Watch what happens when crises, ex-lovers, friends, and lots of raw acting combine in Andrew Bujalski’s latest film, Beeswax. Twins Jeannie and Lauren (Tilly and Maggie Hatcher, respectively) may look alike, but their take on life is quite different. Jeannie fears her business partner might call it quits, and Lauren has overseas traveling on her mind. The plot thickens when Bujalski relies on atmospheric sound because, in the words of the director, “We don’t use music to move the story along.” As he told Texas Monthly, he relies on the rhythm of everyday life.
How did you come up with Beeswax?
I began wanting to write something about the sisters, Maggie and Tilly. I’ve known them for a long time. I fantasized about doing a film with them. This is the third feature that I’ve done and all of them have stars that are close friends of mine who have charisma that I thought could hold on the screen. So I talked to them about it, did a screen test and it went well. I started writing this story in a non-biographical way, tried to build off of what I felt they projected and what I imagined they would project as performers even though they’re not professional actors. So I started writing the story about family, and this is my own strange and maybe occasionally perverse way of writing about family matters.In the film, Jeannie fears that her business partner might sue her and take control of the vintage store they co-own in Austin. What are you trying to say?
Well, I think it is a story about families and the way families deal with crisis, and the crisis in this case is a breakdown of another very intimate relationship—of these friends who become business partners. That relationship has obviously deteriorated to the point where they’re no longer really communicating, and they’re deciding to go back to this legal document to sort things out. When a certain kind of relationship breaks down, and you say we’re no longer dealing with that, friends that no longer care about each other go back to a legal document.
Absolutely. I’ve made three features now which I’ve been working with friends to varying degrees; I’ve never done anything in a fully professional context. And certainly there are anxieties and challenges that come with that. And there are times in which it would be easier to grab someone you didn’t like when you actually care about the people you’re working with. But I hope and believe that the films I’ve worked on so far present an intimate context. Part of this story was a nightmare vision of what happens when that doesn’t work or falls apart.
I was watching Beeswax in my living room, and at the point when the characters are sitting in a living room as well, I had an eerie feeling that they were actually in the living room with me. The acting felt so casual and real. How do you get that from actors?
I think that it’s always about trying to make everybody as comfortable with what they’re doing as possible and to really take ownership of the characters and the story as much as they can. I think the biggest challenge with the girls, the twins, was that they’re very sweet people, and they’re Southern women so I think they were raised to be very accommodating and trying to please people, trying to please me, the director, and their friends. That was the pushing that I was doing early on. I’d say, “Don’t do this to please me, try to find a way or a reason to be doing it to please yourself, to really make characters your own.” Of course I’m still the director and still push and shape, but the core energy has to come from them.
Is that what artists do? They make art for themselves and not others?
In some level you have to be like that, and certainly in a film like this. It has to feel lived-in and casual, and these things are happening as it goes. That’s where I think I have an advantage working with non-professional actors, because I feel that a lot of what professional actors do is clarify, like where they are in the story, the scene, show everybody’s motivation. I thought that for these films I’m making it’s so much about figuring things out along the way, as things are happening. There was this freshness.
What was it like working with a wheelchair?
When I first met Tilly she was walking on crutches because she had a spinal tumor when she was a kid. She’s been using the chair for years—she has it down. I never would’ve written a movie for a character in a wheelchair, it would’ve been much harder, but I also had a sense of her as a person. If I was writing characters in the dark, of course, the chair is a compelling thing about a person, but I think that if you actually get to know somebody who uses one, then it’s not the most interesting thing about them. Writing was much easier because I know her, though the character is not her per se. She was also the technical advisor. When I’d shoot the scene, I’d ask her how would you get up a curve, navigate the space in a strange way. As a practical limitation it helped us build how the people and camera moved the scene. It was a nice limitation to work with.
Do you ask for guidance from other characters?
Sure, you want the actors’ input, because if you’re trying to work through something that doesn’t feel right or something’s not working, unless you know immediately what’s wrong, then you have to ask the actors what’s going on. And sometimes it really is something simple, something like they just want half a line here, walk in a moment earlier, a moment later. Sometimes if they have an idea, nine times out of ten it works.
And do you ever create characters without a specific person in mind?
Although I’m writing for those people in mind, I’ve never felt like the characters were based on them. You can only do that for only one or two characters in the movie at most, and there are twenty people in this movie. For example, the character Merrill. I didn’t know who was going to play him when I wrote it.
The music in the film is barely audible. Why is that?
There’s no score in the film. There are some music cues, the scenes where characters are listening to music, or in bars and coffee shops in the background. We don’t use music to move the story along. And I think I realized just recently that sound is really important to me but I tend to think of what’s going on in the dialogue and the sounds in the room and the sound environment that we build on the film. In a way I think of that as a score. Certainly there’s rhythm and movement of the language and what’s happening. I’m relying on that to move the story.
Do you know of other filmmakers who do that?
To some degree, some of what I know about filmmaking, where my approaches come from, I’ve always been a big admirer of great cinéma vérité and documentary stuff. And where I studied film as an undergrad in college [Harvard University], we spent a lot of time working on documentary and thinking about those things. What’s great about doing documentaries is that it’s great training for a filmmaker. It’s a great education and you go out with an idea of what you want to capture but then you go up against real life, and the thing to shoot is never really the thing you wanted. Documentaries really teach you to work with the material you’ve got instead of what you imagined you’d get. I think that’s an incredible lesson for filmmakers. Probably the worst fiction that gets made is when people have an idea and when they film, the material is not what they wanted and they never want to make it with what they’ve got.
There’s a whole Zen aspect to it. I don’t think there’s any way to make it perfect. You have to be flexible like bamboo; if you’re too flexible then you’re not trying to shape anything and you’re not directing. But if you’re too rigid then it almost certainly won’t work.You have a tendency to write your films and film them in different cities (Funny Ha Ha was written in Austin and filmed in Boston. Beeswax was written in Boston and filmed in Austin). Why did you choose to shoot in Austin?
I lived here from 1999 to 2000, and I loved it here. I wrote my first film here, though we shot that in Boston, and then I was living in Boston and wrote this one. There was no obvious place to do it. I would’ve been happy to film it there but Tilly was in Atlanta, Maggie in New Haven, the producers and cinematographers I’d been working with live in New York and LA. We had the freedom to do it anywhere so we talked about other cities and there weren’t many that really seemed feasible given that something like this can only be made with lots and lots of people and doing favors and being kind to the production. And of all the cities I’ve lived in, Austin has this incredibly supportive filmmaking community. When I came down scouting for the location, I needed a vintage clothing store that was wheelchair accessible, which I realized would be hard. So I went on the Internet and printed a list of all the vintage shops in Austin, and the last one I went to was Storyville (which sadly closed a few months ago). The layout was pretty much exactly the way I had written it—I had written that there was a back room and there it was. Everything really seemed to align. I was looking for a sign from God and realized that was as good as it was gonna get.
What’s your take on the film industry in Texas? Have you applied or received any incentives from the Texas Film Commission?
I’ve been lucky to work independently and have not had to plug into the larger industry. Of course I know a lot of filmmakers here, the independent community as opposed to the larger scale industry. I don’t know any other city in America, in the world, where people are as supportive of each other as they are here. Every filmmaker I know in town is always helping another. And obviously Texas is a beautiful place to shoot in. It’s got space. I think you can find anything you need in Texas, except maybe snow.
On broader terms, what are you yearning for as a filmmaker?
I wanna keep doin’ ‘em, I wanna get better at them. The dream is always to make a film that means something to someone like your favorite films have meant to you. I’ve loved movies as far back as my memory goes, and from age four to five and onward, I had so many great experiences in movie theaters, and so many things that educated me about the world and shaped me, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse but I think there’s a dream of taking part in that and being able to give somebody else a unique experience. Maybe it stays with you for a year, or an hour.
What do you think of your films being cast into the “mumblecore” genre?
I think it’s silly and I wish that would go away because I think it’s a way for people to casually dismiss one’s work. If people wanna see my films, and if they wind up liking them or in the end dismissing them that’s fine, but I would ask that they actually see the film and take it on its own terms and not as part of an imaginary genre.
What are your plans for the near future?
I’m trying to write a bunch of things at once. This is the first time one of my movies has had a general release, so I’m not sure what the next thing will be. I’m finding some time to write some stuff.
Beeswax opens October 9 in Austin and Houston.
Bujalski will be attending a Q&A at the screenings on October 9 and October 11 at Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar in Austin, and on October 10 at the Angelika Film Center in Houston.