LWLies travels around the globe to meet the Boyhood director in his own backyard.
Standing in line to see Richard Linklater’s seventeenth film, Boyhood, at South By Southwest festival in the director’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, a complete stranger offsets the unseasonably cold weather by striking up a conversation. It turns out the man, a native Austinite, worked as an extra on Boyhood, and on top of that, he attended the middle school in which Linklater filmed several key scenes. The same school played a starring role in the writer/director’s third feature, Dazed and Confused, 20 years ago.
Talk to folk around town about Richard Linklater and chances are they’ll have a kind word to offer or an anecdote to share. Though originally hailing from Houston, Linklater is regarded as one of Austin’s own — his work with the Austin Film Society, which he co-founded in 1985, has been a major factor in the city’s post-Millennial cultural and economic boom. Unsurprisingly, the good will is mutual. “Austin is the place I escaped to,” explains Linklater. “I came here as a high school kid, I had a lot of friends here and it’s where I first started seeing live music. It felt like a place of freedom and creativity. There were all these people in bands and a lot of artists. Where I came from, I didn’t think I needed to go to LA or New York, this was the big league.” What made him stick around? “I guess I just like the way folks’ brains work around here.”
Linklater first came to Austin in 1984, and as anyone who’s lived here that long will tell you, the city has changed a lot since then. “Back then you could have bought downtown for a nickel,” he jokes. “It was completely burned out and boarded up. I can point to locations where these huge buildings are now and say, ‘that used to be a warehouse’, or ‘we used to go and watch bands there’.” Despite the glint of nostalgia in his eye, Linklater stresses that he sheds no tears for the good old bad old days. “I kind of like the new Austin. Back then there was nothing going on. There are more opportunities now for people to stay here and express themselves and make a living.”
He may be the uncrowned king of American indie cinema, but directing wasn’t an obvious career choice for a young Linklater. “I was on sports teams,” he recalls, “so my youth was very different to how a lot of people might imagine.” Linklater grew up playing football, but went on to earn a scholarship at Sam Houston State to concentrate on his first love, baseball. Though injury forced him to surrender his dream of making it to the Major Leagues, he still enjoys stepping up to the plate in his spare time, and even occasionally trains with the University of Texas Longhorns’ team – he once described hitting a baseball as “maybe the best thing about life.”
Looking back at Dazed and Confused, it’s strange to think that Linklater ostensibly had more in common growing up with Ben Affleck’s paddle-wielding jock than any of the film’s lovable misfits. He wasn’t an alpha male or a bully by any stretch, but his tacit connection with that world undoubtedly added to the film’s authenticity. “The truth is, that stuff actually went on in my school,” smiles Linklater. “All the seemingly barbaric rituals and traditions that are in the film, it’s all stuff that really happened.”
While Linklater was initially more interested in sports than cinema, he acknowledges that he has always been a passionate writer. “I was the kid in fifth grade whose short story would end up getting read to the principal,” he says with a lingering sense of pride. It was around this time that Linklater relocated from Houston to the smaller blue-collar community of Huntsville with his mother, a move that inspired his deep-seated fascination with the contrasting minutiae of city and small town life. Add to the mix the fact that he didn’t cross the state line until he was 20, and you start to get a clearer picture of the parochial worldview that would inform both Slacker and Dazed. Linklater remembers growing up in awe of the sheer scale of America’s largest mainland State. “We’d take these long five-hour drives without ever leaving Texas”, he says. “I felt like I’d been everywhere, seen everything there was to see. But despite how big Texas is, I always had this feeling of being trapped.”
Even in the early days, Linklater was clear in his mind about what it meant to be an independent filmmaker. Despite yearning for his voice to be heard, he was equally wary of playing into Hollywood’s hands. Following 1991’s Slacker, made for a paltry $23,000, Universal gave Linklater $6m to make Dazed, which is what he needed “to do that film right”. Although a significantly greater budget was required to secure the rights to the songs that would appear on the film’s iconic soundtrack, Linklater claims that he never came close to making a bargain with the devil. The studio system is a different beast today, and Linklater continues to keep his distance. “I avoid the industry as much as possible,” he says. “The focus on business you get in Los Angeles is just so depressing; everyone’s focused on the commerce end.”
While Linklater’s anti-establishment mindset is admirable, has he ever been tempted to work as a gun-for-hire in order to fund his next project? “Never,” he insists. “I think anyone who’s on the path to be a gun-for-hire probably deserves to be. They probably don’t have a burning passion or enough of their own stories.” He continues, “I’ve turned down so much money, but my best films always came from turning down a lot of money.” Bottom line: “I never did anything to get somewhere else. I always just dug in my heels and did what I wanted to do next. That gets harder and harder, but I’ve never approached my work as a means to an end.”
That, in a nutshell, is the key to Linklater’s longevity. But there’s more to it than that. His keen survival instinct aside, Linklater has always been good at making the most of limited resources. Even his most commercially successful movie to date, 2003’s School of Rock, was a relatively modest studio comedy. Linklater goes one further. “No one thought it was going to be a hit. It was just me and Jack [Black], goofing around. And you have to remember, Jack wasn’t really a big star yet, so it was far from a sure thing. Nowadays, if you have a movie that does well at Sundance it’s like, ‘Well, you can do that again, or you can come do this $100m vampire movie’. I meet filmmakers who are hot right now and I just think, ‘Go make your next film’. Just do it, don’t sit in LA developing it for four years because it’ll just drain you. They don’t even really pay you properly while you’re developing a film. Work with your hands, that’s my advice.”
For all the notches in his belt, for every wild experiment and unlikely triumph, it says a lot about both Linklater’s dedication to his craft and his desire to push himself creatively that he’s never lost his ability to surprise. In 2006 Linklater became the first director to have two films screen at the Cannes Film Festival in the same year – the distinctly subversive Fast Food Nation and the Rotoscoped Phillip K Dick adaptation, A Scanner Darkly. Boyhood tops that feat.
Conceived in early 2001 while Linklater was contemplating making a film about childhood but having trouble singling out a period he felt was worth exploring, Boyhood started life, like most of Linklater’s films, as an “impractical idea”. From the moment the seed of that initial thought took root, however, he was determined to see it through. What quickly became known as ‘The 12 Year Project’ gathered steam when Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette enthusiastically signed on, and Linklater’s next challenge was to secure the required funding – a stumbling block that arrived with an unanticipated twist. “IFC Films gave us some money to get things going, but at one stage they wanted to turn the project into a series. That was never an option for me.”
Linklater knows how the game works. He accepts that no one wants to write a cheque they know they won’t be able to cash for 13 years. And yet it’s precisely because Boyhood seemed like such an unrealistic prospect, not in spite of the fact that so many people – from film stars to financiers – committed to it long-term. You get the sense that Linklater intrigues the people he works with as much as he inspires them. From his description of the film’s production as feeling like “a summer camp art project”, you start to understand what it is that people love about working with Linklater.
As an unconventional venture that required an immense group effort, it was important for Linklater to ensure that everyone kept the faith, even though he admits quietly thinking, “it was an abstract notion that anyone would ever see what we were doing. I was convinced no one would ever see it.” So Linklater worked out his logistics, sketching out the architecture of the story, giving IFC an outline and telling the team his plan: each year they would reassemble, shoot a few scenes and edit what they had. “The momentum built over the years”, Linklater reflects. “You could feel the investment grow.”
So, you’ve got your leads, mobilised a crew and found a backer. What’s next? Just the small matter of finding the boy whose story you’re going to tell – what Ethan Hawke equated to “time lapse photography of a human being”. Casting a child with a view to how they might develop both physically and socially during their formative years may sound like a daunting task. But Linklater had a nifty solution: “I was secretly casting the parents,” he reveals. “Ellar had cool parents; both artists who both had strong Austin/Texas ties, which was important because as an ongoing collaboration I needed a certain amount of access. I very much needed them to see it as an artistic project that would have a positive affect on their son’s life, and not become a negative burden. And they got that from the outset.”
From presidential elections to global conflicts to Star Wars sequels and Harry Potter, Boyhood also serves as a time capsule of 21st century America. But if any of these cultural snapshots feel contrived or self-conscious, Linklater insists that they’re purely coincidental. In fact, while critics and academics have long heralded Linklater as a cultural anthropologist, he rejects the idea of being a mouthpiece of a generation. “It’s a ridiculous notion”, he asserts. “The notion of Gen X is so abstract; it’s always tied to these arbitrary dates. That kind of thinking really doesn’t appeal to me. It’s so reductive. I’ve never consciously positioned myself to be that guy.”
The interesting thing about Slacker and Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel, which helped popularise the phrase ‘Generation X’, is that both were observing a lifestyle that was hard to define in its day. Linklater never intended to capture the Zeitgeist; he simply wanted to make realistic films that people could relate to. Still, he accepts that maintaining a certain stylistic and thematic rhythm lends itself to people attaching labels. “That’s what we do as a species,” he says. “We create boxes.”
To some, Linklater might be the indie godhead who spawned the Slacker generation, but to others he’s the Rotoscoping pioneer of Waking Life, the man behind raucous mainstream comedies like School of Rock and Bad News Bears, or the visionary director who brought us the Before films. Yet aside from that latter trilogy, each part of which was released in nine-year intervals, Linklater claims to have never followed a specific career path. Apparently, he’s made a habit of getting lucky. “Every film I’ve made has been the result of different circumstances coming together at the right time.” He continues, adding that he’s had it far from all his own way. “Some projects take a little longer to happen, I’d been trying to make Bernie for 10 years. When you’re the kind of filmmaker I am, you find yourself living moment to moment.”
On a technical level, the tonal and aesthetic consistency achieved on Boyhood is astonishing. But it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Linklater may relish hopscotching between genre, period and place, but whether he’s directing a spunky live-action comedy, a trippy animated thriller, or an enchanting romantic saunter, his films all feel like part of the same big family. So what’s his secret? “I honestly don’t think I’ve changed as a filmmaker over the last 18 years”, says Linklater with just a hint of self-deprecation. “I’m always trying to push myself, but I feel confident in my ability to be consistent with a project over a number of years.”
So where does Richard Linklater go from here? How do you top a project as ambitious in scope and execution as Boyhood? To answer those questions, you have to regard Boyhood as a major career milestone, and that’s simply not how Linklater sees it. Each of his “big family lifetime projects” may feel like notable bookmarks in his 26-year career, but to Linklater each new project simply represents the next thing. So, to rephrase the initial question, what’s next for Richard Linklater? “I’ve got a tonne of scripts that will probably never see the light of day”, he confesses, “but actually the next film I’m trying to make is a big family comedy. If that comes off it’ll be so different, a complete palate cleanser.”
With that project still in the early development stage, Linklater is understandably staying tight-lipped. He can reveal, however, that he’s also lining up his spiritual sequel to Dazed, which he describes to LWLies as “a college version of The Wolf of Wall Street”. Even more exciting, however, is the mooted return of Celine and Jesse. “Another Before film? Who knows?” Linklater teases. “There’s nothing to say we won’t be back in another eight years. I could keep making the Before films, but, you know, I’ve got different stories to tell. I’ve been lucky to be able to follow whatever story I’ve been compelled to tell, and that’s how I think I’ll see it out.”
Published 7 Apr 2014