Award-winning film “Computer Chess” makes SXSW debut

Stephanie Robalino

“Computer Chess,” written and directed by Andrew Bujalski, is a story set in the 1980s centered on a man-versus-machine chess tournament. The film follows a battle between technology and the human spirit and the eccentric geniuses who lay the groundwork for artificial intelligence as we know it. 

UT radio-television-film alumni Robin Schwartz and Patrick Riester are the two stars of the film, playing the characters Shelly and Peter, respectively. Both are film editors who made their acting debuts in the film.

The Daily Texan: How did you get the idea for “Computer Chess”? 

Andrew Bujalski: It’s difficult to reconstruct — I think most of the heavy lifting was done by my subconscious. The initial spark, I know, was the fact that for 10 plus years I’d been working with 16mm film, and for that many years being asked over and over again, “Why don’t you shoot video?” So some contrarian part of me, thought, “Fine, you want video? I’ll show you video.” And I began to fantasize about shooting on old ‘70s analog tube video cameras, which have a really soft and ghostly look to them, quite unlike our contemporary video. 

DT: What was it like having your film admitted to South By Southwest?

Robin Schwartz: I’ve been to SXSW several times, but never as an actor, which, as I’ve found out from other festivals, means that occasionally people come up and tell me that they’ve seen the film. I haven’t quite figured out a response, but I generally just say, “Cool.” And then I try to tell a funny story about the production. The best comment I’ve gotten so far was from a critic who didn’t recognize me, and then he made the connection and explained, “Well, you know how the camera adds 10 pounds.” I guess that seemingly antiquated response is appropriate for a film that is set in the early ‘80s and shot on wonky-looking video.

Patrick Riester: Before the Sundance premiere I was certainly nervous. Now, I’m pleased any time Andrew’s film earns further success and has another audience.

DT: Have you been to SXSW before?

Bujalski: Oh, sure. I first moved to Austin in ‘99 and 2000 was the first time I attended SXSW, just as an avid moviegoer — those were the days of trying to squeeze 4 or 5 movies in in a day, which, even if [my] schedule allowed now, I probably don’t quite have the constitution for anymore. What has the world come to when an adult complains of feeling too old to just sit on his ass for eight hours? Is there nothing we’re not too lazy for anymore?

DT: What is your background in film?

Bujalski: I was obsessed with movies as a 5-year-old — nothing much changed since then. I studied film as an undergrad, starting making my own features a few years after that, and I’m sorry to report that my story is the dull, linear narrative of a guy who never really considered doing anything else.

Schwartz: I’m an editor. I’ve done other things, like producing, sound, etc., but editing is my obsession. I’m currently editing a feature doc with director Margaret Brown, which I’m very excited about. The first full-length feature I edited, “America’s Parking Lot,” played SXSW last year. I’ve done reality TV and commercial work, but docs are what I, somewhat masochistically, prefer.

DT: What advice do you have for current UT film students?

Schwartz: Advice? This career is an insane time suck. So you better pick good projects and work with people who you respect. 

Riester: I don’t know how the program has changed since I attended, but I’d recommend finding non-academic work while in school and to try other areas in film. I didn’t think about working on documentaries and find it very rewarding now.