Andrew Bujalski might be among the most prominent directors on the contemporary American independent film scene to have not had a movie shown at Sundance -- until now.
For better or worse, Bujalski’s first three features -- “Funny Ha Ha,” “Mutual Appreciation” and “Beeswax” -- made him known as one of the leading lights of the micro-budget style of filmmaking known as mumblecore. His preference for shooting his subtle, talky stories on film rather than video has set him apart even from his own crowd.
On Monday, Bujalski’s fourth feature, “Computer Chess,” will premiere as part of the Sundance festival’s NEXT section. A flaky, funny comedy set amid a weekend computer chess tournament sometime around 1980, the film was shot using black-and-white Sony video cameras from 1969, giving the film a hazy look and rangy feel that Bujalski says was inspired partly by photographer William Eggleston’s own 1970s video experiment, “Stranded in Canton.”
“I’ve been shooting on 16mm for a decade and the constant question even when I was out there with my first movie was, ‘Why aren’t you shooting on video?’ ” the Boston-born, Austin-based Bujalski, 35, said by phone ahead of the festival.
“And there is some contrarian streak I have that when people asked me that, I thought in the back of my head, ‘I’ll show you video. You’ve never seen video like I’ll show you,’ ” he added. “So I always thought it would be fun to do something on video, but if I were going to do that I’d want to find some perverse and painful was to do it.”
Recalling perhaps the institution-skewering, ensemble comedies of Robert Altman, “Computer Chess” follows a few different teams, solo competitors and assorted hangers-on as they struggle to keep their computers functioning and deal with various interpersonal issues while attempting to beat not only other computers but also a human chess master. The cast includes “Dazed and Confused” actor Wiley Wiggins, film professor and critic Gerald Peary, and a pair of film editors and a few actual computer programmers making their acting debuts.
Bujalski bought a second-hand book on chess trivia some time back and was taken with a section on the early days of computing and chess and its relationship to the development of artificial intelligence. He wrote an eight-page treatment around the idea of a computer chess tournament and filed it away.
Then sometime after the birth of his son in 2010 he began to worry he might never make another film at all after financing failed to materialize for a more conventional story that would have required a bigger budget and actual movie stars – “Ironically enough, in my mind, a Sundance kind of movie,” he said. Anxious to shoot a film sometime in 2011, he dug out his treatment and decided it would be his next film.
“It could not be a more absurd task,” Bujalski said. “We have no money, I have no script, it’s on a topic I don’t know anything about, it’s got 30 or 40 speaking roles, which I have not cast, it’s a period piece and we’re going to shoot it on an experimental camera rig that we need to design from the ground up. And we start shooting in two months.”
Bujalski had bought a vintage Sony video camera online (the production ultimately used three) and that sent him and his team down the rabbit hole of trying to create a work flow for cameras that could create an image but had no working tape decks on which to record them.
“I thought it would be easy and fun to make this movie,” Bujalski said, “but getting these things to work in the 21st century is complex.”
Bujalski is excited at the prospect of finally screening at Sundance, and also quietly proud that it is his most experimental, least conventional film that got him there.
“As much as I’ve been accused of this in the past,” he said, “this time I really didn’t have a script, I just had that eight-page treatment. In a funny way, it might not look like it, but inasmuch as it’s shot on video without a script, maybe this is my first mumblecore movie.”
Sparked in part by sleeplessness, characters taking hallucinogenic drugs and a free-love encounter group meeting at the same motel, the film pushes the search for artificial intelligence toward an unexpectedly spiritual place. Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” is a celebration of nerds and their dedication, in which the goofy and the profound can seem to be one and same.
“Nowadays we live in a world where you can be a quote-unquote nerd but have a nice haircut and go to the gym and have a great-looking girlfriend or boyfriend,” said Bujalski. “Which isn’t to say you couldn’t be a handsome computer programmer back in the day, but it was just a lot more insular.”
“Something about those guys almost seem like monks to me,” he added. “They were so dedicated to what they were doing, often to the exclusion of the rest of the world. And they built the world we live in now.”
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus