Andrew Bujalski Discusses His New Project Computer Chess (and How You Can Help)

Eight years after Andrew Bujalski's shoestring-budget feature debut Funny Ha Ha emerged to significant critical acclaim (no less than The New York Times declared it one of the most influential films of the decade, due in large part to Bujalski's follow-up Mutual Appreciation and the Mumblecore movement that sprung up around it), the filmmaker is back in development mode with his shoestring-budget fourth feature, Computer Chess. And this time around, you can help.

Bujalski and his producers are more than halfway to their crowdsourced fundraising goal forComputer Chess, a tale about a tournament of chess players and computer programmers in the early 1980s. As Bujalski writes at the fundraising campaign's Web site at United States Artists, more than just bragging rights were at stake: "As computers were exploding into the public sphere, and regular folks were just getting used to seeing them in the workplace, or home, a group of geniuses at the vanguard of the technology were trying to teach it what seemed like an almost unimaginable skill--could these machines, these glorified calculators, ever conquer the human world champion in chess? Obviously a human being would have to be a genius to be the world chess champ, so if they could get a computer to do it, the computer would have to acquire a kind of genius, right?"

In his customarily wry accompanying video, Bujalski depicts the unlikelihood of finding mainstream funding for Computer Chess:

Which is where the public comes in. Movieline caught up with Bujalski this week for a chat about Computer Chess (which commences shooting Aug. 19), the art-science divide, the inexorable march of technology and dinner dates for cash.

What have you been up to since Beeswax in 2009?

I got married and had a kid and bought a house.


Thanks. That's quite a big and... consuming project.

Indeed. And then there's Computer Chess. What can you tell me about it?

Actually, I'm struggling with how to talk about it right now because we're in this funny situation where we're doing the crowd-sourcing thing, and we want to whip up as much excitement and enthusiasm as we can But I also have this terrible ambivalence because I also really want to retain some of the surprise for the movie. I don't want to give everything away, especially before we've even made it. I'm terribly superstitious, too.

But in broad strokes, it's certainly a fascinating subject. It's a real oddball project for me, or for anyone. It was kind of my fantasy, back-of-the-mind project for a few years now. I've spent so much of the last several years trying to figure out how to be a responsible adult and earn a living and that kind of stuff -- especially now that I have a family and a mortgage and those kinds of things. So I spend a lot of time sitting around thinking: "How can I earn a living?" I'm very bad at, and I don't enjoy it. So I think my fantasy refuge would be to run off and think, "Well, let's put that aside for a moment. What's a cockamamie project that doesn't stand a chance in the commercial marketplace?" So my idea of fun for years was to contemplate this totally peculiar movie about computer chess programmers. And I don't quite recall how that got stuck in my head in the first place, because I'm not a computer guy, and I'm not a chess guy. But for some reason, I think I read something somewhere about computer chess, and images started to accumulate.

You've said you could have gone either way as a young person -- into film or into computers and technology. What compelled one versus the other?

Maybe I could have. In truth, I think my destiny was set. Early on in this project, I had reason to contact an engineer I found through the Internet to ask some technical questions. He wrote back a very nice, helpful e-mail -- answered all my questions, and as an addendum wrote, "Sounds like an interesting project, and good luck to you. I've got to admit to you I often don't understand what you artist guys are doing. But it sounds ambitious." I wrote back on behalf of "artist guys" that we don't necessarily understand what we're doing or why we're doing it, either! There's something similar in a way. I think going to make a movie is not totally unlike going and writing a computer program. The processes have a lot in common, the major difference being that when you're dealing with something a little more scientific or engineering-based, on some level you know if your program works or not. If there's some major problem, then you de-bug it and try to get it fully functional again. When all is said and done, maybe you wish you'd written a better program. But basically either it worked or it didn't.

And with movies, it's so much harder to know. The only thing that's actually measurable is commercial success, and obviously that's how the business works, and that's how Hollywood works. They look at those numbers, and they'll tell you: "This is a success," or "This is a failure." But I don't think most of us who make films really think about it quite that way. So you never know. The thing goes out into the world, and it has a life. You can go to the grave not knowing if you succeeded or not. But to go back to your question of whether I could be a computer nerd, as much as that stuff is all very interesting to me, there's something about this strange uncertainty of moviemaking that I'm addicted to. Also, as is evident from every film I've made, I'm much more interested in questions than answers. I don't know if I would have hacked it as a computer guy.

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