In conversation with Richard Linklater
From Idler 6, September 1994
After Douglas Coupland, a natural choice for an interview was Richard Linklater, who had then come out with the film Slacker and also Dazed and Confused, and was something of a spokesman for so-called Generation X.
I had an hour with him on the phone, where he came across as gentle and serious about his art. What interested me in this one was our discussion of the creative process.
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Richard Linklater wrote and directed the seminal Gen X movie Slacker, and his teen pic Dazed and Confused was recently released to rave reviews. We spoke to the laid back film maker at his office in Austin, Texas about his creative processes, upcoming projects, youthful idealism and being cool.
Idler: In interviews you’ve often reiterated the point that being a slacker doesn’t mean being lazy.
Linklater: Daydreaming is a productive activity. Where do you get your ideas from? If you’re working all day, that kind of kills a lot. It’s also about visualising your ideal world, both the kind of world you live in and also who you want to hang around with and what you want to spend your time doing, what are your ideal physical circumstances. My ideal world, which I’ve been thinking about for ten years, is the film world, where I can make films and watch movies and be around creative people.
Idler: What motivates your work?
Linklater: Every film I’ve done has been like a kiss-off to a part of my life. I did a film before Slacker which was definitely a kiss-off to a certain mind set – wallowing in negativity and being very alienated. Slacker was my goodbye to a certain sort of social milieu that I lived in but wasn’t really much a part of.
Idler: So your attitudes evolve?
Linklater: I have a very conflicting attitudes towards everything. Dazed was about me coming to grips with teenage years, and it took that long to even want to deal with that.
Idler: After seeing Dazed and Confused, half of me thought, well, I still think like a 17-year-old in some ways.
Linklater: Well, you’ve gotta like both parts – I like the part that still thinks like a 17-year-old, but I’m glad that the other part has gone. It’s wonderful in one way, that energy … you don’t know your limitations yet, you’re only 17, you don’t know you won’t be a doctor, lawyer, president of the United States. People find out their own limits. I would tell the characters, the world is a blank cheque for you right now. That’s kind of a great feeling. But with that openness and possibility there’s also a lot of fear. Most people crave to find that little niche – “oh good, I can be an accountant.”
Idler: People grab onto that as a result of fear.
Linklater: Yeah, the most gutsy thing is to reject things you’re pretty good at. If a person’s good at something, everyone encourages you to do that. And yet maybe it’s not what’s right. I have friends who have quit law school in their third year. Well, they could have been a lawyer, they could have made a lot of money, but they knew that wasn’t spiritually what they should be doing with their time. It took a while for them to find it out because they’d been programmed from childhood. But everyone’s going to stoke you if you do something that makes a lot of money.
Idler: People say get a job, but there are other ways of earning money. Maybe you don’t have to get a job. There’s a feeling here that, OK, you might be poorer for longer, but eventually you’re earning money for doing something you enjoy. Are people thinking along those lines in the States?
Linklater: A small percentage. Nothing really changes. If a few more are, then great. But it would only be people who are predisposed to think like that anyway. You can’t tell someone who’s very entrenched, and doesn’t have the personality or the interest – they’re never going to listen. Maybe there are some others on the fence, and if they go that way that’s perhaps good. But I dunno. I don’t really wish to change anyone. Everyone’s on their own.
Idler: But these attitudes are quite a practical response to the changes in organisation of the work. Those secure jobs aren’t really around any more.
Linklater: One thing we’ve all learned is that the corporate father has no interest in you as an individual. So if people could be aware of that, and stay on their toes, adapt … that’s a good thing. Security’s not there, but security’s not a good thing anyway.
Idler: What kind of reactions did you get form Dazed and Confused in the States?
Linklater: Most people saw it just as comedy. It’s a big party film. There was one guy who came up to me, probably 18, and said, “me and my friends have seen this, like 15 times, but there’s a message here, right?”
My biggest compliments were, “I laughed all the way through, and when it was all over I was depressed.”
Oh good. And that’s how I felt about that environment: the specifics are kind of fun, the moment-to-moment reality, but the overall atmosphere of it was so oppressed, so limited, that it was kind of depressing.
Idler: You have Cynthia saying, “I’m tired of thinking of the present as an insignificant preamble to the future.” I don’t think that thought consciously occurred to me as an adolescent, but it does now.
Linklater: I didn’t have it that well articulated when I was 17, but I do remember thinking, “my whole life is anticipation, everything I’m doing in school is to serve some future purpose”. All people would say is, “what are you going to do when you grow up?” Wait – you mean we’re not people right now? You’re being moulded to be a little drone worker in the system, to be responsible, patriotic, God fearing … and that rubs off. It’s hard to enjoy the moment when you’re a teenager. I would tell the actors, “No matter how much fun it is now, you’re thinking about what’s happening next.” Bowling ball through the windshield, oh, we’re out of beer, oh, get the beer, oh, have a gun pulled on you, oh, where’s the party. That’s how I remember it. An evening would be over and it was like, well, nothing happened.
Idler: Hasn’t Austin become a destination for slack-seeking young people?
Linklater: It’s disgusting. It’s crowded now, so many people have moved here in the last few years. The computer industry here is booming. It’s a bad thing. I guess I’ve done my little part to help ruin it, making it seem like a “cool” town. Rents have sky-rocketed, it’s not the laid-back slacker town it used to be. Slacker depicted the depression of the Eighties. The oil business was falling apart, everyone was going bankrupt. It was a great time to live here. Now, everything’s booming again, and everybody’s all excited about money. But, there’ll always be people in bands and stuff, I guess …
Idler: So it’s better to live in crappy times rather than boom times?
Linklater: I got more out of the crappy times. People have more energy for other things. Your musician friends aren’t going out and getting their real-estate licences, prices are lower. The boom times only help about four per cent of the population. I guess there’s that trickle-down effect but it’s never felt by a certain part of the crowd. They just get to pay more for everything.
Idler: What’s happened to your slacker friends?
Linklater: My friends have always been creative types. So some are still making music, a lot drift back into academia, get PhD’s in philosophy or sociology. Academia is a good refuge. Teach three classes and have the whole summer off. That’s a good lifestyle. Plus it’s people who want to live in a world of ideas. That’s much better. It’s outside the capitalist world. But it’s always a struggle to try to make a living at what you’re doing. That struggle will always continue.
Idler: What’s your creative process?
Linklater: With Dazed, I knew five years ago that I had a teenage movie to make. So I think of it for five years, take little notes on note cards – I have a lot of movies I’m always doing this for: scenes, exact memories ideas, and it slowly comes together in my mind. Then all of a sudden I wake up one day and the circumstances are right. In Dazed’s case, Slacker had finally come out. So I had time to think, “next film”. I started buying all the music, finding all the songs I remembered from the period. Then I started writing. As I’ve planned it all out in advance, the actual writing of description and dialogues comes pretty easy to me. My latest script I wrote really quickly. Same process, note cards, get organised, then boom, wrote it in 11 days.
Idler: But you can’t do that without having had a long period of chewing it over.
Linklater: Superlong gestation period. That’s important because by the time I’m actually doing it I’ve thought about it so much and I’m so much a part of it that I trust my instincts. I don’t have to think about things too much. I would feel off-base if I got a script from someone else and was being professional about it. You have to know the film, and sure enough at the end it’s what you knew from the beginning. I try to capture that feeling I felt before I even started writing.
Idler: Do ideas some from conversation?
Linklater: Yeah. Every now and then. I might say, I’m going to do a teenage movie some day. A guy will say, Yeah, we had a tree fort we all went to, and teenage lives are so boring you risk your lives to be affected by something. So that idea gets incorporated. But I’ve never gotten dialogue from overhearing a conversation. I don’t even go out that much. The final dialogue is really a product of rehearsal. I’ll change a lot to make it real for the character. Some directors who are also writers get so in love with their own words that it hurts their performances.
Idler: I liked Mitch’s nose-grabbing mannerism.
Linklater: Yeah, you don’t see those reality flaws too much in movies. Everything is polished. The three favourites were Mitch, Slater the stoner for a certain crowd, and for the older crowd, Wooderson. When he came aboard, the whole crew just ignited. He was the spark club. I rewrote the ending to include him, he hadn’t been in it originally. In a lot of ways he delivers what some people see as the gist of the movie: “you gotta keep living, L-I-V-I-N.” And Matthew McCaughey the actor has already been in three other movies.
Idler: What about Mitch?
Linklater: Wiley’s off doing a movie with Winona Ryder. He’s very picky. He’s a cynical kid. He’s very smart, computer hacker type. He would never take it too seriously. People are offering him $100,000 to do like dumb summer camp movies but he says, nah, I can’t do that. And he can barely pay his rent. He was perfect, because his initiation into cool had to be very subtle. From being kind of geeky at the beginning, he becomes about two years cooler than his friends by the middle of the film.
Idler: This cool thing is interesting. People in their late twenties, early thirties use the word all the time in conversation.
Linklater: That word has never gone away. You say anything and people are like “OK, cool.” It’s a Beat expression, pre-hippie.
Idler: Or maybe it comes from Forties black jazz musicians.
Linklater: It wouldn’t have lasted if it had just been a white hippie thing.
Idler: You can bet there was no equivalent a hundred years ago.
Linklater: They might have said “good deal” instead. I’m doing research now for a film set in the Twenties. I’m listening to tapes of a bank robber character talking, but the word “cool” is nowhere in his vocabulary.
Idler: “Cool” doesn’t show any signs of going away now.
Linklater: No, it’s too all encompassing, too important a word. It’s like “and” or “I”. It fits too well. It’s probably the closest thing to a cuss word that isn’t a cuss word. Like, “shit” is a good thing. The versatility of the word shit. That tastes like shit, that’s good shit. Now it’s “you’re the shit”, which means, “you’re the coolest”. Where it used to be just pejorative. It seems as if the words are set, so you use the old ones in new ways, in new ways that express something about the culture. Like in fashion.
Idler: What about your new film, Before Sunrise [boy and girl meet in Vienna, spend the whole night talking]? What was the process behind that?
Linklater: Once again, that comes from personal experience. And had a five year gestation period. I met someone in Philadelphia, and spent the whole night walking around with this woman, talking. There’s a very interesting energy at work when you meet someone who you don’t know, because you can say things to her and she can say things to you that we wouldn’t actually say to people we were in relationships with. Everyone in a way has experienced that. It’s like being on a drug or something. In the movie, it hits both the characters at a time when that’s exactly what they need.
Idler: And what’s next?
Linklater: It’s a true story about the most successful bank robbers in US history, four brothers from Texas who operated in the early Twenties. They’re not known at all, mainly because they got away with it. They never killed anyone and they were businessmen about it. They were from a sharecropping family, cotton-pickers. Slaves had it better than they did, because at least slaves had somewhere to live if the crop didn’t come in. These guys would literally be on the street – it was a low existence. But they knew that life was going to be something better for them. I like the idea of them taking their destinies into their own hands. I kind of feel the same way; growing up in East Texas where the job was to go to be a prison guard. You have to do something a little different.
Idler: This is another theme of the slacker thing in a way, trying to take control of your own life.
Linklater: I’ve always dealt with characters who were trying to come to grips with society, how to still be an individual in that world. I could see myself as a criminal.
Idler: And what is a criminal? The dividing lines are nothing like as clear as we like to think.
Linklater: I heard a statistic that 75% of adults have committed a felony and never been caught. All these politicians are guilty of something. It’s just who gets a caught. It’s the thing about social class – if you come form a certain class and have the money it’s not a crime.
Idler: Any other five year plans?
Linklater: I always wait till a project’s over before I commit to anything else, because I never know how I’ll feel. You gotta feel for when the time is right. I never look at it as a profession or a career or anything. It’s something I feel lucky to be able to do for now. I hope to be able to do it forever but …
Linklater: Yeah, that’s always been the best, I guess. Things change, you’ve got to be able to roll with it … actually, I had a thought. You asked earlier what the Slacker crowd were doing. I think unlike other generations before, no-one feels like they’ve given up their youthful idealism. I think that’s the best thing, this generation isn’t going to be sitting around, wallowing…
Idler: …thinking, “I’ve been through that phase, that was a brief interlude away from normality” …
Linklater: … yeah, that was youthful idealism and it’s been crushed now. It’s more of an ongoing process for everyone now. I don’t think there’ll be any Big Chills coming out of this generation. No-one had any illusions to begin with, so no-one can sit around feeling disillusioned. That’s an accomplishment, because it leads to realistic productive activity.
Idler: I think that’s what I was trying to get at when I was talking about Dazed and Confused. It’s not just a simple process of nostalgia – the attitudes that are voiced are actually sensible ways to think. Why suddenly relinquish them when you turn 21?
Linklater: For me one of the big things in Dazed is when on the football field at the end, one of the characters, Don says: “I want to look back and say that it was the best I could do when I was stuck in this place.” That could be your metaphor for life. That’s probably a more positive attitude than, “we, as a generation, are going to change the world”. And you do change the world, in your own way.