The Slow Biz of Show Biz
A Conversation Between Filmmakers Richard Linklater and Rachel Tsangari
Richard Linklater met Rachel Tsangari when he cast her in Slacker. Recently arrived from Greece, Tsangari (whose first name is pronounced "Rah-heel") showed up and promptly landed a role as Rachel (pronounced "Rah-heel"), the cousin from Greece. In the decade since, Linklater and Tsangari stayed on similar paths. While Linklater acts as artistic director of the Austin Film Society, Tsangari is artistic director for CinemaTexas and teaches film at UT. They also both recently finished directing films. Richard Linklater's groundbreaking animated comedy Waking Life was the talk of Sundance (opening theatrically later this year). Tsangari's feature, her first, is The Slow Business of Going, a visually arresting travelogue following the globe-hopping adventures of Petra Going. Slow Business took more than five years to make and is based on "improvisations with mostly amateur actors, friends of mine," Tsangari writes by e-mail. "I was influenced by the working methods of Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Altman, and Godard to a certain extent, considering the actor instead of the script to be the main engine for the story. After working on a scene for several weeks, or even months, we would get a deal on a hotel, get there in a caravan, check in for a weekend and shoot." Tsangari began her film long before that -- although she didn't know it yet. "I have been collecting the images for the travelogue segments in the film since I was 15," she says. "Super 8, video, stills, anything I could get my hands on. I was just trying to understand my environment by documenting it. It is this compulsion for turning everything into a spectacle for imaginary audiences, this fascination with authoring our everyday reality by transforming it to popular media that I was mostly interested in tackling. You know, the slow business of show biz ..."
Recently, the two filmmakers got together to discuss Tsangari's directorial debut, which makes its American premiere at SXSW Film on Monday, March 12, at the Paramount. Their conversation -- covering topics like self-distribution and indie cinema -- makes a good introduction to the SXSW Film conference, March 10-13, when Linklater joins filmmakers like Michael Moore, Penelope Spheeris, Allison Anders, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and DA Pennebaker (to name just a few) as panelists, all sharing their ideas and impressions about the state of the industry. And then there is the film festival itself, running March 9-17 at venues across town and featuring movies like Spheeris' Ozzfest documentary We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'N' Roll, buzzed-about indies like Christopher Nolan's Memento, and films from promising first-time directors like Tsangari herself.
Next week, we will look closer at the films playing during the festival and talk with some of the visiting filmmakers. In the meantime, you can check out the complete festival schedule in the eight-page insert in this issue. -- Sarah Hepola
Richard Linklater: You're at that interesting phase where you've finished your first film that you've been working on for a long time. And you're just now getting that first real feedback, right? How many audiences have seen your movie? Rachel Tsangari: Nine. Nine screenings. All in Europe.
RL: So, SXSW is your first American screening. Do you think there'll be any difference?
RT: I'm interested in seeing the difference between European and American audiences. In Europe, it definitely polarized audiences. Half of them were seeing me in the street and saying, "Oh, God, I loved your movie. I'm so much like Petra Going." Mostly people between 18 and 35. And then there were people over 40 who were saying, "Okay. Memory. Dislocation. The idea of home. Searching for home. That's not quite a narrative. Is there a story there?" There were people fighting over it.
RL: It's an interesting end-of-the-20th-century film, and it deals with the history of cinema.
RT: It's very much about the history of cinema and very much about a woman who is a camera -- a woman who cannot exist unless she records. Unless she documents. Unless she is cinema.
RL: Do you feel that way personally? Do you have a life outside of cinema?
RT: Unfortunately not.
RL: I'd say the same thing. When someone says, "Oh, I want to be a filmmaker," you kind of have to tell them, "Well, if you want that to be your entire life. If you're willing to give up this other seemingly normal life."
RT: I guess that's why this film was so much about the process, because I can't really imagine the process of living without the process of making a film about it.
RL: It's fun to live your cinema. I admire that. You get that in the history of cinema. The ways that people capture the creative spirit of a time and a place. And an energy. Truffaut, Fassbinder -- they're making films about their friends and their lives. And I think that's wonderful. That is cinema.
RT: I couldn't really imagine making a film about something I didn't know about.
RL: That's a great place to start. Your first film should only be that. Or probably your first five films. That's all you should do until something compels you to do something else.
RT: That's how you started, right, with Slacker?
RL: Yeah, and the Super 8 film before that. Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise -- they felt like they were of my own life. But that's all I felt qualified to do. I would have been lost trying to do anything else.
RT: Do you think it was easier for you when you made Slacker? In terms of the era, the beginning of the Nineties?
RL: Yeah. I think if I made Slacker today, maybe it would show in the American Spectrum at Sundance, if I was lucky. I know it wouldn't get a distributor in America the way it did then.
RT: Why not?
RL: I kind of got lucky then. It was just of its time and its place in that way.
RT: Ten years ago, when you were finishing Slacker, I remember you saying, "Well, if no one picks it up, I'm just going to go out on a tour and show it on every single campus in America."
RL: I'm glad I didn't have to do that.
RT: Do you think self-distribution is a viable distribution?
RL: If you could do it and not feel marginalized. It's like, "Oh, you're self-distributing. You must suck." Or, "If you were any good, Miramax would have picked you up," you know? Where it's really quite the opposite. If Miramax can't make $100 million dollars on your film (or at least $30 million), they're not interested. And neither is New Line, and neither are all these other people.
RT: I would be kind of upset if my film was picked up by Miramax, you know? Because I would think maybe something's wrong. Maybe it's too homogenized. Or it has too many sexy ladies in it. Or it's too exotic.
RL: Well, you have some exotic locations. You don't photograph them in the way --
RT: Many people said, "You were in all these places. You were in Tokyo and Tangiers and Mexico and Cuba. How come you didn't actually feature your locations?" That was the point. To show the complete homogenized space. It looks exactly the same. Whether we shot at the Driskill or in a hotel room in New York, it was like the same as shooting in Tangiers or in Tokyo. Exactly the same chain of hotels. It was like Holiday Inn in Tokyo or Holiday Inn in Tangiers, or Holiday Inn in Austin. And they look exactly the same. That was exactly the point. A nomadic, transitory life of someone who cannot really find home or constantly tries to deal with nostalgia. She gets stuck in the same kind of environment. Even if she's trying to run away from what she considers home or the familiar. She goes to Tokyo, and she gets exactly the same room. With the same kind of arrangement of furniture and the same kind of TV. Like Fox and CNN and BBC is the landscape. Whatever is on TV is the landscape.
RL: It's an interesting document of its moment because it wouldn't have been that way too long ago. We've got this global modernization that you really can't escape from. Is that a bad thing? Is that a critique? Or is that a good thing -- that you can go get a bed and hot water ...
RT: I'm not going to make a judgment. I'm not going to say, "All this sucks." Or have a message about, "Oh my God, globalization is wrong." Yes, it is wrong in many ways, but at the same time this is what it is. The film is about the death of difference or the death of nativism or the kind of curiosity that we feel for something that we don't comprehend or understand.
RL: So where are you at with distribution? Do you think you could take your film to colleges that have theatres and take it to the museums and festivals?
RT: I think it could be worth it.
RL: Craig Baldwin did it successfully with his Sonic Outlaws and films like that. He'd tour with it. Show it at a venue. Usually one or two screenings.
RT: I would totally go for that. There's something to be said about being there at the same time as your movie.
RL: It's almost like you're a band. You're traveling and performing.
RT: Totally. I think the band paradigm is the best paradigm of independent distribution. There's a lot to learn from that. I'm not going to rely on corporate structure for this movie to be discovered or be fatalistic about it. That's why I think we have to create a distribution network that's completely independent. Creating something that exchanges European and American movies in some kind of circuit. Like the same thing you're trying to do with the [Austin Film Society's] Free Cinema series.
RL: The free cinema circuit. And just get these venues in these towns. And there's one in every town, practically. Every college town, anyway.
RT: And distribute all these "elitist" movies that the studio heads say they can't distribute. The Film Society has a really huge audience. CinemaTexas also.
RL: Yeah, and those same people are out there trying to find other things. Do you already have plans for your next film?
RT: The script I'm co-writing with Matt Johnson, called Duncharon, is for a dark comedy, science-fiction film with grumpy astronauts, precocious kids, mini-robots, and bionic bunnies, and we plan to shoot in a Greek volcanic island standing for Pluto's moon, Charon. It will hopefully take a shorter time to make, will have a finite number of actors and locations, and a finite amount of scenes. Perhaps later in our career we'll have the energy to embark on another global biopic, but, for now, we will venture out to the moon.
The Slow Business of Going plays Monday, March 12, 9:30pm, at the Paramount, Tuesday, March 13, 5:30pm, and Friday, March 16, 9:30pm, at the Austin Convention Center. Film passes are for sale at Waterloo Records for $45; individual tickets can be purchased at the door for $6 ($5 prior to 6pm). For more information on SXSW Film, go to sxsw.com.
Richard Linklater will sit on a panel with Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez on Tuesday, March 13, 3:30pm.