Watching writer/director Richard Linklater's critically acclaimed films is like overhearing great, engaging conversations that you wish you had been included in. His films—which include Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Waking Life, and Tape—are usually set within a 24-hour period to maintain the feeling of being in the moment and generally don't have any clear-cut plot, but they continue to leave the audience wistfully pondering the larger philosophical questions in life. Outside of his more fringe independent film fare, Linklater directed last year's hit comedy School of Rock, starring Jack Black; the 1998 period gangster film The Newton Boys; and the upcoming animated feature A Scanner Darkly, starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder.
In addition to the South by Southwest Film Festival, Linklater has helped put Austin, Texas, his longtime home, on the cinematic map. Since 1985 he has served as founding artistic director for the Austin Film Society, which has given $403,000 in grants to Texas filmmakers. He used to be labeled "the spokesperson of Generation X," because his films spoke to the twentysomething culture during the independent filmmaking movement in the 1990s. Ask him about it now, and he'll push the title far away.
"I did [reject it] then and I certainly do now," he says of that Gen-X label. "Film people aren't good spokespeople, anyway. I mean, I lost everybody in that world when I did Before Sunrise 10 years ago. I haven't made those kinds of pop culture-y things since Slacker and Dazed and Confused. Then I betrayed everybody and did this European romance that had no pop culture, no irony, and that's when I left that camp."
Linklater revisits this same European romance in his latest feature, Before Sunset, released in theatres last week. In the original film, which earned him the Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear Award for Best Director, Ethan Hawke's American tourist meets Julie Delpy's French tourist in a spontaneous 14-hour love affair in Vienna that ends with them both promising to reunite six months later. In Before Sunset, the older and wiser couple bump into each other nine years later in Paris and have 85 minutes to catch up before Hawke's character must board a flight back to the States to rejoin his wife and child. Shot in real time, this emotional reunion was first briefly revisited in his animated feature Waking Life, which convinced Linklater to have his own reunion with Hawke and Delpy for the sequel. Only this time, the three shared the writing credits.
"That was sort of the intention in the first film," he explains. "There was an existing script that Julie, Ethan, and I sort of rewrote. This particular movie really requires that the actors give so much of themselves. For it to work, in my mind, a lot of it had to feel like it was coming from them. So, whether it's their idea or an idea that we reworked a little, we just did that from the get-go—a collaboration, because Julie and Ethan are really unique. They're writers, directors, musicians, actors—they do quite a bit, so it wasn't that big a deal." Hawke, who has appeared in five of Linklater's films, had this to say in a recent interview with Premiere: "Tape was a real breakthrough for me. In my mind, that is when I became an adult actor. My feeling is that when my ride is over, it will be the work that I did with Linklater that will be the only thing that people care about."
Philosophy on Film
As a teenager, Linklater showed an early talent for writing. He originally had his mind set on becoming a playwright until he began seeing films such as Raging Bull and Eraserhead.
He recalls, "Those [films] hit me at a big moment, but those aren't films you look at and go, 'Oh, I can do that.' You look at those and go, 'Shit, film is an expressive medium. Film is art. Wow, you can do that in film?' I thought films were Star Wars and Superman. I didn't know things on literature and philosophy—things I'm interested in—could maybe have an outlet in film. So it just took me discovering world cinema to think that maybe it was a medium I could work in and express myself in. I realized I had films in my head. I had this kind of visual thing, like I could edit. It was just me discovering my medium, and then I bought a camera and editing equipment. You don't have to go to film school. Had I not turned out to be able to make movies, I think I would still be doing something film related. I'd be writing about film, I'd be a distributor, I'd own a theatre, or be running a film festival."
The self-taught, budding filmmaker relocated to Austin and shot his first short in 1988 appropriately titled It's Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books. Since his 1991 debut feature Slacker garnered acclaim, he has discovered or launched the careers of several actors, including Matthew McConaughey, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason London, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Cole Hauser, Ajay Naidu, Wiley Wiggins, and Marissa Ribisi. Even Ben Affleck and Parker Posey have him to thank for their early roles. When it comes to casting his films, Linklater says he looks for interesting people—not just interesting actors.
"It's an intuitive thing. Even when they're non-actors and you're in a room, who do the eyes go for? Why is that person so intriguing? Or, who is that person?" Linklater says. "Think of the guys you can't take your eyes off of throughout film history, like Lee Marvin or Jack Nicholson—these kinds of crazy, wonderful personalities. You realize, they are fascinating people and they happen to be actors, but they carry something just instinctually. Maybe they had no choice. I like the reluctant actors, who came to it begrudgingly, but it took them over, and now it's in their blood, and they maybe wish they didn't do it, but they have to. That's who you want to work with. There's no ego involved. In fact, they have problems with the idea of stardom and the trappings that go with it, but it's just the way they express themselves. It's bravery beyond belief and I'll always admire it."
A believer in lengthy rehearsals, Linklater feels this time is crucial for getting to know his actors, perfecting dialogue, discovering ideas well ahead of shooting, and creating the atmosphere where performers can do their best work. Says the filmmaker, "A lot of it is just for me. I don't know if it improves the actors much at all, but I'm sensing their words and thinking of my locations and how this is all going to fit. It's one big mosaic. That's that magical moment for me when the words and ideas are meeting the people that are going to inhabit it. I love that process so much. I always make it pretty long, because, to me, that's where you really find the movie. I've always felt a bad performance is the director's fault and never the actor's. Either you're miscast or they didn't create the atmosphere you can do your best work in."
Virtually every Linklater film centers on marginal characters that come from humble, blue-collar roots. The heroes in his films feel at home contemplating life over a six-pack in a strip mall parking lot. Indeed, when Linklater dropped out of Sam Houston State University during his junior year, he worked on an offshore oil rig for 26 months. So last fall when HBO decided not to pick up his dark comedy pilot $5.15/Hr. about people working for minimum wage employment, he was baffled.
"I was really happy with it. It was a great cast and it would've been great. It was an odd mix with HBO. I don't know what they think they want," he says. "I always wanted to deal with the working world, but people in the entertainment industry don't want to see people working. The guy who runs HBO is, like, 'These are like the guys who do my yard. I tune them out of my life. They don't exist,' like they're not people. Here's the thing: They can only see it in depressing terms. When I worked offshore, I met the most interesting people and I had the most fun times. Work cleanses. Work is good. They don't get it."
Fortunately for Linklater, there are plenty of others in the know who appreciate his incisive work. BSW