Director Andrew Bujalski invented mumblecore with his 2002 debut, Funny Ha Ha. His latest film, Computer Chess, stars the geeky competitors of an eighties virtual-chess tournament. These are the movies, books, TV shows, albums, and European countries that shaped his work.
1. Austin City Lights and Brookline Is My Lady (Public-access TV shows)
Public access is always the best thing on TV. It’s the last stand of the avant-garde. Austin City Lights was this stunning show with a cast of eccentrics, including a strange woman named “Flash” Jordan Thomas and her mother, Lady B. I have a strong memory of them standing around singing a song they seemed to be making up on the spot. Brookline Is My Lady was a variety show from Boston in the nineties. Sketch-comedy stuff that you wouldn’t find in a more professional production.
2. Elvis Costello, Get Happy!!
I’d happily trade whatever filmmaking ability I have for a fraction of his musical talent. Get Happy!! is my favorite Elvis album, but everything from the first ten years of his career is unbelievably good. After that, you get the sense that there’s less misery and terror fueling the work, and sometimes you miss that misery and terror, but the talent remains stunning.
3. Jimmy Carter
His skills were huge and specific, but he just didn’t connect with people on a mass scale. He had a knack for being incredibly detail-oriented, at the expense of the big picture, but I don’t think anyone would question his virtue or diligence. I relate to that managerial style. I’m not as smart or virtuous as Jimmy Carter, but if I had to be any American president, I would probably fail in the same ways he did—not to call him a failure!
4. Broadcast News
Casting William Hurt as a guy who’s not that smart was a stroke of genius. He’s a pretty smart dude, and it’s really hard to play a not-that-smart guy, but he’s so brilliant in that role. As a kid, it was probably a bad thing that I identified so much with Albert Brooks’s character. He’s a terrible model for adulthood. I’ve certainly gotten more sympathetic toward William Hurt’s character as I’ve grown older, maybe because I’ve become dumber.
5. Love Streams
Love Streams has so many crazy, formal flourishes that aren’t what people associate with John Cassavetes, but it’s every inch a Cassavetes movie. It takes these incredible risks, yet they work, and it has the single most surreal moment in any movie in the bit near the end. I could not begin to explain to you what it is, but it’s stunningly resonant. It’s something I really admired and would love to be able to pull off.
6. William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton
It’s something Eggleston shot in the seventies but wasn’t released until 2005. It was shot on the Sony Portapak [camera] when that came out. There was also a documentary called William Eggleston in the Real World, which had some clips of this Portapak footage of Eggleston hanging out with his kooky, drug-addled friends in Memphis, and it’s fucking riveting! But I fell in love with the camera. I thought, What movie could I make in the language that this camera represents? There would be no Computer Chess without that camera.
This experimental filmmaker named Pere Portabella was on the set of Count Dracula with Christopher Lee, and the whole movie is just black-and-white 16-mm. footage of him hanging out. They’re shooting the movie and he’s off in a corner somewhere, filming them film the movie. I’d put it on my list of all-time best vampire movies. The opening is music and cars pulling into the parking lot, and we have that in the beginning of Computer Chess, and that was me trying to steal that mojo, even though it’s completely different in our movie. The vampire spirit can be anywhere.
8. New England Mobile Book Fair
It’s a bookstore in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, near my hometown. It’s not mobile—it’s a warehouse. It’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from Barnes & Noble, which smells like coffee and is nice to customers. Paperbacks were organized by publisher, then alphabetically by title, which made it impossible to find anything. You could only explore. I bought a $2 book of chess trivia ten years ago. That was what first sparked the notion of a computer-chess movie for me.
9. Joni Mitchell’s eighties albums
I’ll be the jerk that argues with you that her eighties albums deserve another listen. They say her concerns had become more strident and impersonal and the records didn’t sound good, but I think that’s unfair. She was still the same stunningly brilliant melodist. Even in her most politically aggressive lyrics, I’m still onboard, whether or not I agree with what she’s saying.
10. The Rocky series
I’m not being facetious when I say that it’s the closest thing to an American analogue for Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel movies—you really get to spend time with somebody. Rocky is less explicitly about the passage of time, but when you watch all of them, you can really feel it. There’s no actor in the world that I would rather work with than Stallone. That’s a long-standing fantasy for me.
11. Paul McCartney, Silly Love Songs
You’re supposed to like John the most, but I love all four Beatles—I’ll stand up for a couple Ringo records if you put a few drinks in me. But McCartney was the most fascinating personality. He’s never going out of his way to look cool: “You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs.” I have a similar feeling about that. As a filmmaker, I don’t mind putting something pleasant out into the world. I have a pitch for a McCartney musical. I haven’t quite worked the whole thing out, but he’s welcome to call me.
12. Kate Dollenmayer, Justin Rice, Tilly and Maggie Hatcher, and Patrick Riester
The stars of my movies. For the first three, before I knew anything about them, I knew I wanted to write something for Kate [Funny Ha Ha], Justin [Mutual Appreciation], and for the Hatchers [Beeswax]. If Kate had woken up and thought, I’m not going to do this, then that project would have been over. It seemed a shortcut to guarantee a vital performance. With Patrick, I didn’t do that. We met a couple weeks before I started shooting Computer Chess. In retrospect, I can’t believe I didn’t have him there in mind, because he had that uncanny ability.
13. Eddie Murphy
He was 19 when he started on Saturday Night Live and 23 when he did Beverly Hills Cop. You don’t think of Axel Foley as that young. But it works, because he was so confident. He’s hilarious, but he’s also an amazingly good actor. I have a pitch for him too. He’s a huge Elvis fan, and I have this fantasy of a movie where Eddie plays Elvis on the last day of his life. Elvis dies on the toilet and has a fever dream that he’s Eddie Murphy. I haven’t cracked that one yet.
14. Chantal Akerman (Harvard’s department of Visual and Environmental Studies)
I studied film as an undergrad at Harvard, and she was my thesis adviser. She gave me two pieces of advice, which I haven’t taken yet. She told me girls wouldn’t like me until I stopped dressing like a 14-year-old, and that I should stop being pretentious and just make comedies. I think of Computer Chess as a comedy, but it probably behooves me to go out and make a real one sometime.
15. Brian De Palma
De Palma will spend an hour of the movie whipping you into a frenzy, building the house of cards, and then end the movie gleefully knocking it down in a way that infuriates half the audience but is still commercially viable. And Lord knows I love his split screens. And I finally got to do them in Computer Chess, to put a few split screens in the movie. Not with the level of invention or meticulousness that he brings, but it was fun to pretend that I was De Palma for five minutes.
16. Game Theory, Real Nighttime
The lead singer, Scott Miller, died recently, which really shook me. He had this complex relationship with his lack of fame, but somehow the fact that his bands never made it big seemed like part of why they stayed great. They just did great work for twenty-some years. Lolita Nation is probably their most beloved album, but song for song, I’ll take Real Nighttime over it. He was always bursting with ideas as a songwriter, and it feels absolutely effortless on this record.
17. Robert A. Heinlein, To Sail Beyond the Sunset
The crazier Heinlein’s books were, the more invested I was. He was the most sex-obsessed of sci-fi writers, which might be why he appealed to my adolescent self. In his last several books, there was this weird wish-fulfillment fantasy about incest—the rosiest view of incest I’ve ever read! To Sail Beyond the Sunset is pretty nuts and has the sexy cover. At the end, a woman falls in love with her father. There seems to be a hidden agenda there—he’s got some things he’s working on.
I don’t think there’s ever been a moment when I’m watching 16-mm. on a screen where I didn’t feel really happy. It’s hard for me to say how much of it is sentimental, because I worked with it in school. But when I think that maybe I should go out and get the RED camera, for me the trick of it is, how do you bring back the organic feel of the image, besides pressing the organic-filter button in Final Cut Pro? The simulacra get more and more convincing, but like Marvin Gaye sang, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing.”
19. Twin Peaks
Everybody says it’s the golden age of TV now, but Twin Peaks is still the king in my book. These days, quality control has gotten stricter, because they don’t want a show as nuts as Twin Peaks. But I like when a show is unpredictable and goes off the rails. It’s one thing I’ve really enjoyed about Girls: You can have a goofy episode followed by something intense and dramatic. I don’t need to know where we’re headed every week.
20. “Filmed plays”
This used to be a put-down: “That was just a filmed play. That wasn’t cinematic.” It could be referring to something that was adapted from a play or just a particularly talky movie, and it always made me sad, because I really liked those. The good ones are as cinematic as anything. It’s insane to look at a movie adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross and say it’s not cinematic just because it has roots in another medium. It completely succeeds as cinema, as far as I’m concerned.
I have an outdated fantasy that I become my generation’s Jerry Lewis and get adopted by France. That hasn’t happened yet. I was in France for about 24 hours. I’d taken French from seventh to eleventh grade, and I tried to bust it out, but they were not impressed. I had one very successful errand—I needed to get some pages Xeroxed, it was a lot to try to get right, but they didn’t bat an eye at me. But from there it was all downhill. The dream was over.
*This article originally appeared in the July 22, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.