Slack Where We Started
Richard Linklater and John Pierson Ponder 'Slacker' and Its Aftermath
During the summer of 1989, Richard Linklater and a merry band of Austin filmmakers shot the movie that was eventually to become known as Slacker, a film that has over the years earned a reputation as a landmark American independent work, a narratively inventive and culturally significant film whose stature and influence is still widely felt. During the summer of 1990, Linklater booked the finished film into the Dobie Theatre for a self-supported run, where it continued to play to enthusiastic local audiences for an entire year. By the next summer, with the help of legendary producer's representative John Pierson, Slacker acquired a distributor -- the now-defunct Orion Classics -- and the movie's national release was launched on July 5, 1991.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day was the only other national release that had the courage to open up against Slacker that same Friday (or do I have that relationship backward?). Either way, the contrast was stark. In budgetary terms, Linklater and Schwarzenegger were like David and Goliath, but without the Bible-school ending. But in almost every way conceivable, Slacker offered an alternative to the standard summer blockbuster fare represented by T2. Its nontraditional narrative structure and subject matter, its cast and crew of nonprofessionals, and its origination in Austin, Texas, all pointed to the fact that Slacker was something that stood apart from the film-industry status quo.
So, from the outset, the film's credentials as a decidedly independent movie were established. And over the past decade, it has been frequently cited by writers and other filmmakers as an inspirational forebear of the low-budget American indie film movement (perhaps stated most famously by Kevin Smith in his credits for Clerks). The downside is that, through a quirk of timing, Slacker has also fallen prey to a number of misconceptions, mostly due to its coincidental association with the birth of the "Generation X" concept. Slacker is no longer solely the fevered summer dream of its filmmakers. It has gone out into the world and taken on a life of its own.
The Austin Film Society -- another offspring of Linklater's that has gone on to acquire a life of its own -- is celebrating the anniversary of Slacker with a 10-year reunion this Sunday at the Paramount Theatre. A newly struck print of Slacker will screen, in addition to a Q&A with the reassembled cast and crew and the presentation of the D. Montgomery Award (named in memory of a beloved Slacker cast and crew member and AFS co-founder).
The reunion gives the Chronicle occasion to reflect on the past 10 years of filmmaking in Austin and the movie's place in the nation's larger cultural history. We have devoted two cover stories to the movie. The first was published July 27, 1990, when Slacker opened at the Dobie, and contained a story, review, and interview with Linklater by Chris Walters. The second appeared on September 20, 1991, and contained Walters' profiles of some of the movie's slackers (an idea spawned by Chronicle editor Louis Black, who also has a role in Slacker), which were later expanded into book form. That issue also contained an interview with Linklater, conducted by the director himself.
Last week, Linklater and John Pierson sat down and talked with me by telephone about the movie and its aftermath. Pierson, who was one of Slacker's first champions and whose book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes is a 10-year survey of the independent film world, is uniquely qualified for this decade-style analysis. Linklater approaches the anniversary with the joy and apprehension of a proud parent. You prepare your children for the world as best you can, but once they leave home they're never fully "all yours" again. We thank him, though, for sharing.
Austin Chronicle: The past 10 years have seen a glut of independent movies in the marketplace. I'm not arguing that Slacker caused this, but don't you think it's helped pave the way?
Richard Linklater: Slacker was pre-glut.
John Pierson: There are two reasons for that, and Slacker is right at ground zero. The affordability or democratization of production over the last couple of decades is the first reason. Also, even though Slacker did really well and launched a terrific career, namely Rick's, there is still this perception that it was a huge success. Because culturally, it was a huge success. Between thinking you can make it for nothing, and then thinking you can profit and/or launch your career to the sky ... hey, that's just one of the signposts along the way as you go through the Nineties that leads everybody down the path to not being able to go anywhere without finding a filmmaker. It's not just Austin, Texas. You can't throw a rock in Milwaukee without hitting a filmmaker.
AC: Plus, the past decade has seen so much navel-gazing cinema, the kind that's all about the filmmakers publicly working through childhood issues and whatnot.
RL: You know what? I'm always miffed that anyone thinks Slacker spawned any of that. Slacker is so not about navel-gazing.
AC: That's kind of the point I'm getting to.
JP: People always learn the wrong lessons from any successful low-budget independent film.
JP: And here, Slacker is filled with dialogue, chatter is what some people of course reduce it to. "It's filled with chatter, so I'll have a film with chatter."
RL: It's filled with ideas.
JP: Right. It is filled with ideas, and another thing that's amazing and that people begin to appreciate upon revisiting the film -- and I hope the experience with the screening at the Paramount will be like this -- is that Slacker on a certain level is an epic. The amount of ground that it covers ... my god, it's got a crane shot. It's outside. It's got all these locations. It's got all this stuff happening foreground and background.
RL: It was intricately designed. It wasn't a simple film.
JP: But on the other hand, what people take away from it, especially over time, they remember the Madonna Pap smear, they remember Space Invaders, whatever. That's what they pick up from and run with: "I could write dialogue like that."
RL: They take what they chuckled at and don't get to the core of the other ideas. But a lot of that is the media mythology too. In interviews, I never wanted to play into the myth of, "Yeah, I was sitting there doing nothing, and then made Slacker." No. I'd been making shorts, a Super-8 feature, and running a film society. I always try to stress to people that there's a lot of work involved, and years of preparation. But no one wants to hear that part. They want to hear that they can do it and not work too hard. But if you really look at any filmmaker, typically, there's a lot of work leading up to a first film that you would pay to see.
AC: What part do you think Slacker has played in the Nineties' onslaught of the low-budget movie?
JP: C'mon. John Waters started all that with Pink Flamingos in the Seventies.
RL: When people credit me or say, "Oh, Slacker opened the way," I just point out that there were all those films that opened the way for me all those years before, and got me inspired. I think it's such an ongoing process. But I was always thrilled if Slacker sparked something in someone to feel, "Hey, I can do this." Every year or two there's a film that kind of fits that category.
JP: You know what though, Rick? I think that people want to look at this last 20 years as a cycle on its own. It's not necessarily the wisest idea historically. But for the sake of argument, let's go with the flow for the moment. I still stand by my formula that I think I wrote in the book [Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes], which is that 20 years ago you still had $3 million films that were subsidized by NEA and NEH, and that were considered to be the independent, lower-budgeted films. Then somewhere in the mid-Eighties, a number of people figured out how to bring that down to $300,000, lopping off a zero. I really think you do have to take a certain amount of credit, although I know you don't want to, for having led the way -- alongside people like Gregg Araki, for sure -- in the late Eighties, early Nineties in getting another zero off that figure. I really do think that you're a primary example of the "Let's bring it down to 30 instead of 300" ... not to mention $3 million.
RL: Right. But you know that was just out of necessity. When you have zero, or maybe only a thousand bucks, that's a huge leap. I had done a film before Slacker [It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books] for $3,000, which broke me at the time. So, $23,000 -- the amount of money spent by the time we were watching our first answer print -- that's a lot of money when you don't have anything.
AC: And you probably have to throw Kevin Smith in there to some degree, especially with his giving kudos to Slacker as inspiration for Clerks.
JP: The spawn of Slacker? The spawn of Slacker would be a list too long to enumerate if we had the next three months.
AC: But what's the ratio of return on something like Clerks?
JP: Not enough, that's the sad fact of life always -- no matter how cheap you make it for.
RL: Yeah, you still get equally boned in the end regardless of how cheap you make it up front.
JP: But on the positive side, Slacker did make money. Slacker still makes money.
RL: Yeah, it's in the black. And it's still gonna make money in the future -- when we get the rights back in a couple of years.
AC: Rick, I know it bothers you that there are people out there who've contributed to the last decade's overfamiliarity with the word "slacker," but who have never seen the movie or have any knowledge of it.
RL: I'm trying to think back to nine and a half years ago. That's about the time when the term took off and left the film far behind. It quickly kind of took on a negative, pejorative sense.
AC: It was pejorative to begin with in terms of it being a WWI reference.
RL: Yeah, it was always kind of negative, but I thought maybe in my own little optimistic way that we were using it affectionately. I mean, I felt positive about the people in the film. I thought we were putting a new twist on it in a positive way. I guess it's being misinterpreted. I was depicting people who were outside of the mainstream, who were sort of the underground. I didn't see that as a negative. You look historically and these people are always portrayed negatively: beatniks, hippies, they're ridiculed. Anyone who's doing their own thing. It became a shorthand. It's a film of 100 people, and they don't work, and they don't do anything. And my whole point was: No, they do a lot. A lot of people in the film, they've all got their projects, they've all got their activities. And I myself was one of them. When I made the movie people would say, "Hey, wait a second. You're not a slacker because you actually did something." And I was like "No. There's all this activity. If it doesn't have a place in the market, does that mean it doesn't exist, or should be looked down upon?"
AC: "Slacker" became a very hip term and came to represent the whole mythical Austin lifestyle.
JP: "Generation X" as a catchall term directly coincided with the moment when you finished the film and opened it in Austin, right Rick? That's when it hit the cover of Time and everything.
RL: Right. The summer of 1990. That was the blessing and the curse of that moment in history. By 1991, we had already shown it at Sundance. We were going to come out that summer, so we were in that six-month window. It was in the spring sometime, I guess, that Doug Coupland's book [Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture] had come out. The same publisher was doing the Slacker book, and the publicist got interested. Any kind of cultural thing, it's manufactured but people have to buy into it. I saw how it worked from the inside. I didn't see Slacker in big national terms or anything. But those who stood to make money off it -- publishers and distributors -- started putting a trend together with Doug's book. He gets the naming rights, thank god, for the Gen X thing. And then the hat trick, I guess, was the whole Seattle music scene. That's when the media really put those three things together: Doug's book, Slacker, and then the grunge thing. Shortly after the movie opened, however, they were no longer talking about the interesting aspects of those things -- the experimental narratives and the anti-corporate expressions -- they had moved on to bigger generalizing.
AC: One way things have changed in Austin since then is that in the mid-Eighties and Nineties, young people moved here for the music scene, to become musicians. Now they move here to become filmmakers.
RL: You know the good thing about that? I was envious from a Film Society standpoint. All these music groups came through town and there would be 70 people in the audience, and 60 of them are musicians from other bands. It was sort of a self-supporting system that we didn't have in film. There was just a handful of us and we would show films and other filmmakers didn't come. But over the years, that's been the wonderful thing about how it has grown. Now you show something, or a locally produced movie, and it's packed with other people who are into the same thing. That's great.
JP: I'll tell you one thing, Rick, that you did before, during, and for the 10 years since Slacker, which is great: your whole sense of building a filmmaker community or collective or collegial atmosphere or whatever you want to call it, both within Austin, and also bringing in so many people from outside and sharing their work. This is exactly the kind of thing that can't happen at, say, the Sundance Film Festival anymore because people are so damn busy just promoting their own self-interests. And I'm not saying that's wrong either. But they have no time to even watch each other's films.
AC: By remaining based in Austin, Rick, you've also had a large influence on the regional film movement, and more and more filmmakers choosing to work in far-flung corners of the country previously considered unimaginable.
RL: Almost everyone now knows that, wow, it's possible to not live in New York or L.A., not really be a part of the industry, and still make your own films and maybe get an audience. All it takes is a film like that to succeed every couple of years. The generations before us, the Scorseses and Jonathan Demmes and Coppolas, all had to go to L.A. and work for Corman or find some other logical path into filmmaking.
When I think now of when we made Slacker, I think of a bit of a vacuum. We had a film society, and we'd show Godard films, and maybe 30 people would come. I remember sitting in screenings with seven people. The ultimate: zero people. I remember showing films at midnight, and no one, not one person, coming. Now, we show films and hundreds of people come. So from that vantage point, Austin is so much a better film town. There's just so much more going on. I don't want to be nostalgic for some kind of laid-back Austin where nothing was happening.
AC: And also there's more infrastructure now.
RL: There's sort of a backlash vibe about the current Austin that feels, "Well, it's not what it used to be." But you know, Austin's always been like that. When I moved here, people said, "Well, you just missed it. Raul's and the Armadillo ... none of that's happening anymore. You're too late." But that just eggs you on to try to do it your own way.
JP: Let me ask the typical 2001 question: If you were doing it now, would you be, like everybody else, the digital guy?
RL: Wow. Yeah, given the current climate ... I don't think Slacker would be better. I think the film would be worse for it. But, actually, in the current climate, it probably would have been my third or fourth film. I would have shot a bunch of other stuff and learned a lot and failed, and I don't know. It's hard to go back in time. I'm just glad I shot it on film. It kind of ups the ante of what we were doing. But, practically speaking, you shoot digitally and just take your lumps. When you have no money, and all your money's going into film stock and processing, like 90% of your budget is stock and processing, if you could get that down by $13,000 or $14,000, you almost would have to do it. I don't know. What do you think? There are so many more films now. You can just go shoot a digital film. Everyone is doing it.
JP: I know you like to muse about this, but you couldn't just make Slacker today and have the same thing happen. The question is if you made the appropriate, relevant film for this time, for 2001, and how that would fare ... I think people who make digital features can just chalk it up to experience and then move on.
RL: I think as an artist that's probably good, to not wreck your family relations and your credit card and ruin your life on a learning experience. Like your first novel, you can just throw it in a shoebox and put it away. There's a long history of people who spent that $300,000 on their first film and weren't quite ready, and then they never did it again 'cause they were out of synch with where they were and they would never raise that money again.
AC: Also, there's a large film-festival circuit now, with many of the same films following each other from city to city.
RL: There was then, too. I know. I was rejected by two-thirds of them.
AC: A lot more people across the country see these festival-circuit movies. But is that enough of an audience?
JP: It's a big difference from a career standpoint to get a theatrical release, even if it's just at the level of a George Washington. Only a few more people saw that theatrically than would see a movie that plays heavily on the festival circuit. But still it has a completely different impact on David Gordon Green's career possibilities. Whether he wants to take advantage or not, we'll see. There is a hierarchy. There is a class structure.
RL: Just that you had a release, you were in theatres, even for a week -- which is about all you get these days. Slacker was the end of that era where we could open and we actually played in certain houses for a long time.
JP: That kept up for quite a while. In Austin, of course, I was so thrilled Hands on a Hard Body could go that same route years later. The reason a film like Clerks grossed $3 or $3.5 million is because of the longevity of the runs in places like Austin and Minneapolis and New York City. It just played and played and played and played and played.
RL: And the company stands behind it. They're running the ads and new campaigns at Christmas and things like that. Somebody's got to be behind it.
AC: Did Slacker just benefit from being in the right place at the right time? People often mistakenly think of Slacker in documentary terms, as an inadvertent time capsule of a certain moment in Austin culture.
RL: Yes, I've often seen it called a documentary in TV listings and other places. And it's really unfortunate for the cast because if, for example, you're playing the schizophrenic woman at the GM Steakhouse, people come up to you for years. I was at John Slate's wedding reception not too long ago, and something came up about JFK and he looks over at me like, "Aw, fuck that shit." [Slate played Slacker's Conspiracy-a-Go-Go author.] And then he tells me that to this day, his mother's friends are always asking in their little granny voices: "Is John still trying to solve the JFK assassination?" Louis Mackey [the film's Old Anarchist] says he's treated as a one-man Charles Whitman fan club. I've doomed all these people. Everyone took the documentary look of the film and just assumed it was all real or that we just turned on a camera and it all happened. That's flattering if they bought that stylistically, but it's so funny. I've always had the people who say, "Why aren't there any gay people in the movie? Why aren't there any ... whatever?" And I'll go, "There are. You're meeting these people for a couple of minutes. Who are you to say they don't work or what their life is like or what their attitudes are? They're on the screen for a little while. I'm sorry that they're not explaining everything to you about their whole world or who they are. These people were just mouthpieces for ideas and situations." I always told the actors, "You aren't a person. You don't have a past or a future. You just exist in this little couple of minutes. There's no character to get into."
JP: That's been a trademark of many, many first-time independent features: simplifying the process by trying to cast people in roles that don't merely suit them as actors but really suit them as who they are as people. Whether it's fiction films like She's Gotta Have It or Stranger Than Paradise or Clerks or you name it. In Slacker it's just done to the nth degree with so many multiple characters.
RL: When I first was thinking of Slacker in those early years, I conceived of it as more sweeping in its scope. It would cover a much bigger socioeconomic picture. But as I got down to the reality of it, and I didn't really have entree into all these different worlds, it just got narrower and narrower until I realized I can really do it in the places I know -- my own back yard, my own neighborhood, the clubs I go to, things like that. People I had connections with. And it was kind of a budgetary thing. That's why I was really surprised that it got seen as a representatively Austin film, because to me it was really showing a really specific, narrow branch of Austin. At the time, I thought it wasn't much of a Chamber of Commerce piece. We have all these beautiful lakes, and Austin's a beautiful city. What are you doing in these alleys and streets? The people are all so poorly dressed. But I think people just liked the spirit of it or something.
But the bottom line, the more I think about this over the years, is what they're groping for is meaning. The movie, on top of everything, has no plot or story. You have to fill it with yourself. I definitely brought it on myself with that structure. But that's what I'm most proud of with the movie -- is that it doesn't work on paper. It's truly a radical narrative. That was the core of the whole experience to me.
JP: It's so fascinating how that works because every time Slacker pops up on some cable channel, I'll always make a point of saying, "Oh, let's flip it on for a minute." It's always fun to see a movie just show up that way. Invariably, I find myself watching it all the way through. Just fascinated and happy.
AC: See, I'm different. I mostly watch it in bursts. I see bits and pieces, but hardly ever in one whole sitting anymore. I think I've only done that a couple of times. And it works just fine in bursts.
RL: And I haven't watched it lately. So I'll be curious.
AC: So there's going to be a 35mm new print for the Paramount Theatre screening?
RL: Yeah, that's the cool thing. This whole thing is really just an excuse to get a new print and get everybody back together.
The Austin Film Society will screen a new print of Slacker Sunday, July 1, 7pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave. There will be a Q&A session with cast and crew, presentation of the D. Montgomery Award, and a post-screening party. Tickets are $10 (screening only) and $25 (screening and post-party), and are available through the Paramount box office or Star Tickets (800/966-SHOW). The event benefits the Austin Film Society and the D. Montgomery Award.