You probably knew guys like Rick Linklater in school. Guys who were well-rounded, well-liked and well-adjusted, but who were, well, different.
You couldn’t get a handle on them. They were accepted by all the cliques and factions, but they were never absorbed into any of them. They were respectful, sincere and dignified in a down-to-earth way, but beneath the surface you could sense a cool confidence that told you they were just biding their time; that they didn’t need to belong; that they would follow their own star, thank you very much, and that they wouldn’t be hanging around this mill town for long.
Richard Linklater prides himself on doing things his way, of taking the road less traveled. His production company is called Detour Films, a fitting moniker for a moviemaker who has gone off-road in the world of American independent cinema, and where his contributions, at the age of 35, have already been both original and significant. His first nationally distributed film, Slacker (1989), is a classic of experimental narrative which features over 100 characters. His 1993 Dazed and Confused is another ensemble piece that portrays the lives of American teenagers in the ’70s better than any artist has to date. His 1995 film, Before Sunrise, explored the lives of two people falling in love in a unique and sensitive way.
With the making of subUrbia, Linklater returns to the ensemble format to bring us a fresh look at young, disenfranchised Americans at a crossroads in their lives. I’ve always liked Linklater’s films, and his filmic sensibilities. Unlike so many moviemakers working today, he’s concerned with human beings, not cartoon characters, gimmicks, or techno-stunts. He’s also a genuinely nice guy, the kind of artist who makes you glad you’re in this business. We’ve all known guys like Richard Linklater. Too bad there aren’t more of them to know.
Tim Rhys, MovieMaker (MM): You’ve said that you were amazed at how, early on, you actually spent a couple of years just doing “technical exercises,” which I thought was kind of interesting. You never went to film school, but did these technical exercises to educate yourself. What did they involve?
Richard Linklater (RL): I should’ve said I wasn’t amazed that I did them, I was just amazed at how patient and systematic I was. I mean, I was 22, and they involved touching the camera for the first time. I had shot some stuff when I was in junior high and stuff, but I was like, Okay, I’m gonna learn how to do this. I had vague ideas about maybe getting into film school, but I was already quickly ahead of where I would have been in film school, so I didn’t really want to do that.
MM: You didn’t want to spend another few years…
RL: Yeah, it just would have slowed me down. I really like my own time and following my own path. It was sort of like, cool, I’d already worked and saved up some money, so I’d created an environment to learn by myself. I could still go to two movies a day, I could still read, and then I could edit all night or work on stuff like lighting, editing, everything.
MM: What did you work at to save the money to do that?
RL: I had a good job working an offshore oil rig.
MM: Were you using Super-8 back then?
RL: Yeah, Super-8. It was less expensive then. It’s become a little more expensive now.
MM: There’s a real revival now.
RL: Yeah, it’s great. And if you can keep your costs low, I would suggest a lot of Super-8. If you can’t, 16mm is not that much more expensive. The key is just to shoot a lot of film. But more than that, I had already set up a pretty good foundation for myself by a couple years of reading the history of film, you know. I had seen a lot of films and really knew a lot about it. I ended up taking just two classes at Paulson Community College, “History of Film” and “Film Appreciation,” that I probably could have been teaching. But it was pretty good to have to sit down and write papers about it, to really articulate ideas.
MM: How far into your self-education did you fall into your Super-8 film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books?
RL: A couple years after I started. I started shooting that in ’86, so I had been shooting two-and-a-half years. I was just working up to something a little bigger, I knew. It felt about right. A bigger canvas, you know? I was exploring a larger idea, honing my instincts on it, digging into a subject that was interesting to me—youthful alienation, that kind of thing. It was more of the formal aspects of the narrative that I was experimenting with. I think it’s important in those early projects. I call them “technical collections” because they were films—short films—but they were virtually meaningless. I was intentionally not trying to do anything that meant anything because my ideas were so far ahead of my formal abilities.
I think maybe film schools don’t help you a lot when you’re 20 years old. You make a film and you get judged so much on it. Say if you really want to do something interesting—if you really aspire to do something with any depth, it’s hard. It takes even longer to be able to articulate that on film, and it really works against you to be judged by people you might not share an aesthetic with anyway. I worked completely privately, and then I met people along the way and we had similar ideas. But I didn’t have to answer to anyone. I didn’t have to get graded, I didn’t have to be told how this wasn’t good. I knew if it was good or bad, and I knew what I was learning. I didn’t have to be told that I wasn’t any good at what I was trying to do. I learned to trust and cultivate my own instincts. There was no teacher saying, “Where’s the close-up?” or whatever. It was just my own little subjective path.
MM: Which is why your films look so original.
RL: It just worked out that way—I didn’t know what I was doing. But looking back, I was like, okay, that was just my personality and how I approached it. But I think I could never have made Slacker through conventional means. I would’ve been told it wouldn’t work.
MM: You talk about Plow being an experimental narrative, which is how you talk about Slacker as well. First of all, the Slacker experiment seems pretty successful. Why don’t you think it’s imitated more often? That no-main-character style…
RL: Well, let’s face it. That’s not what people go to see.
MM: But they did go to see it.
RL: Yeah, they did in that case. I just got lucky! Slacker could have very easily completely fallen through the cracks and no one would have seen it.
MM: You did Sunrise, which had two main characters, and then you went back to an ensemble cast. Do you feel more comfortable doing the ensemble thing?
RL: No, not really. It’s just how it worked out. I mean, I like both. I loved that about Before Sunrise. I could really dig in—where normally I’d spread over many characters—to just put it on two people and get so much into them. It was really exhilarating working with Julie and Ethan so closely. That was a really fun experience. Maybe I naturally gravitate toward the ensemble or the multicharacter mold, though, I don’t know.
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise (1995)
MM: Your actors are your characters. They really understand and know the character. It seems like it should go without saying that when a moviemaker actually commits the story to film, the actors should feel like that about the characters, but it doesn’t happen as often as it should. Talk about your rehearsal process. I know you rehearse long and hard, but what do you do? How do you bring this out in people?
RL: Well, you sit around talking a lot about it, both individually and in groups. And I think I’m probably building an atmosphere that we’re going to create in, where we’re all sort of getting on the same wavelength. Every production has its own vibe. It’s really up to the director to set that tone, how we’re going to work, and how we’re going to get there.
MM: Some directors give their actors formal exercises, like writing character bios. You guys just talk?
RL: Yeah, we do a lot of talking. The characters do a lot of talking. I think the best thing you can do is talk. We just talk about everything. Their tastes. Sometimes it’s music that they may be listening to, or what they might be reading. I’m trying to fuse that with who they really are. That person, what Giovanni Ribisi is really interested in, is what Jeff will be kind of interested in—with me in the middle tweaking certain knobs.
MM: How important are the lines? How loose are you with them?
RL: It depends on how well-written it is originally. I mean, certain things I go in knowing this has to be re-written a lot. It might read well, but it won’t work as a movie. Like Before Sunrise, the ideas were there but it really needed to be rewritten pretty extensively just to work.
MM: So you give the actors a lot of leeway?
RL: Well, yeah. Or we just sit there with pen in hand a lot. Less so with subUrbia and probably Dazed and Confused, too. The script was there, but lines here and there, new ideas, could always enter in, and maybe a little thing would be worked up. But subUrbia had a good start. The characters and a lot of the lines were just there. But you really have to work on a lot of these long monologues. Most times with characters you do a whole movie with maybe one monologue, here we’re doing that every night.
MM: Slacker was a series of long monologues like that.
RL: Oh, yeah. All big monologues. I kind of like that. You know, you just have to work really hard because you never know the conditions you’re shooting in. We shot subUrbia in 22 days. I have two cameras and we do four takes, and that’s really fast. The actors had rehearsed it so much it was sorta like performing it like a play. I like it when the actual production is no big deal. You try to find something new that day, but you’re pretty much there. I think with the lines—it’s really important to get there before you’re shooting. You know, people don’t understand what improvisation means. They think you turn on a camera and you start changing things around. Well, I’ve never, ever, done that.
MM: You know where they’re going to diverge before you turn the camera on?
RL: Absolutely. I don’t know anyone who just turns on a camera and see what they get. It’s too expensive. I think that falls into laziness. Once again, people think there’s an easier way than hard work to arrive at something. Maybe the goal is to make it look easy—but it’s not easy. It has to be very tight before it can be loose.
MM: That becomes part of the script before you go in. So you do the improvisation in the rehearsal.
RL: Yeah, and I think that would be the same for all people who are known for improvisation. Even Cassavetes, Altman. I don’t think improvisation is a very effective word. It’s shaping the material, and the director’s job is to make it work on film, and whatever that is—finding new meaning, finding new lines, more humor, whatever. A lot of the humor is derived from these group situations. You get a lot of people together and you’re going to find humor in any situation. That’s part of the process. It’s really fun to see it come to life like that.
MM: Turning to themes, a lot of your films deal with… well, you make films about “hanging out.” I don’t mean that to sound flip—
RL: No, you’re right, I like that a lot. I have a quintet going here. Five “hanging out films.” Truly.
MM: In John Lennon’s words, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” I think you really get to the heart of what that means. You show the kind of between-the-lines of life. In the writing, do you consciously go for that? Do you not want big events and big action in your films because the essence of what happens in our lives is not usually about that?
RL: I haven’t had a lot of big events happen in my life. I don’t know many people who have in that way. I mean, you have these big events, but they’re usually such a big deal and they’ve already been done in film. What’s underrepresented in film is the real essence of life, the in-between space that gets glossed over. But I can’t help but think that at the end of your life when you look back there’ll be a tone. And that tone will come from the essence of how you live your day-to-day, what you did in that between time, because that is really your life. I enjoy exploring that.
MM: I heard a quote, “The best days are the days when nothing happens.”
MM: It seems like you’re able to capture those cool times when nothing is really “happening.”
RL: On one level, nothing’s happening. But we all exist in our brains anyways, so that’s where everything’s happening. It’s hard to say what’s a big deal and what’s not.