Andrew Bujalski is an American filmmaker whose movies include Funny Ha Ha , Mutual Appreciation , Beeswax , Computer Chess , and Results . His latest film is Support the Girls , which follows a cast of characters that all either work at or patronize Double Whammies, a Hooters-adjacent breasts-themed sports bar located somewhere off a highway in Texas. We spoke via phone in August.
Support the Girls takes place at a sports bar, and in recent interviews you’ve said that you spent a lot of time in such establishments as you wrote the screenplay. But to my eyes the movie is very astute about the rhythms of a workday as seen from the perspective of the workers. Were you also thinking and writing about old jobs you’d worked yourself?
I’ve never worked in a restaurant, so I went to these places as a regular customer a bunch of times while I was writing. Which was challenging, because I’m a vegetarian. I ate a lot of mozzarella sticks and drank a bunch of beer. Some of these places offer a salad, but I felt like that’s a red flag—if you just go in and order a salad. But there was a lot of that anonymous, quote-unquote “undercover” research. A couple of times I did get the opportunity to announce myself and talk to an owner, a manager, or a general manager, so I got some not-undercover research, too.
But what was animating this [film] was not specifically the restaurant world. To my mind, in some ways, it’s just a movie about working. Wherever that is, whether that’s minimum-wage stuff or not. I think one way or another most people I know recognize the experience of doing something for money that you sure as shit would not be doing if it were not for money. That to keep a roof over your head, you’ve got to put on some kind of performance—that felt universal to me. And yeah, so, sure—all of my resentments about having to earn a living are in there.
Computer Chess, Results, and Support the Girls each revolve around a cast of characters who are brought together by their work in a specific industry. It feels like this has become a primary concern for you as an artist.
Yeah, but not intentionally. And I’d love to get off of it. I have no idea what I’m going to do next, but certainly that’s one thought crossing my mind: maybe I should write something that does not take place in or around any form of small business. Obviously that’s a place that my mind goes to over and over again. A lot of filmmaking is “small business”, which I’m sure is why it’s always there for me. I don’t know. It’s my experience of the world. It’s hard to conceive of a character without giving that little bit of thought to what are they doing all day? Some people don’t particularly care about their jobs, or feel defined by them, but it takes up a lot of the hours of the day one way or another, so as a writer it’s hard for me not to go there. There’s a lot of opportunity in there, there’s a lot of story in there.
‘Filmmaking as small business’ is something I found myself thinking about often with regards to Support the Girls. When you were giving interviews about Results, you spoke about how you’d calculated the perceived commercial prospects of that movie [“For better or worse, I expected less of my voice to show up in this movie” is what Bujalski said about Results during our last interview three years ago—“I didn’t think this was my ticket to directing studio blockbusters, but I wouldn’t mind having something that plays in that marketplace.”] On a “business” level, Support the Girls is very much in the same mode as Results: same production company, same distributor, same release model. Did the reception to Results lead you to Support the Girls in any direct way?
Well that’s been the recognition for me: apparently I have a mode. And anything I do is going to be in that mode. Which is a little nerve wracking…
To be clear it’s Support the Girls and Results, specifically, that feel like companion pieces to me.
Sure. As you say, they’re both made with the same mechanisms of professional film production. And certainly a lot of the same people worked on them in the same roles [people credited on both films include four different producers, costume designer Colin Wilkes, and Bujalski’s longtime cinematographer Matthias Grunsky]. So there is a lot of overlap there.
I think the big takeaway from Results for me was this comical fact… I had made Computer Chess, which had in many ways started from a place of me thinking what’s the least commercial thing I could possibly do, and how far out there can I go? And then I did Results, which was in some ways maybe almost a parody of commercial cinema: It’s very clean and pretty, and the people in it are very clean and pretty. Of course I still did it my way, and I don’t think I did it cynically. That was a movie that I felt passionate and excited about, and it wasn’t just me trying to crack the mainstream per se. But it was me playing with those mainstream elements in a fun and exciting way. Yet ultimately… the reception for those two movies was surprisingly similar. I felt they were perceived as being equally bizarre. And I thought, okay, well: I guess that’s what I do. Which is fine. I mean, it’s scary in terms of my finances. But it’s great in terms of my ego.
Didn’t you recently write a screenplay for Disney?
Yeah, I did, I wrote a bunch of drafts of Lady & the Tramp…
I only ask because I don’t want to mislead anyone reading this into thinking you’re working on just one level of the film industry—you’ve got your toes dipped in a few different levels, right?
A couple, a couple. I’d love to put my toes back in the truly-weird experimental world again. And maybe I will. Although I feel like… I’ve read enough interviews with George Lucas over the past thirtysomething years where he keeps insisting he’s going to be an experimental filmmaker again. So maybe that’s my destiny: to spend the rest of my life telling people I’m going to do something weird again, while not doing it.
You can follow his lead and tell people you’re making experimental films which you’ll only show to your friends.
Did he do that?
That’s what he says. [In a 2015 interview with the Hero Complex subsite of the Los Angeles Times, Lucas said he was writing scripts for two different experimental films—“It costs more to put them out there than it does to make ’em,” he told the interviewer, “They’re movies more for myself and maybe I’ll show them to some of my friends.”]
Weird. Interesting. Well, you can make the case that those Star Wars prequels were plenty experimental and weird. So maybe he just did it right before our eyes and didn’t tell us that’s what he was doing.
In this particular moment, to me, those films almost play like political agitprop. But let’s maybe not get into the financial subtexts of Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace . Save that for another day.
See, that’s what I should be pitching to Lucasfilm. That’s what I want to do. I want to do the [events described in the] Phantom Menace crawl. Whatever that stuff was that I couldn’t make sense of 20 years ago. I want to make, like, the C-Span movie of that.
I’m sorry if I’m prying on this, but I want to go back: After Results were you consciously thinking, “I want to work on another script that can be produced in a similar manner”?
Well this particular idea [that became Support the Girls] had begun six or seven years ago when people were starting to rush to television. My agent said, Hey! Everyone’s running to TV. You should run to TV. So initially I conceived this as a TV story. We pitched it around, and it didn’t go anywhere. Ultimately I think that was a blessing, because TV is so counterintuitive to me: I have trouble conceiving of a story that I’m not allowed to end. But it stuck with me. So I had versions of these characters, and versions of some of these situations. And yes, I guess sometime around finishing Results, I thought: Maybe I can go back to that. Maybe I can pick up some of these pieces and build a feature out of it. And I understood the story much better once I had that form. I could make it a little deeper, hopefully, a little darker, a little stranger than whatever it would have been as a TV thing.
Anytime I sit down to do something there’s definitely some part of me that’s… not that I have a great head for exactly what a budget will be… and not that that matters, ultimately… but I do think differently about something that’d cost $20 to produce than about something that’d cost $20 million. And that’s true at every level in between. To some degree I do have that in mind, because it affects everything about how the production is done, and that affects everything about what’s on the screen, and how it feels. I think an integral part of the process of filmmaking is knowing your tools. Is this a painting or a sculpture, oil paint or watercolor—that makes a difference. I think people don’t always recognize that.
I’m glad you brought that up, because shooting format is another subject I wanted to ask you about. It seems fair to say that format and technique were foregrounded in discussions about your first four movies—whether it was the use of 16mm in the first three, or the use of period-specific recording equipment for Computer Chess [a modified Sony AVC 3260]. I was wondering if you could talk about your experience shooting digitally on both Results and Support the Girls—what does that change about your work?
It’s hard to articulate because it’s so many things. It’s a nexus of technology and aesthetics and culture, all of which is changing very rapidly. I love film and I may shoot something on film again, before… before I pass away?… I don’t know. I’d like to. But for me some of the heart went out of that when you could no longer exhibit on film. That changed that a lot for me. Because to me the difference between showing a DCP of something that was originated on film and showing a DCP of something that originated on a digital simulacrum of film… that difference is not nonexistent, but to me it’s not as important.
As you sit down to do anything, you need to assess what your tools are. That’s about a feeling more than anything else—what does it feel like? The way that 16mm projected on 35mm feels, as opposed to the feel of 16mm projected on DCP, as opposed to the feel of 35mm projected on DCP, as opposed to feel of shooting on your Arri Alexa which has been programmed to look like 35mm, as opposed to the feel of your Arri Alexa when it’s been programmed to look like something else… they all feel different. And I just do my best to keep that in my head as we shoot, or sometimes as I write.
Then you get to edit the movie, and you feel these things out as you go. I’ve always felt that a movie’s not done until the premiere, until an audience interacts with it. That’s the last piece of the puzzle. And that’s a piece which you have no particular control over as the director. That’s also what’s exciting about it: So much of what a movie is is people projecting their dreams onto it. And that’s something that’s changing all the time. It’s a fascinating thing about going back to movies from the past: You see movies from 100 years ago which are as powerful today as they were then, but you also see others which don’t work the same way because people don’t dream the same way now. And that’s also scary, because with the rate the world is changing now, this could all go away quickly. It’s not implausible to me that in ten years the whole medium will feel irrelevant. I don’t know, we’ll see.
On the subject of mediums, I’d like to go back to how this originated as a television project. Support the Girls depicts one day in the lives of its characters, but their history and backgrounds are being alluded to constantly. A lot of these details are the kinds of things I could imagine being explored at greater length in a television series. And yet the fact that this is not a television series, but rather a film that takes place in a very specific elapsed duration (one day)… that gives it a very beautiful mysterious quality that it might not have otherwise. Are you conscious about what you’re withholding as you write?
Yes and no. I won’t say that I know all the answers to everything—or anything. But certainly that feeling you’re describing is one of the things that I most eagerly pursue as a viewer. All of my favorite movie experiences are experiences where I feel like I’m a half-step behind what’s on the screen. And if you get too many steps behind, you tune out because you’re lost. But if you’re leaning forward in your seat trying to learn something from this world—if it feels complete enough that way—then that, to me, is thrilling. Consciously or not that’s something I love to aim for.
For me this quality also feels connected to your treatment of the setting in Support the Girls. As viewers we quickly ascertain that we’re in Texas, but the year never seems to be nailed down (it’s clearly the 2010s but not necessarily the present day), nor do we learn the specific city or town or region where this sports bar is located.
Yeah, you [learn] as much as this movie needed. And that differs from movie-to-movie, too. Results was certainly a movie that felt very particularly Austin to me, and I was happy to name it [within the movie]. But I’ve never been that interested in that… I’ve don’t think I’ve ever done a movie where it’s oh we’re in Austin, I’m going to go get a shot of the bats flying out from Congress Bridge. Or when we shot Mutual Appreciation in New York, I didn’t need to go get a shot of the Statue of Liberty, you know. That kind of stuff has never been interesting to me. But it depends on the movie, and it depends on the story.
We shot Support the Girls in Austin. It does not specifically take place in Austin. In my mind it’s certainly Texan, and there are little hints and cues of Texana in it. But more than that it’s just in highway world. And that is not that different… the highway world of Texas and the highway world of Massachusetts are not terribly dissimilar.
That’s part of the reason I ask: there’s a vaguely purgatorial aspect to it. The sports bar is nowhere, in a sense—if you ask me where it is, I can’t really say. And when you tie that into to the way time is being depicted in this film—one long never-ending shift that eventually seems to loop back on itself—it places the characters at something like a literal dead end.
Well that’s the highway. It isn’t the place—it’s a journey that could maybe take you to the place… but if you work on the highway [laughs], then you’re not located anywhere. You’re just between places.
On the other side of purgatory, I wanted to ask you about quote-unquote realism. There’s a Chuck Klosterman essay packed with the new Blu-ray release of Funny Ha Ha. I’m of course paraphrasing, but in that essay he rejects the description of your film as being “realistic”, and offers “hyperreal” instead—he suggests you construct a series of ostensibly realistic observed moments which taken altogether become something more uncanny or unreal. I felt that quality in Support the Girls.
I think with this particular movie, yeah for sure. It’s a really strange set of elements here, in part because it did develop out of this TV thing. There’s still this weird little strange of sitcom DNA amidst everything else going on in here. But I wasn’t interested in sitcom stakes, or sitcom payoffs. There are some of those elements, and some of that structure, but I think always pointing towards some place those shows don’t generally go. Whether or not that’s “realistic”? I don’t know. It’s hard to say. It’s always this weird miasma. If I can get really philosophical in general, I think all of quote-unquote cinema, whatever that thing was that we were excited about for 100 years…
Moving pictures, yeah. It’s always lies and the truth all mixed up in a way that’s very difficult to untangle. Maybe that’s what’s exciting about it. That’s built into the nature of every part of the process. And it’s in the writing, too. You have to be drawing from real life, and it excites me to draw from real life, to try and connect back to real experiences. But we’re also putting on a show. Especially with a movie like this, where I am working with a large and more conventional crew. They’re all great people, a lot of fun, so it doesn’t feel like we’re working in a factory, and it’s not boring… but it is labor. You’re trying to make magic out of labor. It’s a strange thing to be doing. But every once in a while you feel that spark and you think, oh, maybe this is working. And that’s very exciting.
SUPPORT THE GIRLS IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON VOD OUTLETS.