With “Computer Chess,” A Loving Look Back at 1980s Nerd Culture

Director Andrew Bujalski talks about capturing an authentic vintage geek look and casting real tech heads in his fourth feature.


Andrew Bujalski is neither a computer whiz nor a chess genius. “I was never any good at chess, never had the discipline to get better, and don’t have any openings memorized or anything like that. Any notch above novice player can wipe the floor with me.”


So when the Austin-based filmmaker got it into his head to make a movie about a computer chess tournament circa 1980, he cast most of the roles with geeky nonprofessional actors who actually knew what they were talking about.

Working from Bujalski’s eight-page treatment–programming nerds convene in a nondescript hotel for three days to compete, talk shop, flirt awkwardly, and brag about Pentagon interest in their software–cast members brought their own expertise to Computer Chess. The movie opened Wednesday in New York and rolls out nationwide in July and August.

Bujalski says, “If I wanted the characters to look and sound convincing, it made a lot more sense to get people who knew a lot about computers rather than me, who doesn’t know anything about computers. Going on Wikipedia, trying to educate myself and putting words into somebody else’s mouth–that wouldn’t have turned out as well.”

The Cast

Bujalski teamed with hair stylist Charlie Bratch and costume designer Colin Wilkes to transform real-life brainiacs into Computer Chess all-stars.

Gordon Kindlmann, who makes his acting debut in Computer Chess, teaches at University of Chicago’s Computer Science Department and conducts research on how scientists gain insights from scanned-imaging data. Bujalski says “He knows his stuff. It was really funny the first day he showed up on set; he was starstruck to see this famous computer, the PDP 11. I don’t know if he’d ever seen one in person before.”

While Wiley Wiggins previously appeared in Dazed and Confused and Waking Life,, Bujowlski notes, “Wiley’s acting career is kind of an accident of his life story. He’s much more a tech guy at heart–an artistic tech guy”


“James Curry is a real-deal programmer,” says Bujalski. “Even though you’d think he would be too young to know the early eighties programming stuff, he was a child prodigy programmer in England, so he remembers it from being a kid.” Evidence of Curry’s expertise: He and castmate Wiggens created the upcoming iPad game Thunderbeam.

Myles Paige went to Harvard with Bujalski and appeared in the director’s previous movie Funny Ha Ha, but spends most of his time on an island off the coast of Washington State working as a chocolatier and gardener.

The Computers

Gigantic-in-retrospect computing machines provide both authenticity and comic relief, as when two contestants join forces to push a huge computer down a hotel corridor from one room to the next. Much of the film’s quaint-looking hardware came courtesy of Austin’s Goodwill Computer Museum. “You bring your old busted computer to the Goodwill, and they’ll farm it for parts they can sell. But over the years, enough people brought in enough really old computers that they decided to make a little one-room museum, and behind that is a big warehouse with a lot of other old computers,” Bujalski tells Co.Create. “We got really lucky.”

The Camera

Staged as a documentary, Computer Chess‘s cameraman follows the action with a Sony Portapak camera. Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky shot the film-within-a-film on its analog video predecessor, the Sony AVC3260.

“The Portapak came a few years later and was intended to be the most lightweight, most portable version of that camera,” Bujalski explains. “For obscure technical reasons, we didn’t use an actual Portapak because it would have been much harder to retrofit the camera to modern work flow.” Obsolete Portapak tape decks are difficult to locate in 2013 and even harder to reformat for contemporary consumption, Bujalski says. “Twenty-first-century and 20th-century technology don’t like to talk to each other.”

Computer Chess‘s analog look extends Bujalski’s fiercely quirky aesthetic. While most indie filmmakers were migrating to digital video over the past decade, Bujalski shot his earlier movies Beeswax,, Mutual Appreciation, and Funny Ha Ha on 16mm film. “From day one, people have been asking me, How come you don’t shoot video; it’s the 21st century? So there’s some contrarian part of me that says, Alright, you fuckers want video? I’ll give you video.”


[Images Courtesy of Kino Lorber]

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.