‘Slacker’ on the Cusp of the Independent Cinema Revolution

A story doesn’t belong to one person. Why do we insist our films bind themselves to a single character? The human experience ripples across oceans of individuals. Narrative, or the moments only absurd enough to remember, collect in patches like seaweed. To unlock the camera from a performer and let it drift with the current of multiple plots is antithetical to the titanic Hollywood machine, but in the early ’90s, we were eager to sink the bastard. A new ship and crew were necessary.

As Richard Linklater recently told Vanity Fair, rebellion from the form struck his mind around two o’clock in the morning while he was trapped in a long car ride. Film should be a freeing endeavor, and Robert McKee’s principals should be ditched the moment they’re digested. The thought feels dangerous as much as it does exhilarating, and he carried it as an itch for six years before he could liberate it with a scratch called Slacker.

From birth, Linklater meandered through Texas. He did time in Huntsville. He nabbed a few years in Bellaire. He worked upon an oil rig off-shore and pondered purpose like the rest of us. In Austin, he found an oasis; a place where an interior life could be chased, caught, and crafted. The stroll that brought him there inspired his early efforts as a filmmaker, and the desire to bump up against storytelling formula encouraged him to embrace the mundanity of life’s path.

Slacker is a bombardment of personalities. A single day split into dozens of conversations that cause the judgemental to go wide-eyed or drift as a mechanism of self-defense. We maneuver through moon-landing conspiracists, aggressive taxi cab confessions, house thieves cornered in karmic battles of wits, a pop culture collector who would cause that TV-headed prankster in Virginia pause, and Teresa Taylor‘s celebrity Pap smear black market dealer. The rhythm of these encounters rises and falls and rises and falls. The Hangout Film was forming, and the friends LA were providing just wouldn’t cut it anymore. We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna ride, but not with Wild Angels; with weirdos that recontextualized the freaks in our daily lives.

The film came from nothing. Less than nothing. It’s a 2 a.m. thought percolated for nearly a decade before $23,000 was gathered by family and credit card debt. Linklater shot for a year and stole another one to edit. Like the listless characters within, Slacker wandered, collecting rejections from the festival circuit. In Austin, the film rumbled and reverberated. The noise was good and finally loud enough to capture the attention of Orion Classics, and you must discover the grittier details of that sale in John Pierson‘s seminal book Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes.

The studio accepted Slacker‘s 16mm, blew it out to 35mm, and pushed it into cities they deemed like-minded with Austin. Steam built. Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape was the brush fire a year before, and Slacker was the smoke circling above — a smoke we wanted to toke. In 1989, the Soderbergh “indie” scored $24.7 million, ranking 46 in the American domestic box office right in front of Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and just behind Glory. A year later, the independently financed Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came in at number five with $135.2 million.

Spend little, make big. The financial model started to alter, and Austin tastes were turning into a niche national flavor. Slacker did not earn nearly as many dollars as the films it’s often associated alongside. By the end of its initial run, the film brought in $1.2 million which is not too damn shabby on a budget of $23,000. The conversation and the reputation that stemmed from it was more valuable. Slacker was the film that others pointed towards, serving as a rallying cry and encouraging Kevin Smith to will his own hangout flick into existence.

A year later, Slacker hit home video. Maybe even more significant, the Slacker book was published by St. Martin’s Griffin. Inside, Linklater bears his soul of creation. A fellow wannabe can crack it open and pour themselves over the screenplay and track the history of production. Here was unfettered access to the thought process of the writer, the director, the producer, the actor – aka Richard Linklater. There are diary entries, a plethora of notes from the cast and the crew, and photos, photos, photos. As important as Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew or Lloyd Kaufman’s Make Your Own Damn Movie, the Slacker companion transformed the inspiration some felt from the film into a tool to get the job done.

The big-from-small-cash led to a slew of tiny studios that then fell under the wing of massive corporations. By the time Pulp Fiction ignited its special slew of mimics, Miramax was already under Disney’s control. Hollywood sprung a series of art-house divisions designed to orchestrate as many Slackers as possible. Hello Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, Focus Features, and Warner Independent Pictures.

While his film did not make as many waves as some, Linklater fell in line with the Sundance darlings. Universal Pictures was ravenous as well and scarfed down Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Budgets and constraints shifted, but Linklater’s roaming and relaxed narrative drift remained in all of his films. The hang holds in his Before Trilogy relationship epic, his Bad News Bears remake, Everybody Wants Some, and even Last Flag Flying. He’s in the system, but the Slacker defiance towards formula survives.

Brad Gullickson: @@MouthDork Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.