Just in time for the Oscars, The New Yorker revisited a profile of Austin filmmaker, Richard Linklater, by Nathan Heller. Linklater's "Boyhood" was the best film this blogger saw in 2014. The very thought of telling the story of a boy's passage from childhood to his start at college in sequential annual productions of the story was audacious by any measure. If this is (fair & balanced) independent filmmaking, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
Moment To Moment
By Nathan Heller
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
To get to the place where Richard Linklater was shooting his new film, you had to travel a short distance that seemed far: past the Barton Creek Greenbelt, a preserve on the edge of downtown Austin; past an R.V. park and a country club; past the turnoff to the Salt Lick Bar-B-Que, one of the last open-pit joints in Texas. You’re in Oak Hill now, where the Hill Country starts. The trees crop up more densely on the sides of Route 290. In the spring, along the highway, there are wildflowers, but in August the grass bakes and leaves droop drowsily from the surrounding branches. At the Texaco, you’d turn, and down Mowinkle Drive you’d spy a group of trailers near a small house. These marked the final preparations for “Boyhood,” a movie that Linklater had been shooting in Texas over the past twelve years.
“I always say I’ll never make a film in Austin in summer, but I always end up here,” Linklater said before the day began. It was a hundred degrees, dry. He had arrived in a dirt-brown Toyota Tundra pickup, dressed like a PTA dad on a fishing trip: red short-sleeve shirt, New Balance sneakers, big shorts, white athletic socks pulled up as far as they would go. (His partner, Tina Harrison, has been at him to purchase some more charismatic socks, but so far the idea hasn’t taken hold.) At fifty-three, Linklater looks much as he did when he made his first films. He is squarely built, with sandy-brown hair cropped into a grown-man version of a bowl cut. He wears a brush of five-o’clock shadow and, usually, a look of heavy-lidded, glazed repose that gives no indication how quickly he moves: one second he’ll be next to you, gazing off; the next he’ll be gone, light-footed, flitting through a distant doorway. He went to college on a baseball scholarship, and, even now, he has the aspect of a man continually on the verge of stealing third.
At a time when independent cinema is often thought to be the Hollywood farm leagues, Linklater has claimed it as a bright alternative to studio production. Working with a team of actors, a few funders, and his own production lot, he operates more like the leader of a repertory theatre than like an industry director, turning out films that find broad national audiences across a vast stylistic range. Linklater has been acclaimed for “Slacker,” his anti-narrative début, and for “Dazed and Confused,” his high-school comedy. He is beloved for movies like “Before Sunrise” (romantic, hyper-verbal, European) and “Bernie” (gothic, hyper-Texan, strange). He adapted “Fast Food Nation” for the screen; he dreamed up the semi-animated dream-within-a-dream “Waking Life.” Then he made “School of Rock.”
“With his first four or five films, you may have thought you had Rick pegged, and you would have been wrong,” Quentin Tarantino, who calls “Dazed and Confused” his favorite film of the nineteen-nineties, says. “He’s done it very quietly, one step at a time.” Although few of Linklater’s films have much plot in the traditional sense, they lack the dead points and the aimlessness that many plotless movies have: they’re funny and buoyant, bouncing forward with an unself-conscious, joshing wit. Going against the fashions of contemporary filmmaking, Linklater’s notion of cinematic refinement has less to do with virtuosic camerawork than with creating a moment that’s worth capturing.
“Almost every other director I’ve worked with hides behind the monitor—they love to huddle up with the director of photography and talk about ‘the light’ or ‘the frame,’ ” Ethan Hawke, who has appeared in eight of Linklater’s films, says. “Directors are interested in ‘If you turn a little to the left, your nose catches a light in a great way.’ Rick would puke if anybody said that on his set. Like, ‘What are we doing, an ad?’ We’re playing human beings here.”
This brand of naturalism brings its own imperatives. As Linklater entered his forties, he kept returning to the idea of making a movie about growing up. But he couldn’t see how it could work. “If you make a film about childhood, you’ve got to pick a moment—you know, ‘The 400 Blows,’ ” he says. Most childhoods aren’t like Truffaut’s, though. They have no single, representative dramatic stretch. They gain meaning across years and disparate moments. The problem nagged at him until it didn’t. “I sat down at my computer, and I had a flash of that feeling: why couldn’t you do that?”
Linklater started filming “Boyhood” in 2002, shooting a few days every year; the finished product will arrive in theatres next month. [This essay appeared on June 30, 2014.] As news of the project emerged, it was often compared to Michael Apted’s “Up” series. But Apted’s project is a sequence of documentaries; Linklater’s is a single feature-length work of fiction covering crucial points from the age of seven to eighteen in the life of its protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his family: a sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s now twenty-one-year-old daughter) and separated parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). Viewers watch Mason find his way through childhood and head to college. By the time the film is over, they’ve not only witnessed his growth but shared it—the evolution of a personality, the changing soundtrack of those years. As a teen-ager, Linklater was the guy with the eight-hundred-dollar stereo and a junker for a car. But he considered himself too out-of-touch to pick music for “Boyhood,” so he got kids about Mason’s age to nominate the music they most remembered from each period and write little essays on their associations: this song recalled the long, hot summer of 2009; that one was bound up with the memory of getting dumped. The result, which extends from Coldplay to Family of the Year, is a tribute to the fading moments of the now.
“O.K., here we go—lock it up!” Vince Palmo, Linklater’s assistant director, called in the Mowinkle Drive house. It was midmorning. Earlier that day, with a single camera and a small crew, Linklater had shot five takes of a finger opening a beer can—a closeup insert for a larger sequence. As a young director, he would stay up the night before filming a scene, planning out shots, but now he mostly operates by instinct, and his allotments of attention, which favor rehearsal, tend to run against the norms of his craft. “The problem with a lot of directors is that they don’t know how to rehearse, and they’re a little bit afraid of the actors,” Tarantino says. “He does real rehearsal.”
This morning, Linklater was filming a party after Mason’s high-school graduation. Mason and his best friend, played by Sam Dillon, walk in the door in their graduation gowns, and the family members milling around cheer and take pictures with their smartphones. “All right!” Linklater said. It’s his way of registering attention, and he pronounces it with cheery surprise, like a guy who’s just won a toaster at a school-benefit raffle. “And—action!” He stood behind a small monitor wearing a pair of cheap wire-frame headphones. During a take, his body tenses, and he sometimes gently sways as if in sympathetic motion with the actors. If he likes what he sees, a smile flickers at the left corner of his mouth; if he doesn’t, he might put a fingertip against his lips. Otherwise, he is impassive. After the scene had finished, he called out some correctives. Everybody needed to make more noise. “You’re messing around, you’re drinking . . .”
“Oh, that was my fault,” Hawke said. He was costumed in a suit and standing at the back of the room, near Linklater’s two younger daughters, the nine-year-old twins Alina and Charlotte, playing Mason’s cousins. Following a second take, Linklater darted over to Arquette.
“So, Patricia, you’d be running in pretty quickly,” he said. He turned to the crowd. “And it should be ‘He’s here.’ You don’t really know the other guy.” Hawke had found a prop guitar and was walking through the house playing it.
Progress was quick at first, but technical delays accumulated through the day. Linklater was shooting “Boyhood” on film, rather than with digital cameras, for visual continuity: digital technology would advance over twelve years, he’d reasoned, but celluloid would not. Unfortunately, neither had the cameras, which required constant reloading and frequently jammed. Linklater was frustrated with the morning’s progress, though it was not evident. Some directors are tyrants, driving their actors with lengthy, chaotic shifts; abusing their crews; and running through assistants like silk stockings in a berry patch. This isn’t Linklater’s style. His shoots rarely run very late or involve a crazy range of takes. When he’s annoyed, it’s mostly visible in a slight tightness at his jaw. Perhaps as a result, his collaborators often stay with him. Sandra Adair, one of the producers on “Boyhood,” has edited all his films since “Dazed and Confused,” in 1993. His assistant and office manager Kirsten McMurray answered an ad for part-time work as a college student, ten years ago, and never left. Vince Palmo has been the assistant director on almost all his features over the past decade.
In the case of “Boyhood,” actors stuck around, too. “Even as I was getting parts as an ingénue, I decided that’s a really short-shelf-life career,” Arquette said after her morning’s work was done. She was thirty-four when the project started, and says that the idea of aging openly onscreen was invigorating. “You can’t hold onto your youthful beauty,” she said. “I’ll get responses from fans sometimes, like ‘You’re not hot anymore!’ It makes me laugh. Like, Am I supposed to be? Was that ever an agreement we had?”
“A lot of my life I think about as a movie,” Coltrane said during lunch. “I think about interactions I’m going to have in the future and script them out.” He was tapped by a talent scout when he was a chubby-cheeked five-year-old, and Linklater had put him through about ten callbacks. (“He just seemed like a cool kid,” Linklater says. “He had some charisma to him. Other kids kind of wanted to be his friend, I could tell.”) Now he is tall and lean, with a gauged ear, and Hawke tells him he’s been lucky—he’s experienced all the good parts of being a young star and none of the junk.
Hawke’s big scene came the next day, at Antone’s, a beer-scented Austin blues club where he and Coltrane shot a father-son tête-à-tête. The blocking called for them to start at one end of an empty balcony. They would talk as they moved along, and come to rest against the railing, watching a warmup by the guitarist Charlie Sexton, who plays a version of himself. Linklater was filming much of the scene as a long Steadicam two shot, the technique for which he’s known. Actors walk together, talking, and the camera, attached to its operator by a suspension harness, moves ahead. He regards this as a technical necessity when dealing with dense, naturalistic dialogue: it’s fussy and distracting to keep cutting between angles, and physically complicated to use camera track or dollies over long, uneven routes.
As the crew dressed the set, and Hawke, who had found both another guitar and a stage, launched into “Ooh La La” (“I wish that I knew what I know now,” he sang, “when I was younger”), Cathleen Sutherland, the film’s production manager and one of its producers, looked around wistfully. “I used to go to summer camp—same girls for years,” she said. “This is a little like that. And, you know, when camp ends, you feel a little sad.”
They rehearsed the scene, which spanned a dense five pages in the screenplay. Hawke likes to joke that he films more dialogue before lunch on a Linklater set than in most entire movies. The actors were going a shade too quickly, Linklater said. He talked to Coltrane about his mood: the character didn’t understand why he’d been dumped. “I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t do anything wrong—remember that,” Linklater told Coltrane. “All right! And—action!”
Five takes later, they moved on. In the scene, Mason confesses girl trouble, and his father offers the compromised reassurances of a guy calloused by years of screwups and broken promises. Linklater, Coltrane, and Hawke had started spitballing dialogue a year earlier, though they’d begun anticipating the scene years before that.
When the first take of the next shot ended, Hawke looked fretful. “O.K., that was a warmup,” he said. “I fucked up a million things.” Linklater nodded patiently; it was Hawke’s last scene after twelve years of shooting, and he wanted to nail it. The second take ran well, but Linklater was unhappy with the way Coltrane sat in the visual frame. Hawke called “Cut” in the middle of the third. “I got screwed up,” he said, shaking his head. On the fourth, Linklater began to sway with excitement. He ran five more, and, with each one, the script seemed to inch further toward reality. “We talked a lot about how our relationships to our fathers changed as we aged,” Hawke later explained, of writing the scene. “The idea of an empty club: what if we could feel what the father had given up?”
Linklater’s own childhood, as he recalls it, grew from a split conception of adult life. His parents, Chuck and Diane, separated when he was in the first grade. Chuck, an insurance underwriter, stayed in Houston. Diane got a home in Huntsville, seventy miles north, which contains both Sam Houston State University and the state execution chamber. She had taken a graduate degree in speech pathology while Linklater and his two older sisters were in school. In “Boyhood,” Mason’s mom does much the same, and Linklater has found himself defending the character to those who say she’s a distracted parent. He procrastinated for months about showing “Boyhood” to his mother.
The young Linklater’s interests were divided between books and sports. Beginning in middle school, he’d send stories and essays to magazines, hoping for publication. A play he’d written—a comedy about a family on a camping trip—had impressed his teachers enough that they organized a performance, and a short story that he composed in high school won an interscholastic award. “I noticed all the winners went to, like, Interlochen and all these arts academies I had never heard of,” he says, “and then there’s me, from Huntsville”—the only Texan on the list.
To most of his peers, he was an athlete. Linklater had an all-American high-school experience—football, baseball, cars, girls, jobs, a certain ambivalence about schoolwork. When Sam Houston State offered him a baseball scholarship, he took it, and majored in English. By his sophomore year, he was thinking about writing plays. “I was dating girls who were actresses, and that was fun, so I took a playwriting class,” he recalls. “But that was short-lived. That was one year. Around that time, I was seeing movies that were making me think in terms of images.” He was still writing short stories, and, as an exercise, tried adapting one into a screenplay. “I could see the whole movie in my head—all the shots and angles. I thought, Oh, I’ve got this visual thing.”
As the second semester of his sophomore year began, he was the team’s starting left fielder, batting third in the preseason lineup. Yet he wasn’t entirely satisfied. “I remember daydreaming out in the outfield: I wish I had more time,” he says. “I want to read ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ ” His wish came true, in perverse fashion. He contracted an infection of the heart tissue, which caused an arrhythmia. Suddenly, he couldn’t play, doctor’s orders.
“It was like fate had gone, O.K., guess what?” he says. “My whole second half of my sophomore year, during baseball season, I closed down the library every night. I’d be up there writing.” He kept a photograph of Edward Albee with him like a talisman.
If he wasn’t playing, he’d have to make up the time in work-study employment, and he didn’t want to do that. A friend helped him get a summer job working on an oil rig. It paid well, and gave him many free hours to read and write, so Linklater asked if he could stay on that fall. He never returned to school. Instead, for the next two and half years, whenever he came back to the mainland, in Houston, he would watch movies: first two a day, then three, then four. By his early twenties, he was seeing six hundred films a year. “I just felt I’d discovered something, like this whole world had opened up,” he says. “I was greedy for it.”
In 1983, he quit his oil job, took eighteen thousand dollars that he’d saved, bought some film equipment, and moved to Austin. Often, he would write, shoot, edit, and watch film eighteen hours a day, to the exclusion of most other things. “I would tell girlfriends, ‘Hey, I’m already married—to this.’ Kind of smart-assy, but kind of true,” he says. “A real job? A house? A mortgage? Kids? It was like, Ugh, gosh, what’s the point? I just wanted to live in some cinematic parallel universe.”
He had noticed that most good directors made their first feature around the age of thirty, so that became his goal. He was obsessed with Tolstoy, and read extensively in his diaries. He dreamed of making an enormous biographical film that addressed the crucial moments of Tolstoy’s life. In the meantime, he made shorts, each conceived as a technical study: this one was about lighting; that one, camerawork. It was like training for the big season. He filed his best ideas away. He sat on many of them for years.
In his mid-twenties, Linklater took a Super 8 camera and three thousand dollars and made “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books” (1988), an eighty-six-minute film about alienated characters who wander around town and farther afield, playing pinball, reading about Kafka, shopping. Linklater ran the camera himself and edited at a public-access TV station. He did most of the acting, too. The result was poised, but it wasn’t a mature work. The feature has little dialogue; the camera rarely moves. Every shot is strikingly composed, but self-consciously so. It seems the work of a director hung up on the filmic qualities of film. By the time Linklater finished it, he had moved on. His next film, he knew already, would be all about the human voice.
One day a few months ago, Linklater, who hasn’t eaten meat since his early twenties, got lunch at Mr. Natural, a vegetarian Mexican cafeteria that he much enjoys. Linklater is especially enamored of Mr. Natural on Tuesdays, because Tuesday is potato-flautas day. That afternoon, he got three potato flautas, big scoops of carrot slaw and rice with vegetables, and an ice-filled glass of bright-green spinach-pineapple agua fresca. He wandered onto the side porch, out of range of a mariachi band.
When Linklater first moved to Austin, in the eighties, it had a reputation for attracting Texas’s liberal eccentrics and gadabouts. All sorts of “interior ideas” poured forth from passersby. For a while, he lived with roommates in a house that had once been home to Janis Joplin; the doors had no locks, and people from the street would wander in and out.
The city seemed like a perfect setting for an idea he’d had—a movie that, in place of a traditional plot, used pedestrian traffic as a narrative engine. Imagine: you’d be following one character, who’d bump into a friend in the street, and talk awhile, and then the camera would follow her, leaving him behind, and on and on, like the links of a chain. It could be a film about late-eighties Austin, and “the obsessiveness of that age, and the thinking at that time. I thought it would be kind of funny, too,” Linklater says. He filmed “Slacker” through the summer of 1989, for twenty-three thousand dollars. “I thought we’d show it at a few film festivals and sell some videos.”
Instead, the movie got picked up for national distribution. As it went into general release, in 1991, American pop culture was in the process of reimagining itself. Douglas Coupland had just published a novel, “Generation X,” announcing a new, institutionally aloof demographic. Nirvana released “Nevermind.” “Slacker” was thought to be the cinematic distillation of this ethos, and the film made back more than fifty times its tiny budget. Linklater was hailed as the voice of a generation, though the generation wasn’t his: he was by then in his thirties.
One of the film’s admirers was Tina Harrison. She had grown up in the Bay Area and moved to Austin for graduate school in art history, but “found Austin rather dreary after San Francisco and Berkeley.” The precise nature of this dreariness had been ineffable to her until she saw “Slacker,” which seemed to capture it: the movie, she recalls, conveyed the “romance of the utter boringness of Austin.” She passed the young director at an event one evening, but thought nothing of it; soon after, though, their social circles collided, because one of Linklater’s buddies had a crush on her roommate. He found a way to meet up with the object of his affection at a music show one night, and Linklater came along as his wingman. Harrison had gone as her roommate’s wingwoman, and they got to talking, and eventually she decided that he was kind of cute, in spite of his weird hair. The nascent romance was not all-consuming. “Rick works,” Harrison says. “He just works. Nothing changes that.” Often, he’d meet her late, a small stack of fresh script pages face down on his desk when she arrived. The only time she tried to read one, he leaped over and swatted the page back into place.
The screenplay that Linklater was writing was “Dazed and Confused.” In high school, he and a couple of friends once spent a night driving around in a hopped-up Le Mans, looking for something to do. “A couple of races, a couple of almost-fights, a couple of flirtations, a lot of beer consumed, a couple of joints,” he recalls. “At the end of the night, we’d driven a hundred and thirty-eight miles, and we hadn’t left the area.” This high-intensity aimlessness pointed toward the desperate, diffuse energy at the edge of adulthood. He imagined a movie that fixed the camera on a single space, like a car, with a single eight-track tape playing (ZZ Top’s “Fandango!,” obviously), and let the world enter and exit on its own. That framework fell away after he started writing, though. He wanted to shift points of view in order to get as much of high school—the campus hallway, the sports culture, the parties—as possible.
He also decided to set the film in the seventies, some fifteen years earlier. In that respect, the movie marked a narrative angle that Linklater has repeatedly returned to: the personal historical present, a kind of Polaroid of the moment developed by a man farther along in time. We’re meant to be fully immersed in the world it portrays, but that world always exists relative to an offscreen future; we know where it leads, although the characters do not. “I was trying to make a pretty anti-nostalgic piece,” he says. “The view of that movie is that the times they’re living in suck.”
Linklater sought out young actors who, in many cases, weren’t career actors. “I like the street artists,” Linklater says. “This is almost a Warholian notion, but there’s an interesting kind of performer in the world who doesn’t have the qualities to want to pursue that as a profession, you know? To want to be a professional actor is like wanting to be a professional athlete. You’ve got to want that so bad. And a lot of the people I wanted weren’t like that.” Alumni of Linklater’s early movies have variously ended up as acting hobbyists and as stars. Wiley Wiggins, who was cast after picking up a flyer on Guadalupe Street, in Austin, still does the occasional film (including “Waking Life”), but he mostly works, happily, as a Web and videogame designer. Other “interesting” kids Linklater plucked out for “Dazed and Confused” include Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, and Parker Posey.
In a bar one night, Don Phillips, who led casting for the film, met a promising-seeming U.T. student, Matthew McConaughey, who had previously been in a beer commercial. The day of his costume fitting, Linklater invited him to sit behind the wheel of a prop car and film his first scene. McConaughey was nervous. This was bad, because his character, David Wooderson, a smooth-talking deadbeat in his early twenties who hangs out with the high-school crowd, would never be nervous. McConaughey ran over his discussions with Linklater, trying to figure out what Wooderson would be. The character loved this car; he loved the pot he was smoking; he loved the rock music he was hearing. (Linklater had made a custom playlist for each character, conveying his or her inner life.) McConaughey tried to will himself into the role by giving those three things a verbal thumbs-up when Linklater called action. “All right, all right, all right!” he said. It became part of his character’s dialogue.
On the first day of rehearsals, Linklater had assembled the actors and brandished his screenplay. “I told the cast, ‘If we do this word for word, we’re fucked,’ ” he recalls. This is the approach he’s used in almost all his movies, even those he didn’t write, and it’s sometimes described, incorrectly, as improvisatory. Actually, Linklater avoids surprises on the set. He schedules a lot of rehearsal time—two solid weeks or so before production starts—and goes through each scene in an open-ended way, talking about character motivations and getting actors to riff. Most of the rehearsal time is spent rewriting the screenplay, line by line, drawing out and molding his work against performers’ strengths and styles.
“Often what I write is incredibly ‘written,’ pretentious, whatever,” he says. “Then it’s, like, How do we undercut this?” The original ideas work their way into the scene, but the language changes. By the time the cameras start rolling, the screenplay is halfway between the voice of the writer-director and the voices of his actors. Here’s the big introspective scene of “Dazed and Confused,” as the cast first received it:
PINK: And it’s always these same fools that are always saying . . . (imitative voice) People, these are the best years of your life. They told me that when I was your age and I didn’t believe it then, but now I see they were telling the truth. If I only knew then what I know now . . . (normal) I just want to go, yeah, if you’re a dumb-fuck, it just might be the best years of your life.
DON: Yeah, the coaches are dumb-fucks, but if you think about it, we actually have had some great times, right here.
SIMONE (to Pink): Yeah, you act like you’re the oppressed. You guys are the kings of the school.
PINK: I’m just saying, if any point in the future I start thinking of these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.
DON: I just want to be able to look back and say I did the best I could while I was stuck here. Played as good as I could, had the most fun I could, and (grabs Shavonne) dogged as many ladies as I could.
By the shoot, the actors had memorized a more surprising and emotionally intricate scene:
WOODERSON: You gotta do what Randall “Pink” Floyd wants to do, man. And let me tell you this: the older you do get, the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.
SLATER: Man, if you’re gonna sign that paper, man, you should throw a little grass right in the middle, man. Roll it up. Sign the joint, man. That’s gonna tell ’em something.
PINK: That’s what I’ll do. Assholes.
DON: Yeah, so what? They’re all a bunch of assholes. But you gotta think about it. We’ve had a lot of really good times right here, Pink.
SIMONE: Yeah, I mean, come on, Pink. I can’t believe this. You act like you’re so oppressed. Man, you guys are kings of the school. You get away with whatever you want. What are you bitchin’ about?
PINK: Well, look, I mean, all I’m saying is, if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.
DON: Well, all I’m saying is, I just want to be able to look back and say that I did it the best I could while I was stuck in this place. Had as much fun as I could when I was stuck in this place. Played as hard as I could when I was stuck in this place. Dogged as many chicks as I could when I was stuck in this place!
SHAVONNE: Yeah, right, Mister Premature Ejaculation.
Linklater doesn’t trust the precision of his writing enough to insist on its verbatim rehearsal, and he’s suspicious of other writers who demand that kind of deference. As a result, his work in progress is extremely hard to track. Sometimes executives will express enthusiasm about producing a Linklater project, so he will send in a screenplay he plans to film. The response is predictable. “They’re, like, ‘We love your other films, but this isn’t for us,’ ” Linklater says. “I’m, like, ‘Well, if you saw my other scripts . . .’ ”
After the box-office flop of his second studio movie, “The Newton Boys” (1998), based on a true story about mostly nonviolent bank robbers, Linklater started to see himself as a dropout of the Hollywood finishing school. He didn’t do another studio-financed film until the producer Scott Rudin started courting him for a comedy about a failed musician who teaches kids to rock. Rudin said he saw something Linklaterian in the project, and eventually Linklater did, too. The wrong way to make “School of Rock,” he realized, would be to hire a bunch of child actors and have them dorkily pretend to play musical instruments. But what if you assembled a group of actual musicians—interesting kids—and worked up moments with them? “It felt like we were rehearsing for a play more than making a movie,” Jack Black, who starred in it, says. “When we filmed, that was like opening night.” The film, which was released in 2003, grossed more than a hundred and thirty million dollars worldwide, and Linklater, who had experienced the full pleasures of institutional support, realized how easy it would be to adapt his creative ambitions to the studio’s needs. The seductiveness of the exchange made him wary.
Today, Linklater visits Los Angeles the way one might visit a low-grade radiation site. When he has business there, he takes the early flight into LAX, runs to morning, lunch, and afternoon meetings, then catches the late flight home to Austin. When he is ready to make a movie, he finds producers who trust him with a long leash. (In the case of “Boyhood,” this was Jonathan Sehring, at I.F.C., who gave the project a small but stable stipend every year.) He tops off the coffers with his own money, and makes the movies as cheaply as possible. Since the nineties, Linklater has offered his stars percentage points instead of Hollywood fees. He calls this “betting on myself,” and if the bet is good, which it almost always is, it makes the director as free and self-sovereign as a painter or a novelist.
When he had cleaned his plate at Mr. Natural, Linklater got in his truck and drove to Austin Studios, where his production company, Detour, is based. Austin Studios is run by the Austin Film Society, which Linklater founded, in 1985, with a few friends. He conceived of it as a club for local enthusiasts to watch film classics and sub-classics on a big screen. In the mid-nineties, after his career took off, Linklater hired a development staff and started a grant program for young filmmakers who live in Texas; there’s also a travel-grant program to help them get to festivals like Sundance. Partly as a result, Austin has become a capital for independent cinema. “It used to be just Linklater, Malick, and Rodriguez,” Rebecca Campbell, the film society’s executive director, says. Now the field is crowded.
In 1999, Linklater approached the city with a proposition. Austin had just got a new airport, east of town. The old one, Mueller Municipal Airport, was lying dormant. What if the film society took over a swath of it, turned the old hangars into soundstages, and created a production lot for the city’s growing film industry? He got a long-term lease.
Austin Studios now serves as a kind of community garden for filmmakers. In one building, Jason Reitman was running auditions for his new project. Yonder is the patch where Terrence Malick parks his trailers. Most of Linklater’s work takes place in Bungalow D, a lime-green triple-wide trailer where his office—a small room with cluttered bookshelves, and a black Remington Noiseless Junior typewriter—is decorated with posters for “La Maman et la Putain” and “Weekend.” Last year, the Austin Film Society worked out an arrangement with the Marchesa, a theatre on the edge of town, to serve as a repertory house. Linklater recently organized a Wednesday-night series from the nineteen-eighties—films like Jonathan Demme’s “Melvin and Howard” and Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City.” He planned to do the whole decade, but made it to 1983 before running out of Wednesdays.
Linklater still conceives of himself as a Texas filmmaker, but his work and interests often carry him afield. He is known among colleagues for a steel-trap memory for scenes, dialogue, and faces—he once recognized a stunt man’s friend visiting the set of “Bad News Bears” (2005) from an episode of “The Dating Game” he’d seen in the nineteen-seventies—and projects such as “Before Sunrise” (1995) arose from his reimmersion in the moments of his past. The film’s conceit is simple: Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a twenty-something American bumming around on a Eurail pass, sees a pretty Frenchwoman, Celine (Julie Delpy), on a train from Budapest to Paris, where she’s a student. He’s getting off in Vienna, to catch a flight home, and persuades her to join him: take a chance, he says, or you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering what might have happened. They wander around, chatting about love and philosophy and God. Then they part, with promises we do not think they’ll keep.
Everyone involved is pleased to take creative credit for this film. Hawke: “He wasn’t just looking for two actors, in a way—he was looking for two partners.” Delpy: “It was very, very different in tone—we went down a much more romantic road when we started working together.” Linklater says that the movie has exactly the tone that he set out to create. None of them are wrong. “Before Sunrise” is drawn, very loosely, from a night that Linklater had in Philadelphia soon after filming “Slacker.” In the first draft of the screenplay, which he wrote with the actress and writer Kim Krizan, Jesse is named Terry and Celine is Kris. They get off in San Antonio, instead of Vienna. Their talk is not the stuff of polka dots and moonbeams:
KRIS: I understand that we’re animals, but my god, we have the capacity to transcend the physical instinct and have a much richer experience. You can satisfy your desires and have that be the end of that, but wouldn’t you prefer to really share an experience with whomever you’re with and know that you’ve made them happy and fulfilled some of their desires, too?
(Terry looks right at her and smiles.)
TERRY: Sure, when do we start? I’m just talking about a mind-set I had a few years ago that I haven’t fully shaken. I would’ve dismissed those desires you talk about satisfying as meaningless—they’re only momentarily satisfied and are a never-ending cycle that controls our life.
Young love. Even the finished “Before Sunrise” occasionally has an eighth-grade-slow-dance stiffness to it, yet there are stunning moments. The movie’s strongest scene—Celine and Jesse in a record-shop booth, listening to Kath Bloom’s acoustic ballad “Come Here,” trying to be cool and polite, secretly puzzled by the record, and falling in love—layers emotion in a way that became Linklater’s signature.
These delicate weaves, tailored to the performers, tighten through the film’s sequels, “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” Creative naturalism is the beautiful revenge of people who feel they’re being outrun by time and human opportunity: the real thing speeds past you, impervious, so you reconjure it on the screen, where you and everybody else can live in it forever. “I always had that personality—I think it’s a writer’s sensibility—where you’re there but not there,” Linklater says. “I had to make a peace with myself. It’s like, well, you’re not in the moment. But just by contemplating it, by searching for the depth of the moment, that is itself an experience.”
During a break in the writing of “Before Sunset,” Delpy put on Nina Simone, and started dancing. Linklater realized that he’d witnessed the film’s ending. In the finished movie, Jesse is married, with a child; having published a novel based on that Vienna night, he gives a reading in Paris that Celine attends, and something is rekindled. Celine shows Jesse her apartment and puts on Simone’s “Just in Time.” She begins dancing, and says, in the singer’s voice, “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane,” and he says, “I know,” and fingers his wedding ring.
The ending isn’t merely trite, because, like much of Linklater’s work, it has a sharp, against-the-system edge. Aren’t those heightened moments, the perfect instants with Nina Simone playing, the points toward which all life strains? Is it actually so crazy to set our compass by them? In the end, the “Before” series embraces what we’d rather forget: every true love story is a story of bad timing.
While Linklater was working on “Dazed and Confused,” Harrison got pregnant. This caught him off guard. “One of those go-with-the-flow things,” he says. He and Harrison were not married, and still are not; Linklater has never really understood the point. (“Why let two of the most institutional things, the government and the Church, into your life?”) Impending fatherhood seemed right, by his mid-thirties, but it brought the fear of lost momentum.
That’s not what happened. Instead, he turned his attention away from the life of an underground artist and toward building a quirky kind of homestead. Not long after Lorelei was born, Linklater bought a thirty-eight-acre parcel of land near Bastrop, half an hour southeast of Austin. The terrain was thick with pine trees, which reminded him of East Texas, where he grew up. He started building on it, doing much of the construction himself. The state didn’t require permits then, and many of the structures—a simple cabin among the trees, tennis courts—had a nonce air.
The transition to family man also broadened Linklater’s work. He started making films that could be seen both by adults and by children Lorelei’s age—hence “School of Rock” and “Bad News Bears,” a remake of Michael Ritchie’s 1976 youth-baseball comedy. Linklater used his obsession with growth across time to layer stages of life in one narrative. “Boyhood” is, in some ways, a distilled version of the “Before” series, paying tribute to the passage of real time as frankly as it can at cinematic length.
He also started putting his kids onscreen. Lorelei, who studies painting at the California College of the Arts, in Oakland, first appeared in “Waking Life,” but “Boyhood” involved a greater commitment. When she was a very cool twelve-year-old, she recalls having to dress up in a Harry Potter costume for a scene. “Can my character die?” she pleaded. The years passed, and Lorelei grew ambivalent about the whole endeavor. “I’m kind of a fantasy nerd—science-fiction-fantasy stuff,” she says. “I’m not always so interested in things that try to capture reality.”
Over Labor Day weekend in 2011, after one of the hottest and driest summers on record, a fire, fanned by the winds of an approaching Gulf Coast storm, tore across the countryside and torched the Bastrop woods. It levelled seventeen hundred homes, including the Linklaters’. The shady woodlands grew back as a more typically central-Texas landscape: grassy, undulating, and scattered with trees. On Linklater’s property, there were now open spaces. He had designed a bunkhouse by the creek, making the bunks double-wide and mounting them on wheels so they could be dragged onto the porch on warm nights, and for a couple of years the family slept there when they were in Bastrop.
Because he’d done so much of the original construction himself or inexpensively, he made out well on the insurance. “Everything here, all these acres?” he said recently. “The cost of a nondescript Tribeca apartment.” Since finishing “Boyhood,” he has been rebuilding. “The whole place, to me, is like an indie film,” he said. He started designing little “guesthouses” across the property, each with a different eco theme. One will be made out of old glass bottles, with a semicircular façade to trace the path of the sun for a stained-glass effect inside. Another will be made out of cob, and a third faced with old license plates. Linklater’s friends are constantly trying to finish screenplays, books, or other projects, and he envisages the guesthouses as artist-colony-like spaces among the rhythms of his small working farm, complete with vegetable beds, poultry, and miniature donkeys. A couple of years ago, Linklater got a pig, also miniature—in “Boyhood,” Mason’s girlfriend shows him a picture of it on her phone—and at Bastrop it has the run of the place, sleeping on a pillow bed outside the master bedroom and the home theatre that adjoins it.
It is not uncommon for Linklater to bring his work and the lives it concerns home. In 2011, he came out with “Bernie,” based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, a beloved funeral-home employee in Carthage, Texas (played by Jack Black), who became the doting ward of an emotionally abusive older woman (Shirley MacLaine); shot her with a .22 rifle; hid the body in a freezer; and went about his life, using her multimillion-dollar fortune for gifts and charity. After Tiede won early release, this May—evidence was introduced that he had been sexually abused throughout his adolescence, which might have caused a “dissociative episode”—Linklater invited him to live in an apartment above the garage at his family’s Austin home. At present, he’s there, trying to remake his life, as Linklater, working in Bastrop, reimagines his own.
Before the fire, Linklater stored everything at Bastrop: drafts of his early screenplays, correspondence, production paperwork, props, and Super 8 films from his early years. He lost it all. “You get philosophical really quickly,” he said, tramping through the low brush.
One of the few structures untouched by the fire was the library, a small two-story building clad with multicolored tile, where Linklater likes to write. The preservation of his work space was striking to him. By 2011, he had reached a phase of comfortable accomplishment, both in his construction at Bastrop and in his creative life more generally. He was ready to enjoy it. “The irony is that I felt done,” he said, as a soft breeze fluttered the remaining leaves outside. The blaze, in some peculiar way, remotivated him. “The fire came, and it was like, Oh, O.K. You don’t want me to be done.”
In January, Linklater, Lorelei, Coltrane, and a few of the “Boyhood” producers went to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival, and Arquette and Hawke met them there. A friend who had rented a house near the town’s main drag didn’t need it, so Linklater’s group moved in. After a day of relative repose, Linklater donned a nice gray cowboy shirt and sat on a high stool at the kitchen counter. Coltrane came down, and started making a cup of tea.
“I’m glad you’re here, man,” Linklater said. “It’s like those big things, it must be like—not that I’m married, but, you know—getting married. Like, ‘I knew this day would come.’ Like your kid going off to college. It’s going to happen, or whatever, but—”
Lorelei bounced down the stairs in a velvet cocktail dress. “This is one option,” she said.
Linklater furrowed his brow. “It’s—”
“I don’t know. I might not be the right judge.”
“I have a dress with sleeves,” Lorelei said.
“Yeah, you might want sleeves,” Linklater said, trying to sound casual. He looked to Cathleen Sutherland, the production manager, and to Sandra Adair, his longtime editor. “What do the ladies think? Thumbs up or down?”
“The dress is pretty, but she might get cold,” Sutherland said.
“It’s adorable, though!” Adair added.
Lorelei clambered back upstairs. Linklater looked after her, and then at the producers with paternal fretfulness. “That seems a little skimpy,” he whispered. “Will someone tell her?”
By the time they arrived at the theatre, a group of photographers and industry reporters waited, like kennelled puppies, behind a rail. Linklater and the actors travelled along the line, smiling and answering a couple of questions for each outlet. It was the first time that Coltrane—a movie star for more than a decade, yet never a public figure—had done a press gantlet, and he started edging away from the microphones. Sutherland guided him back into position.
“Twelve years a slave,” Linklater murmured as the cast trooped backstage along with the producers. “That’s how I feel.” The theatre’s twelve hundred and seventy seats were filled. John Cooper, the festival director, introduced the movie. He brought out Linklater, Arquette, and Hawke. Linklater said, “It was a big leap of faith and a big commitment for so many people.” Then he took his seat, in the sixth row.
In the editing room over the past few weeks, Linklater and his team had thought about titling the movie “Always Now.” Part of the film’s pathos comes from the realization that, although the actors are acting, the passage of their lives is real and irretrievable. There is no Young Mason actor who can be trotted out for interviews. But then it struck Linklater that many Richard Linklater movies could be called “Always Now.” They stuck with “Boyhood.”
When the closing credits came up, the crowd began to cheer, and Linklater and his actors were called onstage for a Q. & A. The first question was not a question. “I’m nineteen years old,” a kid in the fourth row said. “You’ve just captured my life.” Soon Linklater and the actors were whisked offstage. Sutherland threw her arms around Coltrane. With the lights off him, he seemed less stolid. It was 1 A.M. They headed out the back doors of the theatre, into a parking lot where S.U.V.s waited.
It was cold out, and clear, and the slopes rising behind Park City sparkled with the night lights of the lifts. A police barrier had been set up along the lot, and behind it a small gaggle of photographers were beckoning. “Richard!” they shouted. “Mr. Linklater!” Near the front of the group, in the line of the camera lenses, Linklater, Hawke, and Sutherland tried to figure out where people were getting dropped off. Behind them, Coltrane took small steps. He was quietly sobbing. He inched blindly toward the cars. Lorelei edged in and put an arm around him. They drew close. “Are you O.K.?” she said.
Linklater is going into production on a film this autumn, but he’s not yet sure what it will be. There are two options. One is “Larry’s Kidney,” which he adapted from the eccentric memoir by Daniel Asa Rose. Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis have agreed to be in it. His other production-ready screenplay is what he calls his “college comedy,” set on campus, during his own college years. The floor of the passenger side of his car is littered with homemade CDs of music of the late seventies and early eighties. He envisions his college comedy as the spiritual sequel to “Dazed and Confused” and “Boyhood”; it’s the one stage of youth he hasn’t yet dealt with onscreen. He is also trying to write a space-race movie about what it was like to grow up in Houston in the age of Mission Control.
Since 1999, he’s been working on a movie about the American Transcendentalists: Emerson, Thoreau, the whole group. As a child, Linklater attended Unitarian services with his father, and he thinks it’s strange that there’s never been a truly great cinematic history of a movement so foundational to modern American identity. He has a fantasy of bringing academics and actors together around a table, reworking the script, line by line. Yet, despite fifteen years of research, he hasn’t found a way to make something that isn’t a “bonnet movie” period piece—high collars, grave dinner parties, mid-Atlantic dialogue. “My two historical films, ‘Me and Orson Welles’ and ‘The Newton Boys,’ I think they both have this in-the-moment feel that kind of throws you,” he says. “That’s kind of Tolstoy’s view of history. Lincoln went from the Gettysburg Address, probably had to go eat dinner, and then some really practical concerns with his family: shit.” His fascination with the glints of magic in this endless rough—the way that the world and the people in it periodically exceed themselves, creating a few seconds of ecstatic here-ness and then fading back into banality—is also his deepest pleasure in the long process of moviemaking.
“One of my favorite moments is when an actor does something incredible that you film—you know you’ve achieved that—and then just to see him wander, after the scene, over to the craft-service table and strike up a conversation,” he says. “Life is just around these heightened moments. You captured something within the world, that is a record, that exists—and you just move on. Like, ‘O.K., we got that. What’s the next shot? Oh, the sun’s going down.’ ”
The afternoon after the Antone’s shoot, Linklater filmed the last “Boyhood” sequence in Austin. It had carried over from the previous day, when, after the technical delays, they had lost the outdoor light on Mowinkle Drive. It was a simple scene: a shot-reverse-shot conversation between Mason and his friend, parked outside the graduation party, bracing themselves for the family throng within. The backdrop had to match the Mowinkle house only vaguely, because it was beyond the focus zone, but the late-afternoon light had to align exactly with the footage the day before. Linklater and Palmo had settled on the perfect spot, by a tree in front of somebody’s lawn. A crew member had been holding the position with his silver Camry. Now, when he got in to move it, the car wouldn’t start.
Somebody got a cable, and they tried to jump the battery. No luck. By the time a tow truck could arrive, the light would be gone. Linklater had grown quiet. They’d have to get the car out of the parking spot themselves, he said. The owner of the Camry took the wheel and put the car in neutral. Linklater and a few crew members got behind and pressed their palms against the back.
They strained. Slowly, the car inched forward; the driver pulled a sharp left, and it swivelled from the parking space. They kept pushing, and it glided out farther down the center of the road. It gained speed. The sun was going down; the street was bathed in rose-colored central-Texas light. Soon Linklater was no longer applying force. He took growing strides in his New Balance shoes. He released his hands from the back. The Camry was moving under its weight now, and Linklater was simply jogging behind, grinning ecstatically, trying to keep up, as the car kept rolling forward, toward the main road. Ω
[Nathan Heller began contributing to The New Yorker in 2011, and joined the magazine as a staff writer in 2013. He has written on a range of subjects, including online education and the TED Conference. He is also a film and television critic, and a contributing editor, at Vogue. Previously, he was a columnist for Slate, where he was a finalist for a National Magazine Award for essays and criticism. He has also written for the Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, The New Republic, New York, Bookforum, n+1, and other publications. Heller received a BA (history and literature) from Harvard University.]
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