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

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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?”


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