Andrew Bujalski had grown tired of fielding the same question over and over. He shot his first three movies on 16 mm film, and people kept asking him why he didn’t shoot on video.
The nagging inquisitions sparked a contrarian impulse in the filmmaker, who moved to Austin permanently in 2008 after coming to town to shoot his third feature, “Beeswax.”
People want to see video, I’ll show them video, Bujalski decided.
But he didn’t have slick images and high-tech modern digital cameras in mind. He imagined a movie shot on outdated equipment that rendered a home-video aesthetic from the 1970s and ’80s.
The concept was “a vague fantasy that I kicked around for a long time, for years and years,” Bujalski said.
With a visual style in mind, Bujalski still needed a story. A chess trivia book, on sale for $1 in the remainder bin at a bookstore, eventually provided the inspiration for Bujalski’s retro-looking narrative feature “Computer Chess,” which screens Monday at the Austin Convention Center as part of the South by Southwest Film Festival.
“I don’t know why, but it struck my fancy, and I started to have images in my head of that world and picture it in the language of that video,” Bujalski said of the subconscious building-blocks process. “It’s so hard for me to explain. I’ve never made anything like this before. I honestly don’t think I could probably make anything like it again.”
Bujalski was nudged into the project by fellow Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols. Bujalski shared the vague idea of his computer movie with the “Take Shelter” and “Mud” director, and Nichols challenged Bujalski to prepare a treatment. That eight-page treatment ended up serving as the “script” for the film.
Despite being tagged with the “mumblecore” label years ago – a made-up genre that describes mostly improvised films about shuffling, self-involved characters – Bujalski said that “Computer Chess” is ironically his first film to actually not have a full script.
Working without the safety net of a script offered a new set of challenges to the director, but Bujalski embraced the freedom the filmmaking style gave him.
“It went too quickly for me to trip myself up worrying about it,” Bujalski said. “I always find production to be incredibly stressful, because it is, and yet, looking back I think it’s the most fun I’ve had creatively because every day was an adventure. It was just a blast.”
“Computer Chess” has a loose and improvised mockumentary feel. The movie, shot on Sony AVC-3260 that Bujalski bought on eBay, details a chess tournament pitting computer programmers and their creations against human chess wizards.
The tournament takes place in a hotel that is also being used by a group of New Age spiritualists, and the ambling tale weaves some philosophical strains about the period when the humanism of the 1970s was bumping up against rapid technological advances and their implications.
“As a million science-fiction movies have reflected, there’s something very spiritual and weird about confronting the idea of what is an artificial intelligence,” Bujalski said. “What are we building? What could we be building? What should we be building? What does it mean?”
Bujalksi says that we all have a picture of what the ’70s and ’80s represented on a social and cultural level, but he wanted to make a movie that painted the transitional period as a fluid time.
“I don’t think everybody put down their acoustic guitars one day and started playing Pac-Man the next day,” Bujalksi said. “All these influences are still reverberating in our society today.”
Bujalski didn’t know where he was headed when he first had the contrarian idea to shoot on video. But, somehow, a vague notion of trying something wildly different, combined with a book priced to sell and a challenge from a peer, led to “Computer Chess.”
“There’s a funny thing about taking fantasies and turning them into realities. That’s part of the magic of movies,” Bujalski said.
What: ‘Computer Chess’ at SXSW
When: 4:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Vimeo Theatre at Austin Convention Center
Tickets: Tickets available at the theater box office before screening. Badge and wristband holders have priority access.
More information: SXSW.com/film