Paste's Michael Dunaway on His New Richard Linklater Doc

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I don’t know a more natural interviewer than Michael Dunaway. Of course, I’m biased about both his skills and about his new documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater. In addition to being Paste’s Movies Editor, he’s one of my dearest friends. Watching him quit his day job to follow his dream of becoming a film journalist and filmmaker, culminating with the theatrical release of his movie in a 11 cities today, has been a joy. But it all stems from an approach to life that is completely wide open. He has a keen, critical mind for what makes a good story, but the passion he displays when he finds one contains an almost childlike wonder. That enthusiasm has certainly been a great asset to Paste’s movies coverage these last four years—our primary goal has always been to champion the things we love (and think you’ll love, too). Somehow that enthusiasm is matched by nearly every actor who worked with Richard Linklater.

Dunaway and co-director Tara Wood’s 21 Years: Richard Linklater plays like a love letter to the director of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, the Before Sunrise trilogy, Bernie, School of Rock and my favorite movie of 2014, Boyhood. If Linklater worshipers are a cult, its members include Ethan Hawke, Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, Julie Delpy, Keanu Reeves and Kevin Smith, all who appear in the doc, telling story after story about working with “Rick.” I talked to Dunaway about the making of the film and what it means to have the movie finally up on the big screen.

Paste: I already know so much of your story, of course—the project began as a short for the The New Orleans Film Festival and grew to a feature with the encouragement of Ethan Hawke—but tell me a little bit about what Richard Linklater meant to you before this project started and how your perception of him changed over the course of making the film.

Michael Dunaway: When I began this project, I would have classified myself as a casual appreciator of Richard Linklater’s films. There were a couple of them that I loved—everybody has a couple of Linklater films they love—but I would never have called his name as one of my two or three favorite filmmakers or anything like that. And then it was really through this project that, as I began to have people like Ethan Hawke and Matthew McConaughey and Jason Reitman and Jay and Mark Duplass sort of show me things I had not seen heretofore in Rick’s movies—those guys really taught me how to love Linklater’s films. And now Rick would absolutely be on my short list of favorite directors. So, just the process of making this film has been such an incredible gift to me, because it’s opened up this world of his films, because where the door was only cracked before, now it’s wide open. One of my dearest hopes is that we’re going to be able to give viewers some form of that as well, that I’ll be able to share that experience with them and accomplish the same for them.

Paste: The timing was somewhat fortunate: You started the project before Before Midnight came out, which was one of our favorite films from last year. And I saw Boyhood earlier this year and was blown away—as were most people who saw that movie. How has that timing affected the movie as it went to the finish line?

Dunaway: You know, we’re really really smart in how we planned it out. [Laughs.] No, you know, Will Rogers said he’d rather be lucky than good, right? I wish I could say that we had a master plan that we would come out the year that probably Rick’s greatest film so far and probably his film with the best opportunity to win an Oscar, that that came out. I wish I could claim that we had some sort of great master plan, but the truth is that two and a half or three years ago, when I started the short, part of the motivation was that Rick was not as well known as he should have been. So when we started turning this from a short into a feature, we thought that we were going to be starting this wave of appreciation for Rick. Now it turns out what we’re doing is, I hope, turbo-charging the wave that’s already there. We’re fine with that too.

Paste: One of the most interesting things about your journey through all this is that you did not take the traditional route to becoming a documentarian. I’ve gotten to witness a lot of that journey first-hand, but can you talk a little bit about what made you decide to, years ago, quit your day job and follow the dream of becoming a filmmaker?

Dunaway: Sure. There’s really two parts of that, and both parts of that are parts that are near and dear to your heart: One is that I cannot emphasize enough that my work with Paste, especially interviewing, but also being immersed in indie films for the past few years—as a writer and then a movies editor for Paste—I can’t imagine any better preparation for this type of documentary than that work. And then, in turn, my documentary filmmaking has dramatically improved my work as an interviewer and as an editor at Paste. There’s really a beautiful synergy between the two. Not to mention the fact that I don’t think I ever would have gotten the opportunity to do this film if I had not had the position that I had and been producing the work I was producing for Paste. Paste is a really big part of that.

Then the other is, as you know, I’m married to one of the most remarkable women in the world, and she’s a professional as well, and a few years ago after I had spent several years having a day job and also doing Paste and also doing filmmaking, she had a conversation with me where she said, “Okay, you’ve convinced me. This is a real thing. I think it’s time for you to quit your day job and just focus on your filmmaking and film journalism.” So that was obviously a milestone. I guess the takeaway from that for anyone who wants to be doing something like this is to find a way to practice the craft in whatever form that takes, even if it’s not a film. Build up the skills in other ways. And then marry well. [Laughs.]

Paste: So this is your second documentary. What did you learn from filming The Man Who Ate New Orleans that you put in to use in this new film?

Dunaway: There are a thousand lessons that you learn from making your first film, a thousand mistakes that you make that you won’t make again. I think one of the things that I really learned from that process was the value of collaboration. I had a co-producer, Keith Alan Morris, on The Man Who Ate New Orleans, who is head of the film department at Dillard University and is a filmmaker of some note himself, and having that more experienced person working with me was incredibly valuable, not only from the specific lessons that I learned from him, which were legion, but also in a more general sense to establish a way of working that is collaborative. Because obviously I wasn’t going to be ordering Keith Morris around on set, you know? So that really helped when I went to doing this film and was working with many different collaborators on the crew to really sort of build up that culture of a shared labor, which Rick does as well.

Paste: So the plan is for this to be part of a series. What’s next for 21 Years? Who else do you hope to give this sort of treatment to?

Dunaway: We literally have a decade of one to two films per year planned. In fact, next year will be one or two films and each year thereafter should be two films per year. Which is really a testament to what Rick and Steven Soderbergh helped spark—the modern American indie film movement. When you look at all the filmmakers who came in their wake and were inspired by them to pick up a camera and start doing it, some of our favorite filmmakers that we have today are direct descendants of that. When you’re looking at Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson and Ang Lee and Sophia Coppola and David Fincher—so many great directors that came out of that.

So the next in the series is going to be 21 Years: Quentin Tarantino and we’ll start shooting that in December. We’re going to be launching a crowd-funding campaign through Seed&Spark where people can support us in many different ways including and up to being an associate producer, or even an executive producer on the film. I know there are a lot of Tarantino lovers out there that would love to be a part of that. From the beginning of visualizing this as a series of films, I and then we, once Tara Wood joined, made choices that would have the potential to be carried forward in, not really a template, but we wanted to make a film in 21 Years: Richard Linklater that would lend itself well to a series format, so that when you see 21 Years: Quentin Tarantino there will be elements that are very similar, there will be a structure that’s similar; it will feel of a piece with 21 Years: Linklater. But what I think is going to be more interesting is within those similarities what differences emerge. Actors talk about Rick in a very specific way that really shapes the feel and the tone of this film. I suspect that the way that people speak about Tarantino is going to be very different. Although people are just as devoted to Tarantino as they are to Rick, we want the interviews to tell us what kind of movie needs to emerge here. And I’m going to be interested with Tarantino and then with—David Fincher and Ang Lee are the next two on the docket—it’s just going to be fascinating to me to see the tonal differences as well as the substantive differences between how each one of those directors is discussed by their collaborators and the people they’ve influenced.

Paste: Now, this idea of really getting into a director’s material is not new to you even before this project. You have The Work podcast on Paste, which is specifically talking to directors and actors about their work. What is it that excites you when you have a chance to talk to someone whose work you admire?

Dunaway: That’s a great question. I think part of it is selfish. Part of it is that I started in this career at age 40, and I didn’t have the time or the resources or the family situation to be able to go to film school, and it’s my film school. I can’t imagine a better film school then making a film about Linklater or talking to McConaughey or talking to Robert Duvall or talking to Forest Whitaker or some of the truly historically great figures I’ve been able to interview, whether for Paste or for The Work podcast, or both, or through the Linklater documentary. So part of it is that instructive. I’m gleaning my education from these guys. But also it’s interesting to me to be able to tap into a collegiality of sorts. I would certainly never put myself as a filmmaker or as an actor or anything else in the category of these people that I’m interviewing, but there is a little bit of talking shop that becomes possible when you’re both filmmakers, you know? Picasso could talk shop about painting with someone who was much less accomplished than he and much less talented than he. It’s still painting. And they can still talk about the mechanics behind the work and the inspiration behind the work. Any two artists can learn from one another. There’s a special sort of spark there that really excites me. And then finally: Most of these people that I interview have made works of art that mean so much to me and have inspired me so, and to be able to really get in and chew on those pieces of work with the people that [made] them—it’s an incredible privilege, and it’s also incredibly exciting and incredibly meaningful because it makes those works of art come alive to me in a new ways and illuminate them for me.

Paste: What’s the best way for people to actually be able to see this movie [today]?

Dunaway: We’re opening up in 11 cities. If you go to 21 Years Series’ Facebook page or 21YearsSeries.com, there are links to showtimes for the 11 cities we’re opening in. But then everybody can see the film on iTunes or basically any other type of in-demand that’s transactional. So we’re not on Netflix yet—that’ll come later. We’re not on Amazon Prime—that’ll come later. But however you like to pay to download a movie, whether that’s DirecTV, Dish, Time Warner Cable, Cox Cable—we’re available on all of those. We’re available on iTunes, Amazon—if you go to one of those two sites, you’ll see all the links. My recommendation would be if you are in one of the cities to go see it in a theater, because sharing it with a group of people is really special. Some of the photography’s really beautiful, too, and looks good on the big screen, but the main thing is with a group of people and celebrating Linklater together is pretty great. And if you don’t live in one of those 11 cities, my advice would be to buy it on iTunes just because you get all that extra content that I think is so cool. There’re so many great interviews that just didn’t fit into the structure of the movie. Joey Lauren Adams, for example, only ended up being in the movie for about 60 seconds, but man, she gave us some great stuff. So that’s a real highlight of the extras on the iTunes version.

Josh Jackson is Paste’s founder and editor-in-chief. Michael Dunaway is Paste’s movies editor. His film, 21 Years: Richard Linklater, is co-presented by Paste.

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