From the Archives: Linklater on Linklater
Our 1991 self-interview by the Slacker filmmaker
"Austin has the highest per capita ratio of wonderful people and the lowest percentage of assholes of any city. I believe I'll be based here for quite some time." When Richard Linklater made that announcement to the Chronicle back in 1991, at the height of Slacker's success, it would have been reasonable to believe that he was blowing at least a little smoke. But three decades, five Oscar nominations, and $300 million in the global box office later, he's still hanging around – an older, wiser version of the indie innovator whose latest film, live-action/animation hybrid coming-of-age period piece Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Adventure, has been acquired by Netflix, and was still made in the ATX.
But 30 years ago, he was the newly minted hometown hero. In typical fashion, when the Chronicle sponsored a screening of Slacker at the Dobie on Sept. 22, 1991, we ran a story under the unwieldy title of: "The Art of the Interview: Self-Revelation or Self Torture? Richard Linklaker Interviewed by ..." There's no byline, because the subject was the author: Linklater, still whirling from the seemingly never-ending press tour, sat down with himself to dispatch, once and for all, the most meaningful answer to the most generic questions he had been asked over the summer months.
Here's a snippet, for the first time since its original print appearance, is the whole story of surviving Slacker, in Linklater's own words - Richard Whittaker.
After nearly 140 Slacker interviews in the last two months, automatic pilot has taken over, like an actor in a long-running play summoning energy before each performance, or an instructor making an ages old lecture seem witty and spontaneous. This publicity grind also seems to resemble a psychoanalytical session: Someone gets paid to ask prompting questions and listen to you drone on and on – and I do find myself discovering new things in the process. It's been a forced transformation from being too shy to address an audience to being live on CNN in front of millions. The final stage in the filmmaking process is apparently being a professional mouth and ranting on about things that have only the slightest connection to whatever "qualified" me to be ranting in the first place. So I thought a "composite interview" of all my interviews might able to include many of the natural questions the film invites, as well as more than just the snippet of my answer that happens to fit an interviewer's agenda – the luxury of my being both interviewer and subject here.
So, first question:
RL: So, just what is a slacker?
RL: (Acting like he's never heard the question before.) Hmmm... Slackers might look like the left-behinds but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might ultimately be striving for.
RL: (A slightly suspecting, almost distrustful look) So okay... You aren't a slacker. Slackers don't make movies.
RL: Sure they do, just not the kind you would usually want to interview somebody about. It sounds like I'm being judged on the success of the film, not its simple existence. No one ever said slackers weren't productive. It's just that their products often fall outside the market economy. If the film never found an audience, would my slacker credentials be revoked like this? I think I still qualify as a slacker... just one that's currently lucky. I've been officially employed about one year of the last seven. Actually, filmmaking is the perfect slacker profession. You can piddle around for years, watch tons of movies and daydream about what important films you would make if you only had the cash.
RL: Speaking of it, where did you get the money for Slacker?
RL: It wasn't about money, we never talked about it. There wasn't any, so we had to get by some other way. Everyone who worked on the film did it for reasons other than cash. The fact that it was done so inexpensively says more about the spirit of the people involved in the project than the cost. But by the first watchable print, about $23,000 had been spent. That doesn't include large amounts still owed at the time to the lab, sound studio, and all the deferred wages. With the blow-up to 35mm and all the legal costs involved in signing with a bigger distributor, the budget is now well over 150 grand and still growing. The initial cash came from where most truly independent films come from: supportive family and friends, credit cards, any savings, additional loans. You sell off possessions, steal, ask others to steal, all kinds of things you're not particularly proud of.
RL: Are you surprised at the film's success?
RL: On one level, sure. It could easily have never happened. It comes down to a series of the right people at the right time saying "yes" in whatever way they can. But for whatever success the film has had, there is a parallel track of rejection. You have to build up an almost erotic relationship with rejection, or the process could decimate you. Even as late as last week, it continues to get turned down at certain festivals, and we haven't really had a big break internationally yet. But I think everyone who worked on the film felt it was a success last summer when we opened at the Dobie. It was closure and success completely on its own terms. Had it never gone much further, it would have been this positive experience that we all learned from, had fun with, and basically accomplished what we set out to do; any additional success has all been gravy. The national selling of the film is a bit strange to me because it's so "cult-of-the-director" oriented. When I say "we," they usually change it to "I." Fortunately for me, my key Slacker collaborators understand the inevitable simplifications as a part of the marketing process to be used, ultimately, for our ends. I'm trying not to take the personal attention and scrutiny too seriously. and actually find a certain comfort in simply seeing myself as a spokesman of the moment for a lot of people's creative energy and input. As a producer, I've always felt responsible to the 150-plus people who donated their time and energy and will share in any profits from the film.
RL: One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is its large cast of mostly non-professional actors. Where did you find such poorly dressed people?
RL: Many were friends of mine or the crew, but were most were found through a very selective vetting process where we gave out cards that were essentially invitations to a video interview. From there it was matching people to parts they seemed to embody the essence of. A lot of interesting people couldn't get it together to show up for their interview, and a lot of cool people we met with just didn't match a preconceived part. We were then so underground no one cared much. I run into people who say if they had known it was going to be any good, they would have been more interested. Basically, the cast has never been given enough credit. These were not only interesting, creative and courageous people, but also the ones serious enough to approach the rehearsal and shooting process in a professional manner. By saying everyone "simply played themselves," it doesn't acknowledge that leap of faith to get into that arena and tap into a part of themselves necessary for the part. It's not easy to be yourself on purpose take after take.
RL: The press kit here says that the movie was entirely scripted. It has such an improvisational feel.
RL: Don't ever believe press kits... that was all bullshit. Actually, we'd just turn the camera on and whatever happened, happened. I don't know why everybody doesn't do a movie like this. I guess we just got lucky that it all fit together somehow (smiles).
RL: Seriously, I detect a structure, but was just commenting that the actors seemed very real.
RL: They are real. That was the point. It was all about giving the characters complete freedom within the confines of a certain structure. As long as the scene meant what I wanted it to mean, it was open to anything and in fact demanded a certain honesty of the moment that transcends acting in the typical sense. The inspired moments and personal characteristics were planned on and cultivated. It was all about creating an atmosphere where everyone was participating as an artist. Nowhere does it say that I alone wrote every word of the movie. The director in me would never give myself that much credence as a writer, and that wasn't what this movie was all about. I initially wrote what happens in each scene, minus the exact dialogue. This all came from God knows where... conversations, crazy ideas, and actual experiences. Some were inspired by or adapted from bookish ideas or pre-existing texts, like a spoken word performance by Jim Roche or a few short stories by Jack Meredith. I had a meeting with Sid Moody about various conspiracy theories. The thread was that I was moved in some way or another by a situation and deemed it important and thematically meaningful enough to be worthy of screen time. After the cast had been selected I would usually write the dialogue and then work with the actors rewriting it. To blend with the pseudodocumentary style of the film, it was very important that the characters make the material their own in whatever way possible. This was in the rehearsal period, which for me was the most inspired aspect of production — seeing the ideas come to life via this fusion of real person and fictional context. Each scene had its own unique life, and was as varied as the personalities involved. I had trained for years as an actor and felt confident I could extract a certain quality from people that would play on the screen. It's amazing what many of the characters brought to their scenes. This was where a lot of the humor in the movie came from: You get witty and intelligent people together with a common purpose in a playful atmosphere, and almost magical things start to happen.
RL: Does this Slacker phenomenon exist anywhere else, or could this have only been made in Austin?
RL: It definitely taps into one aspect of the local atmosphere, but it's hard to say how unlike other college towns that is. I wanted it to be both an "Austin Movie" with references and one that could have come from anywhere. Its spirit might have come from elsewhere, but it probably could have only been made in Austin. Where else would such a concentration of talented film people be willing to be involved in something outside the typical professional borders of the film industry? Where else would we have been able to get the professional favors and donations of everything from equipment to locations to food? I'm proud to say that it's a 100 percent Austin product.
RL: Much is being said about the twentysomething generation that is represented in the film.
RL: First off, I refuse to participate in a conversation couched in such derivative, blatantly unoriginal terms. That ridiculous catch-phrase started last summer on the cover of Time magazine, the same magazine that could only talk of Slacker in relation to the 1960s. and even called Austin a Haight-Ashbury of the 1990s. There's no doubt where their heads are at, and it's that kind of thinking that ruins anything new. I never bought that standard baby-boomer line that we were all so nothing... it just takes a different form. We're aware of the past, informed, cynical in a healthy way, and have a great sense of irony. Who could spend such formative years in the 1970s and 1980s and not have that ironic edge? I can see why people are asking me about a generation I happen to be a part of, but to me Slacker owes more allegiance to cinema than to a generation.
RL: I thought the movie was funny, but the person I was with found it a little depressing... that it adds up to futility.
RL: I guess I can see how some people look at it that way... it certainly has its dark areas. But what gives me eternal hope and, in a way, what the film really depicts, is that our society still has a strong individual vitality at heart, intellectual and otherwise. Habitual energy can equal optimism. We as individuals and as a society have the ability to revitalize ourselves. There can be no denying there is a large amount of alternative social and cultural experimentation going on. It could add up to something new, or if in fact there isn't anything new, at least a new emphasis, a new combination.
RL: What's been the most exciting or satisfying experience related to the making of Slacker?
RL: I think it was working with my friends and who were with the film all the way — the "Slacker 7." When people ask advice on how to make films, I always say "have talented friends." It was one of those rare experiences where we were so in sync and dedicated to the film that the notion of professional credits was a little odd when it was all over. We all had our specialties but basically everyone did everything — whatever was required. It was just such a life-expanding process. When I fell in love with the cinema eight or nine years ago, it filled a vacuum in my life in an all-encompassing way. With Slacker, I think I had a need to reach out and try to communicate, not only to a potential audience, but more importantly, to the cast and crew I was working with. It was a challenge to go from a rather isolated world to working intimately with over 100 people. And a finished film can add an entirely new dimension to the lives of those who worked on it. The people I've met because of this film have been the coolest. I could almost now say I have a life in addition to film. There were many years before where I really couldn't or wouldn't have wanted to.
RL: What's next? Are you going to go Hollywood or stay in Austin?
RL: I'm getting really anxious to be in production again — it's been so long since we were first shooting Slacker. I have several very different kinds of films I'd like to do soon. It's all about hooking up with the right people who, regardless of what level they're on, want to make the same movie you want to make. It's certainly not so cut and dried, like the independent scene is cool and artistic and the studios are evil. A guy who gives you 50 grand to make a film can totally ruin it, and a studio that gives you seven million can leave you alone completely. I've already been to Hollywood, actually, and it's a lot of driving around and people who care much more about their bodies than their minds and spirit. I've spent a lot of time in New York in the last year, but always come back thinking Austin has the highest per capita ratio of wonderful people and the lowest percentage of assholes of any city. I believe I'll be based here for quite some time.