NEW YORK — Andrew Bujalski calls his fourth feature film, “Computer Chess,” a “fondly held fantasy project.” But for a writer-director best known as a leading light of the resolutely do-it-yourself, micro-budget filmmaking movement known as mumblecore, it seems appropriate that the roots of the film can be traced, in part, to struggles with wider commercial ambition.
In Manhattan for the opening of “Computer Chess,” the Boston-born Bujalski explains that he’s still fervently trying to figure out how to make a living in the film industry — nearly a decade after his low-fi, shoestring-financed debut, “Funny Ha Ha,” launched him into the indie film firmament.
“I spent a fair amount of time banging my head against the wall thinking, what does the marketplace want? What’s gonna sell? But I have no particular talent for answering that question,” says Bujalski, 36, flashing a smile between sips of iced coffee. “So when I got frustrated with those questions, I would just run off to my safe fantasy place and think — All right, what’s the craziest, least commercial thing I could possibly do?”
The fanciful dream project in question, to Bujalski’s considerable shock, somehow became a reality. “Computer Chess” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year to adoring critical notices. The film opens in Boston on Friday, and Bujalski, who relocated to Austin, Texas, from Jamaica Plain in 2008, will be back in town for its debut.
Set on the cusp of the ’80s, “Computer Chess” centers on a group of oddball tech nerds who flock to a drab hotel to test their programming acumen in a weekend chess tournament pitting computer against computer, and computer against man.
The droll, experimental film follows these socially inept figures as they fumble not only with glitch-prone metal boxes but through a series of awkward encounters. Shot in a fuzzy black-and-white square-format using a consumer-grade video camera from 1969, the film has a surreal, found-footage quality — like you’re watching a public-access TV documentary that goes increasingly off the rails.
The idea for “Computer Chess” was, in part, Bujalski’s skewed response to a frequently heard question, “Why do you still shoot on film in the video era?” Indeed, he had famously resisted advancements in digital video, shooting all three of his previous features in lo-fi 16mm format.
“The thought that came to mind was, OK, you [expletives] want video? I’ll give you video. But I’m going to show you that doesn’t have to mean the latest and greatest,’’ he says. “So before I knew anything else about the movie, I had this fantasy of working on these old analog vacuum tube cameras.”
Bujalski had been inspired by the ghostly images in photographer William Eggleston’s 1970s Sony PortaPak video experiment, “Stranded in Canton.” A few years later, he was having lunch with a friend, fellow Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols (“Mud,” “Take Shelter”), and they started kicking around various off-the-wall ideas for dream projects — ones that seemed so bonkers no one in his right mind would ever consider financing them.
“I was talking about this fantasy, and he basically just dared me to do it. I get excited by a challenge, so I wrote an eight-page treatment. But then I put it away,” says Bujalski.
In spring 2011, financing fell through on a more commercial project Bujalski had been developing, and he was feeling creative pangs to make something new. So he pulled the “Computer Chess” treatment out of a drawer and rang up producers Houston King and Alex Lipschultz.
“I said, ‘Guys, I have this eight-page treatment. I don’t have a script. It’s got something like 30 speaking parts. I want to shoot it on an experimental camera rig that I haven’t yet figured out. It’s a period piece on a kind of arcane topic. We don’t have any money. And we start shooting in three months. Are you in or are you out?’ It was a ridiculous thing to try to pull off.”
While Bujalski’s films have largely centered on sheepish, tongue-tied postgrads — with their slouching indecision and unspoken tensions that percolate between halting half-sentences — in person the bearded, bespectacled filmmaker is considerably more articulate and less evasive than the uncertain young adults who populate his stories.
Despite the black-and-white period-piece veneer, idiosyncratic subject matter, and obsession with curious cultural artifacts from a bygone era, Bujalski says “Computer Chess” feels primed to tap into the zeitgeist — and not just because geek is now chic.Continued...