Fall 2018

THE DGA INTERVIEW

A Self-Taught Director Who Bucked the System

Richard Linklater learned by doing, and over the course of his 30-year career, the Texas-based filmmaker has left his own unique stamp on the indie world and beyond

BY ROBERT KOEHLER


Director Richard Linklater. (Photographed by Dan Winters)

For a generation of established and aspiring filmmakers, Richard Linklater is a hero. Making an immediate mark on American culture with his first widely seen feature, his second film Slacker (1990), Linklater was one of the titular figures in John Pierson's essential history of the 1990s American indie film movement, Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes. Linklater taught himself to direct, learning all of the essential artistic and technical aspects on his own.

He stands as a connection between the early wave of self-taught American independents such as Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke and John Cassavetes and the younger indie wave that has followed him, using low-cost digital tools and sometimes bypassing film school. Linklater did it, moreover, far from the movie centers of Los Angeles and New York, growing up in Houston and smaller south Texas outposts and settling in Austin, where he fostered an enduring local film culture, including the Austin Film Society, which he co-founded and continues to support.

Few active American directors can boast such a wide and unpredictable filmography: his rollicking (semi-autobiographical) youth comedies Dazed and Confused (1993) and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016); his unmatched love story trilogy pairing Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke—Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013); brilliant rotoscoping animation experiments (Waking Life, 2001, and A Scanner Darkly, 2006); and his unprecedented and widely acclaimed Boyhood (2014), for which the director took 12 years to film actor Ellar Coltrane as he grew up. Linklater's movies comprise a gallery of wonders and an approach always imprinted by an unmistakably human touch.

His next film, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, stars Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig and newcomer Emma Nelson, and is due out next year.

In Austin, Linklater sat down to discuss his movies, how he works with his collaborators and what he's learned along the way of an extraordinary career.


Linklater gets physical on the set of his high school coming-of-age film, Dazed and Confused (1993), which gave the director license to exercise full creative control over his ensuing projects. (Photo: AMPAS)

DGA: You taught yourself how to direct. Your story is incredibly inspiring to aspiring filmmakers. How hard was that to do?

Linklater: Hard but a fun way to spend your life. I'd had a baseball scholarship, but I had already dropped sports as I got more into reading and watching movies, like four a day sometimes. You know, people think I am a big sports guy but they don't understand I did not pick up a sports page for 20 years. I did not watch a pro sports game. I can't tell you who won the World Series in 1987 or 1988.

I had worked on Texas offshore rigs for 2½ years and had saved up like 18 grand. I bought film stock and a bunch of equipment. All I did was read, watch movies, edit film and get good at it. I found that this is what I wanted to do. I caught that great run of being a kid in the '60s so I have '60s awareness. I was little but I remember it, you know. It's an established fact, I hope, that that was the great time to come of age.

And then the '80s was a really great time to go underground, to say "fuck you" to the Reagan years. What I needed was to obsess on making short films no one will ever see but that I'm doing to learn. I was going to teach myself this stuff because I thought I could. I studied people's careers, and read interviews. I thought, "Well, if you are going to make it in the film world as a director, you have to be such a self-driven, self-starter anyway. You have to have that so if you are the kind of person who is going to sit back and be educated instead of educating yourself, you are probably not going to—it is such an active role."

So, I said, "That's me anyway, I don't really like authority, I don't like teachers telling me what to do. I am going to do this alone and succeed or I am going to do it alone and fail privately." But I was going to get there myself. It would have been almost too much to be a film major and feel like I'm making a public declaration of what I wanted to do. I was going to do it, underground, my own way, and work really hard at it. I was good at electronics and woodworking, and I was just confident in my own grasp of the technical tools of filmmaking. If you aren't good at it, no one is going to be able to teach you to be really good at it. You learn best by doing it. I figured that if I was really a director, I'd be able to do it.

Q: You went about making these exercise shorts. What did you do in those?

A: I was so systematic and conscious about what I was doing, since I was making up for lost time. This was '83 to '85. It was like my own film school. I'm going to do this editing exercise, then this lighting exercise. I'll make this short from beginning to end and finish it, but this is what I'm trying to focus on. They were experimental, not narrative, strictly technical.

Hitchcock said that, at first, your directing skills aren't going to be up with your ideas. I had so many ideas. My thinking was the day I felt technically competent, I'll start on a bigger work that will express a bigger idea. In '85, I started on my Super 8 feature.

Q: That was your first feature, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), and an extremely interesting one. Slacker (1990) is incorrectly thought to be your debut.

A: When Slacker first came out, the story was like I picked up a camera yesterday. But I had made probably 15 shorts and a feature before that. I didn't just go from college dropout, never seeing a movie. I watched thousands of movies. There is no overnight success. I know that's a good story. Like I was this guy on the street, this idiot savant filmmaker. But it's really not the case.

Q: What did you learn on Plow?

A: First, I learned to just really work through my ideas: reject the bad ones, embrace the good ones, and execute them. Then finding out how, after you get an idea, stick to it. I ended up cutting out a lot of stuff I loved, and going all the way with my original idea of shooting in a minimalist, structural style about alienation and a lack of communication, with a guy interacting with machines more than people.


Linklater on the set of Everybody Wants Some!! (2016). (Photo: Matt Lankes/IFC Films)

Q: That's important, because you made a hard artistic choice, a really good example of setting up limitations. This belongs in and that doesn't belong in.

A: You've got to make those choices. I deferred all the things I cut in Plow to include in Slacker.

Q: How did you land on the key idea in Slacker, which was instructing your non-pro actors in Austin that you were filming a documentary of the fictional characters they were playing?

A: It sort of came out of the French New Wave. I thought of movies like Jean-Luc Godard's Masculine Feminine, in which characters are interviewed. Fiction that felt like documentary. I was confident that I could do it. To do it now, it would probably scare me to get non-professional actors to do four-minute monologues without cuts and think we could pull that off. But then, I knew we could.

I made the actors feel comfortable to put it in their own words. The dialogues and ideas came from a million different directions, but I wanted there to be a through-line of energy and thought and style and performance. I wanted it to feel real, however hyperbolic or crazy it may be. That was the first trick I think I ever pulled off that people felt like, "Oh, that just felt real." You can trigger something in an audience's brain to make them think it's real.

Q: Slacker stands as a testament to the power of ensemble and collaboration, both of which were new things for you then as a filmmaker. What did you discover about this process?

A: On Slacker I learned to actually collaborate. My biggest leap wasn't from Slacker, a super low-budget indie movie, to Dazed and Confused, a studio film, but from Plow, made completely alone, to Slacker, communicating with seven people who aren't getting paid and like why should they make my film and listen to me? Who am I? What motivates them?

You get their trust. They showed up on time. Several of them were skeptical by nature so I would have to say, "No, here is the shot. Start here, we're going to do this all in one shot." And my DP Lee Daniel was like, "OK, let's do it." So, he was with the cinematic challenge of what I wanted it to be and we got that. He was with my plan.

You're doing the DP a favor if you know every shot you want and how you're going to use it. If you head in with no visual plan whatsoever, you will probably get something that looks like a TV movie. You have got to have the courage of your convictions because the world is going to give you some really well-meaning but really mediocre ideas. The people who love you the most will bring you really well-meaning ideas for what you should be doing with your life. And if you listen to all those, you will probably have a pretty boring life. You need to say, "Thank you, I love you, but here's what I want to do." You've got to have the courage of your own crazy ideas for what you are doing on every little thing.

Q: After the phenomenon of Slacker, how did you handle the adversities that you faced with your first movie for studios, Dazed and Confused?

A: It was so bizarre to sit through the test screenings and hear the audience go ape shit and then hear the studio's distribution people go, "Well, we don't have any stars in it. We don't have this, don't have that"—a glass half-empty attitude. I would tell them that everybody's been to high school and everybody's always in the mood for a comedy and, if you want to get technical, there are 40 million pot smokers in the country. I think there are actually some things here people might like instead of dislike. But they never could turn the corner. They were kind of suspect about me. I'm amazed I even got that film made. Universal at that time didn't really want to make it and Paramount did, but Universal wouldn't let it go in case it was a hit. The sad irony is on Everybody Wants Some!!, the opposite happened. I had written it under a contract with Paramount, and they didn't want to make it, but Universal did. Paramount wouldn't let it go to Universal, but let it get made and then didn't really get behind it.


Linklater with star Ellar Coltrane, who was allowed to age in real time over 12 years for the landmark 2014 film Boyhood. (Photo: Everett)

Q: A lot of directors would have quit.

A: It's definitely dark-night-of-the-soul territory. I had to slap myself in the head and go, "Wait a second." I had to come to my own conclusions really quick, and the thing I came to serves me to this day. I learned not to expect anything. Some things you can control and some you can't. And you're not going to get it all. When it doesn't do as well as it could have, don't let that affect you. You have to find the process, and the reward is in the doing as long as I gave it everything I've got.

Years later, while still disappointed with maybe how certain films perform in the marketplace or the way they get distributed, I know I like the film. I like the experience I had making it. The thing about (Dazed and Confused), people liked the film. Sean Daniel, one of my producers, told me everyone in the industry saw it and liked it. And sure enough, everyone wanted to do my next movie. I was able to get unprecedented creative control from Castle Rock to do this really weird arty film about two people talking. Like no one would have done Before Sunrise before Dazed and Confused. So some good things came out of that.

The fact is that every director feels screwed over and misunderstood. But the worst thing about our industry is not being happy with success. I remember when School of Rock (2003) did well. But according to some people close to it, not as well as it should have. Even when it's successful, (you can hear) people bitching. There's always something for them to complain about. But that's not why I do this.

Q: If a young director asked you about the DGA and why they should join, what would you tell them?

A: Wow. My advice is join the first chance you get. It is that simple.

When I was coming up in the '90s, I was slow to join the DGA. I was slow because I thought they would restrict me. Back then it was like, if you join the DGA, then you have to have a big crew. I wanted to be able to make low-budget indie films and didn't want a union telling me I can't do a down-and-dirty production legally. I'm in flyover country, a little paranoid.

Then a DGA rep met me and said, "We have this new thing, this low-budget agreement. We're actually working to accommodate all the independents' needs. We want guys like you in the Guild." So, I looked into it and it was clear to me they were taking all comers. I joined in '97 and [was] so happy about it. After that, of course, I was like, "Why didn't I do this earlier?" But hey, I'm often behind the curve. Every time I get a payment from the Writers Guild for Dazed and Confused but not from the DGA—because I wasn't a member—I kind of lament that.

Q: On Dazed, you began one of your longest-running artistic collaborations with editor Sandra Adair. Could you describe how that developed and how you two work together?

A: I had never worked with an editor, just like on Slacker I'd never worked with a DP. My attitude was, "I'm going to edit; I don't really trust anybody else." But this is a studio, this is the editing department. There are a lot of people. There are things called dailies. You've got to send a tape. I said, "Nope, I'll just edit." And they say no. I'm like, God, that's where someone's going to fuck up your movie, right? So at least I wanted to get someone [I could work with].

I met Sandra. She had a credit, lives in Austin, we'll save money. She seemed pretty nice. Let's see how this goes. But I'm really skeptical. And so even when I'm shooting, I know she's putting [an assembly] together, but I didn't really trust what she's doing because I didn't know how to work with an editor. So I was over her shoulder the whole movie. She would even turn around to me and say, "You know, some directors leave and then they come back and I'll show you." I'm like, "Back it up one frame." "Don't fuck up my movie" was my whole vibe. I'm sure I was nice about it.

Then we went through a lot, previews, the whole process. I describe my work with Sandra with visual metaphors. Then, I was over the shoulder. And now, 26 years later, it's often a long shot, since we share the same post-production brain. And frankly, the older I get, the less (time) I want to spend a full day in an editing room.

She sees my footage and knows exactly how it'll go together. I talk to her about each scene; that helps her to know what I'm thinking. But she kind of knows. We don't yell at each other; we're good collaborators. She'll have a strong idea; I'll have a strong idea. She'll defer, make her argument. You know, just a smooth, very respectful, ongoing collaboration.

Q: Will she edit during production?

A: Yeah, usually assemblies. I've been lucky on a couple movies, School of Rock, for example, where we have a five-day shoot week out of town. On the sixth day, I can go into the editing room for a half-day, go through every scene we shot and talk with her, maybe see her assembly and just really work intensely that day or if I can sit next to her. In the old days of dailies, we'd just talk. The more information I can give her the better. I'm usually with her in post. We can have a cut that's pretty much the way we want, two weeks after we wrap.

Even on the new movie we're finishing, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, we had a cut five weeks after we wrapped. And that's a big-ass movie. That's because Sandra's so good, and I never find the movie in the editing room. I find my movie in the writing and rehearsing, and the shooting is the final phase. My movies may have this looseness, but they're not loose. They're done. Because I'm big on prep, and rehearsals. I never do reshoots.


Linklater works with actors/co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy on Before Sunset (2004), the second in his trilogy of rueful romances with the two talents. (Photo: Everett)

Q: Since it was filmed over 12 years, was Boyhood a different process for you and Sandra?

A: That was the most interesting editing experience. Sandra and I would watch half the movie, and I'm shooting the next sequence sometime that year, and I'd ask her, "What does this film need?" She'd think about the future elements. It was a fun part of the ongoing storytelling process, to be editing while you go. And to have that kind of gestation time. From the movie's early sections, we would try every year to edit it as best we could. Then, later, we'd re-edit the whole thing. We had the ability to go back to the beginning, trim a few things. It wasn't additive.

Like most movies, it was top-heavy early on. I kept trimming away. And then on year 11, to go back and edit year one is pretty surreal. I'd take out a few things. Go back and put something back in year six. Sandra would say, "I don't think we need this." Or, "We can cut right here." It's been maybe five years since we shot that, but there's another minute to that scene, and I really think I want that to play out to the end because of this, that, and the other. And she's like "Nah" or "OK." You can do that when you have that kind of time.

Q: An interesting paradox in your work as director is that audiences might recall that a lot of your characters tend to be on the move—they'll be riding in buses or trains, driving cars, or, especially, walking. But some of your most distinctive scenes and sequences are in restricted settings.

There's a superb scene in
Me and Orson Welles (2008) that shows what you can do in just a small piece of city sidewalk. It's a beautiful nighttime scene just outside the Mercury Theater in New York where Welles is staging Julius Caesar. Welles is saying good night to his producer John Houseman. Houseman walks off. Then he runs into the main character, played by Zac Efron, who then carries on the scene in a crucial exchange with Joseph Cotten, who's eavesdropping in the shadows. It felt like a continuous tracking shot, but it wasn't, and it had the graceful feeling of a Vincente Minnelli sequence. How did you conceive that scene and put it together?

A: Well, we're in a London studio backlot. We built that New York street. Didn't have much, just that one little block [that] we had to keep repurposing. For that scene, I just saw it as a progression, as a series of slow dolly shots. I didn't want to draw a lot of attention to the shots, but instead feel that kind of flow, that kind of unfolding. It might seem theatrical, [but the aim is being] realistic.

I don't think of influences, like Minnelli, so much anymore because you already know inside yourself what you're pulling from. I don't ever watch movies to reference before shooting. Didn't everyone used to watch (Bernardo Bertolucci's) The Conformist before they started shooting? That's just a case of a director thinking, "Oh, I'm going to move the camera a lot."

I wanted to glide from one section of that scene to the other. I consider that all one [scene] from when Welles and Houseman leave the theater and what plays out in the next few minutes. That's kind of continuous real time—it almost feels like it could be a play. He goes from one spot to the next to the next, and I wanted to lead the audience from one to the other in a kind of seamless, flowing way. You can achieve that in different ways. You can do it on a dolly. You can have a Steadicam. It's not like there are no cuts. I just wanted the feeling of kind of a natural flow from one little section to the next with the characters kind of leading you there—a slow left-to-right move like one long left-to-right sashay.

Q: How do you achieve this quality of what might be termed an "invisible" camera, which is so technically hard to do?

A: I appreciate an invisible, or subtle camera. I'm (usually) going for that, though not always. There are times to be more aware of the camera. Overall, it's probably a personality thing. I really love more traditional cinema, and this relates to that scene in Me and Orson Welles. I like design cinema like Francois Truffaut, Preston Sturges—masters of the designed long take. Look at a Minnelli musical: It's unbelievable how long and graceful some of those takes are, how they focus your eye not on what the camera is doing.

When I started making movies, MTV was sort of dominating. This new style was emerging, cut, cut, cut. Imagery didn't really mean anything because there was so much of it. I could feel that, and I was longing for an older, designed cinema where images meant something.

A reviewer on Slacker said I had no particular visual style. You might think that on a shot-by-shot basis, but the whole movie has a visual style, which was a reaction to the quick-cutting culture we were living in. The response to MTV was to let things play out long. It takes a lot of time and effort and choreography with the camera crew and the actors to pull that off.

Watch the beginning of Sullivan's Travels and you don't even notice that it's a 6½-minute take; it's breathtaking how the rat-a-tat dialogue hides the camera moves. I love that kind of choreography between actor and camera. The enemy to me is a standard TV movie setup, establishing shot, master, medium, close-up—that succession, get on to the next scene, keep going. I've always rebelled against that. Even the notion of a master shot. It's a taste thing, I guess.

Q: In practical terms, what do you do with your camera unit to achieve this?

A: You physically render it. We might set up a dolly and track it from here to there and you choreograph it and you collaborate with the camera operator. It takes some time. It's determining distance of subject from camera, choice of lenses. Sometimes it's dictated by your physical space. Then it becomes a serious collaboration with your operator, DP, everybody. It may be kind of tight, then we have to go a little wider or we can be closer. It can be a choice of lens or camera placement. But there are no absolutes. It's just whatever works.

I used to design every shot. Now, I've done that so much that I come in with some really strong visual guidelines and figure it out pretty quickly at the beginning of the day. I used to staff the night before, designing everything to a T just because I lacked experience, [worrying] it could all get away from me. Twenty movies in, you're confident to feel it and discover things on the day based on how you are feeling about the location and performances.

I'm always on a tight schedule and budget, so I don't spend the first half of the day until lunch figuring out what we are doing. We've already rehearsed on the location and know pretty much who exactly is where. On Bernadette, my cameraman, Ben Semanoff, a really wonderful operator and Steadicam operator too, great camera guy, he just had his iPad for lens selection, you pull it up, pop, pop, 15, 25, 40/30. He could just select so quickly. The days of the viewfinder around your neck—I haven't done that in years. I don't have to anymore. It is just so quick and efficient. There's a lot of technology out there helping you quite a bit.


Linklater with Christian M