A Conversation with Richard Linklater
By Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert
Reverse Shot: You’ve been described as a “self-taught” filmmaker, which is an interesting way to think about how you came to filmmaking: dropping out of school, going to work on the oil rig, starting the Austin Film Society. It feels like something that’s carried over to the work to a certain extent. Would you agree with that?
Richard Linklater: Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to make too much of the “self-taught.” I think maybe making films is something innate you can’t really teach to begin with. But yeah, I think it was natural for me to sort of do it on my own. I never liked school that much, I never fit into any kind of academic program. I never liked official systems of any kind. Without even thinking about it, I just realized that wasn’t the place for me. I saw it as a long-term process, my filmmaking. I knew it would be a long time coming and I didn’t want to be humiliated right off the bat.
I was sort of at a loss about what I was going to do at college. Actually, I had been on a baseball scholarship, and I had a heart condition so I couldn’t play anymore. It was an arrhythmic thing where I couldn’t really run—it hasn’t really affected my life that much. But I had become interested in theater and literature; I was an English major and I remember hoping I just would have more time to read and write. The whole world opened up to me once I wasn’t in school anymore; I didn’t have that term paper due, or that thing I needed to be studying for. During my free time I could study my own path, which back then was theater, writing plays. This was a small East Texas college, I hadn’t really discovered cinema at this time. I had seen a few films I liked, but it seemed so far from me. It was only after I had kept my job offshore, the void of my physical time, in all the moments I wasn’t working, I found myself quite a bit in the movie theater. I think it’s how a junkie starts; it’s like “hey, I realized I was shooting up every day.” Watching three or four movies a day. This was in the early Eighties when there were still a lot of repertory cinemas in Houston, a couple cool theaters and university programs. Then I would go home and read up on whatever film I saw, or the director, and for a couple years I just inundated myself.
RS: Any particularly influential filmmakers for you at that time?
Linklater: Kind of all of the above. When you’re taking it all in, I think you’re taking it all in. Everything was a discovery: seeing Breathless for a second time; seeing Blow-up for the second time. For a lot of these films, it wasn’t until the second viewing that they really kicked in. It was a whole world opening up. And also along the way I had seen some low-budget American independent films of the Seventies and early Eighties, which I found to be more inspiring. That was when I segued from thinking I could just write movies to thinking I could be making them. I had always been technically inclined. So I was saving up my money and bought a Super 8 camera, projector, some editing equipment, a bunch of film stock, and moved to Austin. I got laid off of the oil rig job after about two and a half years, but I had saved up a lot of money.
RS: What was the experience of working on the oil rig?
Linklater: I’d always had crummy jobs that didn’t pay very well, restaurants, crappy jobs. The oil rig was the first job I ever had that paid well, so instead of going back to college that summer, I kept that job. That experience had been kind of wonderful; it was like being in the service, I think, but better than the army. You fly around on helicopters, you work really hard, it’s vaguely dangerous. It was something good to do at that age, so unexpected, what no one wanted me to do. But that set a tone for the rest of my twenties. Maybe the rest of my life. Stay in school was the advice from everyone. I learned early on: listen to all the advice, get a consensus, and then kind of do the opposite.
RS: Isn’t that what Jesse says in Before Sunrise? Is he speaking for you?
Linklater: Yeah, I would imagine. [laughs] I’m one of the few filmmakers who will claim autobiographical elements, not like Woody Allen who says, no no, not at all. I would say yeah, sure, pointedly autobiographical.
RS: Aside from Dazed and Confused, where else? Are there autobiographical elements in, say, School of Rock?
Linklater: The room Jack Black lives in, that round room, I lived in that room, I lived in that house. That’s how I found my way into that movie. Jack [Black] is me in my twenties, in a way.
RS: How did you come to make your first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books ?
Linklater: That came after several years of doing short films and technical experiments. But that was the first film for which I ever put much thought into content or form, everything before that was kind of “film school.” I talk to aspiring filmmakers who have a script and are ready to jump in and make a feature, I just say, “Have you made a six-minute short yet?” They say, “No, no I’m ready for the big time.” You will learn so much, you gotta flounder around, get a lot of things out of your system. Even Orson Welles, the ultimate boy genius of cinema, made several shorts, and some weren’t that good.
RS: Another crucial point of your biography from around this time is the foundation of the Austin Film Society. How did you start that?
Linklater: Like everything, it started really small time. Myself and my roommate at the time, Lee Daniel, who was my cameraman and is my cameraman to this day, had been in Austin a couple of years and had grown a little tired of all their programming. After I had burned through everything, I realized they were showing the same things the next year. I was passionate about doing something filmwise. I was shooting all these films, editing all night, but it was time to get a little more physical, a “Let’s Put on a Show” kind of thing. So, I found out: oh you can rent films, you get a venue, show ‘em, collect money and that pays for everything, and you put up fliers—it was fun, a good training ground. Ultimately, we premiered Slacker at the same theater five years later.
RS: And you distributed Slacker yourself?
Linklater: Initially. We opened it in Austin ourselves. At the Film Society we picked up people along the way who shared the mission of “Cinema: all for one.” I did most of the heavy lifting, doing all the business, booking, all the crap work. I took on all that responsibility. I guess I’m blessed or cursed with this one part of my personality, because my dad was a straight-up insurance executive kind of guy, that I could stomach going to meet with a lawyer, go file paperwork at the state, return phone calls, deal with a lot of bureaucratic nonsense that seems so “not art.” I somehow have the personality to stomach all the crap. And it’s served me well, actually, in dealing with the studios. I think people think I struggle with that, that I’m some kind of “renegade-artist-type-dude.” But I have always gotten along and been able to deal with bigger systems. I was always able to have that meeting, do what I have to do, as a means to an end. Incorporate as a nonprofit, get grants, do all the paperwork.
RS: Has this “business sense” helped you be able to get to this point in your career in which you after making your two least accessible movies, your next is your most successful movie—do you now have a freedom to pick and choose where maybe you didn’t before?
Linklater: Well…I don’t know. It’s luck that one thing works out and one doesn’t, it’s sort of happenstance. Dazed and Confused was a studio film, Newton Boys was studio, so was School of Rock. And some of the others are studio-financed to some degree, or industry-financed. Even weird ones like Waking Life and Tape; the money comes from cable and things like that. I’m happy to not be raising money from relatives and credit cards. But you’re always dealing with somebody. I do find myself at the moment, due to the success of School of Rock, to be on people’s radar a little. It’s enabled me to get the recent two films going: Before Sunset and Scanner Darkly. And it’s never tit for tat. When you’re dealing with studios, if you have a big failure hovering over you, it just looks bad to the stockholders. It’s kind of tough, I’ve been at this long enough to kind of sense the ebb and flow of my own popularity. I’ve never been a guy who had more than a toe in Hollywood anyway, so my toe is more easily lopped off than most.
RS: Given all that, how do you see yourself in relation to what’s left of the American independent film scene you were very much a part of in the late Eighties, early Nineties?
Linklater: I don’t think it’s changed much. I think there are more films being made, but there are probably less outlets for them and distributors. I think people get jaded really fast, thinking, “Oh look at this guy who made one film that was a hit at Sundance and now he’s making a big studio film.” But the truth is, that’s probably where that person was heading all along. The truth will only be told over a career. You have to start small; that would be like bemoaning a minor league baseball player because he’s now in the big leagues. He was always working towards the big leagues. You can’t take Robert Rodriguez and criticize him for moving on from El Mariachi to big films. That’s who he was, where he was heading, he’s in his groove now. I never saw myself only doing big films or small films; I don’t have a plan for myself, just what the film requires. I’m excitable about weird, small projects; that’s how my mind works, so you’ll get a Tape, a Before Sunset, or a Waking Life. But I don’t have a singular plan. Whatever story you want to tell, tell it at the right size. I think you get in trouble if you make experimental big studio films. I’ve tried, I’ve pushed those buttons. That’s one thing that’s changed within the industry, like our society in general, it’s big and small, there’s very little in between. Now that I know that I can save myself a lot of time. I lost a year or two in there, trying to get films financed that I didn’t know would never get financing.
RS: Is it a conscious thing for you that you’re moving so quickly between genres?
Linklater: It’s not a conscious thing. You just follow your instinct. It’s like, “There’s this Philip K. Dick novel I like a lot, I can feel it as a movie, and I want to do it.” It’s only when I’m doing it I realize that I’m technically making a science fiction movie, that I’m in the genre of science fiction. But I don’t feel it’s science fiction. Or like when I’m making Before Sunrise or -Set, I guess they’re technically romantic comedies maybe, but I don’t acknowledge the genre stuff too much. But that’s all just classification, people trying to make sense of what you’re doing. I’m not setting out to defy genre expectations; I’m just the opposite.
RS: One thing we all agreed on when we selected you for this symposium, is that you’ve tried out all this different stuff, but each film is unmistakably yours. In School of Rock, there’s a certain shot where Jack Black is performing his “Band Is Mine” song for the class for the first time, and the camera moves, floats gently backwards. I feel like this “drift” is carried through all of your films.
Linklater: Again, not really conscious on my part, but maybe that’s how I see things, just this sort of floaty observation. That’s the thing about this kind of work. You’re stuck with your own personality, for better or for worse. And the sad thing about loving cinema before making films is that you think you can do anything or anyone, like Scorsese or so and so. Once you’re doing it all you really can do if you’re being honest and not knocking off something, is be yourself, the way you see it, the way you feel it. It’s always amusing when Robert Altman gets money now and then to make a film, like that Grisham film, The Gingerbread Man, an Altmanesque version of Grisham [laughs], and then to hear him bickering with the studio. I mean, how could they have expected anything else? And I’m probably stuck there. You’ll sort of always get a Linklater version of something. But I’m not afraid of that.
That’s partially why I did School of Rock. It came to me, and I always had a little prohibition against that, thinking, oh that wouldn’t be my film. But I think I was confident enough I felt that I could do something with it, I found my way into it pretty easily story-wise. It was definitely a challenge to make a comedy at that level. I like comedies, I always felt I was pretty comedic, to go back to your genre thinking. It was a big challenge to pull that off, to deliver the goods as a studio comedy and yet still be a personal film. I’ve always emulated and admired that; Scorsese and Oliver Stone, people doing personal films no matter how big the budget. That’s where the whole independent thing breaks down. Independent good, studio bad: that kind of thinking is such bullshit. You go see a totally lame genre wannabe piece made for $30,000 and think, “okay that’s their calling card to the industry.” But then you see a $60 million obsessive personal film; my hat’s off to that. That’s not easy to do. For me, Newton Boys was a very personal film, a story I felt very attached to, a story I felt only I would be interested in telling and I told it my own way. It just didn’t connect with the expectations of what it should be. I was dealing with the studio, and yet I was very happy. I had to fight all the battles, but very similarly to Dazed and Confused, I got out with the film I wanted to make. I’ve never had a bad creative experience. I’ve never had to re-shoot an ending, I’ve never had to cast anyone I didn’t want. I’ve never had to trim 20 minutes I didn’t want to. I’ve always been reasonable, never laid out a three hour movie and said take it or leave it. I stand behind everything for better or for worse.
RS: You talk about having control over something, and it ultimately being a Linklater film. How does this fit into the overall question of auteurism? To me, your films stand alone because they’re much more about collaboration.
Linklater: I never beat my chest and say this is a “Linklater film.” I’m just sort of the ringleader of a lot of creative energies. Inevitably that’s what a director does. I think that’s why I’m doing this in the first place, why I’m not sitting in a room writing alone. What I live for is mixing it up with other people and artists, having a good time and expressing ourselves. It’s sort of like I create the sandbox, but I’m inviting people to come and play in it. It’s the spirit of film, I just want to have a good time. But the director in me is striving to make the best thing possible for what I have in mind, which requires someone to come at me with more ideas than I could ever imagine. That’s what good collaboration is, whether it’s with an actor, a writer, a composer. People together on the same wavelength, building on an idea. When I work with someone, we both end up somewhere neither anticipated. You plan everything on paper, and you do all the homework and prepare, but the alchemy happens when you mix it up with others. To me, that’s cinema. A cameraman like Sven Nykvist; his best work is with Bergman. With someone else, it’s good, but it’s not the same. Those two guys go to some level together in which one needs the other. Same with directors and actors.
RS: You really just seem able to let the outlandish star persona take over, as with Speed Levitch in Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor or Jack Black in School of Rock, and even to a certain extent with Before Sunset, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are devising their own characters and developing their own dialogue. Is there one particular way you deal with actors?
Linklater: This might sound rigid, but I work exactly the same on each film. People say, there must a huge difference between how you work with Ethan and Jack Black, but I can honestly say I don’t work any differently. I tell Jack Black, we’re going to rehearse three weeks and he says, “What are you talking about? I’ve never rehearsed at all.” I worked with Jack and these kids as I did with Julie and Ethan. We sit in a room, we read the scenes, think about it, always rewriting, I don’t care who wrote it. I always say, the director in me fires the writer . . . even if the writer’s me.
RS: What are your thoughts on the new tool of DV which you used on Tape, Waking Life, and now in A Scanner Darkly?
Linklater: First one I shot on DV was Waking Life, and that was animated so it was just a capture medium, a convenient one at that. The only one I shot that I really cared that it was DV and it was sort of a restriction, was Tape. It was part of a series that was all made digitally. I didn’t mind cause I liked the look, and thought it fit that movie’s palette. But I wouldn’t seek it out, let’s put it like that. It never crossed my mind to shoot Before Sunset digitally. I don’t like the way exteriors look, even in the hi-def, the 100,000 dollar camera where there’s really no savings to speak of. It’s an interesting tool, just one more tool out there, but I think you have to be careful. So two of those three DV films are animated and I’d be a fool to shoot on film, process, and then animate over it. I’m not priding myself, going, “oh I’m shooting on 24p, I’m being so radical.” It’s just that I’m shooting on something to put it in the computer. School of Rock is 35mm, Before Sunset is 35mm . . . An interesting tool but not the revolution everyone thinks it is. Certainly not on the financial level, when people think oh you can just shoot a movie. You can if you can edit it on the computer and you’re satisfied with that. If you want it to be in theater on film, it’s going to cost a lot more. It’s good for learning, but I’m kind of old school. I like film, I like the way it looks. I like getting it back to the lab. I like timing it. I like film stock. Until that other stuff looks better, I’m still a film guy.
RS: One thing that ties your films together is that they seem to take place at one moment either before or after these defining thresholds of maturity. Tape, subUrbia, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, School of Rock. Is this something you work towards, or a natural tendency?
Linklater: It must be just the way my mind works. My early ideas about film were that it could capture a certain realism of a time, that’s a thing film can do unlike other art forms, they can capture reality in that moment. What better time than some kind of pivotal moment in your life. I guess I always liked the idea of people who are in the process of discovering themselves. I think we check in with Julie and Ethan and find they’re still in that process. I think that process never ends, and I’ll gladly pull out a gun and shoot myself if I start making films in which I’ve found all my answers and I’m here to impart great knowledge or wisdom to others.
RS: What’s the difference between making Before Sunset in your forties, as opposed to Before Sunrise in your thirties?
Linklater: On those films, it’s an interesting mix because roughly I’m ten years older than them [Delpy and Hawke]. They’re inhabiting it at that moment and I’ve got a ten-year lag time. There I was in my early thirties, them in their early twenties, so I was looking back at a younger time and they’re in that moment.
RS: Before Sunset seems more like an exploration and experiment on the representation of time than a straightforward sequel. You’re looking at these actors as actors, as people, hearing them discuss the lines on their faces, almost like Michael Apted’s Up documentaries.
Linklater: It’s rare you’re given the opportunity in narrative, given the limitations of film, to actually have the same characters, have existing footage of them nine years previous and be able to use that in your storytelling methodology. It’s a nice luxury, a nice element to deal with. Two people encountering each other after all that time, it was a lot of fun to play with the notion of this huge gap in time. This film is real time, 80 minutes of real time. Whereas the other one was 14-16 hours of what seems like real time. And that’s all separated by nine years of life. I think the big idea that makes Before Sunset even a possibility was the notion of making it in real time. It probably begged for a bigger epic structure and I thought about it over the years. Something more traditional, telling the story on different continents. But that never worked out, it never took hold. Maybe I was somewhat emboldened by the experience on Tape, experimenting with real time.
It was somewhere after Before Sunrise and SubUrbia, everyone started telling me I was telling stories within 24 hours or 12 hours, and I joked, someday I’ll make a movie that takes place in real time, like Bergman’s Winter Light is as long as the film itself. It seemed to me like the ultimate cinematic challenge. While it was very dramatic, Before Sunset is kind of the opposite. It’s not a traditional drama. It’s closer to just existing. It can’t help but have a little dramatic structure that we impose on it. But I really just wanted to capture two people existing. And let the context take care of itself. Time and cinema. Tarkovsky put it so eloquently in his book Sculpting in Time. He articulates it as well as anyone, cinema’s particular relation to time. I was always kind of moved by what he talked about. I guess my idea of storytelling drifts in that direction.
RS: You also have this generosity and fluidity of conversation you’d be hard-pressed to find outside of Eric Rohmer, and what ultimately makes the Before Sunrise and Sunset films unique to American cinema. Are you influenced by him at all?
Linklater: As much as I am Godard, Truffaut, and a hundred other filmmakers. With the exception of his film The Green Ray or Summer, which is pretty wonderful, and more of a direct influence. I totally admire Rohmer. My comment to that is, thank you, I think he’s a master. But I don’t think he makes anything so simple. He’s like a mathematician, he’s very precise, his plots are more intricate, there’s more twists and turns, more flowing through them.
RS: The new film is also notable for its silences. The walk up the staircase, the following of Julie Delpy into the sunlight on the boat, while Ethan’s on the cell phone.
Linklater: It’s funny, I just saw that on the boat and thought we’re just gonna drift with Julie for a while. It’s kind of from his perspective, which is sort of the perspective of the movie: falling in love with Celine again. Watching the wind hit her hair as she walks out the door. That was just a nice little moment, a subjective moment. The trip up the stairs was something else altogether. On one level, we’ve reached the end of the movie. And I think dramatically, personally, they’ve revealed all they’re going to reveal. We’ve hit our dramatic climax, if you’re going to structure the whole thing. And there’s another realm: He’s actually a married man, walking upstairs to her house. I remember, I told Ethan: “don’t forget, it’s one thing to run into an old friend at the bookstore, walk around, and go to a café. But now you’re walking upstairs to her apartment. I mean, this is the Walk of Shame, technically speaking.” We got this little apparatus so we could get it all in one shot, an elevator crane up in the stairwell.
RS: And the cat is so well-behaved.
Linklater: The cat was drugged. [laughs] But, yeah there’s a silence. Then you get to the last shot, that subjective angle where Jesse’s looking at Celine dancing to the Nina Simone. They’ve quit talking at that point. We just kind of see her. That’s something I actually saw Julie do, early on, when we were outlining the whole project. Sitting in an apartment, listening to Nina Simone. She told that story, I was staring at her across the room, sitting on the couch, and I thought, Damn if that isn’t beautiful. If you’re falling in love with her that would be the final look. And that was the end of the movie. It’s good to know the absolute end of the movie before even writing it. It feels like we discovered it that day, but of course like everything, it’s much more planned out and though out.
RS: Did you always intend to come back to these characters after 1995?
Linklater: At the time I got them to do that scene in Waking Life, I knew it wasn’t going to inhibit anything about a sequel. They were disembodied people in a dream state at that point. But we had been talking about it, since a year after we got back from Vienna. It was sort of a joke, just something to play with. But over time it became very apparent that it was something worth doing, these characters were very real to us. Yet the idea of a sequel sounds so ugly…it has a negative connotation. We were all sort of afraid of the idea. We’d had this special time together, you don’t want to ruin the experience. So it’s a minefield, doing a sequel for something you love. But we’re all so glad we did it, it’s like confronting your fears. I think we escaped the typical negative connotations of the sequel, cause it’s so clearly done so many years later and it has no real economic motivation. I joke that we’re the lowest grossing film to ever spawn a sequel. No one wanted to even do this movie, it had to be to-the-bone cheap; shot it in 15 days.
RS: I really think that in these two performances, Delpy creates one of the most beautiful characters on film I can recall. How much is it a character and how much is it Julie?
Linklater: I think it’s very much a character. There’s some overlap in Julie’s personal life that parallels, sort of like Jesse. There’s a lot of elements of Celine in Julie, or Julie in Celine, but there are drawn-out qualities in Julie which movies don’t afford actors often to shape. I think Julie’s incredible. She’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, so alive and intelligent and slightly wacky. Her particular challenge is that her cup so runneth over that maybe people haven’t used her as much. I don’t know why she hasn’t been used more. Julie conquers everything she does, she has an album out that’s great. I think she’s amazing. I just feel lucky to have worked with her…three times now.
RS: What can we expect from A Scanner Darkly?
Linklater: I’ve got three weeks left to shoot. I’m really trying to bring out the humor of the Philip K. Dick. It’s very dark, your ultimate paranoia, but it’s also really funny. So many Philip K. Dick adaptations grab the idea and run with it and go more traditional genre. But actually without being too overly reverent, I’m doing as much as I think you technically could to do a thorough, authentic adaptation of that story. The cast I brought to it I think is great for the characters. We’re having a good time. Who knows? The animation form is particularly interesting here. It wouldn’t have worked live-action to me, same way Waking Life wouldn’t have worked. In a parallel universe, Scanner Darkly could be live action, but I could never wrap my head around it.