To mark the release of a new documentary about the director, we walk you through his esoteric cinematic approach
When the wildly successful, low-budget film Slacker was released in 1991 – which masterfully tapped into the zeitgeist of Generation X with its idiosyncratic portrayal of a group of well-educated individuals who shy away from prevalent American society in order to pursue their own enjoyments – the then 25-year-old director Richard Linklater established himself as one of cinema’s most promising and fearless new filmmakers, a reputation he has sealed over the course of his 25-year career.
His films range from the experimental (think: the hand-held camera shot Tape or the rotoscope animation Waking Life) to the groundbreaking (the 12-year-spanning Boyhood) to the mainstream (The Newton Boys), but all bear the trademarks of his uncompromising artistic vision which shies away from traditional narrative tropes and relishes the seemingly mundane details of everyday life, rendering them profound. This week sees the UK release of acclaimed documentary Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny from directors Louis Black and Karen Bernstein, which delves deep into the director’s expansive oeuvre and esoteric approach via candid interviews with the director and his collaborators. Here, as the film hits the big screen, we bring you a comprehensive five point guide to Linklater and the factors that define his filmmaking.
HE’S AN OBSESSIVE WRITER
Linklater has always been an obsessive writer. In fact, before he decided to make films, he first dreamt of becoming an author – as well as a major league baseball player. The latter ambition was crushed when, in his second year of college (where he held a place as a sports scholar), he discovered that he suffered from a heart condition called atrial fibrillation, and was no longer able to play. As a result he threw himself into writing, spending hours in the library reading and scribbling down his own ideas in what he describes as a life-changing semester. (He later dropped out of college and went to work on an off-shore oil rig, before relocating to Houston where he cultivated a love of film.) In the documentary, he expresses the belief that if you want to be a writer, “you have to write everyday.”
THE TEXAS INFLUENCE
Linklater is a Texan born and bred, and his state has proved one of the most characterising factors of his filmmaking career. In his early 20s, having resolved to become a director, he left his father’s house in Houston and relocated to Austin armed with a Super-8 camera, a projector, editing equipment and a insuppressible urge to express himself. He enrolled to study film at Austin Community College in 1984 and in 1985 set up the Austin Film Society to screen non-mainstream movies. His fellow members would become the cast and crew for Slacker in 1991. While many filmmakers have felt the magnetic pull of Hollywood, Linklater has remained in Texas for the duration of his career to date. (“I just wanted to kind of stay where I was and tell stories and do my thing,” he said in a recent interview. “I’ve gotten very lucky to be able to do that.”) He has played a major role in establishing the Texas film industry and continues to set the majority of his films there.
SEEKING OUT MEANING IN THE EVERYDAY
Right from the start, Linklater has championed the beauty of the mundane – or, to quote Jesse in Before Sunrise, “the poetry of day-to-day life” – from chance encounters and off-the-cuff conversations to the everyday activities that underscore human existence. In his very first feature, the largely dialogue- and plot-free It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), we watch as the young, unnamed protagonist, played by Linklater himself, travels the country by train and car, chatting to strangers, perusing supermarket shelves, dogsitting his mother’s pup. To Linklater, drama doesn’t have to include bells and whistles; it can exist in the simple exchange of glances. “Some executives wanted to know what exactly happens to the characters,” he told Vanity Fair of Dazed and Confused, his first, now-cult studio feature following a group of students on their last day of high-school. “I was like, ‘Ugh, not much.’ In the end...they are going to get Aerosmith tickets. They aren’t even going to the concert – it’s so nothing.” But that is exactly what makes the film – and so many of Linklater’s other movies, from the Before… trilogy to Boyhood – so brilliant: they celebrate the humour and profundity embedded within those seemingly “not-much” moments.
Time is another preoccupation of Linklater’s: “It’s the big element of our medium, isn’t it?” he said in an interview with Sight and Sound Magazine. “The manipulation of time, the perception of time, the control of time.” But Linklater’s films exploit time in more brilliantly daring and groundbreaking ways than most. The most obvious examples of this are of course his radical 2014 feature Boyhood, shot over the course of 12 years, revisiting its protagonist every year between the ages of six and 18 to extremely powerful effect, and the Before… trilogy which explores the relationship between Ethan Hawke’s Jesse and Julie Delpy’s Celine on the day they meet in their early 20s (Before Sunrise), the day they encounter each other again nine years later (Before Sunset) and a day spent on holiday as a middle-aged couple nine years after that (Before Midnight). By framing them in this way, he successfully uses the progressively aging characters to convey, in his words, “a written parallel world saying something about different phases of life or the times we’re living in or just what it’s like to be a person: how you physically change, how you mentally change, how you’re still the same person but you’re kinda not.”
LOOKING AT HIS OWN LIFE
Personal experience underscores the concepts behind a vast majority of Linklater’s films. Some of his former classmates tried to sue him for defamation for using their real names – Wooderson, Floyd and Slater – in Dazed and Confused; his rotoscope animation movie Waking Life was based on a lucid dream he had when he was 18, and he says that the colourful of array of small-town characters that populate his 2011 black comedy Bernie “could have been my mom’s friends”.
In Boyhood, the character of Mason is loosely based on his own childhood, but he also looked to himself as an adult and parent when writing the role of Mason’s parents. Movingly, the premise of Before Sunrise was based on his fleeting encounter with a girl called Amy Lehrhaupt whom he met in 1989. “We only spent one night [together], just walking around, and I was like, ‘This could be a movie,’” he told Vanity Fair. “There wasn’t any big drama – it was just a feeling between two people who have that infatuation and the get-to-know-you thing.” Lerhaupt died in 1994, before Linklater began filming the trilogy, and he dedicated the third film Before Midnight to her.
Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny is in cinemas nationwide from November 4.