letting the subtext come through. But it was all there. It was wonderful ensemble acting.
Thank you so much. I guess I could go through it scene by scene and parse it as to what's great acting and what's just a moment where someone forgets a line. The film lends itself to that. It is a film about those moments of confusion and screwing up. So the methodology suited the meaning very well. I'm editing something else now and I don't want to overdo it in either direction. I'm very aware and very flummoxed right now about how to get things sounding natural but not so natural they're going to bore the audience to tears.
I would like to talk about your new film, but maybe we could table that for a few minutes. Let me ask some questions about your background first. This is your first feature, but previously had you made short films?
I studied film as an undergrad at Harvard and I made a couple of short films there. They're in a closet at my mother's house, not soon to be dug out. Certainly they were tremendous learning experiences, but I don't think of them as more than that.
When did you graduate?
Were you already interested in film before you got to Harvard?
Yes, I certainly was a movie-crazed kid. It's hard to reconstruct the path my brain has taken in that regard. I think at age twelve, I would have fantasized making Kubrick films. I don't know at what point I changed course. But I think having grown up on big Hollywood films, there is some influence from them. I got to Harvard knowing I wanted to study film, which is a little bit of an idiotic thing to do, because you come out with a Harvard degree, but in a field in which you'll never get a conventional job.
Unlike Columbia or NYU, Harvard doesn't have a film department per se.
It's called Visual and Environmental Studies. No one can quite explain what that means, but it's a great department. Since there is no graduate program, everything is focused on this small group of undergrads. And it's to its benefit that it's fairly under the radar. When I tour around with Funny Ha Ha and I tell people I studied film at Harvard, they say they had no idea that you could.
Who did you study with? Does Ray Carney teach at Harvard?
Carney is actually at BU. [Boston University]. Carney was one of the earliest and most fervent supporters of Funny Ha Ha. I had a couple of friends who had gone to BU so just on a whim, I sent him a VHS of the film. I think he gets tapes like that in the mail all the time, but on the day he received it, he just happened to be talking to the programmer of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston who had just seen it and said, "I don't know how I feel about this movie I just saw, but I think it's right up your alley." It was tremendous good luck as it has been at every phase of this film's life. And since then, Gerald Peary who writes at the Boston Phoenix and is also affiliated with BU has really supported the film. In some ways, I feel like I've been adopted by BU.
But to return to HarvardĚ
Rob Moss taught the intro course I was in where ten students collaborated on a documentary. And Alfred Guzzetti teaches there. Documentary has always been the backbone of the program. I've always had these documentary leanings, and that might be the connection to Cassavetes in my film, and also the connection between the Harvard kids and the BU kids. They bring in these guest teachers. Chantal Akerman was my thesis advisor. That was a tremendous gift and privilege. Her philosophies are not always in line with the background of that department, so there was a funny push and pull there. It was funny to go into a thesis review and have the rest of the faculty say, "You have to make it ten minutes shorter," and have her say, "No, no, you have to put everything back in."
I can see Chantal in this film. She tried a couple of times to do comedy and sometimes it works for her and sometimes it doesn't.
She always encouraged me to drop my pretensions and do something funny. I think I hung on to quite few of my dramatic pretensions in this one.
Is Funny Ha Ha a comedy? It isn't a comedy in the classic sense that comedy resolves in favor of the protagonist, because you don't, I think quite deliberately, resolve the narrative. Where does the title come from? What's the reference?
The only one I know is the distinction people make between funny-ha-ha and funny-strange. I didn't think of the title until I was writing the first draft of the script, and, at the moment, it seemed incredibly apt to me. It's a somewhat misleading title because the movie is more funny-strange than funny-ha-ha. I like misleading titles.
What's the title of your new film?
It's not as misleading as Funny Ha Ha. But I also hate to say it out loud before it's done. I'm superstitious about it.
Let's try something else. Where were you born?
In Boston. I moved around somewhat as a kid, but I keep floating back to Boston one way or another.
And when you first got interested in movies, were they Eighties Hollywood movies?
I saw Rocky III five times before I realized there was such a thing as Rocky I and Rocky II. I remember E.T. and Star Trek II. I would have been about five or six when I started going to movies. I think the theater experience was always important to me, and my film education is really based on whatever the local repertory theaters happen to be playing because I rarely go to rent anything. So there are these huge gaps in what I've seen, but I find looking at videos a less exciting experience. Others have said this often, but the thing about being part of a captive audience, of being in the dark with strangers sharing this experience has always been meaningful. At this point it might just be habit, but whenever I rent a video, I feel there is probably something better that I could be doing with my life at that moment, which is not a feeling I often have.
I feel pretty much like that, but I'm part of a generation that grew up in movie theaters because that was the only way to see movies. So it's interesting that someone of your generation feels like that too, especially since it seems clear that, except for big Hollywood road shows, the theatrical experience has no future, and soon it will all be digital at-home on-demand.
But you're talking to someone who makes 16mm films, and who's currently editing on a flatbed.
Your new film is entirely made on 16mm like Funny Ha Ha. Why?
That's awfully hard to answer. Part of it has to do with coming out of Harvard where 16mm is what you learn, although I've been gone from there for six years. I think to some extent they're now working with digital. But it does come from having that background. If I had been truly an autodidact, I would have been like many folks out there who get the DV camera and teach themselves Final Cut Pro. It would be a lot harder in this day and age to transition from there into the 16mm world. But more importantly to me, I have that real medium is the message thing. Like everyone in the past few years, I've seen a tremendous amount of video and some of it is great, but it's a totally different feel. Funny Ha Ha and the new film are stories I wouldn't know how to tell in video. I wish that I could wake up with a great video idea in my head. It would make certain things a lot easier. But if Funny Ha Ha were shot in DV, it would be very different.
I agree. I think it's partly that we bring with us a certain history, and Funny Ha Ha becomes part of the history of films that have similar aesthetics and premises.
I often wonder if I had been born ten years later, would I see video in a completely different way. Would it seem the norm to me? I don't know.
Another first film I like a lot is Shane Carruth's Primer which won the grand prize at Sundance and is going to be released in the fall. Carruth is a complete autodidact. He was a software engineer who taught himself filmmaking, and he made a decision to shoot in Super-16mm rather than video. He said if he had shot in video it would be a totally different film - that he needed the tension between traditional film technology and the mix of sci-fi and DIY in his narrative. And yet, we know that in ten years, low-budget film technology won't even exist.
Although what may exist is a digital facsimile of 16mm-the hilarious concept of virtual 16mm. I spend most of my time when I go see the big new Hollywood movies like Star Wars straining my eyes to see if I can tell the difference.
On the technology side, what kind of 16mm rig did you use for the first film and are you using the same for the new film?
I'm not enough of a gearhead to remember all the makes and models of everything, but I know the first film was shot on an Aaton and the new one an Arri. I think an Arri SR-2. Every single shot in both films is shot from the extremely steady shoulder of the brilliant dp, Matthias Grunsky. I believe Matthias is now slightly lopsided from the experience. The new film has slightly more lighting, but both are rather small-it is always my inclination to have as little equipment as possible around. On Funny Ha Ha, we fit everything into two SUVs. On the new film, we crammed it all into one van. The most crew members we ever had on set on a given day of Funny Ha Ha was seven: myself, the dp, a producer-with-gaffing-skills, a sound recordist, a camera assistant, and two p.a.'s. But usually, it was around five people, occasionally fewer. Again, the new shoot tended to be a bit bigger and busier.
Do you own your equipment or does your DP?
Producer Ethan Vogt owned some lighting and grip equipment, and everything else was lent to us, by hook and crook.
Are there resources in Boston for independent filmmakers to get equipment and technical support at discount?
Boston's in a bit of a flux at the moment as the BFVF [Boston Film + Video Foundation] has just closed down. I believe it's supposed to be resurrected in some other form soon, but I'm not sure what that will be like. A couple local vendors are known to be generous and were certainly generous to us.
There used to be a lot of that in New York, but it has pretty much disappeared for lack of funding.
Seems to be hard times all over, indeed.
What did you do after you graduated from Harvard?
I stayed in Cambridge for a year and then I moved, rather arbitrarily, to Texas with three other people. Kate Dollenmayer, who I'd known a little bit at school, was one of them. The seed of the film was thinking that Kate would be good in a film.
Did she have acting aspirations?
No, not at all, which is good in terms of her life-I don't envy the actor's life at all. Her performance is clearly the linchpin of the film and there's something great in knowing that it's unlikely that any other film will have that advantage.
She's not in the new film?
She has a cameo.
When Cassavetes imagined roles for Gena Rowlands, I think it was in terms of what she could do as an actress and not necessarily who she was as a person. But since Kate isn't an actress, your thinking must have been different.
There was something about her that sparked the idea that she would be a good performer. She really is a natural actor. I love all the performances, but she's the only one who not only has natural talent, but technical acting skills. And again, it's not something she wants to do. So, yeah, it was based more on what I thought she'd do in a film rather than on anything biographical.
It's pretty rare for a young male independent director to make a woman the central character in a first film.
It helped tremendously, certainly during the writing, because it put a half step of distance between me and the character. When writing characters that too easily blend into one's self, there's a tendency for it to turn into therapy more than writing, and not very effective therapy either. And to have someone in mind-to think of Kate doing this role-made it a much better script than I would have written otherwise. That said, the new script has a lot more male energy in it, and it has been more difficult in that regard. I bring a lot more of my own issues and demons into it in a way that hasn't always been productive.
Is the new film completely shot?
I shot it all in October.
Do you want to say anything at all about it?
In some sense, I'm afraid to talk about it before it's done because if I start nailing down the ideas and the themes, I might be cutting off whatever it's going to turn into.
Do you have a deadline for it?
We hope to be done by the end of the year. To be honest, for tax purposes, we want to spend a lot of the money by then. But it's hard to say. We shot Funny Ha Ha in August 2001 and I had a cast and crew screening in March 2002. I've already been working on the new film longer than that, and I'm nowhere near having it wrapped up. In some ways, this is a more difficult film technically and emotionally. I'm an anxious person and I want to get it done as soon as possible but I don't want to be overly hasty. I've begun to show it a few people and any input I get is a little bit of a revelation.
Are you using nonprofessional actors as in Funny Ha Ha?
Yes, it's basically the same methodology: 16mm, really light crew, a lot of the same people on the crew, and nonprofessional actors who are working pretty much the same way. Of course, every person and production is like a snowflake, so it's not exactly the same. When I did Funny Ha Ha I had this great blessing in that no one cared what I was doing and I didn't care what anyone would think of it. And that kind of innocence isn't there anymore. I do my best to put blinders on, but now I have the names and addresses of people who want to see the new film.
Did the IFP/West's "Someone to Watch Award" have any effect?
Who knows. The film had a long, slow build so by the time the Spirit Awards came around, a lot of people had already heard of it.
So you weren't besieged with calls from agents the day after?
No, the agents had called six or eight months earlier, after we got a good review in Variety. But I tend to shoot myself in the foot when it comes to career stuff. If an agent wants to see a screener, I'll send it to them, but I'm not champing at the bit.