When he screened the epic Boyhood at Sundance Film Festival two years ago, Richard Linklater was just about the only director to project his movie on 35 millimeter celluloid film instead of digital. True to form, the Austin-based writer-director zigs where others zag. Low-key, relentless and original, Linklater debuted his world view in 1991’s Slacker, which had no plot but reams of off-the-wall dialogue that hit home with twenty somethings. High school comedy Dazed and Confused became a cult classic and consolidated a maverick career encompassing mainstream Hollywood hit School of Rock, animated fever dream Waking Life and the poignant Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpie Before Sunset / Before Sunrise / Before Midnight relationship trilogy.
Linklater also made a few flops, survived a 2011 fire that decimated his 45-acre Texas ranch and abandoned his original dream of becoming a professional baseball player after being diagnosed with heart arrhythmia. It’s all there in the easy-going new documentary Dream is Destiny, which debuted earlier this week at the Sundance Film Festival.
Directed by Karen Bernstein and Louis Black, the film illuminates Linklater’s indie aesthetic in advance of the director’s much-anticipated ’80s-era college jock comedy Everybody Wants Some, set for April release. Black, an SXSW co-founder and longtime friend of the auteur, checked in from Park City to break down eight key lessons in creative resilience embedded in Linklater’s body of work.
Linklater worked for two years on an off-shore oil rig, spending his off-time in movie theaters watching three or four films a day. Then he moved to Austin, purchased a Super 8 camera and taught himself how to become a filmmaker by casting himself in the the aptly titled You Can’t Learn to Plow by Reading Books. “Rick would set up the camera on a tripod, then run around in front of it to act while he kept this Sony Walkman recorder on his belt to capture audio,” Black explains. “It was basically like an audition for himself to see if he could make a complete feature film.” Linklater did not show the movie to anyone at the time but valued Plow as a proof of concept to himself: technically, he knew how to shoot a feature-length film from start to finish.
Black traces Linklater’s confidence as a young director to his early years as an athlete. “What’s important to understand about Rick is that he’s a real jock,” he observes. “The skills you need to be the co-captain of your football or baseball team have served him well in filmmaking because like in sports, everybody’s aiming for the same thing and Rick’s leading you there. At the same time, he’s very open to collaboration.”
Linklater recruited most of the cast and crew for Slacker from his friends in the Austin Film Society, which he co-founded. “It’s almost done as a collective,” Black recalls. “It turned out to be Rick’s movie, but for the people involved, Slacker really feels like it’s their movie too.”
After Slacker, Universal Studios, financed Linklater’s pitch-perfect spin on the coming of age teen comedy Dazed and Confused. Instead of spelling out exactly what he wanted from his actors, Linklater gave each cast member a record album as the touchstone for his or character. “They were able to get a real feeling for the range of who their characters were by listening to the music Rick selected for them.” Matthew McConaughey, Dazed‘s breakthrough star, notes in the documentary, “I’ve never heard Rick say the word ‘No.’ He’s redirected me and I’ve seen him redirect many people, but I’ve never heard him say the word “no.”
Jack Black, star of Linklater-directed School of Rock and Bernie, adds, “A lot of directors don’t give a shit what you think. They’re just looking for good puppets who will speak the words as they wrote them and won’t give them any guff or any friction or talk-back. Rick’s the opposite of that. He’s looking for people with ideas that are fresh. He actually wants to know the truth of the character for you because he sees value in that.”
Linklater notes in the documentary that he has often felt “invisible” to Hollywood power brokers. When his Depression-era bank robbery drama The Newton Boys tanked, Linklater regrouped with local talents to make the critically acclaimed stream-of-consciousness animation Waking Life . Louis Black says, “For Rick, It’s really all about constraint. If Newton Boys had done well we wouldn’t have Waking Life or Before Sunset. A lot of these films are really about Rick figuring out how to make movies in his backyard. Whenever his back is up against the wall, he doesn’t do a generic film; Rick goes out and does something completely outrageous like Waking Life.”
Linklater directed his most commercial comedy School of Rock only because heavyweight producer Scott Rudin convinced him to change his mind about the material. When Linklater originally turned down the offer to direct School, he was informed “Scott Rudin does not accept your pass.” Intrigued, Linklater met with Rudin. As Louis Black describes it, “Rick told Scott ‘I’m not going to make the movie your way, I’m going to make it my way.’ And Scott said ‘fine.”
Linklater sharpened the script and imported his collaborative methodology into a relatively mainstream Hollywood project. “On the set for the classroom, Rick put this chalk board family tree of heavy metal rock, which, if you look at it closely, is really accurate. He let people in the cast make comments, erase and add stuff. It’s another example of how Rick likes to make even his Hollywood movies into a collaborative effort.”
As a child, Linklater wanted to be a novelist when he grew up. Decades later, that urge returned when Linklater, whose parents got divorced when he was eight, sat down at the typewriter to begin what he thought would be an autobiographical novel. “Rick put his fingers on the keys of the type writer and literally within minutes the whole film concept for Boyhood came to him,” Black says. “You’d think it’d be an impossible sell but this audacious, walking-off -the-cliff experiment came together relatively quickly. He was deliriously happy that every year he got to work on this film again.”
Linklater returns to the same themes time and again, invoking the concept of a “spiral”-like time frame of shifting perspective. When Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpie portray the same couple over two decades of real time, the “Sunset” trilogy defied conventional box office wisdom. Linklater didn’t care about the numbers. In the documentary, he half-jokes “Nobody wanted a sequel to Before Sunset except for three people: Ethan, Julie and me.”
Linklater sees his upcoming ’80s-era comedy Everybody Wants Some as a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused, even though its got a completely different cast of characters. The movie follows four freshmen (Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell) during the first three days of college before classes begin. “It’s about a group of guys who arrive at college but it’s really about teamwork,” Black says. “They don’t really have clear cut character and over the course of the film these people come together as a team and start to understand who they are and how they’re centered. Everybody Wants Some is almost like a backstory to another movie because the film ends right as school’s about to begin.”
Linklater’s perfectly happy to make Hollywood-funded movies if they dovetail with his own passions, but the filmmaker keeps his distance from show business hype. Black recalls, “The night Rick lost the Oscar for directing Boyhood, I sent him a message that I’d came across this spectacular lobby card for Vincent Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town. ‘I don’t collect Minnelli but you do.’ I’m sure he was deluged with emails saying ‘You were robbed’ but Rick wrote me back almost immediately saying ‘I’ve got two posters but I don’t have the lobby cards.’ I said ‘They’re yours.’
“There are probably great filmmakers who do not addictively watch movies,” Black continues. “Rick is not one of them. And for him, winning an Oscar was never the goal. Sure Rick wants to make money, sure he loves acclaim but really what he wants to do is make the next movie. He’s always got four or five in the back of his mind.”