Perhaps you’ve heard the bad news about the breastaurant.
“Hooters Is Shutting Down Locations, Restrategizing After Recent Study Says Millennials Aren’t That Into Boobs,” declared a headline that went viral last week. The science does check out, sort of: Research conducted by Pornhub last summer found that among younger visitors, “large breasts are waning in popularity relative to small breasts, and that millennial porn viewers are relatively uninterested in breasts altogether.” Some of the reactions to this news of Hooters’ waning popularity were … concerning. But for the past week, this news has cast an elegiac pall of nostalgia over the strange concept of the “breastaurant,” a family-friendly hotbed of both sexual obsession and deep denial that could have been made only in America. This sudden relevance is good news for, of all people, the independent filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, who is about to release Support the Girls, a surprisingly empathic slice-of-life movie centered on a fictitious watering hole called Double Whammies.
“Probably a decade ago or so I happened to walk into one of these places,” the 41-year-old filmmaker tells me, phoning in late July from his home in Austin. “I was surprised by it. I don’t know what I expected. But it seemed so particularly, uniquely American to me, in as much as I felt like it was selling a product that I don’t know if there’s demand for it in any other culture in any other time on earth.”
These are hardly the sorts of anthropological observations most people would have when walking into a Hooters—but most people are not Andrew Bujalski. And given that he was once known as “the godfather of mumblecore” and that one of his last projects was a feature-length indie about a computer chess tournament, it is safe to say that the Hooters extended universe is not his usual milieu. But that’s also what gives Support the Girls its unique observational charm and its deeply felt sympathy for the everyday plight of the working woman.
In a time when well-intentioned conversations about identity politics can sometimes drown out more nuanced responses to art, it would be all too easy to dismiss Support the Girls as just another straight, white male director trying to tell women’s stories. But that would do a disservice to a film as sensitive and humanist as this one. I agree with IndieWire critic Eric Kohn, who wrote in a review from this year’s SXSW Festival, where the film premiered, “At a time when the industry clamors for more women directors and female-driven stories, Support the Girls stands out for working beyond the constraints of its male director’s point of view. Instead, Support the Girls lays out a complex ecosystem and hovers within its confines, picking up on the subtle race and gender discriminations that, for these characters, has become as common as the air they breathe.”
“Although I wanted to do right by these places as much as I could, I was always going to be writing from the perspective of an outsider,” Bujalski tells me. “I wasn’t writing the movie that a woman who worked there would write, and I wasn’t writing the movie that a guy who went there for lunch every day would write. I would love to see either of those movies. I would buy a ticket to both of those.”
Although he admits that “any actor that hears from their agent ‘a movie set in a Hootersesque bar and grill’ … I’m sure plenty of people didn’t bother to look at the script based on that description,” Bujalski did manage to secure an impressive cast, anchored by a phenomenal Regina Hall and a scene-stealing supporting role from up-and-coming actress Haley Lu Richardson.
“The great defining factor of these restaurants is in their banality,” Bujalski continues. “You would think they would have more pizazz or be sexier than they are. They sell sex, but not really. That’s not really what it’s about. But that is also exactly the reason you don’t see a lot of movies about them, because boring kind of comes with the territory. But you have to feel like there is a story somewhere in the boring, and that the boring is a part of the story. That’s my bread and butter. For me it’s just where the story and daily life live.”
Bujalski gives off the impression of being happy-go-lucky (he gratefully attributes several facets of his career to “great good fortune”), soft-spoken, and a little timid, with an aww-shucks sweetness to his voice. It occurs to me while talking to him that introverts might be underrepresented in movies simply because directing is such an extroverted, even bossy enterprise. This made his early films feel refreshing and precocious: Together, they imagined a cinema of shyness.
Bujalski settled in Austin about a decade ago; he started dating his wife while he was there shooting his third feature, Beeswax. Unlike most of his contemporaries once associated with the mumblecore scene, he has resisted the urge to move to L.A. (“There’s a lot to like about it, and there are a lot of people I’m very fond of there,” he says, “but I’m happy not to live there.”) Still, he sometimes seems like the last purely indie holdout from his original mumble cohort: Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig will soon direct Meryl Streep and Emma Stone in Little Women; Joe Swanberg has reached a whole new audience with his Netflix show Easy; the Duplasses seem to have a hand in every third thing you see on a streaming platform these days. Even some of the more tangential names in that scene have had astonishing digital-era success: Christian Rudder, who costarred in Bujalski’s debut feature, Funny Ha Ha, and recorded music for his early films, went on to be the cofounder of OkCupid.
But even among his peers, Bujalski was always a little against the grain, attracted to stories that he describes as “almost anti-dramatic.” “Movies tend to be about very clearly defined narratives and clearly defined conflicts because those things keep people engaged,” he says. “I just tend to be interested in things that are a lot harder to read.”
“I can’t help it—I write about the world I live with,” he says, chuckling. “I just don’t know any superheroes, you know? If I hung out with them, I might know how to write about them better, and I’d have a very different career.”
Andrew Bujalski’s earliest memories are of going to the movies: Growing up in suburban Massachusetts, his parents took him to see all the Star Wars films, Star Trek, and Rocky III. (“That was a huge one for me.”) Almost to a fault, he was singularly fixated on getting to make films of his own. “You can’t do it any other way, really—it’s an absurd career,” he says. “I went to school with so many talented people, frankly, I think a lot of whom were smarter and more talented than I was, but the difference is that most of them were sane enough to do something else with their lives. For me, there was nowhere else to go. I was a lifer.”
In the late ’90s, Bujalski attended Harvard’s film school, where he was exposed to more experimental fare, including some of the groundbreaking films directed by the woman who happened to be his thesis adviser, the late Belgian director Chantal Akerman. Akerman’s films—like the three-and-a-half-hour art-house classic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles—are often slow and meditative, finding beauty and fascination in the quotidian rituals of everyday life. To see her work and receive her guidance, Bujalski says, was “revelatory.” Not that living up to her standards was always easy.
“She was European,” Bujalski says with a laugh. “In America, we coddle each other, but she wasn’t a coddler, per se.” Still, after working hard to prove himself on his thesis film, he earned Akerman’s hard-won respect. “This seems crazy to me in retrospect, but she hosted my 21st birthday for me at her apartment,” he says. “That was great. At some point, she traipsed off to bed, and all the drunken students said, ‘Where’s Chantal?’ And we all went and visited her in her bed and tucked her in, and then finally left her alone. It was all a great experience. I adored her.”
Though they’re profoundly different directors, Akerman’s and Bujalski’s films are polarizing along similar lines. Their detractors say they’re boring, or that “nothing happens.” Their admirers say, “Yes, just like life.” It is difficult to sum up the plot of Funny Ha Ha, but that’s kind of the point. It’s an aimless film about aimless people (like Marnie, the haplessly romantic post-grad protagonist, and Mitchell, her bumbling office buddy, who is played by Bujalski himself), some of whom don’t even have the self-determination to finish sentences or speak clearly. Hence the inescapable term that was soon coined to describe it, and future movies of its ilk: “mumblecore.”
“I’m sure I found it more annoying 10 years ago, because it was a bigger, stickier label at that time,” Bujalski says, when asked about the term in hindsight. “But I mean, it was nothing like a cohesive community. It was just people who had each other’s email addresses and were friendly to each other’s cause.”
Mumblecore was supposed to be an outgrowth of digital culture (The New York Times noted in a 2007 trend piece that the movement “bespeaks a true 21st-century sensibility, reflective of Myspace-like social networks and the voyeurism and intimacy of YouTube”) but taken in retrospect, these movies feel like the last relics of Gen X culture. Bujalski’s early movies (his debut was followed in 2005 by the shruggy love-triangle Mutual Appreciation and 2007’s twin drama Beeswax) now seem to me much more akin in vibe and technological timestamp to Richard Linklater’s first few features. For all the mumbling going on in Funny Ha Ha, characters still call each other up on landlines and talk on the phone.
Bujalski’s most direct meditation on technology—and, for my money, the closest he’s come yet to a legitimate masterpiece—is Computer Chess, his 2013 period piece about an early-’80s computer convention where programmers play their computer chess programs against one another and, ultimately, attempt to become the first program to beat a human chess master. The entire movie was shot with old analog video cameras that would have existed at the time, to aesthetically unglamorous but oddly brilliant effect: Each shot is a testament to the constancy of cutting-edge technology’s obsolescence. It was shot by cinematographer Matthias Grunsky, with whom Bujalski has worked on every one of his films; he says theirs might be the most important relationship of his career. “When he’s working with me, he’s sometimes making things a little messy and a little weird in a way that not every DP would be excited about doing,” Bujalski says. “But he’s a real soldier of cinema.”
Bujalski’s movies often take place in the spaces most filmmakers overlook—the strip malls and highways that make up so much of the American landscape. Between the 2015 rom-com-(ish) Results and Support the Girls, he’s become one of the great (and only) chroniclers of the quiet loneliness of the American exurbs. Both of these movies take place in his current home state, but you’d barely know: He has a way of filming Texas so that it looks like New Jersey.
Which is to say that it looks like America.
It’s a tale Andrew Bujalski is sure he’ll tell his grandchildren one day: He was, incredibly briefly, among the cast and crew of Girls Trip. Regina Hall had been sent the Support the Girls script, and she was interested enough in the lead role that Bujalski flew to New Orleans to meet with her about it. “She was kind enough to invite me along to the Girls Trip wrap party, which I only stayed at for a few minutes because I was shy,” he says. “I don’t feel like it’s appropriate to hang out at a wrap party for something I didn’t work on. But I went. And it was a great honor to be there.”
Hall plays Lisa, the beloved Double Whammies manager who always has her girls’ backs—at times to a fault. “There’s no question that this movie lives and dies by this character, because she’s in every scene,” Bujalski says. “But Regina showed up, and whatever our expectations were, she blew them away. She was so committed and so inventive and so much fun to work with. I think a lot of that energy is what’s animating people’s response to this movie.”
But beyond just millennials’ changing ideas about cleavage, some other seismic shifts in the culture have made a film about everyday sexism experienced by working women feel, well, more relevant than it might have a few years ago. Before the election of President Donald Trump and, later, the rise of the #MeToo movement, Bujalski says, “I had worried that I was writing something that nobody was going to care about, just about these little places on the highway that don’t mean much to people who don’t go there.”
Still, he says, “I’d much prefer for the movie to be irrelevant and be living in a different world. … You just kind of have to hope that no matter what context, if this movie had come out in 2015 when I started writing it or at any other point, you hope that it would be relevant. It’s not about the top story of the day and it’s not a response to somebody’s tweet this morning. It’s supposed to be a story about human beings who are struggling in their own ways. That’s a thing that you hope will never go out of style.”
Between our first and second phone conversations, some news broke that made me do a double-take: Disney was releasing a live-action reboot of Lady and the Tramp, starring the voices of Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux and written by … Andrew Bujalski?! Bujalski chalks this, too, up to his “great good fortune.”
A little while ago, Brigham Taylor, a longtime Disney producer who is also an avid fan of indie cinema (he is also the reason onetime-mumblecore-adjacent director Alex Ross Perry cowrote the script for Disney’s recent Christopher Robin), approached Bujalski about a meeting. “He was in Austin, so we had breakfast,” Bujalski says, “I knew Disney was remaking everything, so I said, Brigham, what’s left?” Lady and the Tramp, it turns out. “It was certainly appealing to me,” Bujalski says. “It’s not a movie that I had a super strong relationship with beforehand, but it’s a romance, and that was appealing to me. Brigham had seen Results, and he thought there was maybe a fit there.”
They worked on a treatment together, and then Bujalski wrote several drafts of the script before a few other writers came on to polish it into a Disney-approved project. “I have no idea how it’s going to turn out,” he says, “but I really like all the people involved, and I’m wildly curious to see what they come up with.” I wondered whether it was difficult for him to relinquish control—the only other time someone else has directed one of Bujalski’s scripts was in college, when he cowrote a friend’s sci-fi thesis film about a dystopian world where the ozone layer has prompted rich people to invest in synthetic skin, and a black market for cosmetic scabs has emerged. (“That thing was a masterpiece,” he recalls.)
“For better or worse, I think I can approach those sorts of jobs differently and understand my role as an employee,” he says. “I have done other writing jobs in the Hollywood world, it’s just that nothing has actually gotten made. But for sure, with Lady and the Tramp, there was no illusion that this was mine. I was working on something that was beloved before I was born. So really, as much work as I put into it, the heaviest lifting was done by people in the 1950s.”
It’s a far cry from his mumblecore days—and maybe that’s the best thing that could happen to him. “I’m perfectly proud and happy to be associated with all that,” he says. “Some good work came out of there. But ultimately, you always hope the movies will hold up on their own. It’s a harder thing to imagine in the 21st century, when everything seems more and more ephemeral. But you make something with the dream that no matter what the context, you hope the human parts will still be relevant to somebody who might stumble onto it a year or five years or 10 years down the line.” He pauses, modest as ever. “I won’t even ask for much more than 10. Let’s just go with that.”