Twenty years on, more than two dozen filmmakers pay tribute to 'Slacker' and a city in transition
Like the city it depicts, Richard Linklater's Slacker sees no need for a traditional beginning, middle, and ending. It is instead a series of beginnings, repeated and added to over and over, continually redefining and reinterpreting itself. So too has Austin continually reinvented itself in the intervening years – artsy tech hub, urban living exemplar, official "live music capital of the world."
Linklater's 1991 film-cum-mash note to Austin and its mellow-manic artistic underbelly turned 20 years old this summer, and even the most cursory glimpse reveals that the skyline, once dominated by the Texas state Capitol dome and the Whitman-haunted UT Tower, has gone all jagged with ever-taller condos, ostentatious displays of some serious capital gains. Liberty Lunch is no more, but Austin now has the pointiest City Council headquarters in the nation. Les Amis is dead, but in its place – spiritually if not geographically – have risen coffee haunts like Spider House. Ch-ch-ch-changes, man. Still, Slacker remains a tonally perfect time capsule of all those cool summer of '89 moments you lived in and around or missed or were too drunk/high/philosophical to grok to in the first place. It's a 16mm snapshot of Austin then.
Which prompts the question: What would the River City look like if Slacker were shot now? Probably an awful lot like Slacker 2011, the soon-to-premiere homage to Linklater's original that was shot all over town during this spring and summer. And when we say all over town, we mean it: The new film, a co-production of the Austin Film Society and the Alamo Drafthouse, is helmed by a mind-boggling 24 teams of local directors, one for each of the individual scenes in the original.
It sounds, initially, like a transcendent catastrophe of epic, lyrical proportions. Two dozen film crews, three or four times as many actors, hundreds of extras, and the most blazing, heat-stricken summer in the history of the Lone Star State. Madness and lunacy, with more guts than Sam Fuller and George Romero combined. Brilliant, genius, and an utterly unique way of funding the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund, which more than a few of the directors involved have directly benefited from over the years. Twenty years on, and it seems Austin has only gotten weirder ....
Sunday, May 22: 'Is that a dead guy?! I'm gonna tweet this shit!'
I'm standing in a parking lot sandwiched alongside the intersection of 24th and Nueces streets in West Campus, which served, in the considerably cooler summer of 1989, as the location for two of Slacker's best-remembered scenes, the opening hit-and-run (with Jean Caffeine as the grocery-carrying mother and Mark James as her wayward son) and the following phone call from Linklater and his cinematographer Lee Daniel's home right next door, a legendary house nicknamed the Fingerhut.
Today it's Bob Ray who, via the luck of the convoluted raffle system that determined which director would direct which sequence, is re-creating Linklater's surreal opening to the movie. As he tells me later, he's opted to keep things light, with shots that mirror those in the original "as a way of easing the viewer into the movie."
Ray and his crew have already shot the Greyhound debarkation – Ray, playing Linklater, is riding not in a Roy's Taxi but in a pedicab piloted by a stone-faced Marc Wiskemann, quaffing a Lone Star Beer and rambling on about his dreams (while clad in a truly distressing powder-blue-nylon-suit-and-bike-helmet combo). Wiskemann, it has to be noted, is himself sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Paul Sessums' late, lamented Sixth Street dive, the infamous Black Cat Lounge. Also prior to my arrival, the Minor Mishap Marching Band entered and exited, in another remarkably apropos fit of Ray's antic weirdness.
Now, though, as Ray's producer Diana Mia Cevallos and various other members of the crew rush about blocking shots and trying to keep out of the way of "real" traffic – this is, after all, a hit-and-run gag sans permits, in true Slacker fashion – it's time for the film's one and only (sanctioned, that is) gore effect: the vehicular manslaughter shot. As Wiskemann deposits his fare in front of the crowded ghosts of Les Amis, Inner Sanctum Records, and Mad Dog and Beans, the sharp squealing of tires is heard off camera.
Ray's character, absurdly carrying an old-fashioned globe under one arm, rushes to the scene of the crime and spots a blue Prius peeling out, leaving behind a dead John Chisholm, his impact-scattered oranges presenting a nice, vibrant, and vaguely nauseating counterpoint to the dollops of crimson Karo syrup that special effects makeup artist April Swartz has liberally applied to the roadway surrounding his head.
Rollergirl Sarah Kihls, aka Miss Conduct, has skated into the frame just as a unwary car has botched the take.
"Action!" And again, minute details muck up Ray's guerrilla death squad.
"Roll sound! Action!" This one looks like it's a perfect take right up until the point when a University of Texas campus police car rolls up, thinking there's more than fake blood and filmmakers on the ground. Damn! "Cut!" Ray rushes over to the cop to explain the situation, but all in all, today's sequence will attract, in addition to this particular officer, the concerned attention of two paramedics, one off-duty nurse, "an old, blue-haired lady," and two bus drivers unused to finding blood-soaked bodies on their daily route.
The seemingly overnight progression of Slacker 2011 – from initial concept to actual shooting, editing, color and sound correction, and, ultimately, its very near premiere at the Paramount Theatre on Aug. 31 – happened at a lightning pace after producer and Alamo Drafthouse Associate Programmer Daniel Metz first pitched the idea of remaking Linklater's film during a January 2011 programmers' meeting. After a quick moment of logistical check-your-headism, Alamo Senior Programmer Lars Nilsen approached the Austin Film Society's (Lovers of Hate director) Bryan Poyser to see if AFS would be willing to go producerial halfsies on the project. Since Metz had already cleared the idea with Linklater, Poyser signed AFS on, and Austin Film Society Executive Director Rebecca Campbell hit upon the idea of making the whole production into a fundraising tool for the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund.
Daniel Metz: "My original idea was, what if we do a remake project, kind of like the Star Wars Uncut movie, in which a bunch of filmmakers from across the world redo Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in their own styles. When I watched clips from that, I thought, you know, this is a really fascinating idea, having people collaborate to re-create something that they love. The thing that makes this a little different, more interesting, and really why I pitched it in the first place was because I had been thinking about how much the city of Austin had changed in the 20 years since Slacker was first released."
Bryan Poyser: "People come to AFS all the time with ideas for things we should do, and most of them turn out to be impractical for us because we are a very small nonprofit with a staff of, like, 11 people. It's hard for us to usually do anything extra. But just the idea of this, a scene-by-scene remake where individual filmmakers are given an opportunity to put their own slant on these classic scenes, and it benefits [TFPF]? That was like a blueprint of how to make a movie for nothing, you know? I said, 'That sounds crazy, and it'd be really, really hard, but I think AFS should be involved.'
"Basically what [AFS] brought to the table was our relationships with a lot of Austin filmmakers and the ability put a little bit of money in their hands to make it all happen. We ended up giving a $500 stipend to every filmmaking team. It was Rebecca Campbell who suggested that we make it the fundraiser for TFPF. Luckily one of our interns, Liz Lodge, stepped up to help me co-produce the project."
Metz: "At the beginning, Bryan, Lars Nilsen, and I sat down with a list of filmmakers that we'd like to be a part of this. We approached them via email, and the majority of them wrote back totally interested. Not long after that we got everyone together and did this really bizarre raffle system to determine who got to do what scene based on their first three choices. It was a mess, but it all worked out in the end. "Part of the idea was to have them shoot in the original location, but I also wanted the filmmakers to be able to put their own spin on it. So I said, 'Maybe you feel like this location is the new version of that old location, which might not be around anymore. So rather than shooting in the Starbucks that was once Les Amis, maybe you think that, for example, Spider House is the new Les Amis. So shoot it in Spider House if that's the case.' And the same went for the dialogue: We wanted the scene to be recognizable as the original scene, but the dialogue can be changed. I thought instead of a JFK conspiracy theory, you might have an Obama birth certificate conspiracy theory or a 9/11 conspiracy theory.
"The fundraising aspect of it is great, and it's great that it will contribute to the arts here in Austin, but for me, the project is more about Austin; it's more of a weird little cultural anthropology experiment that will give us some sense of both the history of Austin and the history of Austin filmmaking."
Tuesday, June 14: 'This is gonna blow your gourd, man, this is the real thing, this is it ...'
Director Karen Skloss and her director of photography Deb Lewis are losing the light as they put their own spin on Slacker's notoriously unforgettable "Madonna pap smear pusher" scene. Original location Liberty Lunch is no more, so they're shooting in front of Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop at the corner of Fourth and Nueces streets with a full, 35mm Panavision rig. Skloss runs the trio of actors – Ryan Taylor, Leslie Naugle, and, in the role made famous (and disturbing) by former Butthole Surfer Teresa Taylor, Austin musician/poet/writer/all-around Renaissance man John Wesley Coleman III – through the scene again and again, dollying up and back, up and back, until the sun is nearly lost behind the condos that now dwarf next-door club La Zona Rosa. Each rehearsal take elicits a slightly different but always mind-warping rant from Coleman, who, clad in a ratty "Life Is a Beach" T-shirt, dark sunglasses, and a full complement of twitches, tics, and facial hair, is the spitting image of creepy, weird guys in Downtown Austin then and now.
In between rehearsals, setups, and takes, Skloss tells me: "We did a rehearsal at the original location with a Canon 7D, and we were like, 'Ah! – too Sex and the City!' I saw the original Slacker on the first date with my high school boyfriend at the Dobie Theatre, and I'm just a big fan of what Rick has done for this town and for me, personally. So when they asked me to do this I thought, you know, 'Wow, I would really like to put some time into this.' Then, when I got Deb on board, she felt that if we were going to stay really true to the original then we needed to shoot on film for these outdoor street scenes. So Roland [Romero, producer of the segment] called Kodak and was able to get five dented cans of 35mm that they gave us for free. And then Deb scored the Panavision package, for free. And [postproduction facility] FotoKem has been very, very generous, exceedingly. So we're shooting in 35mm and coming in, more or less, around our $500 budget."
Finally, the sunset gets with the program and, in a brilliant display of why patience on a filmmaker's part is so important, reflects dazzlingly off the mirrored face of the Frost Bank tower, backlighting the trio in a breathtaking golden haze. "Cut!" Everyone smiling, everyone knowing that that was what they were waiting for. Watching the edited scene later, I come to realize that just like Linklater's original, this is the defining "Austin" moment in the film. Whereas Taylor and company were backgrounded by what looks like an urban wasteland of late-Eighties Downtown Austin (which, in fact, they were), Skloss' homage both echoes the tone of the original and offers plenty of visual, skyscraping proof as to how much the city's Downtown skyline has changed. Still, the weirdness is wonderfully palpable, and vice versa.
After you get past the fact that there are 24 directors and their accompanying scenes that need to be coordinated on Slacker 2011, the second biggest hurdle has been this: Who on earth is going to edit, color-correct, and sound-design all of these stylistically disparate elements into a cohesive – or even semicohesive – whole?
It's all well and good to throw two dozen filmmakers around Austin, but that controlled chaos immediately draws attention to one of the original Slacker's most remarkable elements: the fluid, organic camerawork of director of photography Lee Daniel. Slacker may be best known as a movie about people talking, ranting, and philosophizing, but it's Daniel's subtly serpentine camerwork – the image, like the audio, is restless and occasionally jittery, but never, ever still – that acts as the connective tissue between scenes.
Enter Allison Turrell, Parke Gregg, and (late of Slacker's original vox pop, Ed Hall) Lyman Hardy of Stuck On On, the audio/visual postproduction house assigned the task of finessing Slacker 2011 into its finished form.
Parke Gregg: "Bryan Poyser was really adamant about giving the individual directors control over their scene. It was really their vignette, and they could do whatever they wanted to with it. In that regard, our job then became to take all these pieces and make an assembly of them. Upon watching that assembly, we thought maybe we could tighten some things, make some things flow a little better, and so we did a few tweaks, but by far the individual segments have remained as their directors wanted them to be. It's still very much an experimental art film. But because every scene was pretty much shot on a different camera and every scene had different production values, from a creative standpoint we were really chiefly concerned with helping the individual vignettes flow together into a whole by matching color, sound – that kind of thing."
Lyman Hardy: "Some directors had their pieces mixed, and some did not. So working in partnership with Eric Friend, we went through and cleaned up the sound, added whatever sound effects were needed, if any. But like Parke said, it's generally the filmmaker's vision and we're just polishing it up.
"It's kind of a time stamp, you know? Slacker is very much of a place and time in Austin's creative history, and I think this film captures that sense of place and time in a very similar and unique way."
Sunday, May 29, 5pm: 'Over the edge ....'
It's 102 degrees out, and I'm running a fever of 101, so that evens out at least, but the rocky terrain leading up to Mount Bonnell is treacherous for those carrying pricey, document-the-moment Canon 7Ds; digital REDs; and assorted other high-end video gear. Not so much for those in the crowd of 40 or so people who have been summoned here, flash-mob style, via postings on various social media dissemination sites, carrying ancient 8mm and Super 8 cameras and, in my case, a permanently unfixable Fisher-Price PXL 2000.
Sweltering though it is, the mood atop Mount Bonnell is downright giddy. Director Chris Eska and his DP Yuta Yamaguchi have scored the final, iconic scene in the film: the legendary camera toss, in which old-school film formats meet art-school anarchy and end up flying lens over end out into the wild blue yonder, to crash, one can only hope, through the startled roofs of the money mansions far below.
Practicing the tossing without actually letting go of your camera is harder than it looks when you've ingested half a bottle of Robitussin over the past 24 hours, and I let my Fisher-Price fly too early, which doesn't faze me at all because goddamn, it's a blast throwing a camera off of Mount Bonnell. Stepping back into the crowd, I pick up the 7D and begin shooting the remaining trio of tossers. Actually, everyone seems to be documenting this, the final moment, including a group of bewildered Asian tourists who clearly had no idea that Austin was really, truly going to be so much like that film Slacker they saw back home years and years ago.
With a cheer, the cameras are hurled into the ether as iPhones and Blackberries wirelessly transmit their own images of images of images into a different kind of ether. It's fitting, immensely satisfying, and damn hot in every sense of the word. Other directors have yet to begin shooting their scenes, but for me, this feels like the end all over again, updated, reimagined, and the perfect homage to the essence of both Slacker Austin then and Slacker Austin now. Because, really, they're not so far apart after all.
"It's turned out to be exactly what I hoped it would be," Poyser tells me just days before the Paramount premiere. "It would be a waste of time if we had done a scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot remake of the original, because, you know, Gus Van Sant already did that with Psycho, and it was bad.
"Ultimately, our idea was that here is a generation of filmmakers – many of whom made their decision to come to this town and start making movies here after seeing Slacker or after having watched Linklater's career move forward – creating a loving homage to the movie that really put Austin on the map as a filmmaking mecca.
"It's also a crazy, weird patchwork film where each of the filmmakers placed their own aesthetic onto the movie while remaining true to the spirit of the original scene. No matter what happens with this movie, this was totally worth doing. I do think, however, that if you haven't seen the original, then this is going to be the weirdest fucking movie you've ever seen. It's just nuts, but in the best way that I hoped it would be."
'Slacker 2011': Roll Credits
|1)||Bus & Taxi||Bob Ray|
|2)||Phone Call & Police||Spencer Parsons|
|3)||Coffee Shop||Rusty Kelley/Austin School of Film|
|4)||Been on Moon||Berndt Mader|
|5)||Co-op House||Amy Grappell|
|6)||Madonna Pap Smear & Street Scenes||Karen Skloss|
|7)||Never Traumatize a Woman Sexually||Duane Graves and Justin Meeks|
|9a)||Kids||Jonny Stranger/AFS Film Club|
|9b)||Boyfriends||David and Nathan Zellner|
|10)||Authoritative Sources||Jay Duplass|
|11)||JFK Conspiracy||John Bryant|
|12)||Mechanics||Sam Wainwright Douglas|
|14)||Security Guard||Elisabeth Sikes|
|16)||TV Room||Geoff Marslett|
|17)||Sculpture Garden||Bradley Beesley|
|18)||Les Amis at Night, Drive, Blue Bayou||Bob Byington and Clay Liford|
|19)||Blue Bayou||Carlyn Hudson/Reel Women|
|21)||Concert at Continental Club & Morning After||Scott R. Meyers/Alamo Drafthouse|
|23)||The Ending||Chris Eska|
Slacker 2011 premieres at the Paramount Theatre at 7pm Wednesday, Aug. 31, with filmmakers in attendance. Screening-only tickets are $10 for AFS members, $15 general admission. Tickets for the screening plus the cast and crew afterparty cost $50. See www.austinfilm.org for more info. Slacker 2011 will also screen Sundays in September at the Alamo Drafthouse; see www.drafthouse.com for times and locations.
For more on Slacker 2011, including on-location photos and interviews with directors, see the Picture in Picture blog at austinchronicle.com/pip.