The Director's Chair Interviews
Out with Richard Linklater
By Tim Ryhs
MovieMaker, February 1997
You probably knew guys like Rick Linklater in school. Guys who were well-rounded, well-liked and well-adjusted, but who were, well, different. You couldn't get a handle on them. They were accepted by all the cliques and factions, but they were never absorbed into any of them. They were respectful, sincere and dignified in a down-to-earth way, but beneath the surface you could sense a cool confidence that told you they were just biding their time; that they didn't need to belong; that they would follow their own star, thank you very much, and that they wouldn't be hanging around this mill town for long.
Richard Linklater prides himself on doing things his way, of taking the road less traveled. His production company is called Detour Films, a fitting moniker for a moviemaker who has gone off-road in the world of American independent cinema, and where his contributions, at the age of 35, have already been both original and significant. His first nationally distributed film, Slacker (1989), is a classic of experimental narrative which features over 100 characters. His 1993 Dazed and Confused is another ensemble piece that portrays the lives of American teenagers in the '70s better than any artist has to date. His 1995 film, Before Sunrise, explored the lives of two people falling in love in a unique and sensitive way.
With the making of subUrbia, Linklater returns to the ensemble format to bring us a fresh look at young, disenfranchised Americans at a crossroads in their lives. I've always liked Linklater's films, and his filmic sensibilities. Unlike so many moviemakers working today, he's concerned with human beings, not cartoon characters, gimmicks, or techno-stunts. He's also a genuinely nice guy, the kind of artist who makes you glad you're in this business. We've all known guys like Richard Linklater. Too bad there aren't more of them to know.
TR: You've said that you were amazed at how, early on, you actually spent a couple of years just doing "technical exercises," which I thought was kind of interesting. You never went to film school, but did these technical exercises to educate yourself. What did they involve?
RL: I should've said I wasn't amazed that I did them, I was just amazed at how patient and systematic I was. I mean, I was 22, and they involved touching the camera for the first time. I had shot some stuff when I was in junior high and stuff, but I was like, Okay, I'm gonna learn how to do this. I had vague ideas about maybe getting into film school, but I was already quickly ahead of where I would have been in film school, so I didn't really want to do that.
TR: You didn't want to spend another few years . . .
RL: Yeah, it just would have slowed me down. I really like my own time and following my own path. It was sort of like, cool, I'd already worked and saved up some money, so I'd created an environment to learn by myself. I could still go to two movies a day, I could still read, and then I could edit all night or work on stuff like lighting, editing, everything.
TR: What did you work at to save the money to do that?
RL: I had a good job working an offshore oil rig.
TR: Were you using Super-8 back then?
RL: Yeah, Super-8. It was less expensive then. It's become a little more expensive now.
TR: There's a real revival now.
RL: Yeah, it's great. And if you can keep your costs low, I would suggest a lot of Super-8. If you can't, 16mm is not that much more expensive. The key is just to shoot a lot of film. But more than that, I had already set up a pretty good foundation for myself by a couple years of reading the history of film, you know. I had seen a lot of films and really knew a lot about it. I ended up taking just two classes at Paulson Community College, "History of Film" and "Film Appreciation," that I probably could have been teaching. But it was pretty good to have to sit down and write papers about it, to really articulate ideas.
TR: How far into your self-education did you fall into your Super-8 film, You Can't Learn to Plow by Reading Books?
RL: A couple years after I started. I started shooting that in '86, so I had been shooting two-and-a-half years. I was just working up to something a little bigger, I knew. It felt about right. A bigger canvas, you know? I was exploring a larger idea, honing my instincts on it, digging into a subject that was interesting to me--youthful alienation, that kind of thing. It was more of the formal aspects of the narrative that I was experimenting with. I think it's important in those early projects. I call them "technical collections" because they were films--short films--but they were virtually meaningless. I was intentionally not trying to do anything that meant anything because my ideas were so far ahead of my formal abilities. I think maybe film schools don't help you a lot when you're 20 years old. You make a film and you get judged so much on it. Say if you really want to do something interesting--if you really aspire to do something with any depth, it's hard. It takes even longer to be able to articulate that on film, and it really works against you to be judged by people you might not share an aesthetic with anyway. I worked completely privately, and then I met people along the way and we had similar ideas. But I didn't have to answer to anyone. I didn't have to get graded, I didn't have to be told how this wasn't good. I knew if it was good or bad, and I knew what I was learning. I didn't have to be told that I wasn't any good at what I was trying to do. I learned to trust and cultivate my own instincts. There was no teacher saying, "Where's the close-up?" or whatever. It was just my own little subjective path.
TR: Which is why your films look so original.
RL: It just worked out that way--I didn't know what I was doing. But looking back, I was like, okay, that was just my personality and how I approached it. But I think I could never have made Slacker through conventional means. I would've been told it wouldn't work.
TR: You talk about Plow being an experimental narrative, which is how you talk about Slacker as well. First of all, the Slacker experiment seems pretty successful. Why don't you think it's imitated more often? That no-main-character style . . .
RL: Well, let's face it. That's not what people go to see.
TR: But they did go to see it.
RL: Yeah, they did in that case. I just got lucky! Slacker could have very easily completely fallen through the cracks and no one would have seen it.
TR: You did Sunrise, which had two main characters, and then you went back to an ensemble cast. Do you feel more comfortable doing the ensemble thing?
RL: No, not really. It's just how it worked out. I mean, I like both. I loved that about Before Sunrise. I could really dig in--where normally I'd spread over many characters--to just put it on two people and get so much into them. It was really exhilarating working with Julie and Ethan so closely. That was a really fun experience. Maybe I naturally gravitate toward the ensemble or the multicharacter mold, though, I don't know.
TR: Your actors are your characters. They really understand and know the character. It seems like it should go without saying that when a moviemaker actually commits the story to film, the actors should feel like that about the characters, but it doesn't happen as often as it should. Talk about your rehearsal process. I know you rehearse long and hard, but what do you do? How do you bring this out in people?
RL: Well, you sit around talking a lot about it, both individually and in groups. And I think I'm probably building an atmosphere that we're going to create in, where we're all sort of getting on the same wavelength. Every production has its own vibe. It's really up to the director to set that tone, how we're going to work, and how we're going to get there.
TR: Some directors give their actors formal exercises, like writing character bios. You guys just talk?
RL: Yeah, we do a lot of talking. The characters do a lot of talking. I think the best thing you can do is talk. We just talk about everything. Their tastes. Sometimes it's music that they may be listening to, or what they might be reading. I'm trying to fuse that with who they really are. That person, what Giovanni Ribisi is really interested in, is what Jeff will be kind of interested in--with me in the middle tweaking certain knobs.
TR: How important are the lines? How loose are you with them?
RL: It depends on how well-written it is originally. I mean, certain things I go in knowing this has to be re-written a lot. It might read well, but it won't work as a movie. Like Before Sunrise, the ideas were there but it really needed to be rewritten pretty extensively just to work.
TR: So you give the actors a lot of leeway?
RL: Well, yeah. Or we just sit there with pen in hand a lot. Less so with subUrbia and probably Dazed and Confused, too. The script was there, but lines here and there, new ideas, could always enter in, and maybe a little thing would be worked up. But subUrbia had a good start. The characters and a lot of the lines were just there. But you really have to work on a lot of these long monologues. Most times with characters you do a whole movie with maybe one monologue, here we're doing that every night.
TR: Slacker was a series of long monologues like that.
RL: Oh, yeah. All big monologues. I kind of like that. You know, you just have to work really hard because you never know the conditions you're shooting in. We shot subUrbia in 22 days. I have two cameras and we do four takes, and that's really fast. The actors had rehearsed it so much it was sorta like performing it like a play. I like it when the actual production is no big deal. You try to find something new that day, but you're pretty much there. I think with the lines--it's really important to get there before you're shooting. You know, people don't understand what improvisation means. They think you turn on a camera and you start changing things around. Well, I've never, ever, done that.
TR: You know where they're going to diverge before you turn the camera on?
RL: Absolutely. I don't know anyone who just turns on a camera and see what they get. It's too expensive. I think that falls into laziness. Once again, people think there's an easier way than hard work to arrive at something. Maybe the goal is to make it look easy--but it's not easy. It has to be very tight before it can be loose.
TR: That becomes part of the script before you go in. So you do the improvisation in the rehearsal.
RL: Yeah, and I think that would be the same for all people who are known for improvisation. Even Cassavetes, Altman. I don't think improvisation is a very effective word. It's shaping the material, and the director's job is to make it work on film, and whatever that is--finding new meaning, finding new lines, more humor, whatever. A lot of the humor is derived from these group situations. You get a lot of people together and you're going to find humor in any situation. That's part of the process. It's really fun to see it come to life like that.
TR: Turning to themes, a lot of your films deal with . . . well, you make films about "hanging out." I don't mean that to sound flip--
RL: --No, you're right, I like that a lot. I have a quintet going here. Five "hanging out films." Truly.
TR: In John Lennon's words, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." I think you really get to the heart of what that means. You show the kind of between-the-lines of life. In the writing, do you consciously go for that? Do you not want big events and big action in your films because the essence of what happens in our lives is not usually about that?
RL: I haven't had a lot of big events happen in my life. I don't know many people who have in that way. I mean, you have these big events, but they're usually such a big deal and they've already been done in film. What's underrepresented in film is the real essence of life, the in-between space that gets glossed over. But I can't help but think that at the end of your life when you look back there'll be a tone. And that tone will come from the essence of how you live your day-to-day, what you did in that between time, because that is really your life. I enjoy exploring that.
TR: I heard a quote, "The best days are the days when nothing happens."
TR: It seems like you're able to capture those cool times when nothing is really "happening."
RL: On one level, nothing's happening. But we all exist in our brains anyways, so that's where everything's happening. It's hard to say what's a big deal and what's not.
TR: You're getting to a point where you're able to make the types of movies that you've always wanted to make.
RL: I'm lucky in that way. I want to keep doing that. The "hanging out" movies, they're very personal, autobiographical. subUrbia represents a bridge into something else, although I felt very close to it and I consider it autobiographical, in that way. I didn't originate the characters or the story, although I kind of lived it. I'm kind of finding my way into other stories too that I feel really close to. I'm doing one [about] these brothers from West Texas. It's a true story.
TR: Did you write it?
RL: Yeah, I'm a co-writer of the script. I've been shaping the material and working on that for a while. But I'm not Woody Allen or Bergman or one of those directors where their own psyche is the end-all. I'm really interested in a lot of things, so stories kind of find me.
TR: Is this your first film that's not strictly autobiographical?
RL: Yeah, and that's not pointedly generational. Obviously I didn't live in the '20s and I didn't rob banks, yet there's something in those characters that males me feel like I'm one of them. Like, had I been alive then . . . but that's what's fun about the movies, you have to imagine what it was like. So it's a very different creative process. A lot of our favorite movies of all time, you know, Scorsese didn't write Taxi Driver, he didn't originate that character, but obviously it's what he and Schrader were thinking together. You find your way into stuff. I'm open to that.
TR: How closely did you work with Eric Bogosian on subUrbia?
RL: Very closely, actually. We adapted it together. I felt an incredible responsibility to the characters and to Eric's intentions, because I knew they were my intentions, too. I knew we were on the same page. I think it gets problematic when you're taking something and you're trying to make it something else. In the case of subUrbia I wanted to stay true to that. It still necessitated change, but it was a good collaboration as far as the writer-director thing goes. Neither of us wanted to let the other one down.
TR: Getting back to themes, all your movies are also about the alienation or angst of young people, right? And you said all your films to date are autobiographical. Without getting overly personal, while you were growing up in those tough junior high days, being a film nerd, did you feel alienated or angst-ridden growing up?
RL: Well, at that age I wasn't a film nerd. That was later. No, it seems like a lifetime ago, but in high school I actually played sports. I had it together. You could look at me and say, "What's he pissed off about? He's got it made." But that left an impression on me. People looked up to me like I'm this cool guy or something, but I feel like shit. So if I feel alienated, how does everybody else feel? I knew it was universal. I have profound mixed feelings about the whole structure. I just hated being trapped in. I just couldn't wait to be older and be on my own so I wouldn't have to answer to anyone and all that.
TR: So were you the quarterback in Dazed and Confused?
RL: Yeah, I was him. But I was also the newspaper writer. You're a little bit of everything, a bit of all your characters. Same in subUrbia. I'm all the characters. I feel like I'm Jeff, but I'm Tim, I'm Pony, and in a strange way I'm Sooz. You end up as all your characters. They're all a reflection of you.
TR: I know you've heard this before., but you're right-on in your casting. It seems like there's never a question--it's a home run every time. What do you look for in a casting session?
RL: That's the big decision. You have to be honest with yourself. Slacker was my best initiation into that because I cast over a hundred people.
TR: Did you go through thousands of people?
RL: Yeah, I interviewed a lot of people.You meet them and judge who you click with. And the few times I went against my first instinct, let someone talk me into it, I just had to work that much harder. My percentage has gone up every film. In Dazed, that was a great cast. It's love at first sight. You pretty much know the moment they walk in the room.
TR: Do you have an image in mind? Do you study headshots first, or does that not mean so much?
RL: The important thing is talking to them. Even the first minute, you get a sense of whether they're kinda what you had in mind. I never have anything exactly in mind. It's like casting Jeff. He has to be really smart, he can't fake that. You can't just act intelligent. You either are, and you have verbal skills and that passion, or you don't. Casting is brutally honest about that. Who they are is the big deal.
TR: As you can imagine, we talk film a whole lot in the shop when we're doing this magazine. And it's been said several times that of the recent crop of young directors who have made some kind of impact on the indie film scene, the Smiths and the Tarantinos and the Burnses and such, that you're the one who has legs--you're the one whose career will be the longest and most influential. Do you have any long-range directorial career plans? Whose career inspires you? I know you don't like to talk about genres so much. I think of Howard Hawks, who wasn't identified so much with a particular genre--
RL: --Like a John Huston?
TR: Yeah, say John Huston. Have you ever thought about that?
RL: That's a tough question because it's hard to envision the future too much. You need to do one film at a time. I think if you're passionate enough, at the end you'll look back on all these different types of films, and see there's something about them. I want to do two I'll call my "Texas epics." One is a gangster-outlaw kind of movie, and then I want to do one about Texas high school football. So it's just about what I feel close to.
TR: You don't want to do a middle-age angst movie?
RL: (laughs) I'm sure I'll get there. I'm approaching that.
TR: I don't know if it's been done purposely, but you've avoided going high-tech in your films. There was an article in Esquire recently that said the great age of moviemaking was founded in the delicate faith that photography kept with reality. In other words, the narrative movie required the appearance of people together, not too different from the stage. Do you think technology can impede narrative structure?
RL: I think if you get carried away with it. Some of it interests me, like the next movie I'm doing, I'm trying to recreate the '20s, so we're using digital mattes where you can actually do a crane shot. It's not like the mattes of the '70s, where you have a painting and you can't move the camera. But it's just a tool. Technology, on one level, is meant to be used. But outside of the very basics, I can't say I'm that interested in it.
TR: So if it doesn't get in the way . . .
RL: Yeah, I think there are two kinds of filmmakers-ones that had their little 8mm cameras and their trains and were setting fires and blowing them up and crashing into each other, and then there're the ones who read a lot and were going to the theater and maybe reading philosophy. There's some cross-over there. But I definitely came into it from a different, more of a literary/theater background.
TR: I wanted to ask you about that. You're not big on television, but do you still go to the movies a lot?
RL: Oh, yeah, I like everything. I liked Independence Day, I had a good time. But they're not the kind of movies I've made or would spend a year of my life doing. But I enjoy the spectacle like everybody else.
TR: You're not pessimistic about the state of movies in the late 20th century?
RL: No, because if you go back and read about any other time, everyone's always pessimistic. From the early '70s, which we now look at as this last great American movie era, you go back and look at reviews and read what Paul Kael said in 1972: "It's all commercial crap. The good stuff was back then, and now it's all deal-making." You could just take it and put '96 instead of '69. There's no difference in what people were saying. So the bottom line is that it's always a commercial medium, and it's always about box office and all that stuff that we have to deal with. But every year there are 10 or 20 films that really mean something to someone. Films that will endure.
TR: Just to play devil's advocate for a second. That same article was talking about what you just mentioned--the early '70s was the last great period of American moviemaking. But it also said the best directors then were identifiable by their own sense of language and a deep sense of personal style. Not necessarily the technical flourishes that a De Palma has, where you always notice that's a De Palma film. But they had this sensibility or style that you could recognize, like Hitchcock or Welles or Rossellini or Michael Powell had. Do you see that today? How important do you think that is?
RL: Well, it's too early to tell. Look who's still working. I mean, how you can say guys like Lynch or Scorsese don't have personal styles? I think all the best filmmakers fall into that category. It's kinda tough for me to judge my contemporaries and friends. But I think you'd be surprised. I mean, like Soderbergh, or Araki--there are those who are doing their own movies and those who aren't. And I think those who are doing their own movies inevitably have a certain feel or spirit that you see in picture after picture. I always trust that the spirit of the artist will endure somehow. It's so much of a need in the medium that some will always somehow get made, at whatever level. Look at Ken Loach, Mike Leigh--they've been doing it a while, and they still make it happen.
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