The South By Southwest Film Festival still defines itself as a scrappy outsider in the festival world, even as alumni have gone on to mainstream awards, box office success and everything from television to tentpoles.
Writer-director Andrew Bujalski, a festival regular and Austin, Texas, local, embodies a different route, one which keeps the conventional trappings of success at arm's length. With sharp, literate screenplays that have an offhanded quality concealing their underlying complexities and an affinity for humane warmth and emotional acuity, Bujalski and his films feel like they're hiding in plain sight, shrugging off their own greatness.
After the second public screening of his latest film, "Support the Girls," this past weekend at SXSW, the admittedly shy Bujalski was incongruously sitting in a Hooters restaurant right across the street from the theater. He admitted that this particular restaurant was one of the few such local establishments he did not visit while researching the project, and he surveys the room with a practiced eye, taking in the posters on the wall, TVs in every line of sight and obligatory young female servers.
"It's funny, because in some ways this Hooters is probably more like our fictional restaurant than most of the other ones I went to," he said. "This is pretty … on the nose here."
"Support the Girls" — it's okay to interpret that title however you like — is set in just such an establishment: a fictional Austin restaurant that operates around what one character refers to as "boobs, brews and big screens." Primarily taking place over the course of one particularly hectic day, the film focuses on restaurant manager Lisa (Regina Hall), who oversees her staff (including Haley Lu Richardson, Shayna McHayle, AJ Michalka and Dylan Gelula) while navigating the demands of the owner (James Le Gros) and attempting to deal with her own personal life.
Bujalski first walked into such a restaurant some years ago and the dynamics of the place, with its unspoken rules and rituals and the odd, distinctly American mix of raunchiness and comfort he has described as "10 percent strip club, 90 percent TGI Friday's," all stuck with him. He came to write about it in part to answer some questions for himself.
"I could never quite figure it out," he said. "The places are so tricky — it's so tricky to untangle exactly what it is that's going on in here. I had my ideas about it, and a lot of this movie is just me teasing out those ideas or bouncing those ideas around the room.
"It was a bit of a puzzle," he said of the writing process. "You could do a big broad comedy, and I knew I wasn't going to do that, and you could do a real nasty version where everybody is horrible, but neither of those were what this is about [to me]. In everything I've ever done, I'm always attracted to these unsolvable problems of human interactions."
The film, which was acquired for distribution by Magnolia Pictures shortly before its festival premiere, has an undeniable anchor in Hall. The actress delivers a rich performance that follows her star turn in last year's runaway smash "Girls Trip." Her ability to scale between light comedy and deeper emotional naturalism finds a perfect spotlight in Bujalski's material.
From the first time she read the script, Hall felt an unusual connection to the role. "I read it and I loved it, and I didn't know why," she said in an interview earlier in the day during the film's screening. "As soon as I read her, I could hear her. I heard an accent. I saw what she looked like.
"She didn't feel like me at all, I didn't see myself in Lisa, and yet I saw everyone in Lisa. Including myself, but not specific to Regina, something about what it is to be human. I just couldn't stop thinking about it."
More than just about any other contemporary American filmmaker, Bujalski is interested in work, the ways that peoples' jobs come to define their sense of self and their lives. Money matters in his movies — in the places people live, the clothes they wear and the cars they drive, and there is an attention to the realities of that which is all too rare.
"Beeswax," his version of a legal thriller, was about two friends involved in a lawsuit over the small business they run together. The romantic comedy "Results" centered around an owner-operated gym and the struggles of moving to the next level.
"Support the Girls" is Bujalski's version of a workplace comedy, and everything — including explorations of gender and racial dynamics — orbits around how one small restaurant gets itself through the day.
"All I can figure is I'm still grumpy about the fact I have to earn a living," Bujalski said. "I'm so grumpy about it I keep making movies about it to complain.
"But I can't help but feel like I'm a documentarian. There's still that part of me that thinks I should just be making documentaries," he added. "That's what I want to do, but I'm too lazy. It takes too long, so I'll just make up some stuff and we can do it quicker. Of course there's still imagination involved, but my imagination doesn't go to another planet, it goes to what's around me. And most people's lives that I know are consumed by their work."
Bujalski's steadfastness, the fact that his movies are reliably inventive, eccentric and unpredictable and so much a product of his sensibilities and curiosities, is in itself inspirational. Though he has had films premiere at other festivals, in many ways he is the epitome of the spirit of SXSW.
He takes on the occasional screenwriting assignment and recently did his first for-hire directing jobs with episodes of the Hulu sitcom "There's… Johnny!" But he, more than anything, continues to do his own thing.
Bujalski acknowledges that Lisa and her relationship to her job in "Support the Girls" do serve as something of an unintentional metaphor for his own complicated feelings about commercial filmmaking and mainstream success.
"I could project some of that onto her," he noted. "It's an industry that maybe she doesn't 100 percent approve of but maybe she has a willed optimism about. And [she] goes in there and says 'Hey, these are nice people.' Which is how I feel about Hollywood — I don't totally approve, but they're nice people and I can work with them."