Paste: Going back to the movie, what motivated you cast Zac Efron as the lead?
Linklater: Selfishly, I just want the best actor who can pull that part off. I can’t imagine anyone else. That’s a touchy part; [Efron’s character, Richard] could have disappeared. When you have these big personalities, the person who’s eyes you’re seeing it through has a tendency to become wallpaper. They can be real background. So I needed a leading man who could go toe-to-toe with Welles. It’s kind of funny when you see Welles say “Don’t worry about it, Junior,” like, oh, this little fucker is getting away with something here, in a big way. So game on. It’s fun to see Zac maneuver through all that, and that’s who he is. I always say if you underestimate Zac, you will realize quickly that he’s actually two steps ahead of you. He’s a poker player. He was apparently taking everyone’s money. The cast and crew who thought they were such good poker players, Zac comes in as the kid, “So really, is this how you do it?” And oh no, he’s really good. He just beat you. That is very telling about him. But I just think he’s really talented, you know? He’s a song and dance man. He’s kind of a throw back. He would be a great ‘30s, ‘40s [star]. He works well in a period film. I first saw him in Hairspray, and I thought what he did there was pretty incredible. Some guys got it. It’s going to be interesting to see his career, because he’s got that physicality. I think he could be an action star. He could do a lot o things.
Paste: You arguably gave him his first big dramatic break.
Linklater: On one level, yeah. He felt there was a different expectation in what he had to achieve here. He has to carry the movie. I was really proud of him. He worked really hard.
Paste: You had first auditioned Claire Danes for a role in Dazed and Confused.
Linklater: When she was like, 12. Yeah, she was too young for that. But I will say that she was one of the most natural actresses that I’ve met, especially for such a young kid. Most little kids are very eager to please, very smiley and very cute. That’s what gets you hired for commercials and Disney shows or whatever. Claire was so laid back and real. I always remember that. Of course a year or so later she’s on My So Called Life, and I thought, “Oh yeah, of course, Claire Danes.” So you follow people’s careers and it just works out wonderfully. We were just lucky we got such a good actress.
Paste: What role did she audition for all those years ago?
Linklater: The young girl going into high school, Sabrina, who ended up being played by Christin Hinojosa, who was actually about 16. Everyone was up a little bit.
Paste: At this point in your career, do you look back and have a favorite movie of yours?
Linklater: Yeah, I think this is my 15th movie. No one favorite. You know, I look back and each one’s been kind of a great experience. I don’t have any that I regret or that I didn’t achieve what I wanted to. I know people can’t understand but that, but the film they don’t like subject-matter wise is actually a film that I felt close to.
Paste: After working so hard to operate out of Austin, Texas and do your thing out of there instead of LA or New York, do you think that the film industry has become less reliant on those two cities?
Linklater: The truth is I haven’t had to work very hard to be there. It really kind of came to me. I’m of the first generation probably that you didn’t have to move to LA. All of the Demmes and the Scorseses, the Coppolas, they had to go to LA. If you ever wanted to make movies, you go there, you make a film for Roger Corman, you get an agent. You had to really work hard to eventually get your films made. And because of all those guys and that generation, by the time I came around, Gus Van Sant had already made Drugstore Cowboy in Portland that very first year. It was pretty clear that you could make a film anywhere. The indie world didn’t require that the way old Hollywood did. It was cheaper to make them. By the time I went to make my first studio film, Dazed and Confused, people were like, “Oh, Austin? Good! Sounds like it’d be cheaper to shoot there, anyway.” They didn’t care. So I was just a beneficiary of the way the specialty world had become a real thing and opened up. It worked for me. It’s home. I’m rooted there with the film society I started a long time ago. And increasingly I’m getting money out of Europe. It’s truly a world industry – less centralized. So that’s the good news. The bad news is I’m kind of an outsider. When things get tough, they’re not going to go out of their way to finance my films. No one owes me anything, so I’m not really in that club.
Paste: So for your next film, are you going to do a School of Rock sequel as rumored?
Linklater: No real plans. There have been a couple of meetings, but it’s been kind of greatly overstated. I saw Jack the other night actually and we talked about it. But the script’s not there. It’s not on the front burner, that’s for sure. I got a few other films I’m hoping to make. I have a few others. IMDb is the best and the worst of our internet culture.
Paste: So what do you have planned?
Linklater: For the couple I hope to do, one’s kind of a college comedy. I had financing for it but couldn’t find a distributor. I call it my spiritual sequel to Dazed, a first weekend of college comedy. And then I have a true crime story set in East Texas. Kind of a comedy also- a black comedy. And then I have another film I’ve been working on for a long time, set in the Middle Ages. We’ll see. Who knows what’s next. It’s a bad time for the industry and for financing, and all those companies have closed. I never thought I was working in such an industry. You don’t want to think of the arts as industry, but you feel the effects when that whole market has collapsed. I was living in a market? I just thought we were trying to get films made. I’m kind of lucky I got this film made. It’s kind of the last one—the last of its kind.