John Pierson, the producer of Slacker and several other early features by notable directors of the American independent filmmaking renaissance of the ‘80s and ‘90s, once described Richard Linklater as the voice of a generation that wasn’t part of it: an art film brat who found himself at the center of a microbudget filmmaking movement who would “much rather talk about Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac than either Jaws or The Brady Bunch.” Yet Linklater’s filmography suggests that he’s just as comfortable with ascetic French minimalism as he is with American broadcast television. His career covers everything from no-budget chamber dramas like Tape to studio-backed kids’ movies like School of Rock to cult classics like Dazed and Confused and animated experiments like Waking Life.
While Linklater is notably comfortable making movies in his native Texas (he arguably defined Austin’s filmmaking and twentysomething scene without overtly seeking to instigate or capture either), as evidenced by the enthusiastic reception surrounding the third entry in his much beloved Before trilogy, he’s just as comfortable working on the continent that housed Bresson as he is the one that birthed Matthew McConaughey. Time and again, Linklater has proven that all he needs to make a film is a camera, a setting, and some interesting conversation. So here’s a bit of free film school from the creative mind behind Before Midnight and general slackerdom.
Don’t Encourage – Demand – that Actors to Contribute to the Creative Process
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Linklater were all nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for Before Sunset, and there’s a reason the trio were recognized for this particular film. In a recent Fresh Air profile, Linklater recounts his reasoning behind searching for actors that can write as part of their performance for the first Before film. He knew these films wouldn’t have worked any other way:
“I’m interested in the reality of these actors on the screen, so I know that you can’t just say lines written by someone else. The text – the script – has to work through the person. So having Julie and Ethan and I personalizing it and demanding they give a lot of themselves – I thought that would be the only way that film could ultimately work the way I wanted it to. The script was ultimately a first step. But for it to give the effect that I wanted, I was looking for the two most creative actors I could find to fill those shoes, because I knew what would be asked of them.”
Drama Doesn’t Drive Story, Comedy Does
In the months leading up to the release of his long-gestating Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly, Linklater told The AV Club about what makes his take on Dick’s work different from the Minority Reports out there: “I really tried to maintain the weirdness of the story, and the weirdness of the tone, in that it’s both kind of tragic and comedic. Which I think works in his books very well. Scanner especially. It’s hilarious, and darker than you can imagine. I wanted the movie to be both. I think usually in adaptations, you lose the comedic. People think drama drives story, but I thought the comedy was really the heart and soul.”
This quote provides a fitting summation of the type of tone Linklater strikes across many of his films. Movies like A Scanner Darkly and Bernie deal with dark, serious topics like drug addiction and murder, yet Linklater imbues these films (and almost all his films, except perhaps SubUrbia) with a musical understanding of comic timing. He doesn’t see comedy as necessarily light or escapist, but an essential means for accessing the core of certain characters and stories.
Make Sure You Know What Works
During the first minute and a half of this lecture, Linklater discusses the particular complications of being a writer-director: you have to fire yourself, and the director has to constantly replace the writer, ready to get rid of what’s on the page at a moment’s notice if it doesn’t work. While perhaps an obvious and oft-repeated piece of advice, it’s important for two reasons: Richard Linklater is known for 1) dialogue heavy-films, and 2) characters who discuss abstract ideas and theories. The man made a movie about lucid dreaming, for crying out loud. So if the guy who gave us Slacker and Waking Life stresses the role of the concrete, the functional, and the practical in filmmaking, and sees directing as a serious task rather than a medium for delivering the poetry of the script, then you know pragmatic thinking is absolutely essential to narrative filmmaking.
Ask ‘Why Not?’
While making Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater had this to say about why he made Slacker (his sophomore effort, btw): “It was one of my first film ideas. I remember I was riding to Houston at about three in the morning, and I just had this idea. When you’re just starting work in films, then everything’s a possibility. Had I ever gone to film school, I probably never could have thought of it. But I remember just riding and thinking, ‘Why can’t a film just go from one thing, to the next, to the next, to the next….’ Cinema is perfect for a structure like that. The film is just totally real and wide open like that, in the way that people perceive cinema as real, kind of seemingly real.”
The takeaway: Don’t let narrative (or film school) conventions foreclose cinematic possibilities. Filmmaking is a risk no matter what, so you may as well take advantage of that risk to attempt something innovative. Cinema is still full of unrealized potential.
Know Where You Are in the Film
Linklater’s films are very personal, and some are downright autobiographical to the point of legal action. But the writer/director sees knowing his place in the universe of each film, and having a personal reason to do it, as an important drive for realizing (and justifying) the film itself. Check out what he has to say about the subject starting at 19:30 in the clip below:
Let It Roll
Linklater was not only an accidental pioneer of ‘90s independent filmmaking, but also attempted to master emerging technologies in the 2000s as well. In 2001, he released two films shot on inexpensive digital video cameras: Waking Life, which was then animated using rotoscoping techniques, and Tape, a bare-bones drama between three characters, which he made through InDigEnt, a small (and regrettably short-lived) indie film company that devoted itself to exploring early digital film technologies. Tape‘s aesthetic is rough, but it’s lent a certain energy that isn’t replicable in high-quality HD cameras like the Red One: it feels like a series of events that unfold in real time.
In an interview alongside Ethan Hawke in 2011, Linklater discusses the advantages this nascent technology gave him, allowing him to roll (for the first time) for 15-20 minutes on end, which enabled his cast to pursue a more “theatrical” and less cut-up approach to performing.
What We Have Learned
Richard Linklater has been at the forefront of several important chapters in American filmmaking, from the rise of the indie in the ‘80s and ‘90s to the industry’s switch to digital. He’s made black comedies, a remake, adaptations of books and plays, a trilogy, and even a western. Yet everything from his inventive microbudget indies to his studio hits retain a distinctive Linklater flare because he maintains a palpable personal investment in his work, believes in collaborative creativity, and embraces risk. And he’s somehow found a way to articulate a personal style that balances philosophical introspection with the practical mechanics of filmmaking. Not all of his films work (Bad News Bears, anyone?), but when they do, they can’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.