Richard Linklater, director of the new Apollo 10½, knows all about launches: from the start of the 1990s indie film boom, sparked in part by his breakthrough film Slacker, to Austin’s takeoff as a film capital, fueled by his 1985 founding of the Austin Film Society, to the propulsive stardom of Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Ethan Hawke, among the actors who had some of their biggest early roles in his films.
At the start of his career, lots of critics even credited him with embodying the supposedly blasé voice of Generation X. He’s always laughed off that idea for a lot of reasons — including that he doesn’t consider himself part of Generation X.
“We called ourselves Busters,” says the director, born in 1960, about the microgeneration between Boomers and Xers.
Still. To a lot of us who are in Generation X, Linklater feels like a kindly guide through all the cool stuff we just barely missed: the best parties, the sweetest rides, the coolest bands. When I was 10, in 1985, my teenage uncle left for boot camp and I snuck through his stash of cassettes, learning for the first time about Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and Pink Floyd. The feeling I got from those dusty, secret tapes is the same sense of discovery I get every time Richard Linklater makes a (kind of) autobiographical movie. His films make me nostalgic for times I’ve never had — from Dazed and Confused to the Before trilogy to Everybody Wants Some!! to his blissful latest, the full title of which is Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood.
And yet, somehow, Linklater feels like he missed all the cool stuff. When he moved to Austin in 1983, after dropping out of college and working for a while on oil rigs, he remembers looking around and thinking everything “had already been done.”
“There was no new ground to be trod,” he tells MovieMaker. “The Armadillo and all these cool clubs had just closed: Yeah, you missed it. And that’s how we felt as a generation with the boomers — ‘Yeah, we’ve kind of taken everything, there’s not much left.’ So I always thought, ‘Well, I’ll just forge my own path here. And, you know, do the best we can with the table scraps we’ve been left.”
‘What an Interesting Time to Be a Kid’
Apollo 10½ may be the most Richard Linklater movie of all the Richard Linklater movies.
It’s partly autobiographical, like Boyhood and Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! and Before Sunrise. Like 2001’s Waking Life and 2006’s A Scanner Darkly, it enlists rotoscoping, an animation technique in which animators trace over motion-picture footage to create illustrations that feel palpably alive. It brings back Linklater veterans like Jack Black (star of 2003’s School of Rock and 2011’s Bernie) and Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!). It’s set in the suburbs, like Dazed and Confused and SubUrbia and Bad News Bears and Fast Food Nation. And like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, The Newton Boys, Bernie, Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!! and Linklater’s debut, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, the film takes place, at least partly, in Texas.
He first hit upon the idea for Apollo 10½ while he was making Boyhood, the 2014 masterpiece he shot over 12 years, which retraced his own childhood.
“It was in my second year of Boyhood, this would have been about 2004. And that film kind of afforded me a trip through my own life, because the architecture of that movie was definitely my own life, upbringing. So I was thinking, like, Oh, what’s going on? First grade, first grade, first grade, second grade, second grade, third grade — I got to do that for 12 years as I thought of the next year.”
But Boyhood was set in the 2000s, which didn’t allow Linklater to explore the space-race wonder and confusion of the late 1960s.
“I said, ‘Oh, that was an interesting time to be a kid.’ You know, I lived near NASA for about 18 months. I was kind of in the city, but we lived out in the ‘burbs for about 18 months,” he says. “NASA was right down the road.”
He adds: “To tell a story in this world, I think you’ve got to feel like you’re the right one. And somewhere along the way, that idea hit me. And it was like, I think I’m the guy to tell that story. I mean, I’m the only guy. What other filmmakers lived in Houston? Wes Anderson was just being born around that time. I’m the only guy of the right age and the right location to maybe tell what it was like to live there.”
He took about 10 years to think and dream about it.
“We’ve seen a lot of Apollo movies. Anything to do with the space program, naturally, you see it from the astronaut or the NASA perspective. … That’s where the action is, of course. But if you think about it, 600 million people watched it on TV, and only three people were on the mission. So it was a big experience for the consumer, for the viewer. And as a kid, it was so damn exciting. So my goal was to try to capture what it felt like to be a kid during that exciting time.”
Of course, there’s a groovy 1969 twist. Apollo 10½ imagines what would happen if a regular kid got sent to the moon, just ahead of the NASA astronauts.
‘I’m Not Writing a Memoir Here’
Even aside from Boyhood, you can watch many of Linklater’s movies and assume you’re seeing recreations of different stages of his life. Like Randall “Pink” Floyd, Jason London’s character in Dazed and Confused, he was a high school sports star with a sensitive side. Like the characters in Everybody Wants Some!!, he was a college baseball player. Before Sunrise was inspired by a real meeting with a young woman on a train.
Linklater has lots in common with Stan, the boy at the center of Apollo 10½.
“At this time, my parents were divorced,” Linklater says. “My dad didn’t work at NASA, but I had friends whose dads worked at NASA. I did live in a family with six kids briefly, for about a year, with divorces, and re-marriages and blended families. And I was the youngest.”
More similarities: Linklater and his siblings grew up seeking cures for sprawling suburban boredom (bikes, pinball, silly phone tricks) even as war raged overseas, kids protested in faraway cities, and great men died on TV.
The chaotic moments have more impact, not less, because Linklater presents them alongside the repetitive, comfortable routines of a middle-class family.
“I was definitely on the phone to my sisters saying, ‘What did we eat every night? I forget some of the food prep,’ and they would list all the foods. ‘Oh yeah — the canned ham. We got to get that in there. Oh, yeah — the Jello mold.’ My sisters were little memory consultants on certain details. That was fun.”
In one segment, Stan, voiced as an adult by Jack Black, recalls his mom’s mastery of making leftovers. In another dreamy moment, he just lists the board games he and his siblings played. In another, he lists the shows they watched. If you were born in the 1970s, it feels like learning the origin story of your hand-me-downs.
“It’s just very specific points,” Linklater says. “I’m not writing a memoir here.”
‘The Hangout Movie Guy’
There’s something else about Apollo 10½ that is unmistakably Richard Linklater: It’s a great hang.
“I’d say at least half, two-thirds of this movie is a hangout,” Linklater laughs. “You’re hanging out in 1969 with these kids, this family. I think even in outer space — he’s kind of hanging out in space. I don’t know. That’s just the vibe.”
In a 2002 Sight and Sound poll in which Quentin Tarantino famously named Linklater’s Dazed and Confused one of the 10 greatest films of all time, he also noted the joys of hangout movies.
“There are certain movies that you hang out with the characters so much that they actually become your friends,” Tarantino said. “And that’s a really rare quality to have in a film…and those movies are usually quite long, because it actually takes that long of a time to get past a movie character where you actually feel that you know the person and you like them…when it’s over, they’re your friends.”
“I’ve been accused of being, you know, the ‘hangout movie guy,’” Linklater says. “Which is fine, because cinema can do that really well. And Tarantino certainly made the biggest-budget hangout movie ever, with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which was just such a brilliant piece of the hangout genre.”
No one is better at the hang than Linklater. His movies often feel like he just lets the camera roll and people talk, maybe sitting out in the Texas night, maybe a little high. But think about how hard it is to create that feeling: He has to write convincing words for actors who may not have been born in the year they’re bringing to life, and move the camera around in a way that’s inviting, but doesn’t call attention to itself. A false line can break the suspension of disbelief. So can a jarring needle drop, a pair of bell bottoms that don’t flare quite right, a haircut that’s a little too feathery. Break the spell even a little bit and the people on screen will feel like actors instead of friends.
The suspension of disbelief is even harder to attain when the people on screen aren’t exactly… people. But the rotoscoping of Apollo 10½ somehow makes the characters feel even more real: The fluidity of their motion takes you back to languid summer suburban afternoons instead of keeping you at a cool distance. And animating the film saved millions of dollars, especially for the scenes on the moon.
Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, not to be confused with Pavel Chekov, star of one of the many shows Stan and his siblings watch, may be most famous for the dramatic principle that every detail in a story should pay off: If you introduce a gun early on, it should fire at a crucial moment.
Linklater has been playing with this idea for years.
Early in his debut, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, we see a young man played by a twentysomething Linklater fire a gun out the window, with little explanation. Linklater explains in the director’s commentary: “You might put an input into a movie that makes no sense given anything around it. Give a piece of narrative information and give it no context in the rest of the movie. Or maybe you hint at it in other places. … I remember thinking it was kind of fun to take a device like this — a gun enters the frame! — and that’s supposed to get everybody riled up, but to not really ever deliver on that.”
There are two moments in Boyhood — one when our protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) hangs out with some older boys in a construction site, and later when Mason gets a 20-gauge shotgun for his 15th birthday — where you think things might go very wrong, because movies have trained you that at certain points in the narrative, something dramatic has to happen. In Apollo 10½, there’s another moment where it seems like things might make an abrupt pitch into darkness… and they don’t.
As natural as Linklater movies feel, there’s a fundamental kindness to them — to their characters, and to the audience, too. Of course bad things happen. But bad things don’t just happen because Movie Law or some cynical screenwriting doctrine demand that they happen. Linklater does his characters the kindness of sparing them horrible twists, and does his audience the kindness of respecting us enough to let things unfold at a lifelike pace, confident we’ll enjoy the hang.
Apollo 10½, written and directed by Richard Linklater, is available to stream on Netflix on Friday.