Arriving in cinemas next week, Support the Girls is one of the most interesting and unique dramas of the year so far. Regina Hall stars as the manager of a Hooters-style ‘breastaurant’, in which customers congregate to drink beer and watch sport while ogling scantily-clad waitresses. But the film is anything but leery, and focuses on the behind the scenes sisterhood of the staff.
Behind the camera is writer-director Andrew Bujalski, who got on the phone with VultureHound for a chat about his movie, the support of Barack Obama and his forthcoming role with Disney…
After a year of promoting Support the Girls since its premiere at SXSW last year, is there any part of you that’s sick of talking about this film?
I’ve had a break, because I haven’t had to talk about it much recently. There’s a bit of muscle memory that kicks in when somebody asks you a question. It’s not so bad to feel those answers on your tongue again.
We quite often get festival films later in the UK. What is it like to follow a film around the world and see new audiences discover it?
It’s a great pleasure and I think any filmmaker or artist of any kind hopes that their thing will have a life and not be so disposable that it’s forgotten the week after it’s out. Just to have anyone experience it later is a thrill because you do want it to go out and have a life and flourish as well as it can.
The first thing that sticks out is the setting – a sort of Hooters-style sports bar. What was it that prompted you to set a story in such a bizarre and unique location?
I think I walked into one of them about a decade ago and, of course, I was very familiar with the concept, but I don’t know if I had ever been in one before. Something about it surprised me and there was something unexpected and kind of perverse, in a very American way, about it.
Obviously, all of the marketing is about the raunchiness, but it doesn’t feel particularly raunchy when you go in. It’s much more comfort that they’re selling than titillation and that, I thought, was a funny combination that is certainly unique to the United States in the last 50 years.
I couldn’t imagine any other culture in history producing the demand for such a place and so it was something that intrigued me and seemed funny, tragic and worth exploring. But then the idea kicked around in my head for many years after that.
I think the interesting thing is the clientele. The people that just go in after seeing the sign tend to be the lairy and misogynistic ones, while the regulars are there for the comfort.
Lisa says at the beginning of the movie that, if these guys want to go to a strip club, they know where to find them. It’s not that. When you do go into a strip club, there’s a fantasy being sold that you are a cool, transgressive, badass person. Whereas, when you walk into one of these co-called ‘breastaurants’, it’s much more selling the idea that you’re normal and that it’s okay. You like cold beer and watching sport on a big TV and ogling your waitress and none of that is anything to feel ashamed about.
It’s that. It’s the idea that these are big American traditions and you can bring your kids and bring grandma and everyone will have a good time and accept each other. If you want to look for it, there’s something very sweet – if very weird – about it. That was what I built the Lisa character around – the idea of trying to find the sweetness in something so peculiar and perverse.
To go specifically to that Lisa character, how did you go about getting to Regina Hall? Once you see it, you can’t imagine anyone else playing her.
We were very lucky. Hers was a name that came up fairly early on. She was intriguing to me. I knew some of her work, but not all of it, because she has been a very busy, working actor for 20 years. I was intrigued by her and my producers were too, thank goodness.
We were lucky enough to get the script to her and we met her when she had just wrapped Girls Trip. She very generously invited me to the wrap party that night. I left after five minutes because I was shy and I didn’t feel like I belonged at a wrap party for a film I didn’t work on, but I’m sure I’ll tell my grandchildren I was at the Girls Trip wrap party.
She’s an incredibly charismatic person and an incredibly warm person. Within 30 seconds of meeting her, you feel like you’re in her emotional embrace. I could very easily imagine mapping that on to this character. She’s quirky and I think with any actor I work with, I’m attracted to a bit of eccentricity and I have realised over time that it’s only the eccentrics who will bother to return my calls in the first place.
So just based on that initial meeting, we sat in a coffee shop and chatted for maybe 90 minutes and it felt exciting. It’s always a gamble when you haven’t worked with someone before, but Regina came down to Austin and it was immediately clear that, however high our expectations were, she was going to exceed them. It’s an incredibly demanding part, in almost every shot of every scene, and it’s not an easy character to play because she’s often turning on a dime between conflicting emotions. So it was a lot of work for Regina to really get in there beat by beat and try to be honest to where this woman was going because there were constant shifts. But she was phenomenal.
We were also very lucky to catch her at a moment, after 10 years of steady work, when her star is really on the rise. It has been very nice for the last year or so to ride her coat-tails. It has been a great pleasure to see more and more people getting excited about her. Most of the good press this movie has gotten has been rightfully centered around her performance and it has been very gratifying for me to see that.
Absolutely, and up to the point that she was very much in the awards conversation. Was there any disappointment when she wasn’t up for the Oscar in the end?
Of course I would have been thrilled for her if it had gone that way, but it’s not something I put too much stock in. That stuff is great for your career, but I’m not sure if it’s the real reward. You do these things to fill some need in yourself and also, ideally, to connect with people out there. That’s the real dream – that somebody somewhere will see this film and take something away from it.
So getting awards is phenomenal for your career and for your pay-cheque and stuff, but I don’t think it’s probably what motivates her or me.
I wanted to talk about your position as a male filmmaker coming in to write and direct such a female-driven project where sisterhood is such a theme. How did you approach that and were you ever concerned about telling it from your perspective?
With anything you write, you’re always having to imagine yourself into someone else’s head. Even when the character is a Caucasian male, I don’t necessarily assume that he’s me or that it gives me some particular authority. Everything I do as a writer, I think, is based on trying to understand other people by imagining them. It’s this odd math where you try to learn something about someone by the process of making them up.
I think, when you’re dealing with certain settings and subcultures, it’s certainly incumbent upon you to do your research and to try to know some of the basics of what you’re talking about. But ultimately, always, you’re inventing people. Women are 50 or 51 per cent of people, and many of the most interesting people to me, so I guess it never occurred to me that female characters would be off limits in any way.
What I will say is that the world has changed in profound and surprising ways just over the course of the years this project has been in the works. This was something I started thinking about in the early part of this decade and I sat down to write this movie version of it maybe some time in 2015, which felt like a very different world. At that time, my concern was that nobody would care about these places. They litter the landscape in the US, but I didn’t know if people would find them particularly interesting or relevant to anything.
Then, we had a presidential election and that night, I didn’t sleep. A great many thoughts raced through my head and most of them were very dark. But one thought that popped into my head was “well, I think my script is relevant now”. I would prefer to live in a world where it didn’t feel relevant.
Then we shot the movie and, as we were editing, the Harvey Weinstein story broke and the flood of MeToo stories was another pretty profound cultural shift. We didn’t know what that would mean for the movie. All of those things are so much bigger than us and all I can hope is that this story, as a human story, never goes out of style. The movie isn’t a tweet. It was never a political statement of the day. It’s the story of human beings having human experiences in their daily lives, so my hope is that stays as relevant and as useful as art can be, no matter what’s in the headlines.
On the presidential note, your film was one that Barack Obama listed as one of his favourites of last year. What was that like?
Oh, it was thrilling. And shocking. I was embarrassed when I saw that list because I hadn’t seen about half of those movies. How does Barack Obama have more time to stay current with indie movies than I do? I still can’t totally accept the idea that he sat and watched it start to finish. I tend to think of him as a brilliant and efficient man and picture him watching it on fast-forward and getting the gist.
But it was an extraordinary honour and it meant more to me than the average list, for sure. He’s on my list of top ten presidents. [laughs]
I’m sure he’s just as proud! One of the things I found really interesting about Support the Girls is that, after being mostly set on a single day, it opens out and delivers this ambiguous conclusion, which is both a clear end and an open one. How did you come to that endpoint?
I don’t know if I can recall exactly the genesis of the scene. This is something that had begun as a television pitch and I had gone around to some different TV networks. It didn’t end up going anywhere, which in retrospect was a great blessing because I never fully had a handle on it as a TV idea. It was only some years later when I realised that these ideas and characters and stories were still stuck in my head.
I decided to dust it off and see if there was a feature film in there. Once I knew that I could end it, things started to fall into place. I couldn’t tell you exactly what the genesis was, but I’m sure that when those images came to me, it felt like the key to the whole movie.
One final question before I let you go. After a career of really small, independent projects, you’ve now written the script for Disney’s new Lady in the Tramp. I don’t know how much the Disney machine will allow you to say about that?
It was a great honour and a great pleasure. I was very lucky to stumble into that job and very lucky that Disney took a chance on me. I had a lot of fun with it. Of all of the Disney classics, it’s certainly the one that makes the most sense for me to do. It’s a relationship story, but with dogs, and it’s sort of a Before Sunrise thing – just two dogs getting to know each other.
I don’t know what the final product will be, but I’m very excited to see it. I went and visited the set, with my kids. We got to meet the dogs and they’re very sweet. It was a lot of fun to go and visit. My wife said she had never seen me that happy to go to a movie set before, but it’s probably because I didn’t have to do anything.
I’m as curious as anybody. Ultimately, it will be a Disney movie. It’s not an auteur project. I hope it will be as satisfying and fun for families as everything Disney does.
So they’re not going to be eating spaghetti and meatballs in a breastaurant then?
[laughs] I don’t think so! That wasn’t the shoot we visited.
Support the Girls is out in UK cinemas from 28th June.