With There There, Andrew Bujalski finds new freedom under the constraints of working during the peak of the COVID pandemic. Shot on phones, it consists of a series of dialogues between characters. It begins with a post-coital scene between a man (Lennie James) and a woman (Lili Taylor) following a one-night stand. All characters are unnamed. In most scenes, one character moves on to an interaction with another person. After a short interlude with musician Jon Natchez drumming on two electric guitars with mallets, Taylor’s character meets with her AA sponsor. Bujalski’s approach to framing and editing is rougher than even his early mumblecore films. In fact, it suggests the artificiality of continuity by stitching together scenes whose actors never appeared on the same set. Due to safety precautions, each character was shot individually, then the film was edited to create the illusion of them talking to each other.
Bujalski first made a name for himself in the early 2000s with micro-budget mumblecore films. His last two films, Results and Support the Girls, were a bit slicker, and he had planned a TV series based on the latter. But even though There There features stars like Taylor and Jason Schwartzmann, it returns to his roots. Like several films made during the pandemic by established directors (such as Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s Something in the Dirt), it embraces the period’s harshness and difficulty. While the film never explicitly refers to COVID, its unusual choices hint at a loneliness and prickliness that don’t need to be spelled out.
The Film Stage: Was the film entirely shot in real locations?
Andrew Bujalski: In many ways it brought me back to how I started making films 20 years ago, when there wasn’t a whole art department that could transform a space or build a set. We were looking for spaces that had the character and technical requirements we needed. We would go from there and integrate them into our story. It was exciting, too, because that brings an element of unpredictability—especially for a movie like this. We had spaces that didn’t match each other. There would be surprising disconnects that came up.
Did you shoot in any of the actors’ actual homes?
I think there’s one case where we did. I will keep my mouth shut to protect that performer’s privacy.
How many people were on the set at once?
Very few were physically present. The actor would be there with a micro-crew, usually two people. The maximum we ever had on set was four people. I would be on Zoom with my D.P., sound supervisor and the producers. We would all telecommute.
A few years ago you gave an interview where you said you were freaked out by the concept of content: cinema as interchangeable with a TikTok. Now that we’ve gone through the pandemic and a period where movie theaters were closed, do you still feel the same way?
That was almost the strangest part of lockdown to me. I was a lifelong moviegoer, a guy who always went to the theater. I certainly watched a lot of VHS tapes when I was a kid, but the vast majority of movies I’ve seen in the theater. I don’t really like watching movies at home; it doesn’t feel right to me. When lockdown hit I was fairly cautious, because I’ve got a family. I wasn’t rushing right back even when theaters reopened. That was the strangest thing, because even when I had newborns and no time to do anything, if I left the house once in a week, it’d be to go to the movies. To suddenly not be doing that and have at least a solid year where I didn’t set foot in the theater was very difficult.
But ultimately, I still feel the same way. Things were already changing; the pandemic just accelerated it extraordinarily. It’s bad news for the cinema I grew up with, but cinema has always been in a state of evolution, different from what it was 10 or 20 years ago. I might be too old to understand what’s coming next, but hopefully my kids will and see some magic in it. The number of films I watched during the pandemic came close to zero. I have a 16mm projector and some prints I bought off eBay. I watched a few films in my house, and a friend showed his film at a drive-in. We’d watch things at home with the kids, like Beetlejuice, but I wasn’t keeping up with new releases. It was strange to read about these films and think “I’m not going to make it to them.”
To me, There There felt like a string of very short plays. Do you see it as having a relationship to theater?
Yes. To be clear, I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I’m not a theater person and haven’t participated in it since high school. I’ve always had a real affection for playwriting, especially as it’s seeped into cinema. There are so many movies based on plays which I love or which have a theatricality to them; The Breakfast Club springs to mind. It’s not a play, but it could’ve been. I like treating time and space the way theater does but translating it to cinema. It’s not the first time I’ve thought “Well, I could be a playwright.” The reality is that I don’t have that background or know how to write plays.
Was there any degree of improvisation or was all the dialogue written out beforehand?
It had to be. I love improvisation and ad libs, but there was so little room for it in this movie. We were shooting the actors separately, 1,000 miles apart from each other. None of them really shared a scene or were filmed within two weeks of each other. There was always a huge separation, which meant we couldn’t ad lib. If you do it on one side, the other people can’t pick it up. Or maybe it had already been shot, so you can’t reply to something the other people didn’t say. We had to be pretty rigorous. That felt like theater. Instead of being very broken up, like a movie shoot often is, we did takes as long as possible. If we had a set-up we could run for 15 minutes of a take, we did and let the actors go through. It was quite grueling for the actors, but they had extraordinary reserves of patience.
You studied with Chantal Akerman and Dusan Makavajev at Harvard. They’re not the directors you get compared to—especially Makavajev—but did they have any influence on your work?
I wouldn’t point to either as an aesthetic influence. You say I don’t get compared to them, but how many people do? They’re entirely different from each other, but they’re both unique artists. Nobody else makes a movie like Akerman. They just have that extraordinary strength of vision. To see and be near that as a 20-year-old made me see how deep and committed an artist could be with their work. They’re both very funny and very serious people. In a way I might have learned from both that you can’t be serious without being funny, and vice-versa. They were enormous influences on my life, but I don’t watch their movies and try to steal aesthetic choices per se.
There There includes some strange editing choices. Were you deliberately playing around with the “rules” of continuity and matching lighting from shot to countershot?
Every edit had to be strange because of the circumstances of the filmmaking. Every time I cut I’m leaping between people who are 1,000 miles away, if not more; it had to be odd and disjointed. When I stitch them together and make an exchange between two people who are only imagining each other, you get to see that act of imagination in real time. That’s the magic of editing and movie time. Usually it’s very smooth: you’ll see one person look at another person and your brain doesn’t process the fact that maybe the other person wasn’t there when this was shot.
Here’s a movie where you’re confronted with that reality over and over but your brain insists on making sense of it. Everyone understands that it’s strange, but some people watch it and don’t get that these actors are not in the same space. In a practical and story sense, the film is about connecting across isolation. Both characters and actors are trying to find each other across disconnections. In some way maybe that’s what all my movies are about, but this was a chance to push it to an extreme.
Since 2020, many films have reflected the difficulty of production under COVID by having two or three people talking in a room. They really reflect the isolation of that period without referring directly to COVID. Had you thought about making a film that dealt more bluntly with what was going on in the world at that time?
I knew there would be people who did that. By April 2020 people were making movies shot on Zoom which were very directly about the moment. I respect them a lot, and I’m sure some made good work. I didn’t want to do that in part because newspaper filmmaking isn’t how my mind works. I know that I want to take some time—especially when I’m making a film that’s not remotely like anything I’ve done before. It also took 6 months to shoot. As I’m sure you remember, in the early days of COVID, from week to week you never knew what world you’d be living in. It seemed crazy to try and speak for the moment when I knew it’d take me a while to figure it out. For me this is about movies: how they’re made and what our minds do with them. It was inspired by the lockdown moment, but not really about it.
There There opens in theaters and on VOD on Friday, November 18.