Austin Filmmaking, Ten Years After
From Slacker to Rock Opera: Richard Linklater Interviews Bob Ray
Ten years ago this summer, in 1989, Richard Linklater and crew took to the streets of Austin and filmed the now-classic movie Slacker. Little did anyone realize at the time that the movie would evolve into one of the defining landmarks of Austin's cultural history. The movie helped establish Linklater's career as a premier American filmmaker, and since then his career has been closely associated with his ties to Austin. Not only did Linklater stick around to continue his guidance of the growth and expansion of his beloved Austin Film Society, which he co-founded, but Austin also remained the home of his production company DetourFilmproduction. As a result of his ongoing presence and participation in the community, Linklater is in an exceptional position to be a shrewd observer of our cultural scene. So, when he was taken with the test print of a new, locally made movie called Rock Opera by filmmaker Bob Ray during a midnight screening at the last SXSW Film Festival, our curiosity was naturally aroused. The completed film, which draws heavily on the Austin music scene, is due to open on Friday, September 3 at the Alamo Drafthouse. In advance of the premiere, Linklater sat down with Bob Ray to talk about the new movie and discuss the evolution of the Austin filmmaking scene over the past 10 years.
Richard Linklater: First off, I like the movie a lot. I'd imagine it's coming from your own back yard: It's your own life, it's what's around you that you've worked into a fictional situation. Is that accurate?
Bob Ray: Yes, very accurate. I used to write a lot. I'd try to write scripts for comic books of me and my friends, and illustrate my writing. Then, I got into movies about seven or eight years ago. I was writing this script and I had all these grand ideas -- explosions and stuff and ridiculous things -- and then halfway through I realized: What am I thinking? There's no way I can film this unless I paint shoeboxes to be the trailer parks. Then I started thinking: Where am I standing right now? What's my background? What are my resources? And growing up in Austin with the music scene and everything, it just made sense. You know, I've been in bands since '93, and, actually, the band that's in the movie is the band I was in. The main character, Jerry Don Clark, who plays Toe, was the singer/guitar player in bands I've been in and he's been in a lot of short films of mine, so I figured I'll just write it around Jerry and write it around some experiences I know. Of course, it got fictionalized about two-thirds of the way through.
RL: So you grew up in Austin?
RL: How long have you been into film?
BR: Well, when I was a kid I always thought I wanted to make films, but I always thought it was impossible. I always thought it took $2 million, and you had to move to Hollywood, and you needed 500 people working on a movie, and then I just sort of discovered that you didn't really need all that stuff. Part of that process is thanks to Steve Mims and his Austin FilmWorks classes. He used to be a prof at UT and now he teaches classes at his independent film school. So I thought I'll just take this class and see what it's about and see if it's really a feasible thing for me to make films. And it turns out it is.
RL: And then, you were shooting a lot of Super-8 where you were kind of quote-unquote discovered by John Pierson. It was exactly two years ago that Pierson was a panelist for the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund.
BR: Yeah, I submitted a short film on Super-8 as a sample work and so that came to his attention and --
RL: -- he put on his show [Split Screen on the Independent Film Channel].
BR: What he told me is he said by the time he got to my name, which is sort of near the end, they had run out of money, but he liked the short and he wanted to put it on his show.
RL: Where's Austin right now as far as music and film? I mean, it's an interesting synthesis. When I was doing Slacker 10 years ago, Austin was such a music town. It wasn't really much of a film town at all. People would have assumed the movie will be about music, but I consciously skewed away from that.
BR: For the past 10 years I was really into the music scene and I've seen, especially with the underground music scene, how it has just died, especially with all the carpetbaggers, and the computer guys, and clubs closing or turning more upscale. All the club dives with sticky floors and stuff, they're all disappearing. There's no venue for the bands to play at. That's something that's in the movie: how the band has four people come to their show and they talk about that a little bit. That's kind of how it is, you know. There's not much support or many venues.
RL: It seems like a very realistic portrayal of life in Austin right now -- or at least for some people here. I really appreciated it on that level. It deals with things like rents that are higher now. I like the way they're sort of struggling to survive. You know, it's no big deal -- they're selling weed and you know they're getting by and struggling with their band. I love the tour they take too. The towns they go to.
BR: Yeah, but the rent, that's one thing that irks me. You know, all my friends used to live in houses, and now everyone's like three, four people in an apartment just because the rent has gone through the roof, and that's one thing the main character Toe discovers along the way. He just likes buying weed for his own use and finds friends who also need weed so he's like, hey, you know, I could make a little, I could help pay the rent here. No harm, no foul -- unless you get busted.
RL: One of the things that's been kind of cool about the Austin underground was that it wasn't really underground. But I think now it's being pushed more subterranean. I'm worried about us driving away artists and potential artists. How do you feel? What's it like right now as a filmmaker and when you're struggling to make a film? What do you think? It's definitely a bigger scene. There's more people doing it, so I think there's more psychic support that way.
BR: There's a lot of, if you do your film in the summer, there are a lot of UT film students who will help you with your film for free and they just want to get experience and get involved in a production. That's what I did last year. Unfortunately, it was the hottest summer ever so that kind of sucked, but we did get a lot of free help. But as far as from just a broader artistic standpoint -- there's still an underground film scene kind of like there was an underground music scene a while back. It still is there, but not being supported as much. The underground film scene is being supported more than the underground music scene.
RL: Yeah, that's satisfying to see. It also seems like your film grows out of the personnel and a kind of aesthetic of the Cinemaker Co-op [see accompanying story]. I love the Super-8 sequences in the movie, like Toe's drug-induced dream sequence.
BR: Actually, a few years ago Kodak came out with the negative Super-8 stuff, and I was wondering how I could use this stuff, what could I do with it? And I was thinking about maybe reversing the color somehow. So I made a short movie called Night of the Kung Fu Zombie Bastards From Hell and I painted everyone the opposite color. So I'm painting all of my zombies red and they're all going, "What the hell are you doing? Zombies aren't red, zombies are blue." Trust me. And I did stop-action takes and it's real jerky and all the colors are really freaked out and when the colors are reversed you get this toxic weird blue color that's kind of what I had intended to use in Rock Opera so it was kind of an experiment. It worked out so well I thought I've got to use it, so I threw in the Toe-chasing-the-chicken sequence just to exploit that. But as far as Super-8 goes in the Co-op, when I originally wrote the movie I intended to shoot it like all my other films, which is kind of El Mariachi-style, you know: Get the camera, get my friends 'cause I'd written it with all my friends in mind. I'd shot all my previous short films with my friends and just myself: minimal lights, a balance board, and Super-8 camera, some 16. But in the same way I just grabbed my friends, I also had access to a bunch of bands, and I had access to clubs and houses around town. Through the Co-op I met a bunch of other people who were fired up about making films and wanted to help. I formed a camera crew around Co-op people and suddenly realized, hey, I can shoot this like a real movie, you know, or like what most people consider a real movie.
RL: There's always that moment in which you go from making your own little movies to that feeling that you're making a real movie. By professional standards it's still not a real movie, but by your standards, you know it when it's real.
BR: What made it real for some people is that we went and got a digital slate, and that was it. But it was a lot of fun, it was also intimidating because I'd shot everything by myself before that and all of a sudden I have 30 people asking questions.
This also was my first time not only to do it with a crew, but we did cast two people, the roles of Jarvis and Paco, so it was my first time dealing with actors who had headshots and had huge acting experience. Everyone else was in films I had shot previously. But I wrote the characters -- everyone except for Jarvis and Paco -- around my friends. Lupe, too, was a fictional character but he was another friend of mine. Curtis played a guy named Burtis, who was very much like Curtis. It was like, kind of play yourself, change the first letter of your name, and everyone was like that. Ted played Ned, and I played a character named Bo, took a B off my first name, and we kind of played ourselves. Some were more extreme than others. Jerry played an extreme version of himself. You know, he's sort of that way, but not as weasly and conniving as he's portrayed in the movie. He's quite friendly and charismatic.
RL: One thing that exists now that didn't used to and has really come up in the last five to 10 years is an infrastructure to help. You're a good case for this, that Austin can support this. You don't have a distributor yet, but you're showing it at the Alamo. And, Austin's unique in its audience too. The higher cost of living is a drag but I like Austin a lot more now: now there's more support, there's more active involvement -- and there's more money around.
BR: I've been here since '76 when I was a kid and I don't think it's ever stopped changing, and I don't think it's ever going to stop changing, and that's what makes it kind of interesting.
RL: And why should it? But I think there's a spirit here that's still good and I think that's reflected in the film audience. I was really proud of how Hands on a Hard Body did. You know, it got a pretty good launch with the Texas Documentary Tour screening, but it didn't do anywhere near the same business in any other town. It would only play a week or two everywhere else; in Austin it played for over a year. What does that tell you? Most cities, people want to see the new blockbuster wannabe first. The fact is most people here do too. But the difference is there are a lot of people here whose first choice isn't necessarily that, who are looking for that less commercial movie, that weird documentary, that very independent-sounding film, that kind of thing. I'm hoping your film is everyone's first or second choice. It deserves to be if people want to see a good indigenous Austin film.
BR: Also, another thing, sometimes I see a movie that comes to the Dobie or wherever, and it's a small film, and you've got to see it quick because you don't know how long it's going to be there.
RL: And it's harder for a film to stay in a theatre for any length of time these days.
BR: And the Alamo, it's a great theatre, I love that place, but they've got one screen, so the support is really going to determine the length of the run. You know, they don't have four screens.
RL: But you can drink beer.
BR: Which is pretty apropos for this movie.
RL: Do you think you'll catch any flak for the movie's open drug use?
BR: I don't know. I'm sure I will, and if I didn't I'd be kind of offended, you know.
RL: I didn't think there was anything too offensive on that level, it seemed more like a lifestyle thing. I saw it during SXSW. In remembering it, I don't think of it as a drug movie. It's more about the way these guys live.
BR: I bet half the people in this town smoke weed, or at least used to at some point.
RL: If every pot user goes to see this movie, I think you'll have a hit on your hands.
BR: It'll be running for a year. I'll have a hit on my hands, is that a pun?
RL: Sure. So, why the title Rock Opera?
BR: Well, I had debated a few titles, actually when I first started with the title Rock Opera I was being sort of facetious because it's not an opera, obviously. Then I said I'll think of a better title and then years later -- I'm not good at titles. The band's name is PigPoke and I think that's a great band name. I mean, it's kind of funny. With Rock Opera I thought of other titles, like Rohypnol Summer I thought would be one. But it's not really about Ropes, it more about weed as far as the drugs are concerned. But it's primarily about music, and so I kind of kicked that one around. And then Texas Crude was another one I kicked around, but then that conveys images of oil workers and I was like, which one is more misleading -- Texas Crude, an oil workers film, or Rock Opera, a musical? So I hope if it's on a marquee that people don't go "Rock Opera?!"
RL: Have you played in any festivals besides SXSW?
BR: Actually, when I submitted to SXSW it was still a work in progress. But the crowds were great. It was sort of like a South by South Test screening, you know, this was the first time I got to put it in front of a crowd who weren't the people who made it. I was watching it at parts and thinking, oh yeah, gotta fix that part. Or, oh, that worked good, ya know, all right. So after that it was still on video. I hadn't cut the negative yet because I couldn't afford to at the time, so I went back and I did some changes. So the new one is still a world premiere because it's a different cut. It's about 10 minutes shorter. We lengthened a couple of scenes, but shortened some stuff. I think it's a lot more fun the way it is now.
RL: That's what really kicks it in for a director -- when you see it with a public audience. In the editing room you get into thinking about what it is and your ideas, but it's only when you see it with an audience for the first time that you have to confront your own ideas. Like: Oh, OK, that does drag. I've been lying to myself hoping it didn't, but you know what, it does. Or, that's not as funny as I thought it was.
BR: Yeah, because you're sitting in the editing room and you're like, it might not be funny, but it might be funny. Flip a coin -- it's funny, all right! Put it in.
RL: Some people say test screenings are evil but I don't think so. I think filling out cards and quantifying it, that's kind of evil. But you should see it with an audience because that makes you confront what it really is, rather than what you wish it was.
BR: I think it also matters what type of film you're making, you know, if you're making a purely experimental, really personal film where you're putting your guts on the film, then you don't really need a test screening because you have something to say, but I'm making a film that I want to entertain people and make people laugh.
RL: Yeah, your film definitely wants to be liked. It's fun. Naturally you want to share that with an audience.
BR: Yeah, especially with this type of film. Especially dealing with the Co-op, we've done little mini film festivals based around experimental stuff, and your objective isn't to entertain the audience as much as to just experiment, try new stuff, and get really personal with what you're doing. And this is kind of a mix of both, but it's more trying to entertain.
RL: I think you definitely achieved that. You're sort of meeting an audience out there at least halfway. You're doing it for yourself, and yet it's audience-friendly.
BR: Before you made Slacker there wasn't really a film scene here. There were a couple of movies shot here.
RL: Well, there's always been a film scene here. I moved here because I sensed there was a film scene here. A lot of it existed as an adjunct to UT. Apart from the university stuff, a lot of it was in the exploitation realm. Someone would get out of school, get some money together, and make a movie. Then that would be their stepping stone to L.A., and they'd go get a job with Roger Corman or something. There wasn't any reason to stay in Austin. I think it has a lot to do with the industry now. You really don't have to be in L.A., you can be anywhere.
BR: Yeah, by the time I had received my fifth or sixth rejection letter from UT trying to get into film school, I realized they had denial appeal. Actually, from what I understand of how Rodriguez got in there, he got Steve Mims to give him a recommendation, he couldn't get in based on his grades in a similar vein. By that point I was so frustrated and annoyed with them I wanted to go out and make them regret the fact that they never let me in. And that kind of stuff really motivates me, when people either doubt me or don't want to let me try and do what I want to do it drives me to prove them wrong, or to prove to myself that I really can do it. Actually, I'm thankful now in hindsight that I didn't flounder around in school for several years, because I wouldn't have made Rock Opera if I had, and I think I learned so much getting involved with the Co-op and just getting hands-on experience and shooting more films than a lot of the students on a university shoot.
RL: I'd say just shoot a lot of film. You'll learn a lot more making a film or working with a friend on a film.
BR: And especially shooting video, so many people are film snobs. They haven't shot any film, but they don't want to shoot video. They're like, "Oh, that's what my mom uses to shoot the babies. I need to shoot film." Just shoot something, tell a story in a visual format. Learn how to edit, learn how to shoot, learn how to light, and then tell stories.
RL: Do you think your background in comics is helpful?
BR: I think it's very, very helpful. Because that's a film right there. It's stills out of every scene, you know. Frank Miller is one of my all time favorites. He's got a comic book called Sin City that is a constant inspiration to me this day. The way he draws his compositions, it's all-black and all-white, there are no grays, it's just solid contrasts, thick lines. And it is just amazing to see that there is an image in there, and you look at it from six inches away and you can't tell what it is, but when you pull it back everything is crystal clear. And he's a great storyteller as well. I've been collecting comics for a long time, and I think that it had a lot to do with developing my visual style.
What I also think helped me to become a filmmaker is the fact that I didn't think I could be one. So I explored these other avenues, whether it's art and composition and storytelling through writing stories. And I've always been sort of an antisocial person. Not against being social, but just kind of shy and reserved. And I was kind of small in high school so I had to make people laugh to keep from being harassed or beaten up. So I think that helped a good deal too. Look at someone like Tim Burton, he's a freaky looking guy, you know he had to make everybody laugh when he was a kid.
And then, something else that also helped was having a background in construction work, working with your hands and technical things in three dimensions.
RL: It can't be underestimated, pure technical ability. I always worked with wood and built things, electronics and clocks. People underestimate the sheer craftsmanship level.
BR: Working with stuff like that helps build a work ethic too.
RL: You must feel an obligation to everyone you worked with and all the time you put into it to have Rock Opera find an audience. Whatever you have to do, go around to festivals, whether you have to distribute it yourself, unless a distributor comes along.
BR: I think self-distribution wouldn't be a bad route to go. The motivation for the character, Toe, in the movie is to go on tour. To take the film on tour would be cool. Then I could maybe hook up with some of the bands in the movie, like Nashville Pussy, when they're on the road. Hit some towns when they're there.
RL: I would love to see the self-distribution world evolve a bit. That should be viable. I think the crisis in the independent world, there are more films being made, there's a lot of talent, there are a lot of great films, if anything there's an overabundance of good films. The crisis is in distribution and theatres. I think we're lucky here in Austin: We've got a couple of outlets that you can get your film shown in -- if they like it enough to show it, of course. But nationwide, it's pretty bleak for that. How did you come up with the money you needed to make your movie? It's low-budget, but I'm sure it's more money than you had.
BR: Oh, I guarantee. The majority of the money came from credit cards. My wife, Nicole, she has great credit and has already paid her bills, and she had about seven credit cards.
RL: Oh, we like that.
BR: She's the executive producer. Of course now we are swimming in debt, and trying to pay all those off. A warning to all who consider that avenue, you do have to pay them back.
RL: You do have to, yes. It can fuck up your whole life. Only do it if you have to.
BR: But it was worth it. I don't know many people who are in a similar situation who've said that it's not worth it. Also in the same vein, you need to know what you're doing. You should not shoot short films on credit, or throw all your credit cards down on a first-time feature because it's probably going to turn out to be a nightmare.
RL: And it's going to cost, and you're going to pay for your mistakes.
BR: And you're never going to make the movie that you want to make because you're too busy paying for the movie that you tried to make.
RL: I think your trajectory as a filmmaker is really the way to go. Self-taught, that's a good model for people who want to make films. You learn all the realities of making movies. I would ask people who want to be filmmakers, "Do you like to edit 15 hours straight instead of doing anything else? Would you just want to darken your windows and stay in your editing room forever? Is that a good way to spend a life?"
BR: Because if the answer is not "yes" then you're really not a filmmaker. If you just shovel off your work to someone else and say cut this stuff I made into a film, who's really making the film? But picking up the Super-8 or video camera you could have a lot of fun. Just go out there, grab your friends, shoot, and see what you like and what you don't like about it, because you're going to love some stuff and you're going to hate some stuff. So go shoot film.
RL: Well, I think Rock Opera is very inspiring in that way and I think it could give the local scene a new kick. These things are always renewing themselves. It's kind of exciting where the local scene's at right now. I just love what the Co-op's doing. Lee Daniel [local cinematographer and Austin Film Society co-founder with Linklater] and I always talked about this Co-op idea, but it never really gelled back then. But I think the Co-op had to emerge eventually, and it's real exciting the way it has.
BR: But I don't think it could have without the Film Society.
RL: They sort of work together in a really interesting way. They're like two parts of a brain.
BR: The making films and the showing films, the support and the know-how. The great thing about the Co-op, people who want to become filmmakers, they can shoot films, submit them to the Co-op film festivals, which they pretty much take anything that's shot on Super-8, and they can see the reactions that they get out of an audience. And that can make your head swell up bigger than Dallas or it can make you go, "Oh man, that was a mistake." But that's the point you learn. You learn what you like and what you don't like. You can learn how to offend or make people laugh or cry.
RL: You're in that loosely communal atmosphere. so you're not alone. There are others out there working, doing the same thing. It's an interesting scene that's emerged; it's really healthy.
BR: And even if your film sucks, people are going to support you. They're going to encourage you and you're going to learn from that. You've got make a shitty film at some point.
RL: I've got a closet full of them. What's up at the Alamo on the opening night?
BR: Well, we've got some bands. There are a couple of bands in the movie. Pocket Fisherman are going to play a short set before the 7pm screening. Voltage is going to play before the 9:30 screening. We're going to do a little Q&A after the movie. We have an after-party at Ruta Maya, the Fuckemos are going to play. We're going to get tanked and have a good time.
RL: Well, sounds like a great party.
BR: It should be. That's what it's about. The movie is sort of a party. And we were having fun making it.
RL: I could tell it was fun. It felt very natural.
BR: Despite the heat and a temperamental flare or two, but that's going to happen. Despite that we had a really good time and I think everyone involved would do it again.
RL: Hope you get a chance some time soon. It would be great if everyone went to see it, it plays for a long time, you could pay off your debt, and make your next film. All here in Austin.
BR: That's right. I can wear those credit cards out again.
Rock Opera opens at the Alamo Drafthouse on Friday, September 3. The opening night event will feature two screenings at 7 & 9:30pm with live music by Pocket FishRmen and Voltage. The bands will play a half-hour set and the movie will follow. Guest speaker Richard Linklater will introduce Bob Ray. Immediately after the each screening there will be a short Q & A with the cast and crew. Tickets to the premiere night are $10 AFS members/ $12 general admission; proceeds benefit the Austin Cinemaker Co-op. For more info on the film see http://www.lonestar.texas.net/~crashcam.com.