“When Beeswax came out in 2009, I felt like there was a sense in the world of, ‘Well, that’s another one of the same from him,'” writer-director Andrew Bujalski says by telephone. “That frustrated me. I wanted to shake everybody by the collar and say, ‘No, can’t you see that it’s completely different?’ And now that everybody’s saying that Computer Chess is completely different from anything I’ve done before, I want to shake them all by the collar and say, ‘No, no, can’t you see it’s the same?'”
The 36-year-old Boston native is speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, about his new film, which opens July 17 at Film Forum after well-received festival screenings at Sundance and Berlin. The early 1980s-set movie, sprung from “the deepest, darkest depths” of Bujalski’s subconscious, unfolds over the course of a weekend-long conference where computer programmers, technicians, academics, and corporate representatives gather at a hotel to witness new developments in artificial intelligence through the form of program-aided chess games. Many of the pasty male attendees grow unnerved by the neighboring presence of a smilingly sexual co-ed Encounter group. Then, as the weekend continues, reality short-circuits: Cats inexplicably invade elevators, people fall into movement loops, and a computer asks for the definitions of “soul” and “love.”
At first Computer Chess seems different from Bujalski’s previous works. Like his second film, Mutual Appreciation (2005)—whose lo-fi, dialogue-driven love triangle between bourgeois young Americans helped unofficially crown Bujalski king of the film movement that came to be called “mumblecore”—his fourth feature unfolds in black-and-white. Yet unlike the naturalistic, 16mm look of Mutual or of Bujalski’s two-color character studies (Funny Ha Ha  and Beeswax), Computer Chess plays out in flat, blurry video whose streaking, trick-laden imagery creates a ghosting effect. Throughout, the film’s shape-shifting gives it the sense of not only being about the recent past, but of being embedded in it.
A closer look reveals that Computer Chess‘s warped period indulgence (“There was no imperative to be tasteful here”) fits consistently into Bujalski’s career. As in the past, he left his generally new-to-film actors largely responsible for creating their characters. With his first three films Bujalski pulled “a pretty specific trick” of writing scripts with relatively unknown lead actors in mind, then working with them and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky to shape the films around their performances. Bujalski says he demanded not perfection—”An actor who tries to always be perfect is probably going to be a disaster”—but autonomy, never feeling satisfied until they were behaving freely.
This time the ensemble interacts with a distinct leading actor: technology. The film was shot with antiquated Sony AVC-3260 video cameras—to Bujalski’s knowledge, the first time that they have been used to film an entire feature—and characters are seen holding such cameras onscreen. The way Bujalski, Grunsky, and their crew experimented with Computer Chess‘s look (“The crazier the ideas we were throwing at each other, the better”) echo the work of the film’s technician characters to discover the capacities of their tools’ artificial intelligence; their mutual inability to predict the results of their efforts follow the difficulties that all Bujalski’s protagonists face in understanding how other live beings think and behave.
“I’ve always told stories about how people do and don’t relate to each other,” Bujalski says. Computer Chess, like his earlier films, is a movie in which people search for the formulas for building successful relationships while looking for others to help them crack the codes. His earlier characters struggling to put their feelings into words have led to techies using computers to stab at defining emotions. Bujalski says that he identifies with the character of Computer Chess‘s youngest, most naive programmer, played by the actor Patrick Riester (“To some extent I am or was that kid”), who, in dealing with computers as well as with the Encounter group, sees both his mind and heart challenged. Bujalski finds free will mysterious, elusive, and attractive. “I don’t know what drives people,” he says. “But I’ve always been more interested in the questions than in the answers.”
He has been asking himself more questions since his first child was born the year before Computer Chess‘s filming commenced. Bujalski compares his own situation to that of his mother, a visual artist who voluntarily drifted into more stable career pursuits after his birth. “As I’ve had to think more pragmatically about how to pay the mortgage each month, I’ve thought, ‘Well, God, maybe I could walk away from filmmaking,'” he says. “But I don’t want to walk away yet. I feel like I’m still messed up enough to fuel the necessary ego to stand on a soapbox and demand to be heard. The creation gets more challenging, but the desire is still there.”
He pauses, then adds, “So, yeah, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on around here.”