For the 20th anniversary screening of “Slacker” in 2011, The New Orleans Film Festival commissioned writer-director-producer Michael Dunaway (“The Man Who Ate New Orleans”) to make a short film about Richard Linklater. “I did this short little 10-minute piece with several actors paying tribute to Rick,” Dunaway recently told Indiewire. When interviewing Ethan Hawke, Dunaway mentioned he was thinking of turning the short into a feature. Hawke gave him the encouragement he needed. “He said, ‘Oh Michael, you’ve got to make this into a feature….Everybody will talk to you, everybody will have great stories. Everybody will do anything for Rick,” said Dunaway.
“‘Anything for Rick’ really became almost a theme for the whole production. That’s what almost everybody said when we contacted them, ‘Anything for Rick,'” said Dunaway, who directed and co-produced the resulting feature, “21 Years: Richard Linklater,” which will premiere at the Austin Film Festival on October 24th before hitting theaters and VOD on November 7.
Indiewire recently spoke to Dunaway and the film’s co-director and producer Tara Wood recently about the project:
How did you two connect?
Michael Dunaway: “Tara and I actually met at South by Southwest in 2012 when I was getting ready to interview Kevin Smith. She overheard me talking about the project.”
Tara Wood: “I had met Rick on ‘The Newton Boys’ in ‘97. I met Matthew [McConaughey] and their whole group and loved them. They’re amazing people. So when I heard Michael talking about this project that he wanted to do on Richard Linklater and how he’s turning it into a feature… I think I was wandering around, and I was like, ‘Not to be nosy, but what are you doing?’ And by the end of that conversation we were planning on moving forward, which was awesome.”
Did you have hesitations initially about turning it into a feature?
MD: “I don’t think I had any hesitations about turning it into a feature. Ethan really vouching for the project and jumping on early made me have a lot of faith that it would work, confidence that it would work as a feature.”
TW: “I’ve been a film agent for over 15 years and Hollywood’s ugly, or it can be. It can be really dirty and really ugly. When Michael started talking about this and we started moving forward, this project came together for all the right reasons. It was beautiful and there was a reason for it. And it continued through the whole thing. Everyone who came on, like Mike was saying earlier, was excited to be there. And how refreshing in a business like this! That’s why I got involved.”
MD: “The reason why this became more than a little thing that I shot myself and 100 of my friends saw to being a movie that Indiewire is writing about and that’s going to play in theaters is because of Tara. Tara really encouraged me to think bigger about the film, bring in some partners, get some animation in it — that was a great idea that she had that gave a jolt of energy to the project. So meeting her that day was definitely a huge turning point for the project.”
From the beginning who did you envision as the audience for the film? Filmmakers, fans of Rick’s or beyond that?
MD: “I think one of the main reasons we wanted to make this movie was that at the time in 2012, we felt like Rick was not really getting his due as the legend that he is in the general public. Film buffs would obviously point to Rick as being one of the most important directors alive, but in the general public he was not as known as he should have been or not as appreciated as he should have been. And we really wanted to pay tribute to him and take it out of the core audience, which would be the film buffs, and really take it to the mainstream as well which would be the more casual film fans. Take it to people who don’t do this for a living.”
TW: “When you say Richard Linklater’s name to a suburban family they don’t know his name, but they all know his movies. And I think the best way to reach this audience was through the voices of the people they know. Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, etc. So I think it brings in a wider audience, and it’s more fun. It shows the filmmaking side and how he makes his films in a much more accessible way for a wider audience.”
Were you imagining that the film would have a theatrical release or were you thinking it would just be just on VOD?
TW: “I did not expect theatrical. That’s awesome.”
Obviously the timing, the fact that “Boyhood” has been such a tremendous success, has only helped this project.
TW: Well I thought that was going to happen with “Before Midnight.” “Before Midnight” was so amazing the last year I was like, ‘We got to get this out. We’ve got to time it with this.’ And I think it was within three months that ‘Boyhood’ was announced to come out and I was like, ‘Oh my Gosh. This guy doesn’t stop.'”
MD: “We should give a shout-out here too to Melanie Miller [VP of Acquisitions and Marketing] at Gravitas. She made the decision, or we the three of us together made the decision to go theatrical before “Boyhood” had such a big success. So she really showed the faith even before there was that confirmation, and committed to doing a theatrical release.”
Though Linklater appears in the film, there is no interview with him and it’s mostly his colleagues talking about him. Was that always the plan?
MD: “Tara and I both feel a great affection for Rick and the group around him and a great appreciation for what he’s been able to accomplish. And we wanted this to be a gift for him. We didn’t want this to be something [in which] he was explaining his own movies. We want this to be all the people who are closest to him who have worked closest with him paying tribute to him. And that’s sort of how we envisioned it.”
Has he seen it yet?
MD: “Honestly I hope he has not seen it yet. Because I hope in that theater, in the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas where most of his films have premiered, with his long-time composer and his cinematographer around him, and that whole city turning out for it, because you know how Austin loves their Rick. I feel like that experience in that theater on that night, October 24th, is going to be incredibly special for anyone who’s there, but especially for Rick.”
How were the logistics of pulling all these people together for their interviews? How complicated was that?
TW: “Everybody said, ‘Yes.’ And everybody was like, ‘Awesome! Let’s do it!’ And all of them are so busy and doing so well, it was three months in between their interviews because they’re all on different projects, which is great, but that’s why it took two years to finish. But they said ‘yes,’ and once they showed up it was super easy. But they were all super busy. I think Matthew [McConaughey] had just come off of “Dallas Buyers Club” right into “True Detective” so there was a good seven or eight months between his ‘yes’ and his interview.”
Was there anyone you were unable to get?
MD: “Like Tara said, nobody said ‘no.’ Literally nobody said ‘no.’ There were a couple of people that timing just didn’t work out. Ben Affleck has obviously been a little busy these last couple of years. Milla Jovovich has been touring the world, doing her music, so that turned out to be impossible. We thought we had Claire Danes like four different times and something came up every time.”
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Rick along the way?
MD: “I think our answers will be different, but I know what mine is. I think Tara knew this going into it, but I didn’t necessarily. I had always seen Rick in interviews and everybody talk about him and everybody always talks about how laid back he is, right? And so ‘Slacker’ and a couple of those other films have a feel of it being very casual, so I think one of the things I was most surprised about was how people talk about his intensity and his preparation and how by the time he gets to set he knows everything about that world historically and everything else, and he’s teaching everyone about it on set. Not that I would have expected him not to be that way, I just never would have thought that he’s that kind of guy. And he absolutely is.”
TW: “I’ll probably get in trouble for this one, but how the ‘Before’ Trilogy came about was probably the biggest surprise for me. How it was really based on something that happened to Rick. We don’t know the full story, it’s still kind of a secret, but it’s nice to know that started with something based in reality.”
MD: “One more thing I wanted to throw in quickly: Rick is not only a great filmmaker, he’s also a great advocate of film and a great contributor to film culture, especially through the Austin Film Society, which he founded and which is one of the most vital and amazing film organizations in the whole country. And I just wanted to mention that we are very appreciative of the Austin Film Society because they really helped us a lot with some logistical stuff and provided us footage and helped us hook up with people. And they’re also going to be a partner of sorts going forward with distribution which we’ll be announcing. Our after party after the premiere will be a benefit for the Austin Film Society. That’s another aspect of Rick’s career I think a lot of casual fans don’t understand is the impact he’s had on the larger world of film through the Austin Film society.”
Do I remember correctly that you’re interested in working on similar projects with other directors?
MD: “We’re absolutely planning to. From very soon after I conceived the feature I thought, ‘Heck, this could be a series of features.’ And that’s another thing I think that Tara responded really strongly to when we met and started making plans…We’re doing Tarantino next.”
Check out the official trailer below:
“21 Years: Richard Linklater” will have its world premiere at The Austin Film Festival on October 24. It will hit theaters and On Demand on Nov. 7.