Computer Chess is Andrew Bujalski's fourth film and first to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize. I've seen it three times and highly recommend it for fans of his previous films and also, because it's partly very different than his previous films, people who haven't liked (or haven't been sure if they've liked) his previous films. If you've not seen his films, but plan to see this one, I'm excited for you. Computer Chess opens this week at Film Forum in New York City, and soon, in other theaters across America. Here is its trailer and its website. The following interview was done via Gmail chat and email.
Motherboard: What did you eat today?
I ate some very delicious migas w/ queso for breakfast, too heavy a breakfast I fear but I needed to kill time because the guy I go to to get my haircut never opens when the sign on his shop says he will. I remain very fond of him nonetheless.
Where'd you get these things?
I mean, in a restaurant?
Yeah! Kerbey Lane Cafe is right next to my kid's day care.
I don't think I've ever heard of a miga.
Migas are just eggs w/ little strips of tortilla in them. I think. I'm not sure the technical definition of them. My wife is a journalist & she actually wrote an article on them once, but I've forgotten what I learned from it.
What does your wife think of Computer Chess?
I’ve learned not to speak for her.
I enjoyed and found very interesting the—unexpected, to me—role of drugs (marijuana, LSD, "pills") in Computer Chess. I thought of the nightmarish, circular feeling one can get while stoned or on LSD when, in the beginning, someone says "lost in a loop" about an end-game situation in which a computer is repeatedly checking its computer opponent, who is repeatedly moving out of check. And, later, when someone says "running in circles, aren't we" at the end of a scene in which people are smoking weed in a hotel room. Do you remember when drugs got into the movie?
Well I have little conscious memory of how any of these pieces started to fit together. I wrote the treatment just before my son was born and memory pretty well got wiped out after he was born. But the parallel certainly makes sense to me. The desire to build an artificial intelligence I think comes from more or less the same place as the desire to "expand the mind" via drugs or meditation or whatever your preferred methodology.
I don't know if I'd quite made that connection before w/r/t loops, but I think you're right on, yes. I never really got into drugs at all, have probably smoked pot less than a dozen times, but I know that my *worst* experiences with it were all the ones where I felt lost in a loop, I found it quite infuriating…
(I am not, perhaps, the most qualified candidate to make a drug movie.)
GIF from Computer Chess
Have you gotten much feedback on your portrayal of drugs?
Not really! I mean, I know some stoners who seem to have dug the movie, but I haven’t thought to quiz them on their assessment of our accuracy. Anyway, much as I would not have attempted to make this movie without great programmers and chess enthusiasts to advise me on those aspects, we also had several stoners amongst cast & crew who proved invaluable.
I remember, maybe four years ago, reading that you were working on an adaptation of Benjamin Kunkel's novel Indecision. What happened?
That all happened in a black box in Hollywood, I was not anywhere near privy to that decision-making. In broad strokes though, I think that that project was set up at Paramount Vantage, the "indie-friendly" arm of Paramount, and when that branch radically restructured—and stopped being so indie-friendly—the project didn't really have a home anymore.
I'm admiring your sentences—they're very pleasing to me. The balance.
You're too kind. I'm blushing.
What was the other "big movie" that you tried—after Indecision, before Computer Chess—to make?
Oh, I still want to do it. It's about teenagers, the way they see the world vs the way that adults—or whatever's left of adults in our contemporary culture—do. I felt like there are a hundred great movies that beautifully portray the teen worldview, but almost all of them portray incidental adult characters as buffoons, and I wanted to make a movie where we could have really good characters on both sides. There are probably plenty of sensible reasons why such a movie is not often made. Certainly financiers seemed a little baffled. "Do we market this to kids or adults?"
As I mentioned, I am not a marketing genius. So I say, "Uh, both?" Which is apparently not the correct answer.
What's the closest movie you can think of to what you described?
Good question! I'm sure it exists, though I'm blanking at the moment. Maybe Election? Though tonally that’s a million miles from what I was doing, that's really cutting satire—cutting on both the kids and the adults. Mine isn’t sentimental per se but it’s friendlier.
Photo by Tao Lin
The International Wizard of Oz Club
What's the most antisocial subculture you've ever been part of?
Another good question. I'm tempted to say, y'know, "the very exclusive subculture of myself." I think I'm an affable dude, I certainly like people, but I do get exhausted by socialization for socialization's sake. Parties take a lot out of me. When someone's having a great time at a party and says something like, "Hey, we should do this every night!" I always think—even if I'm having a good time myself—are you fucking kidding me?
That's funny. What about hobbies or interests? Have you been obsessed with an antisocial activity? Like, for example, an online computer game?
Circa junior high I did start spending a bunch of time on BBSes, the sort of pre-internet internet. But I wouldn't call that antisocial. (What does Judd Nelson say in Breakfast Club? "Demented and sad, but social"?) I was also a member of The International Wizard of Oz Club. I could show you a picture of me circa age 13 wearing an Oz Club t-shirt that would give you a strong sense of how long it took me subsequently to lose my virginity.
That's funny. What's the Oz Club?
It's an organization of people who really know a lot about either the Oz books or movie(s). Mostly it's hardcore folks who love the books, not just Judy Garland fans per se, though certainly there were plenty of older gay fellas around when I went to a couple conventions.
Who did you go with?
My grandmother—twice? I know my dad came once as well. He got really into bidding on things in the auction.
Do you remember what, in terms of The Wizard of Oz, your 13-year-old self was most interested in?
Around the time that the movie Return to Oz came out in 1985, I got a book called The World of Oz which, with a lot of full color illustrations, gave an overview of the already massive legacy of that story, beginning of course with the L. Frank Baum books, and then into all its various iterations adapted for stage & screen (into things like The Wiz, or oddities like Zardoz) over the years. I think I was just fascinated by the fact that one work of imagination could inspire a century's worth of continued imaginations, I loved the boundlessness of that. And then I got hooked on the books—there are 40 "canonical" ones and innumerable follow-ups, knock-offs, and fan-fictions. I believe Gore Vidal was also known to be a pretty hardcore Oz fan, for whatever that's worth.
A Little Mystery
I liked this line (said by an older programmer, who seems to be the father of a newborn baby, while explaining, I think, that his program can learn): "Everything is not everything. There's more."
Yeah I was very attached to that line. Can't remember where it came from. I think it popped up in rehearsal and I then kept insisting that Gordon say it over & over again. For a minute we considered making it the tagline on our poster.
Did you have Gordon say it in different scenes? Or, like, repeatedly?
No, I think just in that scene. That was where it belonged. Generally I like to stay loosey goosey about dialogue and try not to put pressure on an actor to say everything the same way every time—too often the best moments come out of some little invention, some little twist on the line that gets thrown in—but sometimes things have to be just right for expository reasons, or sometimes you get something like “Everything is not everything” and I can’t imagine it being any other way, can’t imagine not moving Heaven and Earth to ensure that that line ends up in the final cut.
It seems Zen. I hope it spreads on the internet. Has anyone, to your knowledge, discussed its possible meanings?
So far as I know you’re the first person to remark publicly on how fucking powerful that line is.
Have you privately analyzed it? Or deliberately allowed your understanding of it to remain intuitive? Or neither?
I will say it certainly ties in with another particular moment in the film—a kind of Easter egg I guess that I don’t know that anyone’s picked up on yet, so I don’t want to spoil it. I’ll leave the mystery there. That’s what J.J. Abrams says to do, leave a little mystery, right?
When the character Mr. Papageorge, an "independent programmer," first speaks, he says some things to the effect that his is the only non-futile, non-boring program at the tournament. Then he says "my program is [word/phrase I don't understand due to overlapping dialogue] innovations." So his distinguishing characteristic, in terms of programming, seemed to be deliberately withheld. Which seemed hilarious in a confusion-based way that, in retrospect, characterized the movie's tone, for me. How was that part, with the overlapping dialogue, written in the script?
His program is seeking harmonies, seeking innovations! But that wasn't in the script per se as there never was a complete, conventional script for this movie. We worked from the 8 page treatment I'd written—though of course that just meant that for the most part that we had to be better prepared, have more worked out in advance, than we would have with a script.
I see. Well, it worked for me—not understanding him there.
Well, who knows. It seems like about 70% of audience members can't make out the last line of dialogue in Funny Ha Ha—not necessarily an advisable strategy for a filmmaker, but I can't say it's ever bothered me too terribly much. I think there's a lot more going on on screen than any transcription would represent at any rate. I remember I couldn't make out half the dialogue in Gosford Park…
I'm fascinated by Funny Ha Ha's ending. Probably one of the 3-5 man-made things I've consistently viewed, without irony, as fascinating.
I admit I'm curious to know what the other 2-4 are.
I can't think of another right now. 3-5 was sort of a wild estimate. Here are my notes on Computer Chess' soundtrack:
- neutral-to-ominous-sounding sci-fi noises
- modem noises? antennae noises
- theme-park noises (like at EPCOT Center)
- country music?
It seems to me like you're pretty close to having compiled a list of 4 fascinating man made things.
But I don't think it's country music.
I suppose it's more folk music than country. Or "psych-folk" as the record collectors call it. Collie Ryan is the singer there. She’s great, I was so thrilled to get her into the movie. She wears a cowboy hat at the end so I see how you'd mistake it for country.
Do you know of EPCOT Center?
Of course I know EPCOT! It's been a few decades since I last set foot there, but sure. Strangely this came up recently, I found myself in some social setting trying to explain the concept of EPCOT to someone who'd somehow never heard of it, I don't think I did a very good job of it. I mean, I couldn't really explain EPCOT to you right now. It just is.
Some sounds in Computer Chess reminded me of the EPCOT ride, inside the giant sphere, that shows holographic images, I think, of the future.
Yes and then you eat at cafeterias that represent cuisines of every nation—as filtered through the cuisine of Central Florida.
GIF from Computer Chess
Moment of Violence
Another of the estimated 3-5 man-made things I've consistently viewed as fascinating is, I think, the scene, in Funny Ha Ha, where the character played by you drops a beer bottle, I think, off a balcony, to convey, in my view, a kind of frustration I know intimately, from personal experience, but had never seen in a movie. What's a scene, or moment, in a movie, that's especially memorable to you?
You know, circa 1999 or so I was watching public access television in Austin and I saw some goofy no-budget student film in which—and I remember nothing else about this—some guy walking down the street in a loincloth punched in a car window in a way that was completely unexpected not only because it came out of nowhere, but because nothing about the production value, etc suggested that these kids would ever have had the resources or moxie to pull off something like faking (I presume) breaking a car window. And I remember filing that away, stuffing it in my back pocket, like—Y'know, a moment of violence might be pretty fucking effective when it's preceded by 70-some minutes of quiet chatter.
I think A Room With a View has a similarly shocking violent event amidst so much politesse. Come to think of it, doesn't Howards End too? Maybe Merchant-Ivory invented that. Or were attracted to the authors who did.
Maybe the public access student filmmaker(s) will read this interview.
And sue me for royalties. Not a lot of royalties to go around, I'm afraid.
The car-window moment inspired Funny Ha Ha's bottle moment? You're saying? Or, you think, it might have, subconsciously?
Consciously! I mean, my scene is not a replica of theirs, all the context and all the particulars are completely different, but the little formal trick was lifted directly from it.
What are you going to eat tonight?
Hadn't thought that far ahead. Honestly I'm still feeling really full from the migas. There were black beans & rice involved as well, and corn tortillas.
What was your worst weed experience like?
I don't remember the details but it was that loop thing. "Oh, this is crazy. I keep having the same thought over and over again. I keep thinking that I'm in a loop. I want to think about something else. But I keep thinking that I'm in a loop—I mean, this thought, I'm thinking it again now, that I'm having the same thought over and over again. Whoa! I'm having the same thought now! Over and over again! And it's this thought! I wonder if this will ever stop? I wonder if I'll keep always having this same thought?"
I'm laughing. (And admiring your writing again.)
I finally had a great experience with pot around 5 years ago, which was the last time I smoked. Finally I felt like I got it. 50 years of stoner culture, from the Beats to Harold & Kumar suddenly made perfect sense to me. Honestly, I probably couldn't have made this movie without that particular positive experience. But I've, for whatever reason, had no desire to repeat it.
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