Arts

In ‘There There,’ the Actors in the Room Are Far Far From Each Other

Andrew Bujalski felt that viewers would have only one shot to see his new movie, “There There,” completely cold. That chance came and went in June, when his eccentric, experimental and possibly unprecedented feature had its premiere at the Tribeca Festival.

“Officially speaking, the cat is out of the bag,” the director (“Support the Girls”) said by Zoom from his home in Austin, Texas, last month. “That said, you never know how people will encounter it.” Even viewers with foreknowledge, he added, don’t necessarily think about it during the movie.

Or as one of his stars, Lennie James, put it: “Even when you know, you don’t know.”

Still, consider this a warning: If you have heard nothing about “There There,” stop reading now, see the movie and come back to this article later. More than most films, “There There” plays with viewers’ preconceptions about how movies are supposed to work, and learning almost anything about it beforehand would spoil the fun.

All right. You’ve seen “There There,” and you thought it was peculiar. “Everybody gets that something is strange,” Bujalski said.

But what? In the first scene with dialogue, two characters (one played by James, the other by Lili Taylor) are in a bedroom the morning after a one-night stand. It’s an awkward situation, but what’s even odder — as you may or may not have noticed — is that James and Taylor never appear in the same frame.

Although the editing and sound make it seem like the couple are having a private discussion, and even looking right at each other, the two actors never met during the shoot. They filmed their scenes in different cities months apart — in James’s case, before Taylor had even been cast. Bujalski directed them by Zoom. And the cinematographer, Matthias Grunsky, never touched the camera.

Matthias Grunsky diagramed the camera angles and eyelines for each scene, including one between James and Taylor.Credit…via Matthias Grunsky

Rather than make a pandemic movie in which characters converse on Zoom, Bujalski took the next logical step and made the film itself that way — from afar. That was the concept behind “There There,” which, as the closing credits put it, was “shot on location anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere.”

The movie consists of six odd, funny and knowingly awkward vignettes with a rotating ensemble. Although most of the segments involve conversations between two people, all the performers filmed without their co-stars present. Instead, they played off a “phantom cast,” actors who knew they would never appear in the film. The principal crew members worked remotely.

Bujalski allowed himself a pizza lunch with James when James was filming at a neighboring home in Austin. But when the time came to shoot, the director returned to his desk. (“I followed my rules,” he said. “I did not direct on set.”)

A kit with equipment and an instruction manual by Grunsky was sent from location to location. Certain design elements — a light strip to make three bars look similar to one another, a child’s painting that says “best dad ever” for a scene between a lawyer (Jason Schwartzman) and a ghost (Roy Nathanson) — had to be shipped long distances to match shots. Time differences and Wi-Fi lags complicated communication. Grunsky mostly worked at his apartment in Munich, usually in the middle of the night. The actors Molly Gordon and Avi Nash set the production’s geographic record for two actors supposedly in the same place but not: When they shot their bar-date scene, Gordon was in Los Angeles and Nash was in Bologna, Italy, more than 6,000 miles away.

Bujalski said that reactions have run the gamut. Some viewers catch on at the beginning. Others, even “highly cinema-literate people,” he said, don’t catch on at all.

“All this stuff to me seems inherent to how movies work anyway,” he said. “You’re always putting things together that are a bit of a cheat.” Part of the goal, he said, was to “lay bare that lie,” in the sense that “There There” is nothing but cheating. Learning afterward how it was made might prompt at least some people to question how they were fooled. But “perversely,” he added, it may also “get at that deeper truth of how these things do hold together,” and maybe why we, as viewers, need them to cohere.

As Nicolas Rapold wrote in his review for The New York Times, “The technique dovetails with the theme of missing and making connections, and you might sense as much, but there’s also some pleasure in sussing out how each scene is constructed, and with such care.”

While the pandemic was a “practical catalyst” for the project, which started shooting in March 2021, as vaccines were beginning to become more widely available, Bujalski said, “I tried to use the lockdown stuff just as an opportunity to do a crazy experiment that I think would have been interesting at any time.” To him, the movie is about the feeling of being in an intimate conversation with someone and then wondering, “Oh, my God, are we in the same room? Are we getting across?”

It wasn’t the first time Bujalski had presented a technical challenge to Grunsky, who shot Bujalski’s 2013 feature, “Computer Chess,” on obsolete Sony video cameras from the 1970s. “There There” was shot on iPhones, which has been done before, but this production posed novel mathematical and spatial problems.

Grunsky had to ask the local micro-crews of around two to four people (most of whom, he said, he has still not met in person) to take measurements from the lens so that eyelines would match, something he would normally be able to tell by sight. He had to ensure that light was coming from the same direction in two different rooms, so they would be convincing as the same room — even though the filmmakers often hadn’t yet found a location for the second half of a scene.

Jason Schwartzman and other performers performed opposite “phantom” cast members.Credit…Matthias Grunsky/Magnolia Pictures

“It was just as stressful as being on a real set, actually,” Grunsky said. He added: “It was really bizarre when once in a while I went to the kitchen to get a water or something, and suddenly I was in my kitchen here in Munich, thousands of miles away from the actors on set. My brain couldn’t quite handle that.”

But he’d recommend what the production did as an exercise for film students. He generally had four screens in front of him: one with the script, with notes on timing and angles; one with diagrams he’d painstakingly mapped of a scene; one with photographs of the location and what had been shot already; and one that showed both Zoom and the image the iPhone was capturing.

James, speaking by video call from Atlanta, said that he had slightly different experiences with his two scenes, shot during downtime from his work on “Fear the Walking Dead.”

“At the time when I was doing the bed scene, I was told the other half of the scene would be a completely different actress than it turned out to be,” he said. (He declined to say who that was.) “So the actress in my mind wasn’t Lili.” When he shot his scene in a bar “with” Gordon, Bujalski had already filmed Gordon’s half, and so “part of the direction was fitting the shot requirements and the geography of the bar and positioning because of how they’d shot Molly,” James said.

Taylor’s two scenes were filmed at a pub in Tivoli, N.Y., and at her apartment in Brooklyn, where she said that curtains and bedsheets were brought in to mimic what James had already filmed. In some ways, she said, “There There” didn’t feel all that different from a normal film shoot. She emphasized that filmmaking is always an abstract process. “Sometimes you have to look right next to the camera, just eyeline-wise, and so you can’t look at the actor,” she said. Most performers in movies, she added, “are skilled in being able to do strange things.”

The actors spent long days repeating 15-page scenes, without a break from the camera’s attention. “We never say, OK, now we’re going to turn around and shoot the other guy,” Bujalski said. That person was filmed at another time.

Bujalski hopes the cognitive dissonance that “There There” creates is productive or at least interesting. “For me,” he said, “the whole movie is about trying to make connection across disconnection.”

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