Photo Courtesy Computer Chess LLC
Nate von Zumwalt
Andrew Bujalski concedes that his best chess-playing days are behind him. He’ll offer even less about his dexterity as a computer programmer. But the director’s latest feature film effort, Computer Chess, operates with such careful and nuanced dedication to both fields that nary a technical flaw presents itself.
Computer Chess follows a group of savvy young programmers in their attempt to build a computer chess program with the ability to defeat a human player. Shot on cameras true to the era (as a giddy Bujalski explains below), the characters in the film inhabit an environment almost indistinguishable from the year it aims to imitate—1980. And for good measure, the director’s trademark knack for achieving an uncanny vérité style—so well-documented in his debut feature Funny Ha Ha—ultimately exposes his tech pioneer subjects in all of their social incompetence.
Computer Chess won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize in January at the Sundance Film Festival, which is awarded to new independent film projects that explore science and technology themes or that depict scientists, engineers and mathematicians in engaging and innovative ways.
What are the origins of your interest in chess and computer programming, and how much research went into some of the more technical subject matter?
I learned the rules of chess at a young age and liked the game a lot. I think Bobby Fischer’s biography begins the same way, but the next line in his would be, “Quickly, he began to show signs of preternatural talent,” and, well, that’s not what came next for me. I probably play at the same skill level now as I did as an 8-year-old—maybe worse, as I certainly play more infrequently now. And I know even less about programming. So obviously I’m the perfect guy to make this movie…
In the earliest stages of fantasizing this, I did some cursory research, but I also left plenty of room for my imagination to roam free. It was only when we were gearing up for production that the research got much more serious—some of it on the part of myself and my producers, but the bulk of the research was being done, in a semi-coordinated fashion, by our cast. They were the ones who had to make all this tech talk sound convincing. Fortunately, most of them had serious tech backgrounds (e.g., Gordon Kindlmann teaches computer science at University of Chicago), so it was much more intuitive for them than it is for me. I just had to yell “action” and “cut.”
The dedication to the period is remarkable—from the sartorial choices, the computers, and then of course the cinematography. What cameras were used for Computer Chess and how much consideration went into making the film quality as authentic as possible?
The Sony AVC-3260! Which I fell quite in love with. There’s a ghostly quality to all of the images that I always found beautiful, and I loved the idea of applying it to this very peculiar, dreamlike story. Of course it’s a nice bonus that no one’s really seen images that look like this in 30+ years, so we had a nice shortcut to evoking the period.
As has been the case with some of your past work, the character interactions are at times so nuanced that they seem improvised. How do you, as a director, capture that in the actors?
Well, first and foremost, hire brilliant actors (even if, indeed, they have not made acting their life’s occupation). Then allow them the space to bring the character to life. It can be extremely nerve-wracking to act in a movie, particularly if it’s a newish experience for you. But if I can get the actor to a place where they’re enjoying it, where they’re getting something personal out of it—if they’re doing it for themselves somehow rather than just trying to please the director—then I feel like we’re in good shape.
It could be easy to interpret Computer Chess as a sort of commentary on human connection; an examination of how technology can bring us together but also pull us apart. Is that a line of thinking that you intended to explore?
Sure, but that was not any kind of conscious mission statement. Really, all my heavy lifting on this thing happened in my subconscious. I don’t worry too much about themes and deeper meanings when I’m writing, though they certainly do seem to reveal themselves in production and editing. This movie surprised me with how theme-rich it ultimately felt. I thought I was going off on a zany lark—the last thing I expected it to be was “relevant” to our culture, but lo and behold, I guess it is.
Where was the film shot and how long did you spend in production?
We shot in Austin, Texas, though I always fantasized that the movie took place somewhere like Phoenix—it’s never specified—and in a more fantastical mood, I thought it might be fun to just lie and tell everyone we shot in Phoenix. Not sure why that would amuse me, but it would. Unfortunately I am incapable of lying with a straight face. We shot 16 days, which was the shortest production period I’ve ever had, and felt quite insane.