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Interview: Andrew Bujalski on Support the Girls and the Culture It Reflects

Bujalski discusses making films as balancing order with chaos.

Andrew Bujalski
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The finely tuned bullshit detector that keeps writer-director Andrew Bujalski’s ego in check, nudging him to sprinkle his conversations with self-deprecating demurrals and constant reminders of his own blind spots and vulnerabilities, is part of what makes him such an excellent chronicler of our inner lives and times. The New York Times’s A.O. Scott called Bujalski’s first feature, Funny Ha Ha, “one of the most influential films of the ’00s.” Each of his subsequent films has been very different from the others—and from nearly every film imaginable. His work seems to exist outside genre and screenwriting dogmas, featuring characters who feel like people you’d encounter only in life, and plots so subtle they barely register as such.

Bujalski’s films also share a slyly comic humanism that finds both pathos and humor—often at once—in everything from the most banal of conversation to the profoundest of emotions. His latest, Support the Girls, is about a Hooters-like sports bar called Double Whammies and the women who work there. And at the center of the film is Regina Hall as Lisa, the harried, insanely competent, and warmly caring manager who protects and defends the waitresses whose prominently showcased breasts are the sports bar’s main attraction by making sure it lives up to its promise of being “a family place.”

I talked to Bujalski about what places like Double Whammies tell us about American culture, finding the essence of the film in the editing room, and filmmaking as a balancing act between order and chaos.

This is a very female story, from the setting to the way it centers female solidarity to the classically female dilemma that Lisa is grappling with. She has so much responsibility and so little power on the job, and she takes care of everyone else so much better than she takes care of herself, both at work at in her personal life. What is it about those issues that drew you in?>

It’s hard to account for one’s own interests and enthusiasms, obsessions, whatever they are. I was just trying to listen to the characters and be true to who I thought they were. I guess the last two movies that I’ve made—they have women characters that I love, but there’s a lot of male energy in them, so I’m sure some part of me thought it would be great to do something with a lot of female actors and energy. But that was one idea among many.

I find these places [like Double Whammies] so interesting and so weird, so uniquely American. I couldn’t imagine any other culture that would produce a demand for the product they’re selling. It was a puzzle I couldn’t solve that was interesting enough to me that I wanted to play with it. I couldn’t figure out my own feelings about those places. I’m not the target market. That was where a lot of the character of Lisa came from. I couldn’t help bringing a kind of outsider perspective to it, and she was basically an outsider too, someone who would never been in this place if she didn’t work there. I also had fun with her insisting on seeing the best in it. I’m always attracted to the incurable optimist character. That’s a personality type that I seem to come back to a lot. Anyone can imagine the nasty side of that place, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. That’s what attracted me to [places like Double Whammies], the idea that they have this kind of kernel of nastiness that they wrap in so much comfort, inviting people in to feel normal and feel like they belong. I needed that character to see that for what it was and work from there.

You were saying that a place like this could only exist in America. What do you think that tells us about American culture?

There’s something about these places that’s about simultaneously provoking desire but also controlling it, that weird American combination of puritanism and race-to-the-bottom hedonism. They’re both so integral to our culture. It produces this very peculiar place where you’re asked to go in and ogle the waitresses, but you’re asked to do it kind of covertly as they walk away. I think 99% of what goes on in those places is pretty controlled, pleasant, and polite. It’s very different than even a strip club. That’s not to say that things don’t mostly stay on the rails in strip clubs too, but I think it’s a very different fantasy that’s being sold. When you go into a strip club as a man, you’re being sold the idea that you’re a badass and that you’re doing something transgressive. These places aren’t about being transgressive. It’s kind of the opposite. It’s like, it’s okay if you want to ogle these people. You can bring grandma and you can bring the kids and it’s all normal, and you can watch sports and drink beer and eat French fries and all these things go together.

Yet Lisa manages to make this weird place truly safe for her girls.

That’s what appeals to her. She’s very aware that it isn’t a strip club. And she loves that about it, that everyone’s supposed to feel safe in there, whether or not they do. That’s the part she’s focused on and trying to promote.

What made you realize that Regina Hall might be right for the part?

Her name came up early on. I knew a lot of her work and I was very intrigued by it. We got her rep’s attention and I met with her in New Orleans, where she was wrapping Girls Trip. I sat down with her for 90 minutes or so at a café and just chatted. As a director, it’s exciting when this alchemical thing starts to happen where you start to imagine their voice in the character’s voice, and with Regina, even though she’s a very different person than Lisa, I could start to imagine how her energy would inform the energy of the character. It was just a gut feeling, and a gamble, but you think, this might really work!

It’s still nerve-wracking, because not only is she the heart and soul of the movie, but she’s in nearly every scene and nearly every shot of every scene, so it’s a big, big, big job for an actor. And it’s a very difficult part, because Lisa’s almost never just playing one thought or one feeling or one motivation. There’s always so much conflicting stuff going on with this character, and so much she’s trying to hold back. It was quite a lot to ask of someone, and it’s just my great good fortune that she exceeded all expectations.

I’ve never seen anyone say a negative word about Regina Hall. That includes on the internet, which is a machine designed for taking shits on people. Everybody loves Regina, and I’m certainly no exception. She was such a joy to work with and also just such a strong actor. She can do it all.

You like to work with nonprofessional actors. Were there any in this film?

Shayna McHayle [who plays Danyelle, one of Lisa’s most dependable and favorite waitresses]. This was her first acting job. I think she’s going to continue doing it and I think she’s going to be great it in. She was just telling me that she’s doing a thing in Terence Nance’s HBO show [Random Acts of Flyness]. It was so much fun to work with her, and so much fun to have that energy on the set, although she was very professional, and you wouldn’t necessarily know that this was her first acting job. One of the joys for me of working with people that are less experienced is that they’re never going to go into their bag of tricks, you know? They’re never going to just get by. Everything they have to be experiencing and doing for the first time. That was one of the really cool things about having Shayna on set. It was all fresh. I think that radiates out to the rest of the cast and inspires people to stay fresh themselves. Not that we had any problems with that. This cast was pretty magnificent, and everybody really came in the spirit of inspired exploration.

As always, your cinematographer was Matthias Grunsky. Can you tell us about one thing he did that helped bring your vision to life?

I have come to think of him as my eyes. There may come a day when I have to make something without him, but I hope not. I would love to spend the rest of my life making movies with that guy, because he really is my visual brain. We tried to be pretty meticulous in planning this one because it’s probably the most choreographed one we have ever done. There are very few what I would consider “normal” scenes in this movie, because Lisa is so constantly putting out fires on all sides and being emotionally battered by crises in every direction. A lot of the movie plays out where she walks into a room, says something to one person, another person interrupts and comes from the other side. So there’s tons of choreography and very little room for error. Matthias had to do quite a bit of designing to make sure that all worked.

Last time we talked, you said when you make a film you usually “begin in chaos and then look for patterns and pick out order from the chaos.” Was that your process for this one?

Any movie you make is kind of trying to have all the fun of chaos and all the satisfaction of order. I don’t know which you start with and which you end up with. This particular script is about chaos. It’s about a woman going through a day that she can’t control, so that required us to bring quite a lot of orderly thinking to designing it. The trick then is keeping it feeling chaotic, keeping it feeling fun and energized and not too much like clockwork.

Right. Support the Girls has almost a comedic rhythm, though it’s not really funny in the moment very often.

True. It’s hard to describe. As you work on an edit, you start out just trying to make the individual moments work and the individual scenes, but eventually you start to step back and ask yourself, “Okay, what is this movie?” There was one point where we thought, “Okay, maybe this is a hilarious comedy. Let’s go through and make a pass where we try to make all the jokes as funny as possible.” And we did that, and that wasn’t quite it. Then we said, “Okay, it’s not a comedy. It’s a serious movie. So, let’s do a pass and make everything as heavy as possible.” Then we did that and we said, “No, that’s not right either.” [laughs] So then you kind of make your way back to some of the original ideas. I tend to think of life as a comedy, but an excruciatingly painful comedy. So, I think, eventually we kind of found our way back to that original intention, where you’re certainly allowed to laugh, but there’s always going to be questions hanging in the air, and some of those questions are going to hurt.

Yeah. You even get into race. But everything is done in a sort of light way—not that you’re making light of anything, but there’s a lightness of touch to it. There’s a lot woven into this movie, but nothing gets banged on the head.

I’m not that interesting in making statements, and I probably wouldn’t be that good at it if I tried. For me, the questions are always more compelling than the answers. Probably because I don’t know the answers.

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