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Richard Linklater: Still Pushing the Envelope

If not one of the founding fathers of independent film, Richard Linklater is at least one of the uncles. Ten years ago, he took a camera and walked up and down the streets of his hometown Austin, Texas, to produce the strange and wonderful Slacker. From there, Linklater wrote and directed numerous personal films dealing with such themes as the awkwardness of high school in the seventies, the power and magic of love between two strangers, and the emptiness of living through your twenties. recently sat down with Linklater to discuss his two latest films, Tape and Waking Life, and his use of digital video and the latter film’s groundbreaking animation. In 2001, Linklater continues to take those introspective journeys he first defined a decade ago. What was the inspiration for Waking Life?

Richard Linklater: It was an old idea, a personal idea. The experiences of the lead character Wiley — the series of false awakenings in layered dream states — actually happened to me twenty years ago. I always held onto that experience and thought of it as an interesting narrative — from which the movie ultimately follows. It sort of acts as the narrative operating system of the film.

The film encompasses many different philosophical notions. Were they derived from personal observations only or through collective efforts?

It was a combination of both — my own interests mixed with the actors involved in the production in reacting to the different themes of the film. I met a lot of people — many who helped work up the dialog, such as academics and writers — most in New York, but all over the country.

Your previous films, such as The Newton Boys and SubUrbia, held more of a commercial look and feel to them — even Dazed and Confused. Explain the avant-garde approach you took for Waking Life.

I’m always looking for a structure that you can hang a lot of ideas on. Many of my characters are self-conscious and very verbally. Waking Life holds many of those qualities but to a greater extent. The film represents only a further extension of my previous movies but a more personal and introspective narrative to drive the film’s momentum.

How did animation fold into the mix for the final look and feel for Waking Life?

Waking Life would not have worked solely as live-action. I thought about it for all these years but it wouldn’t have worked in the end. Animation, not just any animation, but the type of rotoscoping used in the film. But it worked because it’s a perfect glove fit — if you think about how your brain processes the imagery and what you’re seeing… you’re accepting it as reality when it is only a visual construct. It represents how your brain could interpret individual dreams or memories. To perceive a movie like Waking Life, you have to put yourself right in the headspace that the film can actually make sense. The harsh realism of film would not have been able to deliver that message.

How long did it take to make the film?

A full year to animate and probably a year to expand it to a 35mm print. Last year, when we premiered it at Sundance we just digitally projected. By the time we got a print which we were happy with — final mix, closing credits, etc. — the process took over two years.

How long did your other project Tape take to complete?

Tape happened very spontaneously but it took along time to complete — the post-production process was lengthy, mainly because of the way I shot it — all the different camera angles.

So, were the characters of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Waking Life a continuation of their characters from Before Sunrise?

On some level, yeah. My own cinema dreams of my characters’ lives still intertwining with each other.

Let’s talk about your earlier films. Which character or characters do you most identify with in Dazed and Confused? I watched the film last night and was thinking to myself, ‘Which guy was Linklater in high school?’

(laughs) I honestly feel very dispersed over all of the characters in Dazed. Technically, I think I was probably Wiley’s character at that age but as I got older, I related to a number of the teenagers in the film. As a teenager, you feel like you’re sort of everybody, like a free agent. In high school, everyone has their jock friends, their geek friends — you seem to limit everyone else and act as a free agent because everyone needs to be classified except for yourself. But honestly, I was all of those people in certain respects.

So was SubUrbia an unconscious sequel to Dazed and Confused?

Yes — which is a good point. When I was making SubUrbia, I thought to myself, ‘This is the Dazed sequel that I would never make.’ I didn’t have something so poignant at that 20, 21 age when things tend to get a little darker. I didn’t have a story that I was going to pursue. With SubUrbia, I identified with the story when I first read it because I knew those people — that was my life.

Which part of your life was SubUrbia?

Once again, I have to say it was a general overview of all of the people in the film. I knew them or was somewhat part of them in certain elements. I would have to say I most identified with the lead characters of Jeff, with what he is going through; Pony, the folk rock star; and Suse, the struggling performance artist, at different times during my twenties. It’s amazing that no one thinks of that being the toughest time in one’s life. You have such a wide safety net when you are a teenager, living in your parents’ house and just going to high school [sic].

When you are out of that, you lose all of your moorings: You suddenly have nothing and society is much harsher on you. People are very critical of you in your twenties. You keep striving for something you don’t quite know yet, and you know what you don’t want to do, but you don’t really know what you should be doing. You’ve rejected something and in turn, have put yourself in a very unknown place. People should be more sympathetic to that age range. I even noticed in the criticism of the film that the subject material was too antagonistic to the characters. It seems that that is a sign that we are very critical to young people that don’t have it all together.

It’s been ten years since Slacker. You’ve made a series of films –Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, SubUrbia — a continuous flow of character-driven pieces. Your last film, The Newton Boys, seemed to fall out of context with your previous body of work. What was your intent for that film?

On the surface, that film seems very incongruous to everything else I’ve done. I read this article about these real life guys from Texas in the ’20s. I was drawn to these poor guys that chose to be criminals and I was very interested in crime — not psychopaths killing people but outlaws who didn’t mind breaking laws tha
t didn’t hurt innocent people — I felt like it would make a great story. The film became a huge research project, which took years, and we poured everything into it. It was a lot of fun. I do feel that it is like my other works in the fact that it is character-driven, but it disappoints probably in the fact that the Newton boys weren’t Public Enemy No. 1 or psycho killers. It wasn’t the shoot-’em-up Young Guns-type of film that it was marketed as. It was my type of studio film; not much happens and you basically follow these guys around. That felt weird because I loved the movie but when it reached the public, but I could sense a major discontent. The criticism was something like, ‘It was trying to be Bonnie and Clyde.‘ I took that as a compliment because it was trying to be the total opposite of Bonnie and Clyde (laughs).

Original photos by Jennifer Wanderer,

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