FUTURE 5: Richard Linklater, "Slacker" for the New Millennium
by Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 01.09.01) — Ten years ago nearly to the week, a little film called “Slacker” played at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. Before that, however, it had shown as work-in-progress in 1989 at the Independent Feature Film Market, was already rejected by Sundance once, played theatrically at Austin’s Dobie Theater, garnered a handful of reviews, became part of a generation-x media fascination, and had Orion Classics as a distributor. All before its Sundance debut — times do change, don’t they?
And Richard Linklater seems to have changed with them. Sort of. Though he’s mined the terrain of other slackers in “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “Before Sunrise” (1995), “SubUrbia” (1997), and even to some extent in his Hollywood foray, “The Newton Boys” (1998), it is with “Waking Life,” and “Tape,” his two entries at this year’s impending Sundance Film Festival that signal new directions for the filmmaker — and yet at the same time, harken back to his first major work. “Waking Life” is animated by Bob Sabiston and produced by Tommy Pallotta, the innovators responsible for such shorts as “Snack and Drink,” “Roadhead” (and those damn Earthlink commercials that ripped off their ideas); the film is described by the Sundance catalogue as “storytelling without narrative, a generational quest for answers.” Sounds a lot like “Slacker,” of course, but visually, we expect Linklater has found an entirely new world. And with “Tape,” Linklater, has ventured into the world of digital video, for an intimate three-character study.
Because of his ability to incorporate these new technological innovations with his own personal vision, Linklater seemed an obvious choice to include in our series of discussions about the future of filmmaking. But the Austin-based director’s opinions are anything but obvious. indieWIRE’s Eugene Hernandez and Anthony Kaufman spoke with Linklater about renewing the cinema, changing aesthetics, DV’s brief lifespan, and the challenges of regional filmmaking.
indieWIRE: In the description of “Waking Life” in the Sundance catalogue, Geoff Gilmore calls the film “a work that propels us into new realms and fully establishes Linklater as one of the pre-eminent voices from the generation destined to reinvent the cinema.” I wanted to talk about this a little bit because it’s exactly what we’re trying to get at in this series of conversations: this concept of reinventing the cinema. To what extent have you been thinking about that or more importantly, what does that really mean to you?
Richard Linklater: I woke up one morning and the thought was in my head: “Reinvent cinema.” Yeah, brush teeth, reinvent cinema. No this was just a film I’ve had in my mind for a long time and it was a challenge to try to make it work. I don’t know. “Reinvent cinema.” That’s such a big concept. Maybe a subtler word would be renew. Like try to tell a different kind of story. I’ve always tried to do that in my own way, try to tell stories that haven’t been told or try to go to places in your head that haven’t been seen on film. Try to redefine what a film can be or is. That’s all fair.
iW: I assume you know the impact, because it’s been well documented and discussed, that “Slacker” had 10 years ago. Now these two films, it goes without saying, send a message or have an impact on other filmmakers. What message do you feel these two films send out to a younger generation of filmmakers as they look to people like you and others who are doing stuff either in the digital format or things that are pushing the creative and aesthetic envelope a little bit?
Linklater: I think that is the beauty of a lower budget and these kind of formats that you really can do something different and tell your own story in a different way. You can experiment where you can’t on a bigger budget. In a way, I was doing that on “Slacker” 10 years ago, narratively speaking. I think that’s why that caught on, because it was sort of its own animal. It wasn’t a genre film trying to get bought into Hollywood; it just sort of existed on its own terms. I think people admire that because it didn’t seem like it was trying to be anything. It wasn’t a calling card to Hollywood. That kind of helped it in its own way. Even though I remember being at Sundance with it and it was sort of like, “well that’s weird,” “that won’t make any money,” here are all these other films that are seemingly real movies. And then those came out the next year and didn’t do anything because they were just real and normal. Where this weird thing actually did much better.
I think it’s good to make your own movie in your own way. But I mean that’s not new. People have been doing that forever. I think there are rewards for pulling it off with your own intensely personal thing. People respond to that. I think, as an artist, that’s what you sort of hope for. It’s the same thing a painter hopes for as he’s painting. If I have a certain amount of skill and can pull it off and I’m honest then people will respond. That’s where I work from. It’s like if I can make a movie like this — and on paper it doesn’t make any sense — no one would finance this movie, it makes no sense and yet I kind of think it’ll have an audience in its own strange way. You can’t do that with a $3 million budget and you can’t do it even with an $8 million budget. But maybe you can do it in a smaller way. That’s the good thing about where we’re at right now, you can do that.
But you know, that’s my own bullshit career, whatever you want to call it. I had other films I was trying to do and I couldn’t get financing for. I found myself in a very similar position that I was 10 years ago when I made “Slacker.” I had a script for something I was trying to raise money for, I had made one Super 8 feature and I never raised a penny. I didn’t really qualify to make a real film. So I said, “Fuck everybody, I’m gonna go do this thing that’s been on my mind for a while,” and I was sort of back in the same position. It’s like I couldn’t get money for other things, but I was like, “Okay, fuck everybody, I’ll go do this film I’ve been thinking about a long time.” It came from that place.
iW: In a technological way, these are very different from other films. Were there specific discoveries about working in the digital format or working in the animated format that you found and were excited by?
Linklater: Yeah, they’re the tools in front of you, so you want to make those work best, whether you’re drawing, how big your canvas is and what kind of colors you’re using or you’re doing a charcoal sketch. It’s just like I had these DV cameras and I wanted to really push that and use that in a way that felt natural to me. The animation, it’s a whole different animal. It’s a very unique production. Not anyone can just go out and do that because they don’t have the software.
iW: While working on either film, was there anything where thinking, “Wow this is totally new for me?”
Linklater: It was new for me. Or it was very strange for me. I mean fun and very freeing to look up at the same location I’d been at a couple years before with a big crew and a $27 million budget and then to be there with a camera in my hand and three people and a sound guy and we’re shooting a scene there. You can look at that different ways at certain points in your life. There’s an actor who just had the big trailer and was doing the big $50 million film and now he’s doing a really low budget film and you’re changing clothes in the bathroom. You could say, “I’m a loser now, where’s my big trailer? I’ve fallen off the map, I’m a loser.” Or you could say, “Hey this is great for this kind of movie, this is the only way.” So I could go, “Oh, I miss my Panavision package.” Or I could say, “This is great, this is the way I want to be making this movie, I’m lucky I’m doing it.”
iW: You have a very strong background in film history and appreciation of a lot of different sorts of films and that’s been expressed through the Austin Film Society and everything else: I’m wondering about your thoughts on the aesthetics of film are changing as filmmakers begin to experiment and use digital technologies to create feature films?
Linklater: It’s a challenge to use the film syntax that’s evolved over the last 100 years and then with new technologies, what’s different about it? I shot “Tape” in a very different way than I’d ever shot anything before and it’s a way I only could’ve with these cameras. The result of that is, I think it served the story. I wasn’t imposing that on the movie just because I had a digital camera. This is the way I think it will work, the confines of the story as it is, this is the way it should work. You’ve just got these new tools in front of you and people are gonna use them and there’s a new syntax evolved. It always has been. I mean it’s always changing. Films are a lot faster now in general; they cut a lot more. You watch an older film and as much as we love them, they’re just differently paced. That’s what was so interesting about Gus Van Sant‘s “Psycho” remake. You could see how shot by shot, it just reminds you in 40 years how far, how different movies are, how differently they’re shot. You know?
The Interview continues on Page 2…