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From ‘Boyhood’ to ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette,’ director Richard Linklater reveals four storytelling secrets

The Oscar-winning director breaks down how he solved his biggest creative hurdles of his career, including his latest film ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette.’

From ‘Boyhood’ to ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette,’ director Richard Linklater reveals four storytelling secrets
(Left to right) Cate Blanchett stars as Bernadette Fox, Emma Nelson as Bee Branch, and Billy Crudup as Elgie Branch in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. [Photo: Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures]

For most of his career, director Richard Linklater has created some of the most experimental and critically lauded indie films, including Waking Life, the Before trilogy, and his Oscar-winning 12-year time capsule Boyhood.

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However, every so often Linklater swerves into the mainstream, with films like 2003’s School of Rock and most recently Where’d You Go, Bernadette, an adaptation of Maria Semple’s 2012 hit novel.

Starring Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette tells the story of architect Bernadette Fox who goes missing before a family trip to Antarctica, and her teenage daughter who takes up the task of tracking her mother down.

“The challenge with Bernadette wasn’t that it was a popular novel. I liked that it was a popular novel,” Linklater says. “The challenge was [its] epistolary format, where it’s texts, it’s emails, FBI files—it’s words from documents. I think people who liked the book a lot when they read it, they didn’t really see a movie in their head. It didn’t read A-to-Z-like a film narrative.”

Linklater explains how he tackled some of his career’s most challenging creative problems, including finding the film in Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Fire yourself

One of Linklater’s key tenants in his creative process is giving his actors the room they need to find their characters. By allowing a few more hands on the steering wheel in the rehearsal process, Linklater has found he’s able to solve problems to questions that he may not have even thought to ask in the first place.

“That magical moment in cinema to me is where these words on a page meet the performer, the person who’s got to manifest this character physically, these ideas, these words. I want them to be confident. I want them to own it,” he says. “The great thing about getting a room full of people, we’re all trying to make each other laugh. And every now and then, there’s the line that can find its way into the script, or something that makes it better. I always say the director in me fires the writer in me pretty early on. [It’s about] trying to make the film be what it wants to be. So I’m loose that way. There’s a lot of different ways to make movies, but that just works with my personality, for sure. Actors like it, because I’m really listening to them. I want them to feel engaged and like they own that character.”

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Actor Cate Blanchett (left) and writer/director Richard Linklater on the set of his film Where’d You Go, Bernadette [Photo: Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures]

Push back against the norm

Linklater’s 1993 classic Dazed and Confused came at a unique time for teen movies. It was out of the realm of the John Hughes era in the ’80s but not quite in the avalanche of offerings that peppered the late ’90s such as She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Can’t Hardly Wait.

In the end, Linklater created a cult hit by sticking to what he knew and not what the genre had previously dictated.

“So many teen movies throughout history, I kinda had trouble with the genre, ’cause I think they are overly dramatic,” Linklater says. “The archetype is Rebel Without a Cause. There’s a car wreck. There’s death. It’s such a big deal. I’m just working from a personal place. The essence for me of being a teenager was just riding around looking for something to do. So I crammed everything interesting that happened to me [in high school] into one day where nothing’s happening, but everything’s happening. I was sort of doing my take on that genre and negating the big principles of the genre.”

Think bigger and bolder

Undoubtedly Linklater’s most audacious work to date (and one of cinema’s overall) was 2014’s Boyhood. Filmed over the course of 12 years, the film wasn’t just an exercise in extreme patience, it was also thinking big enough to accommodate even the loftiest of ideas.

“I had this story just about growing up that I couldn’t quite crack the form of it. It wasn’t working in my head because I was trying to cover too many years. If you really analyze it, kid movies, they’re really about a short amount of time in the kid’s life,” he says. “You can’t say, ‘Okay, now you’re playing 7. Now you’re playing 11. Now you’re 14. How do you do that without switching actors? I had a storytelling, cinematic problem. And so I really thought about that for a year or two and almost gave up. [I thought I was] going to have to write the novel or do something else to express that about my childhood. It was just at the moment I gave up that I had this idea: If I filmed a little every year, I could cover it. So it all came to me in a flash. I’m very thankful that [producer] Jonathan Sehring and IFC gave me a couple hundred thousand every year to keep shooting and to do what seemed like kind of a weird experiment. But I knew in my heart of hearts it would be a movie.”

On finding out “who the hell Bernadette is?”

In addition to its epistolary structure, Where’d You Go, Bernadette also hops around chronologically. In order to make it all make sense, Linklater first had to wade through the novel’s tricky format to find out what the story was really about, which wasn’t hard to do with an actor like Blanchett.

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“You can talk about genius all you want, but what I really admired and what made her, to me, the dream collaborator was just her utter desire to work hard and keep digging into Bernadette,” Linklater says. “She was just relentless.”

Actor Cate Blanchett in Where’d You Go, Bernadette [Photo: Wilson Webb/Annapurna Pictures]
“What we were trying to do with the movie was really dig in and find out who the hell Bernadette is,” he goes on to say. “We had to see her from all these perspectives. Fundamentally, on an adaptation, you always have to ask yourself, what’s this book about to me? It would be different for different people. But to me what it about was this artist who had lost touch with herself for, we find, many complex reasons that get revealed as the movie goes. It’s about a deep mother/daughter relationship. And it’s a portrait of a long-term relationship between her and her husband. So there were some areas there I thought were really deep wells of exploration that there would be a lot to say and dig into there. The artist who’s not practicing their art is potentially a kind of toxic person.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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