The Austin Chronicle

Saint Teresa: Richard Linklater and John Pierson on the Icon of Slacker

The director of Slacker and the film’s sales agent discuss the creative importance of actor and musician Teresa Taylor

August 4, 2023, Screens

Richard Linklater: Teresa Taylor, ICON. It was amazing to see The New York Times and be like, "Wow, there she is in bright colors." I can't think of an actor or a figure whose obituary picture would be a poster to a movie they were in, but that was pretty cool.

John Pierson: Unprecedented. One of the things that had to happen is you had to be in our digital age where we're looking at that online, so that those colors, when it popped up there at the top of the obituaries Thursday afternoon, shockingly, but those colors were so sharp and bright, which you'd never would have seen in a print edition even when they added color.

RL: Right.

JP: It was just like, holy shit. It looks better than the poster.

RL: Yeah, it was cool on several levels. One, Teresa would get a kick out of the love and the attention she got from her own obituary. She liked that kind of thing, and I don't think it would have been entirely predictable. The other is, yes, it was so bright and shiny in The New York Times. Had it been much longer ago, it probably wouldn't have been there at all. It took a generation of people who had seen the Butthole Surfers in the Eighties and Nineties and the movie to have worked their way up to editor and publisher level and deem it culturally relevant. The national coverage of her passing was significant and made it very clear she had become this icon.

JP: I'll bring it up right away. Here's the debate about this picture of her [laughs].

RL: Is it a debate?

JP: It's partly her. The New York Times obit has a whole section describing that iconic image from the Slacker poster and how she has these thin arms shoved in her pockets.

RL: Anyone who knows Teresa knows Teresa was not really a very hands-in-pocket kind of person. And that picture, of course, is the same picture that we used when we started distributing the film ourselves the year before. It was just a picture, one of the stills. Thank God Debbie Pastor was there that morning taking pictures and snapped one in rehearsal. She got in there and got some good stills from that scene. And one of them was this cool picture, but clearly in the photo that Debbie took Teresa's got the Madonna Pap smear in her hands, right at a chest level.

JP: Yeah, she's holding it in front of her, showing it off.

RL: That's the original picture, but then there's this evolution. We get a national distributor, Orion Classics, thanks to you [Pierson], and they eventually start working on an official poster. They liked the poster we'd been using as it seems to be working, but they start monkeying with it and this was our whiff of a corporate takeover. They introduced a lot of color into it from the original black-and-white photo.

JP: Which looks really great.

RL: Yeah, it was a little overwhelming, but most concerning was that they took her arms, got rid of the Pap smear, and stuck them in her pockets. I don't know if they airbrushed them or repainted them but I'm pretty sure those aren't her arms because they wouldn't have had them as a reference. I think they just took these two little flesh-colored sticks and stuck them in the pocket area. And I think that was ultimately a really good call on their part.

JP: Well, a couple of thoughts. You were used to the old image because you used it, but hands in pockets is very Slacker-y in the public's perception anyway, whether you would disagree with that or not. So, there's that. Also, you can't show her holding the Pap smear without having an arrow pointing saying "Madonna Pap smear." I mean, like, what is it? What is she holding?

RL: And if you notice closely the T-shirt in the publicity still, taken during a rehearsal, says "Fuck art, let's dance." But by the time we were shooting, it was kind of a thing amongst us like, "Oh, that looks like we're trying to be too clever, we're trying to make a statement of some kind and, like, is that too much?" So, before we rolled she turned it inside out.

JP: Oh, that's really funny.

RL: You can see the outline of those words, backwards.

JP: And whatever generation the movie is about, she became the symbol of it.*

RL: And this is why I think we're even having this bigger discussion, that goes beyond her own life, and it's that Teresa became a kind of symbol. She was the embodiment of that time and place and Teresa was just cool. She was her own cat. I can't think of anyone in the movie who symbolized what the movie was about more than Teresa. She was doing her own thing. She was a musician, she loved movies, had her hand in everything, was wicked funny, wildly curious, smart and edgy. And then she ends up this poster girl, but the irony is she worked maybe half a day on the movie. We had rehearsed it in the days leading up to shooting, but shot that scene rather quickly, on a side street in Downtown Austin with no permits or permission. She was like, "I worked one morning – why's my picture everywhere and how did I end up on the side of the building?" It must have been a little much, but it was just the timing, Deb's photo, and just her.

JP: I would see her at some of these Slacker reunions, the 10, 20 whatever. And she'd sort of jokingly go like, "Hey, don't I get more for that? I represent the film." But at the same time, like, "That's not me. It's mostly me."

RL: Those darn arms. It was all strange. She took the ride in that way, but we all did with this little thing we did that summer. It was kind of random – well, not random. I asked her very specifically to be in the movie. But the Butthole Surfers were touring that summer, and I think that was the first tour she wasn't with them. Had she been, then she's not in the movie. I think she was ready for a break at that time.

JP: Well, they did years in a row, right? I mean literally. They were years when they didn't ever come home – wherever home would have been, staying in the van or whatever.

RL: Yeah, they were a touring band with that incredible live show that people are still raving about. I first knew her as a fan, going to the Butthole Surfer shows, but I got to know her personally when she was in George Morris' film class at [Austin Community College]. I think [ACC Radio-Television-Film Department founder] Chale Nafus had gotten George a job teaching film history, and Teresa was in one of his classes. She was really interested in film, she loved films, and was coming to the early Austin Film Society stuff we were doing in '86 or '87ish. I remember her coming to a number of the Fassbinder films, which was our first big director retrospective. And we would show them in our living room during the week and Teresa and Gibby [Haynes] might wander in for a screening. Around that time Gibby was interested in incorporating film projections into their already wild live show. I even projected for them a little bit initially, and hooked them up with a few films, including Paul Sharit's "Epileptic Seizure Comparison," which is a very strobey-type film, that seemed to fit their vibe. They soon had all kinds of crazy shit showing behind their gonzo shows – stuff like car crash and penile surgery films.

The seeds to her scene in the movie started around then – she was helping me make some Film Society T-shirts. It was a weekend afternoon, we're going to be inking some shirts, and she shows up telling this crazy true story about a car racing down the highway coming into town, the driver waving a gun around, that ends up exactly as described in the movie. So a few years later we mixed that exact story with the idea of the Madonna Pap smear as a kind of commodity. So while it was more or less scripted, she couldn't help but put her own little razzmatazz on each take because Teresa was so witty and a natural performer.

JP: The scene's great. One of the reasons the scene's great the first time you see it and even more times is because you're not expecting that transition from the story she's spinning out to like, oh by the way look what I got. It's this great moment.

RL: You see her mind shift and she's like, down to business, hawking this thing. During rehearsals she was trying to wedge in that Madonna was doing "the Warren Beatty gig" right now. I thought it might date the movie like when they were doing Dick Tracy that summer and years later no one might know exactly what that means.

JP: You used to compare Dick Tracy and Slacker – that the budgets were different, but it costs the same to get a ticket.

RL: Right, but the best contrast was opening weekend – Terminator 2, the biggest budget ever at the time, over 100 million, versus 23 grand [for] Slacker. We were the only two films opening that weekend.

JP: Her scene is also prominently featured in the trailer for Slacker. So, what's the real story on how Madonna saw that trailer? What's the lore?

RL: Well, for that story we can thank Todd Haynes, because it ends up one of his funny stories. He told it again a few years ago at Sundance, where I was interviewing him on the occasion of a special screening of "[Superstar:] The Karen Carpenter Story," of which the UCLA [Film & Television] Archive had done a beautiful restoration of. From Sundance on in '91, Poison and Slacker were contemporaneous. So Madonna was in the theatre to see Poison, had bought a ticket and all, at Nuart in Los Angeles. The theatre is buzzing – Madonna is there! They're showing trailers before the movie, and the Slacker trailer comes on. At the moment when Teresa lifts up the jar and says, 'It's a Madonna Pap smear,' 400 people's heads turn and look at Madonna sitting in the back with shades on or whatever. And she's suddenly so uncomfortable she gets up and leaves.

All these years later Todd's still giving me shit, like I cock-blocked his relationship with Madonna. Who knows, she might have quietly changed seats, but the way he tells it, it ran her out of the theatre. So Madonna looms over that era, and the reason I thought Teresa would be so great for the Pap Smear Pusher is because I had read this interview she had done in Bitch magazine talking about, amongst other things, herself in the tradition of female drummers, including Karen Carpenter. Teresa's so funny, at some point in the interview she mentions her love of Madonna. She goes, "I love Madonna so much, I feel about her the way Mark David Chapman must have felt about John Lennon, I just want to kill you so I will be part of you forever." I thought that was so funny and pure Teresa. But that was the thing about being a Butthole Surfer at that time. Her twin drummer King Coffey gave an interview around that time and he's like, "Yeah, I think I could shoot the president and at least I'll be a cult figure to a few hundred people forever," or something. That usually puts you on a FBI list of some kind.

JP: A little competitive one-upmanship.

RL: It's hard to even convey how cool and urgent the Butthole Surfers were in this kind of space they created, underground, but they were popular, big shows, even celebrities started showing up. They were just the deal – it was tribal. I heard at one show a famous filmmaker came backstage after and was like, "I love you guys, I want to put your music in my next movie." And Teresa looked at him and said, "It better be better than your last movie." That was Teresa – funny. There usually aren't things making you happy for someone after they're gone, but just reading the comments in The New York Times for Teresa's obit, it was great to see so many people remembering Butthole Surfers shows, and the movie too, and to feel how much she meant to them, what she represented. And, big news, there's a cool tribute to Teresa in the works. Everyone knew of her health situation, and she spoke openly of her diagnosis, and there was a groundswell of interest in doing this before she passed, but it was complicated and didn't happen in time. You know the famous movie mural on the 24th Street side of the old Varsity Theatre? What's there now, a CVS?

JP: I think there's a noodle shop in there, too.

RL: Well, in this wonderful mural of movie frames and images, one of them is inexplicably blank, just a white frame – it's odd. I don't know if it's the result of a repair or renovation, I think the whole thing is constantly under threat of going away, but the idea is to get Teresa's iconic picture up there. I think that would be cool to be in the neighborhood, look up and see Teresa's face there. From the old I Luv Video wall over to the Varsity. She earned it. She suffered for it a little bit too, but I hope not too much.

JP: Who would paint Teresa?

RL: There's a company involved [SprATX] – more a technical undertaking than art, maybe. Permits, approvals, temporary street closure, rent a scissor lift to get up there – nothing's simple, but it's in the works, just not fully funded yet. Hope it can happen. **

*There was an inane technical debate in The New York Times reader comments about the exact date when Boomers ended and Gen X started – ed.

** It's closer to happening than it seems. Read more in this week's feature story. – ed.

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