Anyone vaguely familiar with American independent film knows about Richard Linklater. “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” the sweeping “Before” trilogy and “Boyhood” are only a few of the venerated titles in the ever-innovative director’s roster. This year’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” was just the latest example of Linklater’s ability to take fun, goofy scenarios and transform them into something poignant. All the while, the filmmaker has remained in Austin, where he has built his own community of movie lovers through the Austin Film Society, the organization he founded in 1985. Linklater’s career has enough chapters to fill a film of its own, which is what co-directors Louis Black and Karen Bernstein do in “Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny,” an overview of Linklater’s story that opens in theaters and on VOD this week.
Notably, the filmmakers behind “Dream is Destiny” are a part of the story that they capture. Bernstein is a veteran documentarian based in West Texas, while Black — who memorably cameos in “Slacker” as a grumbling patron at an Austin diner — co-founded the groundbreaking South by Southwest conference, which celebrates film, music and interactive on a national scale each year, in addition to kickstarting seminal alt-weekly the Austin Chronicle.
At Sundance, where “Dream is Destiny” premiered, IndieWire joined Linklater and Black for some Texas BBQ at their condo. In these excerpts from the conversation, the pair talk about the typically shy Linklater’s involvement in a documentary about his accomplishments, how he managed to galvanize a local community of filmmakers, and why those efforts are still relevant today.
Linklater Shares His World
LOUIS BLACK: Rick could’ve said no this.
RICHARD LINKLATER: My inability to say no sometimes gets me in trouble.
LB: I felt like we were just getting horribly short-changed. It’s weird to me that someone can so actively participate in the ongoing cinematic cultural discussion without knowing about Rick. I knew who all my icons were. Now, when I visit that ongoing discussion, all the people who were most important to me aren’t part of it — not because I’ve grown old, but because the discussion’s weaker in some of the ways it’s focused.
RL: When someone wants to profile you and hang out for a couple of days, you have to ask what your limits are. Because I’d know Louis and Karen for so long, I figured if I was ever going to open up, it would be with them. I probably agreed to more access than I usually would.
I don’t like seeing my whole life out there. I don’t think it would help me psychologically. I’m pretty specific in what I put out in the world. I work hard at it. I’m not sending out tweets about what’s on my mind today. I spend a lot of time to make a film to let you know what I think about something. I just never had an instinct to be in front of the camera. But this isn’t really my movie.
Austin’s Film World Finds a Champion
LB: In the seventies and eighties, it was really common for a filmmaker to make one film and then go on to find success in L.A., where they’d get fucked up on drugs or alcohol, and then they either came back or rebuilt their careers. We did have Tobe Hooper with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Eagle Pennell’s “The Whole Shootin’ Match” in ’78, followed by his “Last Night at the Alamo.” But there it didn’t sustain or interact. There were little pockets. I knew a lot of these guys, but there was no community. When Rick stayed, he provided a center with the Austin Film Society for the next generations of filmmakers to learn by watching films. That kind of social interaction over films was important. Then he nurtured the community. It was never this moment where we sat around and asked, “What’s next?” It was usually a phone call: “Louis, federal and state funding for the arts is drying up..”
RL: It had dried up. They cut the regional grant program.
LB: So Rick said, “Why not start some kind of filmmaker production fund, where we show our friends’ movies, and give the money away for a juried competition?” Of course it was a great idea. Then we started doing the Texas Film Hall of Film. It was so organic.
RL: I always had the Film Society keeping me in Austin. Once, I was in Los Angeles for a lengthy post-production on “Dazed and Confused” — they delayed the release of the film for months. I was just out there for longer and really worn down. It wasn’t fun. I remember being so happy to get home. This work takes you all over the world. I work in L.A. a lot, New York a lot. The generation before me really had to go out there, get an agent. But the indie world was more inclusive, more national, global. There’s a downside to that, where you just don’t know as many people. That’s why I don’t think I’m under-appreciated — or, when I do, I realize that I make my own choices by staying in Austin.
Building a Community
RL: I remember being envious of the music scene. You’d look around at some concert and three-quarters of the audience would be musicians watching the band. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were filmmakers in the audience?” Now there are so many films where people come up and ask me, “Do you know this filmmaker with this new film from Austin that’s a big deal?” And I have to say, “No.” It’s so big you can’t keep up. That was unthinkable in the eighties and most of the nineties. If there was a film being made in town, I’d know about it.
LB: The issue isn’t just Rick’s generosity but his strategy. It’s not the Rick show anymore. It’s stuff he’s created that’s ongoing, so other artists are curating series now. It’s not a club where if Rick likes you, you’re in.
RL: I have no sway.
LB: Most of these events are run by non-profits.
RL: In the early days, I did everything for the Film Society. Shipped every print, did the grunt work. But that was a long time ago. It’s just about getting really good people.
LB: The most depressing thing was when four films were sitting around your living room and you hand’t shipped them back. They were overdue. You had to figure out some way to get them to the post office. This is a process people don’t know anymore.
RL: Cinema Texas was the campus film society that really flourished in the seventies and into the eighties. It faded away when UT stopped showing films on campus because it was losing money. But as film societies were dying nationwide, we really took off. And people could hang out, to talk about the movie, as long as they wanted. I’ve been saying for years that it’s a great time to be a filmmaker and the hardest time to get your film seen. What I’m saying is that I think I was born at the right time. When I was at Sundance 25 years ago, there were like 200 film submissions, and I thought it was such a big number. This was expensive now. Now it’s in the thousands, but they’re done inexpensively, which is probably healthy for filmmakers. But the sheer numbers make it really tough to break through.
The Ascendency of SXSW and Moviegoing Today
LB: The film part of SXSW was really unexpected. The first year we did it, they made fun of it in the newspaper, saying it was a film festival for the friends of Louis Black. And I was thinking, “Well, isn’t that the idea?”
RL: I remember that first festival. It was at the Dobie Theater. You talked me into showing something. In the lobby of the theater, Nick Barbaro, my co-founder, he just stood up on a little chair and announced all the winners of the festival. Now it’s a much bigger year.
LB: Five or six years into it, I showed up at the awards and nobody had been assigned to run it, so I was the emcee. I can’t pronounce people’s names to save my life. It turned into one of those nightmares.
RL: Maybe it’s just idealistic thinking, but I remember indie films being a big deal then — the new Jarmusch film or whatever. Young people really went to it and it meant something. It was a hard-earned thing by the eighties and nineties. It didn’t exist before and it was cool, like indie rock or something. It was ours and it was important. Now, I sense with young people that there are a lot of cineastes and people who love movies — but that cultural aspect is harder to find today.
LB: A lot of people we know are working in television today. I taught a class on American independent film 10 years ago, and ask everyone to list some of the American films they’d seen. I shocked. About 90 percent of them had seen “Office Space” and “Dazed and Confused.” Maybe 75 percent had seen “Pulp Fiction.” But no Coen brothers, no Jarmusch films, not many Linklater films.
RL: The auteurist approach is something other generations take for granted. It used to be, “I wanted to see all the films by that director.” Now it’s like, “Not really.” The availability of so much, so quickly, so intimately, is alarming. Why would you watch it at a film society now? But we watched things in a vacuum of not being able to see them in other ways. However, it’s a complete myth that everything’s available now — and certainly it’s not all available on 35mm. We bask in the big screen and the darkened theater. I don’t think that’s going away. It’s slowly going away for a certain kind of film. But people still appreciate it.
Fighting for Attention
RL: It’s a busy time. Every distributor will tell you that. You have to be able to distribute a movie and get it out there for a couple thousand dollars. The total P&A budget on “Slacker” was something like $200,000. That’s mind-boggling. Now, studios are spending $20 million to tell the American public that a movie exists. It’s huge. And it works against the less commercial films. So I think the economics of getting people’s attention has changed a lot. At the last Austin Film Society screening, I asked how many students were there, and maybe five hands went up. And we’re giving free tickets to them. If you sign up with a student ID, you can come free to see a 35mm print of some classic. They’re just so…busy. They have other things to do.
But it’s always a struggle. In 1988, I was disappointed in how many students came. I guess you get out of school and then zero in on your passion. Ideally, film school should nurture a film club atmosphere. So we keep trying.
LB: One of my areas of unexpected expertise is the need to socialize. When everyone sits at home watching stuff, they’re all talking about it. So I really think there’s a life for stuff in a social environment, including television.
RL: It just needs to be seen in a non-profit environment, like the opera or museums. The economics of it fall strongly into a non-profit, break-even kind of model. But old money that donates to the arts donates to symphonies, ballets. They don’t often donate to film culture. That has to be nurtured.