This weekend the New Orleans Film Festival is presenting a special 20th anniversary screening of Richard Linklater’s seminal independent film, Slacker. Immediately preceding the film will be the world premiere of A Slacker Turns Twenty, a 10-minute Linklater tribute film directed by Paste film section editor Michael Dunaway and starring (from this week’s cover) Parker Posey, Jason Reitman, Greg Kinnear, Miranda Cosgrove, Keanu Reeves and Ethan Hawke. As a special exclusive preview for Paste readers, here’ what they had to say about Slacker and the rest of Linklater’s oeuvre.
ON LINKLATER’S STYLE WITH ACTORS:
To work with him was like the cameras weren’t even there, he’s so relaxed and so fun. It’s like, “Hey Rick, can I say this? Can I do this?” And the answer is, “Yeah, sure, go for it.” He’s so good at creating a vibe, like a roadie manager on a tour bus who’s responsible for everyone and says, “It’s all going to be fine. Some directors secretly want to control everything, but he doesn’t have that at all. He’s so laid-back. I love working with him. He does have a kind of a peaceful quality about him. Movies can be so chaotic. I think it’s because he belongs in the position he’s in; he belongs directing movies in this offhanded way. Not to throw the word around, but there’s genius in that. There’s a real talent for that kind of vibe.
ON DIRECTING WITH A LOOSE HAND:
You know, also part of being a good director is letting things just happen on set, and going with different things, and he’s very open. I remember when we were at the 15-year reunion for Dazed and Confused in Austin. There were like five thousand people there, in a park. People were partying and smoking pot and drinking and saying lines back to the screen. There were about 10 of us from the cast who were there. And I went up and crawled over some people and sat next to Rick, and he started laughing and said, “I made a drive-in movie! I made a drive-in movie.” And he had no idea that’s what he’d done.
ON LINKLATER’S APPEAL:
He’s that Generation X voice. He really was a voice that a lot of people in my generation felt we could relate to. You know, not really a part of the system, wanting a more free and easy, spontaneous kind of lifestyle. And Austin has that vibe. It’s kind of a new city in that way. Rick is very much a part of that, and taps into that spontaneity, that Southern kind of thing—lots of talking, relating to each other, telling your story.
ON MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY:
I had heard all about Matthew McConaughey. Everybody in the hair and makeup trailer was saying, “Wait until you meet Matthew McConaughey.” And I finally saw him, and he had this Ted Nugent shirt on, and he had this whole vibe, and I just busted a gut. I mean, I knew that guy. He was the guy that my Uncle Mark hung out with. So I went up to Rick immediately and said, “Can I be in a scene with Matthew?” And I created some history between us. You know, Darla’s a real tough girl and hangs out with the guys. So I ran through, and Matthew slapped me on the ass, and I thought that was really cool.
ON SEEING SLACKER FOR THE FIRST TIME:
The first time I saw Slacker was on laserdisc, and I may be your only interview who’ll be able to admit that. I found my way into Slacker through Clerks, which I know is backwards, but I saw Clerks here in L.A. at an indie theater, fell in love with it, and began reading about Kevin Smith. And Smith would talk about Linklater and Slacker a lot—how that movie was made, what it meant. So I thought, “Okay, I need to see this.” My father was a laserdisc collector, so I got that and we put it on. And I have to admit, the first time I saw it I was as much confused by it as I was enthralled by it. I grew up going to the Cineplex watching big Hollywood movies, and there was a specific moment when I began watching independent films, and it had a big impact on me because it was all of a sudden a different language.
ON SLACKER’S BEAUTY
The thing that’s striking about Slacker to me is that when you think about American independent cinema, there’s this idea that people are just throwing up a camera and letting people talk. That’s not what Slacker is, even though you do want to describe it as one conversation running into another. It’s beautiful. It’s beautifully shot. Almost every shot is a dolly shot; it must have been really hard to make. Also, everything was shot at the right time of day. It almost reminds me of the photography of Stephen Shore or Joel Sternfeld; there’s this right time of day with this beautiful sideways light. Even the colors of the cars in the background are gorgeous. It was beautiful-looking, and the structure of it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
ON SLACKER’S IMPACT ON THE WAY HE SAW FILM:
It made a big impact on me because I had this inkling that I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I didn’t know that there was this other type of film that you could make. I grew up my father’s son, and I really thought that the only kind of director I could be was a traditional broad comedy director. And when I saw Clerks, and then Slacker, and then a bunch of other independent films, I realized it was a different voice.
ON SLACKER’S INFLUENCE ON HIS WORK:
I’ve only made a few films, and certainly when you look at them next to Linklater’s films, they don’t look a lot alike. Someone could certainly look at my films and say, “How are you influenced by this guy?” I think the real influence was, first, just the attitude towards filmmaking—this kind of “Just Do It” attitude that was exemplified by the making of Slacker and that influenced all these other directors to make their own independent films. Kevin Smith talks about this ad nauseam, but Richard made a film that didn’t follow any of the storytelling rules from any of the movies that I grew up watching. You could have a film with the narrative: one character is going to talk to another, then that character is going to walk by a set of characters, who are going to walk into a restaurant, and then another guy is going to get into a car, and then that’s the movie. There isn’t a traditional plot, and there isn’t a traditional tone, and that’s okay. That in itself was exciting. The fact that it’s a well-shot, well-written movie with great dialogue is kind of the cherry on top. And then that continues into his other work, whether it’s a movie about a couple meeting and getting to know each other over the course of one evening, or whether he’s going to do animated films in a style that had never been seen before in a feature film, or the way he went and did Tape with a real couple in a hotel room on video tape. Part of what’s exciting about Linklater is format. He’s playing with the idea of what is structure, and what is a film? That’s an enormous influence on me because it gives me the freedom to do what I want. I’m part of a generation of directors that came after Linklater and Soderbergh and a few other directors that basically paved the road for American independent cinema. They basically said, “You can throw the rules out the window.” As many times as that’s been said, they clarified it again at an important moment, coming out of the 1980s, when studio films really presided over everything. They seemed to be this link back to the 1970s.
ON THE PERFORMANCES IN SLACKER:
?As a director, I’m watching Slacker and I’m thinking, “There are no cuts in this film.” Which means there’s no cheating. These actors have to nail it. But these are also presumably people who aren’t professional actors. The idea that he was able to get all these natural performances his first time out is mind-blowing. I can’t quite fathom how he did it. I mean look, I’m sitting here on camera right now, and I’m nervous. It’s scary to be in front of a lens. And to get people to open up, and do these kind of walk-and-talk conversations, and have monologues about philosophy for five minutes … yeah.
ON MEETING LINKLATER:
I finally got to meet Linklater a year ago at South by Southwest. I remember standing in a circle with Quentin and Linklater and Rodriguez and Mike Judge and thinking, I do not deserve to be in this group of people. It was really exciting because these are all directors that made me want to be a director in one way or another. I remember lining up for Pulp Fiction; I remember reading Rodriguez’s book; I remember being such an enormous fan of both Beavis and Butthead and Office Space. And Slacker was the film that said, “You can go do this.” I know that sounds strange coming from me, but it’s true.
ON WORKING WITH LINKLATER:
I’ve worked with Richard twice, and it’s been a great experience each time. He’s a great director and extraordinarily talented. He has a very unique voice. It’s rare. It’s what’s been lost more in the business than anything else—people who have unique voices. His storytelling is unexpected. He can do commercial if he needs to, but he can also work in a world that is new and evolving. I’ve had two radically different experiences with him, and both were good.
ON LINKLATER’S VERSATILITY:
Some of the films he’s done have been so wildly different from each other. School of Rock to Bad News Bears to everything else. It’s so unexpected. I think if there is any structure to it, it’s that he’s not duplicating himself. He’s not going in and punching the ditto card. He’s pushing himself, and he’s evolved as a filmmaker, and that’s hard to do. There’s a tendency for people to find that box in which you work comfortably and to stay there. I think he’s tried to push up against that as much as he can, and it’s yielded some great results.
ON THE ENVIRONMENT ON SET:
He’s a tremendous guy, a very, very nice guy. He’s got that. Which is nice, by the way. And he’s very open. He asks for contributions, looks for ideas. He’s inventive, and he knows what he wants, but he’s not above hearing anyone’s ideas. He’s very inclusive in the process. You feel very much a participant in the process. And then he quietly goes off with his DP and (whisper whisper) and then you shoot the scene. All very effortless and very seamless. Not a heavy grind there. It’s as much fun as you might expect.
ON LINKLATER’S MANNER:
He’s very unassuming. He does not travel with a big posse or a big ego, and that aspect of him is wonderfully refreshing. He’s a director who’s worked with a lot of great people and done a lot of great work. He’s got plenty to crow about, but he handles himself very coolly. I like his style.
ON SCHOOL OF ROCK:
?I did School of Rock when I was nine years old. Now I’m 18, and it’s still one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I think it’s what really made me love acting and want to become an actress. He made it so much fun for everybody—he really made me feel, even though I was little, that I was an actor. He treated me like everybody else.
ON WORKING WITH LINKLATER:
He makes everybody on set really comfortable, makes them feel like their say really counts. He’ll throw out his ideas, but he’s not afraid to let you tell him your ideas, too. There were a lot of kids in School of Rock, and he was able to work with everybody like they were on the same level with him. And he and Jack [Black] are a great team. It was cool that that was one of the first things I got to do because the two of them together are great. Richard’s really cool and laid-back, and then Jack is kind of crazy and funny, and you never know what he’s going to do. It was a great learning experience.
ON LEARNING TO SING (BADLY):
I got to sing badly in School of Rock. And I’ll never forget, Richard took me aside and coached me through singing terribly. That was fun, having him help me out with that.
ON SLACKER HAVING LITTLE SLACKERY:
Slacker is a funny film because the film Slacker is not a slacker; it’s not very slackerish at all. When you think about it from a production standpoint or a performance standpoint, they’re on their game. It’s a well-made film, a well-crafted film. Not a lot of slackery going on in that film.
ON LINKLATER’S PERSONALITY:
He’s a fucking asshole. No, that was a cheap shot. He’s awesome. You know, he’s fiercely intelligent. And he’s collaborative but willful, which I think is a good combination. He’s got an opinion, but he wants to hear yours. Or at least he pretends to; he’s a great actor. He’s very creative, and he’s got a compassion to him, an interest. He loves you and he hates you, and as an actor he’ll tell you what he wants, but he’s also very, “Let’s see what’s going to happen here.” He has a real enthusiasm, a real interest. He’s great.
ON IMPROVISATION AND FORMALISM:
Robert [Downey Jr.] and Woody [Harrelson] and I came out, and all in all I think we had about two weeks of rehearsals. Richard would incorporate riffs that people were doing into the script, so there wasn’t a lot of dialogue improvisation on set, which is cool. That gave it a formality that I think Philip K. Dick would have appreciated. Because it felt organic to the material itself. There’s a feeling both of improvisation and of formalism to his writing, and to his camera, which is entertaining, but there’s also beauty there. There’s a beauty to the words in his scripts and in the performances he gets from his performers.
ON LINKLATER’S THEMES:
He has these themes—alienated people forming these happenstance families, you know? And there’s just a constant investigation of people’s thoughts and people’s feelings and how we bump up against each other. Which I relate to. Everyone’s broken, and everyone’s coming together. And also his social awareness, his big-picture awareness, dealing with social constructs about America, conspiracy, paranoia, and what the heck is going on?
ON LINKLATER AND PLACE:
He deals with place and cities and rooms in a cool way. There just seems to be this kind of metier with him, where he puts people in spaces and there’s some dialogue between the characters and where they are in space, whether in cities or in a room. There’s just a relationship there that is different from, say, Ron Howard’s. He has a sense of space as well, but with Richard maybe it’s darker or murkier. The word “boundary” comes up. People bounded and breaking out or people captured and trying to be free or people comfortable in a cell.
ON LEARNING TO APPRECIATE LINKLATER FILMS:
I think I’ve grown to appreciate Richard’s work more and more as the years have gone by. I think when I first saw Slacker, I didn’t know how to appreciate it as much as I do now. When I saw it, I wasn’t objective about it. There was something about it that was very close to my experience.
ON LINKLATER PUTTING ACTORS AT EASE:
I think the reason why the performances in his movies are so interesting is because of who he is naturally. You know, there’s that age-old saying about how you don’t have to try to be original, you just have to be yourself and you will be original. Having worked with him a few times, I’ve seen various people have their first day at work with him, some of whom are very successful actors. And I remember one of those actors saying to me, “When did we start filming? I’m normally so nervous before my first scene, and I don’t remember when we started.” And I knew exactly what this actor meant because Richard loves rehearsing so much, and talking, and playing, that it’s really a joyous experience. . And it’s not full of “All right, now hit a homerun.” You can kind of miss when your first take was and find yourself deep in the filming.
ON LINKLATER AND CHARACTER:
He also uses people for who they are. I remember, when we were filming Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy saying to him, “Reeeck, it needs to be funny, I’m so booooring! We need some jokes.” And Rick said, “You know what? I think you’re amazing. And if you could actually just be you in front of the camera, and not do any phony jokes or any phony drama—get rid of all that and actually be true—if someone is bored with that, then they can go fuck themselves. Well, they can just not buy a ticket to this movie; they don’t have to go fuck themselves.”
ON LINKLATER’S MORE COMMERCIAL WORK:
There’s a great Cassavetes line that I’m going to butcher where he says something like, “It’s okay to work some for the man so that you can do your own thing—you just have to know what your own thing is before you start working for the man.” And Rick knows what he’s after.
ON LINKLATER’S FILM CONCEPTS:
Rick has this uncanny ability to pull off an idea, like “I’m going to make a movie where this one dude is talking to this other dude, and then it moves to a different dude.” And I remember when I saw Slacker, I thought, “I had this idea!” And like 59 different people have said to me, “I thought about that.” He took an idea that all of us wondered if you could do, but he did it. And the reason is that the target is very small. You have to make Slacker just right. Dazed and Confused—“I want to make a movie about the night I graduated from high school; it was SO FUN!” Hard to do. “I want to make a movie about the night I fell in love.” Hard to do. But very simple. Waking Life—“I want to make a movie about my dreams—dude, they’re amazing.” But Rick did it. A lot of his movies are that way.
ON THE MYSTERY OF LINKLATER:?
It’s an original voice. I remember I was doing a play, and John Patrick Shanley came up to me— you know, this award-winning playwright—and said, “Who is that guy? You’ve met him? What is he like?” Talking about Richard Linklater. He couldn’t figure out what Rick was doing. I saw an interview with Sean Penn once where he said when he saw Daniel Day-Lewis he couldn’t figure out what he was doing. That’s when an artist is really onto something hot, when no one can see how they’re working.