Categorized | Danny Peary on Film

My Brother the Actor in “Computer Chess”

Posted on 20 July 2013

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Gerald Peary at the Film Forum.

 

By Danny Peary

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Computer Chess fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  The fourth film directed by mumblecore icon Andrew Bujalski, it is now in its first weekend of a two-week run at the Film Forum in New York City.  Even though it had an impressive reception at Sundance and has been coveted by film festivals worldwide, the rave reviews it has received in New York—A.O. Scott called it “sneakily brilliant” in the Times—were a pleasant surprise.  And surely a relief to its director, producers, and distributer, Kino Lorber, because there was worry that this odd, cryptic, heady film might confuse or turn off many viewers, critics included.  Shot with cruddy, thirty-year-old video camera that resulted in images that would be rejected by C-Span, Computer Chess takes place in the early 1980s at the dawn of the digital age.  At what has to be a Motel 0, an annual computer chess tournament takes place, pitting clunky, desk computers that have been programmed by tech geeks (some from major institutions) to feed them the best moves.  Also at the motel that weekend is a couples encounter group, which encourages sensuality and human connections—which the lonely, robotic human chess players should aspire to.  Standing out among the oddball characters at the chess tournament is grand master Pat Henderson, who organized and oversees the event and hopes to prove, as he has done in past years, that smart humans can still best computers at chess.  The nonactor who plays Henderson is Gerald Peary, a long-time movie critic and professor in Boston, documentarian (For the Love of Movies), and—notice the similarity of our last names?—my brother.  He was in New York City for the opening of Computer Chess on Wednesday and, before I saw it or his well-received performance—he was “born to play this part” said the Village Voice—we had the following conversation.

Danny Peary: How do you know Andrew Bujalski?

Gerald Peary: Andrew now lives in Austin, Texas, but he’s from Newton, Massachusetts, which is near where I live in Cambridge. He was a student at Harvard University, and that’s where he started making movies. I actually was the first outside person to see his first film, Funny Ha Ha.  Robb Moss, who teaches film at Harvard, called me and said, “I have a film made by a student.  I won’t tell you about it, but can you take a look at it?”  He sent a VHS to my house, and late that night I popped it in my VCR and Eureka!  A revelation. It was just an incredibly good independent film, with a story about this wandering 20-something young woman right out of college, looking for jobs and looking for love and nothing works out.  It was so touching, and so strange because of what Andrew is now famous for: the conversations are very meandering and circuitous. We listen to these intelligent Harvard grads who use the words like and awesome a lot, and sound slightly stupid and educated at the same time.  So it’s the zeitgeist of a certain kind of 20-something person, and he just nailed it. It was one of the earliest pieces of what we now call mumblecore. Andrew played the male lead in the film because, he says, he wanted to make sure the actor in that part always showed up.  He played this guy who works at his job and falls in love with this girl and it doesn’t work out. It’s just like in Chekhov, where there is no love relationship that works out. That’s true of all his movies.

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DP: You were writing for the Boston Phoenix, so were you expected to review the film?

GP: I’m not sure what I supposed to do. I called Robb and said, “This is great” I don’t remember actually meeting Andrew but he just reminded me that I was the first person to program his film, at Boston University.  I run a cinematheque at Boston U, and he came to show Funny Ha Ha and speak to the students. Year later he brought his second film Mutual Admiration.  So over the years Andrew knew me as a film critic and a real fan, and I knew him as just a guy in the Boston film community.  Then he moved to Austin with his family and I visited him when I was there, having dinner at his house and whatever.

Gerard Peary in a still from Computer Chess. 

DP: Andrew and another mumblecore director, Joe Swanberg, have been linked together, including in the New York Times last Sunday.  Do you also see a link between them as people and as filmmakers?

GP: I think what’s nice about the mumblecore filmmakers is that they’re pretty friendly and not competitive. Joe Swanberg especially is someone who’s worked on lots of other people’s films. In fact, he shot some of my documentary For the Love of Movies.  When I went to Austin, Joe shot several things that are in the film.  When I went to Chicago, he brought a crew and we shot a conversation between several young film critics that didn’t make the final cut.  And that’s very typical. Andrew and Joe have known each other for years. The difference is that Joe is unbelievably prolific. One year he made a movie every two months, and he’s made over twenty films now, including the upcoming Drinking Buddies.  On the other hand, Andrew is extremely slow and probably has anxieties watching Joe make movie after movie after movie. For a whole bunch of years, Andrew didn’t make any movie and was fretting that nothing was working out.

DP: He is known for not having scripts, so was he taking actual scripts around?

GP: Yeah, yeah. He was hired by Scott Rudin to write screenplays, which I think never worked out. He had a little movie that was almost made starring Jim Carrey, and then Carrey, typical of actors at that level, lost his nerve and walked away, So Andrew was back to zero with nothing, and that’s when he famously reached into a jar and found this scenario that he’d written many years earlier about computer chess. And out of desperation, because he just couldn’t stand not making a movie again, he started working on this one. The rest is history!

DP: In the eleven years since he made Funny Ha Ha, did he ever say that he might cast you in a movie someday?

GP: Never.  People now say to me, “Oh, you’re in Computer Chess because you know the director.”  Well, like you, I know a million directors. I’ve interviewed a million directors, and I’ve been witty and said smart things. And only one other director has for one second thought of casting me in a movie!

DP: Was that Joe Swanberg?

GP: Yes. I’ve also known him for a bunch of years after seeing his first movie, Kissing on the Mouth, at SXSW. We became friends and I brought him several times to speak at Boston University. And we actually did this little test at my house one day for a movie he never made. The two of us did a ten-minute improv while his wife shot it.  He has the footage somewhere. I was his crabby uncle from another generation and I chastize him for making dumb mumblecore movies that have no plot and no story. And I say that in my day there was Bergman and Fellini and I ask him why he doesn’t make real movies if he’s going to make movies. It’s me teasing him about mumblecore movies, although as a critic and movie fan I actually like mumblecore movies.

DP: So how did Andrew officially ask you to be in Computer Chess?

GP: I got an email one day from Andrew in Austin, telling me he was making a new film.  There was the part of a chess master and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in auditioning for it.  I thought, What? Wow, unbelievable!  I said yes, I would be interested. So he sent me another email saying, “Could you do me a favor? There’s a little scene. Do some improv on this scene in three different ways and send me the tape.”  It was the scene in which the chess master, Pat Henderson, walks into a large room at the motel at the end of the weekend during which the film takes place, thinking it has been reserved for his match with the person who won the computer chess competition.  But a New Age couples encounter group that has also had a convention that weekend is there and the grand master has to try to convince the guru to give up the room.  I got my department secretary, who’s an actor, to play the guru and made the videos and sent them to Andrew.

DP: Andrew has joked that he thought you were ideal “to play the blowhard chess master” who runs the tournament.

GP: I think that’s because he’d seen me do a lot of public speaking and moderating panels, as Pat Henderson does prior to the tournament.  But after I sent him the tapes I believed I was absolutely not going to be cast.  I was totally depressed because, boy, what a great chance it was for me to finally act in a movie.

DP: Well, it was “a great chance” for someone who was actually waiting to be in a movie, but had you been waiting for that opportunity?

GP: Like very person, I think, I’ve thought about it.  You remember that forty-five years ago I did act in college and summer theater, and I directed theater in grad school.  I don’t think I was a very good actor, but I had that experience. And lately I’ve explored the idea to go to the other side of the camera because I’ve been making documentaries. So yeah, I was really excited when he offered me the part.

DP: You didn’t ask him, why me?

GP: No, I didn’t want to question it. Andrew’s tradition is to use 90% non-actors in his movies, so I was just one on a long list of non-actors in his movies.

DP: Was your character based on anyone?

GP: I don’t know who this person was, but there was a historic person who in the early ‘80s was an American chess champion who did challenge computer teams.  He’s not that famous except in the chess world.  He’s alive, he saw the movie, he loved the movie, he sent Andrew a really nice letter about it. And he wasn’t insulted Henderson is a comedy character.  He liked the milieu and he thought the chess world was captured correctly. It was important for Andrew to receive his letter of endorsement.

DP: You said that Andrew pulled out a scenario from years past.  So there was an actual script he gave his cast?

GP: No, I never got a script.  There wasn’t one. There was just an eight-page treatment, he talks about. Actually I’ve never seen anything on paper, and I don’t think anybody else who’s in the cast has ever seen anything. The costumer hinted to me that there was something more that perhaps she had seen to prepare for her job, but I’ve still never seen a word on paper for Computer Chess. And now Andrew claims in interviews, including in the New York Times, that his first three films, which everyone believed were totally improvised—and I don’t know because I wasn’t there for Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Admiration or Bees Wax—and that Computer Chess is actually his first mumblecore movie because it is improvised.

DP: While making the movie, you told me that because there was no script that you didn’t know what the film was about of what anyone else was doing in scenes you weren’t in.  But you had thoughts about what the whole film might be like once it was put together. Were you right?

GP: No, I was totally wrong. When I first saw the movie at Sundance, it was a complete surprise.  And it wasn’t just the shock of watching myself on the screen in what turned out to be a pivotal part. Andrew never told anybody in the movie what the story was. Not only was there no script, you just did it scene by scene as the scenes came up. I guess this is a pact we made, because I don’t remember ever asking Andrew what the story was.  It was: Andrew, if this is the way you want to do it, let’s do it that way. We shot in this awful, awful motel, at the edge of Austin, which is the motel I had stayed in because of lack of money when my wife Amy Geller, the producer, and I showed For the Love of Movies there. So I’m back in this terrible retro 1950s motel and one day I walk outside and they’re shooting a very beautiful woman floating in the middle of the swimming pool.  And I thought, “God, that is the story!”  I didn’t know who she was but I assumed the main story had to be about that beautiful woman, that she was the main character in the movie. Anyway, I see the movie and that woman floats by in the swimming pool for one second, and Andrew cuts to the two characters who are talking there, and she has nothing to do with the movie.

DP: While on the set, were you always trying to figure out what the movie was?

GP: I didn’t. I don’t know if anybody else did either. No, I really went along with Andrew keeping it all secret.

DP: Was it like being on jury duty, when you’re not allowed to talk about the trial with the other jurors?

GP: No, Andrew is an extremely easy-going guy, and he never gave us any instructions about not discussing the film with each other.  I don’t know if other people tried to figure stuff out so they’d know where they fit into the film.

DP: Well did you try to figure out if you were doing a good job each night?

GP: No.  I was there eleven days and six days I shot. On the days I shot I just had a leap of faith.  If Andrew thought the scenes were okay, then I assumed they were okay.

DP: He had you do three different takes for your audition tape.  So would he do the same thing on the set?

GP: Yeah, he would do three takes. Rarely there might have been done as many as five takes, but he never did a scene over and over again.

DP: Was the film shot chronologically?

GP: No. I actually had that experience that you often hear about from professional actors.  On the first day I got there, I shot my last scene in the movie.  I had the camera in my face as my character plays a chess match so you can guess what he’s thinking, and that’s pretty hard for your first scene if you’ve never acted in a movie before.

DP: Did he give you any kind of motivation or instruction or did he say it is you our last scene, do it any way you want?

GP: This is the mystery, I guess, of a very good director.  As with Woody Allen, there was almost no direction. Seemingly I did what he wanted me to do, and he would have intervened if it was incorrect.   The only thing that he imposed on me was to make sure my chess vocabulary was correct. He had a chess champion from Austin on set, a lovely guy named Peter, who made money in high tech and doesn’t have to work anymore.  Just a good guy, and he was really helpful about my chess language, so anything I wrote for my character to say that included chess references, I’d pass it through Peter to make sure the words were right.  The one thing I did keep messing up was saying, “That was a really good game,” and he would say, “No it’s match! That was the only incident that I remember when I was wrong.

DP: Did Andrew ask you if you actually play chess?

GP: Never. He never asked if I had any chess background.  As you know I was my high school chess champion.  The last time I played was at the South Carolina chess club before we moved north, in 1960. So I haven’t played chess since then. I did play a few matches before going to the set, thinking that would be relevant. My character does play one match against the winner of the computer chess tournament.  That was my last scene that I filmed on my first day.

DP: So explain to those of us who haven’t seen the movie how computers fit in.  Do people play against computers in a tournament?

GP: No. The individual computers have been programmed to play chess and during matches they tell those programmers which moves to make against other computers and their programmers.  So whoever best programmed their computers wins.  It’s the early eighties so the computers are big and the programmers lug them into the motel for the competition.  The teams come from places like Cal Tech and MIT.  This is still a time in history when human beings can beat computers. Now computers can beat them in a second.  Pat Henderson is the last of the old-time chess people who can beat a computer.  But I can’t tell you who wins when he plays against the winning computer.

DP: Well, the film is set in the early eighties and we know that computers would soon  beat every chess player.  The encounter group for couples is also very much part of that era.

GP: As a film critic watching the movie, I see that the movie has a day story—the chess tournament—and that night story with the encounter group. Pat Henderson is one of the main characters of the day story, but is not part of the night story at all.  I told this to Andrew and he thought it over and said, “That’s true, he isn’t.”

DP: But is anybody from the chess story in the night story?

GP: Yeah, characters float between those stories. The night story is quite surreal and David Lynchian, and the day story has more light. My character has no knowledge of the night story at all.  Neither did I.

DP: Do you think Andrew wrote one film, then another separate film, and combined the two?  Is that possible?

GP: I have no idea how he came up with the encounter group story, but I think the stories go together well.

DP: Do you think there are surprising elements in this film?

GP: It’s a surprise to anybody watching a movie to see this completely retro black-and-white movie which is in some ways, as ugly a film as you’ve ever seen in your life. It’s the worst VHS tape that you have.  There’s all kinds of video crackles and odd kinds of things happening.  Lines are on it and everything else. People have walked out of the movie saying, “God, it’s just terrible-looking.” Andrew intentionally filmed it on an old camera, which was part of the reason he wanted to make the film.  For a hundred dollars on eBay, he bought this prototypical video camera and shot the movie with it.

DP: So the film could almost pass as found footage?

GP: People have thought some of the stuff in the beginning looks like found footage.  Of course, it’s not; it was all shot by Andrew.

DP: In the trailer for the film, we see your character talking to the camera.  Is Andrew behind the camera?

GP: No, Pat Henderson is talking to his own cameraman. It’s intentionally a terrible camera angle. In fact my first lines in the movie are Henderson yelling at his cameraman, telling him not to shoot into the sun.

DP: So are we always made aware that there is a director filming the action?

GP: I don’t think so.  It’s about a moment in history when we’re moving into the digital age.  This is what Andrew doesn’t talk about.  His first three movies were all shot in 16mm, and he loves 35mm; this time he’s finally making a digital movie but in an ornery, stubborn, crazy way. It’s his sad look about the new world coming in, the world of the digital. And without being condescending in any way, it shows how people who are in the digital world have real trouble communicating as human beings, whether making love or just talking.

DP: That’s why he includes the encounter group where everyone is touchy feely.

GP: But he’s never said any of this, just implied it.

DP: He has said, in the Times, that he was never the forerunner with anything, that he lagged behind. Knowing him, do you think he wishes he was making films in an earlier age?

GP: I don’t know, but probably.  He’s a movie fan, he likes to go to a movie theater and see a 35mm film.  He actually likes more popular movies than I would have thought.  He’s closer to your tastes than mine.

DP: Do you think you and Andrew would interpret the film in the same way as you do?

GP: Andrew, I guess like many directors, doesn’t attempt to interpret it at interviews and at Q&As I’ve been with him after screenings. I don’t think anybody has ever really tried to talk about the film philosophically, nobody ever gets to that.  Andrew’s an incredibly bright guy, an intellectual who went to Harvard, but he doesn’t get into what the movie is about.   At Sundance someone in the audience asked, “Okay, I saw the movie, so what does it mean?”  That’s a bad question because he’s not going to answer that.  All he can say is, “What does it mean to you?”  I’ve never asked him about the meaning because I believe the famous quote, Trust the Art, Not the Artist.  There is a lot of leeway in interpreting what the film is about, and I might not agree with him.  I’ve seen it now four times, and it’s open to interpretation.  I like movies with ambiguity.  I think that’s one of the strengths of the movie.

DP: So even though they’ll never get confirmation from Andrew that they’re right, everybody should be able to come up with an interpretation?

GP: I think so. But some people are going to not bother and say it is a stupid movie that’s not about anything.  There are usually some walk-outs. If you like the movie, or hate the movie, you have absolutely never seen this movie in your life before. Which is I think another great virtue.

DP: Even if it’s a complete original, do you see it as a descendent of Slacker?

GP: There’s definitely a connection with Richard Linklater movies. Wiley Wiggins is a literal connection because he’s in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, although Andrew says he cast him as much for being a computer person as an actor.  But also, Richard is a friend of Andrew’s and they’re part of the Austin school of filmmaking. Boston is all documentary, but Austin filmmakers make narrative films that are definitely connected by all the talk and philosophical ideas.

DP: When people use the word existential to describe this film, is that correct?

GP: I’d call existential.  Here’s my thing about acting.  Existence before essence is from  Sartre and that means that the moment you’re born is when your essence starts and there’s no God, no spiritual thing. In French films and art films, a character’s essence starts the moment the film starts. No characters have any life outside of the film itself. To me, that’s the most interesting thing about the story. A French director told me, “When I work with Isabelle Huppert all she wants to know is What is my costume?  That’s her only question about her character. The same director says, “Whenever an actor comes up to me and asks for his motivation for a scene, I say, ‘What do you think your motivation is?’ The actor tells me something and I say, ‘Yep, that’s your motivation.’” Andrew, to me, works in the same way. I knew almost nothing about my character.  I kept on my wedding ring, which meant Pat Henderson is married but I didn’t know who his wife is and whether they have kids. The American way of acting is so method-influenced, where there is back-story for all the characters so the actors know their entire stories. If your character works in a butcher shop, you work for a couple of days in a butcher shop. You learn everything about your character. Acting with Andrew, you just go to work and shoot.

DP: And your character’s essence begins the moment the camera turns on.

GP: Certainly. I had a costume and I wore these big ties and they definitely helped me determine the way I walked.  In a couple of scenes I walk though a shot with this cocky swagger.  There’s a little Jack Benny in there.  My character is a self-deluded and gloriously vain, but I didn’t ask Andrew if he minded that I do Jack Benny.

DP: You said earlier that you wrote some of what your character says.  Weren’t you supposed to improvise?

GP: Actually, there was very little preparation for my scenes. Andrew might have said, “In this scene you might say something like this.”  And I would sit down and write out what I might say in a dialogue, and I would show it to Andrew and he would say, “Okay, yeah, that’s good.”  Then we’d shoot and I’d improvise off of what I remembered I’d written on that piece of paper.

DP: Since you didn’t know the rest of the story, could you have written anything?

GP: No, because Andrew knew the story and would say, “No, this is wrong.” I do have a couple of scenes where other characters walk past and Pat comments without knowing who they were.

DP: In the film’s trailer, Pat makes a big deal about there being the first woman competitor. Is that a big deal in the movie?

GP:  She is the potential love interest of a shy programmer. That line was one of my improvs.  Typically, the trailer gave away the laugh.  Pat brags that there’s a lady programmer this year, I used the word lady. That was part of my improv. I also used the word meow at one point.  Andrew liked that and it stayed in.

DP: Percentage-wise, if you did 10 things, would he accept 10?

GP: I feel like it was a pretty high percentage.  He never said anything was absolutely wrong.

DP: Did you ever hear him have exchanges with other actors, approving or disapproving, or were you not privy to any of that stuff?

GP: Andrew is not somebody who talks out loud to someone for everyone else to hear.  Probably he took people aside and talked to them. I don’t know how their scenes were done. I guess I was in this zone, having never been in a movie before, and I was concentrating on what I was doing. In a good way, because I think I did it pretty well. I kept out all the noises around me and tried to be in the moment for my character, so what Andrew was doing for other people didn’t really register.

DP: Were you allowed to be on the set if you weren’t shooting?

GP: There was no policy about that, but most of the scenes were shot in tiny motel rooms, so having other people around would have been intrusive. But I do remember being around a couple of times and watching.

DP: Did you actually like not knowing what the film was about?

GP: I think it was easier for me, not worrying that I had to say exact lines. I have nightmares still from 40 years about being in a play. Every actor has a nightmare that never goes away. Mine is that I’m in a play and can’t remember my lines and I’m running around trying unsuccessfully to find the script in time. I’ve honestly had that dream 100 times in my life, so it pleased me on this movie that I didn’t have to worry that much about what I said.

DP: Were you relieved when you and film started getting good reviews?

GP: Definitely relieved. I couldn’t remember how big my part was and I guess the shock of the movie is that I actually have a major role and I could’ve completely screwed up the movie. That Andrew took that leap of faith with me without knowing I could pull it off was crazy. I think I’m getting good reviews partly unfairly, because other film critics love to see a film critic on screen. Critics are not always the nicest people but they are okay with acknowledging that someone in their profession seems to be okay. I think it’s a really good ensemble and there are so many good performances that it’s slightly embarrassing that I’m being singled out.  I wish people would write some more about others in the cast. I’m not being coy about it, they are really are good.

DP: You are relieved that the film itself is getting good reviews.

GP: There are a million independent films and about 90% of them really go nowhere at all, so it’s so pleasing that this film is getting great write-ups and is wanted by theaters. It has a great distributor, Kino Lorber and it will play at Landmark Theaters across America. I don’t know how long it will play in any place and it’s hard to imagine it playing in Peoria, Illinois, at all  Not all fans will get the film, because it’s pretty artsy; it’s not a film for everybody. Most moviegoers are very main-stream and you really do have to have an askew sensibility to get the movie. It’s an art film.  It’s already kind of a cult movie.

DP: So now that you’ve caught the acting bug how will you feel if Andrew doesn’t cast you in his next film?

GP: I still scratch my head and am totally grateful that Andrew cast me in Computer Chess because he had no reason to.  Now, how would I feel if he didn’t cast me again knowing I can act? [Smiling]  Slightly upset.

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