check out any of the recent horny, gross-out comedies and you'll appreciate the craft of Richard Linklater. Most of the current movies celebrate raging hormones and reward stupid assinine actions. Linklater's, on the other hand -- Slacker, Dazed And Confused, Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, and even the 20s bank-robbing buddy flick The Newton Boys -- are about the moment adulthood sneaks up on a young character and asks, "Are you ready for me?"
His films feel loose but are actually precisely structured works that emphasize the power of language and tackle ethical dilemmas. Take that, Farrelly brothers.
The Austin-based director steals the spotlight at this year's Toronto International Film Festival by bringing two talked-about movies to town. There's the down-and-dirty Tape, which traps three friends (Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman ) in a motel room, where they turn on each other like pit bulls in a ring.
"Tape's a nasty little piece," says Linklater on the line from Austin, Texas. "I'm using another part of my filmmaking brain."
That may be true, but Tape is still brainy, just like the astounding Waking Life (see reviews, page S6). A Slacker-type drama, Waking Life was shot on digital video and then animated by Bob Sabiston, whose groundbreaking computer software allows animators to paint over the actors, giving the film a vivid paint-by-numbers effect. (Tedious work, for sure -- it's estimated that each minute of footage required 250 hours of animation.)
It's slightly dizzy-making to watch, because the foreground and background move separately, creating a see-saw effect. But that disorientation is perfectly suited to a story about a character (played by Wiley Wiggins) who's not sure if he's awake or dreaming. He spends his days drifting among an assortment of eccentrics, discussing the nature of reality and consciousness.
"I went through a period of false awakenings when I was a senior in high school. I was having vivid dreams where I wasn't sure whether I was awake or not. The experience lasted weeks, and I got really afraid near the end, feeling trapped and thinking maybe I was dead. Eventually, I did wake up from these dreams, and while it was very cool, it got kind of creepy by the end."
The idea of turning that experience into a film has been kicking around Linklater's head for 17 years, but it was only when he encountered Sabiston, who was in Austin working on his film Roadhead, that Linklater decided he could pull it off.
It should be said that Linklater had a lot of time on his hands since Hollywood wasn't interested in making his kind of movies; even the bank robbers in the The Newton Boys talked more than they shot. And thank goodness, because in Austin, Linklater has blossomed both personally and artistically.
Before he first picked up a camera, he founded the Austin Film Society, which screens more than 100 movies a year, and over the last five years the Society has given over $200,000 to aspiring Texas filmmakers. He's lobbied the city to turn empty airport hangars into film studios catering to Hollywood and indie production.
"Richard leads the city's film movement, and he's the one who crystallizes its activities," says Austin Chronicle publisher Louis Black. "After Slacker, Richard could have gone to L.A., but he stayed to build the community. Then Robert Rodriguez moved to town. Then Mike Judge, Guillermo del Toro and Ain't It Cool Web site creator Harry Knowles settled here."
"The place attracts a certain kind of spirit," says Linklater. "A lot of really interesting seekers are drawn or drift here. If you're a little different and living in a small town in the South and you want more tolerance for your lifestyle, you end up in Austin. The joke here is that the only thing wrong with Austin is that it's surrounded by Texas," laughs Linklater.
It took him some time to figure out his shit, and even within Austin's tolerant, everyone-can-be-an-artist vibe, he had doubts about his talent.
"The scariest thought I ever had was when I totally devoted myself to filmmaking -- I bought all the equipment and thought about film constantly -- and then wondered, "God, wouldn't it be the cruellest joke of all time if I, who rejected all the things I was really good at, found out I had no talent for filmmaking?'
"Then I thought, "No, that couldn't be possible.' I don't think the world works that way. I think the thing you're most passionate about will lead you directly or indirectly to your life's work.
"I quickly decided that if no one wanted me as a writer/director, I'd be happy running a theatre, getting films seen. I just made my peace with that."