Magic, "mumblecore", and not exactly talkin' bout my generation: Interview at the Berlinale with Andrew Bujalski
One film the Babbel Bloggers caught during the Berlinale (February 5-15) was “Beeswax”. This is American auteur Andrew Bujalski’s third feature, which premiered on Monday, Feb. 9th. His genre, if it can even be classified as such, has been coined as “mumblecore”. But as a talk with him made clear, in his work and in the film world in general, often the last thing words do is clarify. You can still catch a screening of Beeswax in Berlin tonight or on Friday.
Babbel Blog: When I saw “Beeswax”, I was thinking about how I could connect it with issues of language. One thing that stood out to me in the movie was how you have this divide – or conflict – between personal and business language. “Are we business partners or friends?” “Am I your boyfriend or your lawyer?” That sort of thing.
Andrew Bujalski: Whenever I have to sign contracts it always produces a great anxiety in me, because I read the language of the document and it’s never language that I’ve written, or language I would necessarily subscribe to, though you’re not given the option to line-edit every contract you sign. But what’s frightening about them is that they are written in a language which doesn’t resemble the personal language you would use to suss out if you and someone you’re working with are working toward the same goal.
And it’s always interesting to me that even though it might technically be English, it never feels like English in the way that I use it or a way I would use it in my daily life. It’s language not meant to clarify as much as to codify or often obfuscate. So I was interested in the differences between …. people will use legal language toward a certain goal, and of course if they’re working together they have to use human language to work toward that same goal, but things are at cross purposes and they butt up against each other as I think they do in the film.
BB: Do you have personal experience with this sort of conflict between these two types of languages?
AB: To some extent, because I’ve always worked with friends, and there’s always inherent challenges in working with friends… I mean, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. But there’s always an element of both…. when you try to clarify and codify that, for me it’s always uncomfortable to draw up any sort of document with someone you have a personal relationship with. Something always feels painful to me about that. And I think the film certainly gets at that.
BB: Your fims have been classified as “mumblecore” which I’m sure has become a buzzword you’re tired of being asked about…..
AB: It doesn’t really mean anything.
BB: I was thinking about the language of the film though, maybe it comes from this specific place, that is, as the characters are somehow similar to me – American, with a certain class background -, I can sort of relate to them directly, I know where they’re coming from. But I was wondering – if you have an international audience watching it, if there can still be some sort of claim to universality?
AB: I don’t know. I certainly hope so. I certainly would want universality for the film. On the one hand I think my films are in a strange place, because people have said – well, many Americans have said to me — “this would do great in Europe”, and I think what that means is that it’s quiet, it’s artistic, so maybe some of the aesthetic values are more in line with a European film tradition than an American film tradition. But on the other hand, I think the fims are extremely American, the cultural specifics of them, and it’s down to the cadences and the slang. Even the pauses and the hesitation in the speech feel specifically American. Are they going to translate very widely? Probably not. But I think that any film … cinema is a magical thing. And as much as it allows you to go all over the world… I don’t expect us to be a smash hit on any country on earth, but I do think the film can be understood anywhere.
BB: You were talking about the film being interpreted as “European”, but also how the content is quite American. Something I also noticed about the film is that there aren’t any clean resolutions, and cinematic clichés are constantly being evaded. For example the character Jeannie is in a wheelchair, but it’s never an issue; or when her employee is crying we never find out why. It never goes where as seasoned moviewatchers we think it should go. Maybe this is a stretch, but could this kind of cinematic language be interpreted as European (even if it’s said as an epithet?)
AB: In America there’s a notion that Europeans have more patience. May or may not be true. I guess it’s probably true.
Also America is the home of demographic research. So programming a film according to what test audiences press buttons on. And there’s a lot of things in this film that a test audience would not approve of.
BB: Why wouldn’t they?
AB: Oh I don’t know, you’d have to ask them. If I were in the test audience I’d give it a ten out of ten every time.
BB: Who are your actors?
AB: They’re all nonprofessionals. Well…. even that gets a little shady, defining who’s professional and who’s not. But for the most part they don’t live in New York or LA or pursue acting fulltime.
The twins, Tilly (pictured above) and Maggie Hatcher – Maggie I went to college with, met her ten years ago and met Tilly soon after that — and they’re both such remarkably charismatic people. And then you put them together and there is this just this sort of instant fascination — I have a half-brother and siblings, but I didn’t grow up with a brother in the house. I think like a lot of people I am fascinated by twins. So it was just in the back of my head for a long time, if I could try and capture, or ride some of the fumes of the magic of that relationship, that would be a great thing to bottle up and get on screen.
It’s sort of a…. whenever you’re trying to take something magical from reality and get it on screen, you’re asking for a… well, there’s something a little hubristic about it, but I think that’s what filmmakers do.
BB: Yes, they’re clearly sisters in real life, and the way they communicate with each other is also this very natural way of speaking. Though you wrote the script, how much of it was improvised?
AB: It all hews pretty closely to the structure of the screenplay, and that was true in my earlier films and even more true in this one, because this film has shorter scenes and there’s more exposition squeezed into every scene. So there’re a lot more specific points that need to be hit to keep the story on track. So again… I’ve never been able to… People have always asked me, what percentage of this is improvised? And I don’t know what the number is, I don’t even know … I have trouble with the question because I feel to some extent that ALL acting is some sort of improvisation.
But there are moments in there. A funny language example – and a funny twins example – there’s a bit where Tilly’s character Jeannie uses the word “scorching” to refer to this evening she spent with an ex-boyfriend. That word wasn’t in the script. But then “scorching” comes up again later when Maggie’s character, Lauren, is talking about the salsa they are eating at a Mexican restaurant. And she says it and she sort of raises her eyebrows and it almost… I mean, I think in the film it seems like a direct reference or a reflection on the other scene. But that was something I didn’t write – I didn’t write the word “scorching”in either scene, but both of them put that in independently without knowing the other had come up with it! That’s another great twin confluence. In the editing, I thought, “that’s sort of amazing”, that was a gift they gave me without knowing that they gave it to me.
BB: Lastly, the movie kind of made me think of “Slacker”. Not that the movies are all that similar, but that that movie was like the generation before, and “Beeswax” clearly has something that speaks to people in their 20s and 30s now. Is there a special way of talking for this generation that is portrayed in the film?
AB:I don’t know… that’s another question I have trouble with. You know, the word generation comes up and I tense up. I wonder if that will be on peoples mind with this film. My previous two films were about people in their twenties, and for some reason, when you’re talking about people in their twenties there’s a tendency for people to want to say, “are you defining a generation”. I think once people start to get older, in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s… nobody cares about that generation anymore, you know, it’s like the generation has been defined. So as I’ve gotten older certainly, and the characters have gotten older, I…. I don’t know if it will be asked to define a generation anymore. We’ll see.