Saturday, July 30, 2016
The Auteurs #57: Richard Linklater (Part 1)
Among of the figures that played a key part in the emergence of 1990s American independent cinema, Richard Linklater is a filmmaker who didn’t play by the rules nor was he a stylist that often defined most filmmakers. Instead, Linklater followed the beat of his own drum in making films that are about people dealing with their surroundings and situations and make the best out of it. While he would often work with Hollywood, it would be on his own terms as he would maintain that sense of independent spirit that would make him one of the best American filmmakers working today.
Born in Houston, Texas on July 30, 1960, Richard Stuart Linklater was the son of a college professor mother as he would later attend the Sam Houston State University that his mother worked at. During that time growing up, Linklater had a love for books, film, and baseball as he would play for his college during that time until dropping out to work at an offshore oil rig. While living in Houston with family, Linklater found himself spending a lot of time going to the cinema as he discovered the works of many different filmmakers from Europe such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Robert Bresson as well as the Japanese films of Yasujiro Ozu. In the early 1980s, Linklater moved to Austin, Texas where he saved up to by a Super 8mm camera and other equipment while attending the Austin Community College to study films.
It was around that time he met a young cameraman in Lee Daniel who would become one of Linklater’s recurring collaborators. In 1985, he and Daniel along with future South by Southwest founder Louis Black would form the Austin Film Society as an outlet to support independent filmmaking in Texas. The film society would eventually become an important part in Texas’ local film industry where not only did studio films from Hollywood were made but also provided the state a place that can have its own film community.
Woodshock (short film)
During that time where he and Daniel founded the AFS, the two collaborated on a seven-minute short film that was shot on 16mm about a local music festival near Austin. Shot as a spoof of sorts of the 1970 film Woodstock, Linklater and Daniel would get a look of what was becoming a burgeoning cultural scene in the city as it would include art, film, and music as the short also featured an appearance from the cult musician Daniel Johnston. The short would make its premiere at local film festivals in 1985 as it would help play part into the city’s growing film scene.
It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading
A year after making his first short, Linklater conceived a project that would explore not just alienation but also experimenting with unconventional narrative. Inspired by some of the filmmaking techniques of Yasujiro Ozu as well as road films, Linklater’s first feature film would revolve around a traveler wandering around the country as he does mundane things and meet various people during his travels. The project would be shot in the span of an entire year on a Super 8mm camera posted on a tripod as Linklater would shoot everything guerilla style while playing the protagonist. With the aid of family and friends as well as people he would meet during the course of the film. Linklater would create something that felt loose as well as explore the ideas of social alienation in the age of Reagan as he would spend another year editing the film while working for a public TV station as he would edit the film himself in the station.
The film would make its premiere in Austin, Texas in 1988 as it was only shown locally through festivals around the city as Linklater knew he wouldn’t get some kind of distribution for the film to be given a wide release. In 2004, Linklater would revisit the film as he remastered it as part of a bonus release for the Criterion DVD release of what would be his next film in Slacker.
The experience in making his first film gave Linklater the realization that he could do it on his own as it was clear that studios or investors wouldn’t be able to take part into any kind of projects that he wanted to make. For what would be his breakthrough feature film, the project would revolve around the day in the life of various people in Austin, Texas as they would talk about all sorts of things in the course of an entire day. It’s an unusual idea for a film yet Linklater would seek the help from friend Lee Daniel to shoot the film as the two would also make an appearance in the film along with some friends, non-actors, and some locals for the film. Rather relying on a conventional script, Linklater would go for something that is very loose and just create an outline to create something that feels real.
Shot in the summer of 1989 in Austin on a 16mm Arriflex camera, the film would have a very miniscule budget of $23,000 as it seemed impossible that film with a small budget would be made. Nevertheless, Linklater would shoot the film as he would go into various locations and capture numerous events and people throughout the course of the film. Linklater would sort of reprise his role from his previous film as that character would begin the film arriving in Austin and talking to a cab driver about a dream he had. The film would then have that character meet another and then that person would encounter another and so on. Much of it had to do with people not just showing their disdain for conformity but also deal with the many expectations they have in life. Characters from an aging anarchist, a woman trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear, a TV collector, and all sorts of people would be the basis of what Linklater wanted to create.
The film would spend nearly a year in post-production as it would premiere in late July of 1990 in Austin in its 16mm presentation where it created a buzz. When the film was selected to play at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival that January, the film was a major hit as Orion’s Orion Classics specialty production would buy the film and distribute it for a limited release in the summer of 1991. In a slightly-modified 35mm release for the film that was supervised by Linklater, the film would gross more than $1.2 million while receiving lots of critical praise. Following its home video release in June of 1992 on VHS, the film would be very successful as many would consider it a major touchstone of the burgeoning American Independent movement inspiring filmmakers to make their films no matter how small the budgets were.
Dazed & Confused
Despite being a hero of sorts for aspiring filmmakers, Linklater knew he didn’t want to repeat himself as he was also getting offers from studios. Linklater was reluctant about working with Hollywood yet there were those that wanted to support his vision as the specialty studio Gramercy would help fund Linklater’s third feature film that is based on his experience in high school. The film would revolve around a day in the life of various students at a Texan high school on the last day of school where a group of kids would become seniors at the end of the summer while another group of kids would become freshmen. The former would take part in a hazing on the latter as tradition as it plays into what young kids would encounter in high school while seniors would cope with what is ahead.
With Lee Daniel helping out as cinematographer, Linklater knew he would need help in assembling the cast as he received the services of Don Phillips to do the casting. Phillips’ contribution would be crucial as he would make several discoveries in the casting process as the ensemble would include Jason London, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, Nicky Katt, Rory Cochrane, model Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Adam Goldberg, Marissa Ribisi, Anthony Rapp, and Matthew McConaughey. Along with Wiley Wiggins and Christin Hinojosa playing a couple of freshmen, shooting began in 1992 as Linklater not only took advantage of the modest $7 million budget but would use much of it to get some of the music he needed for the film as well as give up whatever royalties he would get for the soundtrack just to get usage for the Bob Dylan song The Hurricane.
In 1993 when Linklater went into post-production, he gained a new collaborator in editor Sandra Adair who would become a key fixture in Linklater’s career as she would become his regular editor from then on. The film would make its premiere in September of 1993 where, despite being marketed as a teen comedy, the film would actually do modestly well making back its budget while receiving lots of critical praise. The film would eventually become a hit on video in its March 1994 release as buzz grew around the film where it would help several actors from the film to become stars in their own right. The film’s success not only gave Linklater clout but also affirm his status as a unique voice for American independent cinema.
Having achieved two films that have been well-received critically as well as doing quite well commercially, Linklater knew he wanted to do something different as he recalls an experience he had in meeting a young woman in 1989 and spent an entire day with her. Calling upon Kim Krizan who had acted in his previous films, the two would create ideas and a script that would revolve around two young people who meet on a train to Vienna as they would spend the entire day in the city and talk about love and such in the course of 24 hours. It was a unique idea yet Linklater knew he needed the right people as he considered using Ethan Hawke for the role of Jesse who would ultimately be chosen after Linklater saw him at a play.
For the role of Celine, Linklater met French actress Julie Delpy who agreed to take part as she and Hawke would do some un-credited re-writes on the script with Linklater and Krizan to make it more romantic. Shooting would commence in 1994 with Lee Daniel serving as cinematographer as they would shoot the film on location in Vienna. Linklater wanted to challenge the conventions of romantic films as Jesse is presented as a cynic and Celine as the romantic idealist where the two would talk in the course of the day and venture throughout the city. The looseness in the direction and the openness to improvise would be give Hawke and Delpy a lot to do as well as raise questions on the idea of love.
The film would make its premiere in January of 1995 at the Sundance Film Festival where it would later get its U.S. theatrical release weeks later just as the film would make its European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. At that festival, Linklater won the Best Director prize as the film would receive rave reviews as well as making nearly $5.5 million in the box office against its $2.5 million budget. The film’s success was a surprise for Columbia Pictures as the film would later be considered as one of the finest romantic films ever made.
Three successful films and already a major name for American independent cinema, Linklater decided to return to more familiar territory in his exploration of people who are dealing with conformity. Having seen Eric Bogosian’s play about a group of 20-somethings dealing with failure and uncertainty as they learn one of their old friends is returning to town as a success. The play definitely carried a lot of the themes that Linklater had been exploring as he met up with Bogosian to make a film version of the play as Bogosian decided to write his own script with Linklater’s input. The film would be more low-budget affair as Linklater decided to shoot the film in Austin, Texas to be closer to home.
The film’s cast wouldn’t just feature previous collaborators in Nicky Katt and Parker Posey but also Giovanni Ribisi, Steve Zahn, Jayce Bartok, Amie Carey, Dina Spybey, and Ajay Naidu as a convenience store owner who is annoyed the presence of these young people. Much of the shooting occurred in late 1995/early 1996 as it would be a sparse production as Linklater also wanted to maintain Bogosian’s sense of improvisation. Both Linklater and Bogosian wanted to explore what people are trying to do to succeed but also those who aren’t able to succeed despite the fact that they’re smart and can do something yet don’t do anything but complain. In some ways, Linklater who had been the voice of the slacker generation finally puts a mirror on that culture and see it for what it really is.
The film made its premiere at the New York Film Festival in October of 1996 where it received excellent reviews. Following a limited release in early 1997 where despite its praise from critics, the film didn’t do as well commercially as Linklater’s previous films. Still, the film maintained Linklater’s status as a unique voice in American independent cinema even though the movement itself was starting to wane as it would morph into something else.
The Newton Boys
Wanting to move away from his comfort zone and take on new challenges, Linklater knew he couldn’t just be known as the indie film guy where he got the chance to make a big-budget studio as it would be his first Hollywood feature. While some in the indie circles said he sold out, Linklater felt it was time to take a risk and make his first Hollywood feature based on the Newton Gang who were notorious bank robbers in the early 1920s. Linklater was fascinated by the story as he called upon Clark Lee Walker to help write the script as much of the film would be based in Texas which Linklater felt was appropriate for the story. For the cast, Linklater called in collaborators Ethan Hawke and Matthew McConaughey to play two of the Newton brothers with Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D’Onofrio also cast as the other two brothers with Julianna Margulies and Dwight Yoakham in supporting roles.
The film’s $27 million budget would be the biggest that Linklater would mount as he would also have to take in a different cinematographer in Peter James as Lee Daniel was unavailable due to the demands of his work with other filmmakers. Nevertheless, Linklater wanted to create something that was commercial but also had something different as it relates to the exploits of the Newton gang where they would challenge the authorities and the world of banks during that time. Yet, they would be undone by greed and events that they couldn’t foresee where the film would eventually get dark in its third act as it relates to a botched train robbery in Chicago. Linklater was able to get access to the story of the Newton brothers as he would use a footage of the real-life Willis Newton in his 1980 appearance at The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson which would appear in the film’s final credits.
The film was released in late March of 1998 as anticipation was high for Linklater’s first studio picture for 20th Century Fox. Yet, the film received mixed reviews where some praised it for its cast and sense of adventure while others felt the film had tonal issues as well as feel that Linklater was overwhelmed by the production. The film was poorly-received commercially where it only made nearly $10 million in the box office as it was considered a major failure for Linklater. Following its dismal reception, Linklater took a step back from the world of film and retreated to Austin with his family.
After some time away from film as well as appearing in a few small projects including a cameo role in Robert Rodriguez’s 2001 film Spy Kids, Linklater became fascinated by the world of digital filmmaking. Seeing its potential, Linklater decided to make his next feature on digital video but also infuse it with animation. The film, like his earlier features, wouldn’t revolve much on plot as it would bear many elements of Slacker but in a more dream-like fashion as Linklater wanted to create something that is loose but also raise a lot of questions on existentialism and dreams. With Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused playing the film’s protagonist, the film’s cast would also include other recurring collaborators in Adam Goldberg, Kim Krizan, and Nicky Katt while Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy would reprise their roles from Before Sunrise. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh as well as the cult voice actor/tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch would make appearances for the film.
Much of the production was shot in 2000 with Linklater shooting the film with co-cinematographer Tommy Pallotta as it would then be taken to animation director Bob Sabiston and a team of animators including Wiley Wiggins to create rotoscoping drawings on the images. It would be a process that would take a long time with editor Sandra Adair trying to assemble whatever images would be used for the final product. Many of the images that were transformed into animation were drawn in many different styles to create something that was dream-like as it gave the film a very unique look and feel.
The film made its premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival in January of that year where it was received with a lot of praise as it would eventually be picked up by 20th Century Fox’s new specialty brand in Fox Searchlight. The film would later get a fall 2001 release where it did modestly well in the box office yet the reviews would be enormous in its praise. The film would win an award from the National Society of Film Critics for Best Experimental Film as well as Best Animated Film prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. The film marked a comeback of sorts from Linklater as it marked a new phase for the filmmaker.
During the production of Waking Life and seeing the potential of what digital video could do, Linklater was interested in making a more traditional film in the format as he had recently seen Stephen Belber’s play Tape that revolved around two friends discussing whether or not they raped a woman years ago as they invited her in the discussion as it all takes place in a motel room. Linklater asked Belber to film the project as Belber said yes as he would write his own script while Linklater called in collaborator Ethan Hawke to be in the film as Hawke brought in his then-wife Uma Thurman and friend Robert Sean Leonard to star in the film as they would be the cast. With Maryse Alberti serving as the film’s cinematographer, much of the production would be shot in a small soundstage serving as a motel room.
The entire production would cost $100,000 as it was relatively small yet Linklater took advantage of his limitations. Especially as he saw what digital could do where he and Alberti maintained a look that was grainy but also give something that feels real. Linklater also wanted to maintain that sense of theatricality while giving the actors the freedom to play loose in their performances. Another aspect of the film that Linklater wanted was to present the film in real time as the film’s eventual running time would be 86 minutes.
The film, like Waking Life, would premiere at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival that January as it was also well-received where it would be picked up by Lionsgate who would release the film in a limited release that November. Still, the film managed to make more than half a million dollars in the box office recouping more than its $100,000 budget while also receiving critical praise for its presentation and cast. Its success as well as the success of Waking Life definitely put Linklater in a special position in the industry as a filmmaker who can deliver the goods while remaining independent.
School of Rock
While taking a small break and preparing work on a project that would eventually become Boyhood, Linklater was once again courted by studios about helming other projects where Linklater met up with producer Scott Rudin who wanted Linklater to work on a project from a script written by Mike White. White was a top screenwriter who had wrote films such as Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl where Linklater said yes to the project that was based on a real-life Langley Schools Music Project in the 1970s where kids sang contemporary pop songs. White and Linklater decided that the project would revolve around a musician who pretends to be a substitute teacher at a prep school where he forms a band with students at the school for an upcoming Battle of the Bands contest.
With White also acting in a supporting role, Jack Black was cast in the lead role of Dewey Finn while Joan Cusack and Sarah Silverman were cast in prominent supporting parts. With the aid of casting director Ilene Starger, Linklater would get a chance to work with several kids for the film including Miranda Cosgrove as shooting would commence in late 2002 in upstate New York. While the film’s budget of $35 million was the biggest that Linklater had taken upon, he would still find ways to use what he had as well as getting some of the music needed for the film. Most notably trying to get the permission to use Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song where Linklater, Black, and Rudin knew the band are reluctant to have their music used for film or television. Linklater would film a plea from Black and extras playing the crowd to get permission as the stunt was successful where the band said yes.
The film made its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September of 2003 as it was well-received as it would later be released theatrically a month later. The film would receive not just rave reviews from critics but also give Linklater his most commercially-successful to date as it would gross more than $131 million. Its success with critics and audiences would give Jack Black a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy as the film was also very popular with kids that eventually led to a Broadway musical version in 2013 and a kids TV series in 2016 for Nickelodeon.
(End of Part 1) - Pt. 2
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