Linklater: flying the flag for indie film
Richard Linklater is unique among contemporary American film-makers, an independent writer and director who works almost exclusively beyond the walls of the Hollywood studio machine yet consistently scores very respectably at the box office. His work is auteur-ish, at times profoundly personal, and combines dark themes with his winning Texan wit.
That southern wit is to the fore in his latest film, Everybody Wants Some!!, a kind of Proustian love letter to his college years in the early 1980s. It was released here yesterday, and last week I spoke to him about making it, his recent triumph with Boyhood, and the ongoing difficulties of life as an independent film-maker.
Because while Boyhood may have attracted a lot of attention, getting nominated for six Oscars and winning one, he tells me: "I don't know how much it really helped me - it's all on a film-by-film basis for me, still."
Everybody Wants Some!! is set in the heady days of the early 1980s, and tells the story of a freshman who arrives at a Texas college. He's studying English literature or something but that's beside the point, because Jake is also a star pitcher who hopes to make his mark on the college's elite baseball team. Over the course of a long weekend, he bonds with his new teammates during a series of debauched escapades and gets a taste of life beyond sport when he meets a pretty drama student.
Most of Linklater's work is autobiographical in some respect, and Everybody Wants Some!! is no exception. "I played some ball," he tells me modestly. "If you grew up an athlete and you're good enough to play at a college level, you're pretty serious about it." But Linklater's baseball career was prematurely curtailed when he was diagnosed with a heart condition. "I was suddenly getting light-headed, and I couldn't run any more," he recalls, "but looking back, it was probably a blessing."
"Instead of playing baseball, I got on with what I was meant to be doing. At that point I was writing a lot, plays mainly, and I just wanted reading time. So that was really a great semester in my life, because I was out of school in the afternoons for what would have been practice, and had all this time where I could just go to the library and read and write. So I made use of that and it kind of set the tone for the rest of my life."
Refreshingly, Linklater's film does not retrospectively spruce up the early 1980s in order to conform with the prevailing winds of political correctness. There's a fair bit of ass-slapping, and the prejudices and sexual mores of the time are given a good airing.
"It was kind of a raunchy time and that was it," he says, "and I wasn't gonna try to clean it up in any way. But it was also an innocent time compared to what was coming.
"This was before Aids, remember, and sex wasn't seen as this roulette game. Later in the 80s, there was this kind of backlash against sex and lots of other things, it was almost like there was this kind of sin tax on everything. There was a cultural backlash in the US after this where it was 'just say no' to everything. That was such a vapid little campaign by the Reagans, because they were really saying, say no to fun."
Instead of saying no to fun, the young Linklater moved to Austin, Texas, attended film school, started a film club, bought a Super 8 camera and began toying with the idea of becoming a director. His earliest efforts showcased what would become distinctive Linklater tics: spare production values, unshowy direction, stories driven by character rather than plot and lots and lots of talking.
Everybody wants Some!! is a kind of belated sequel to Dazed and Confused, Linklater's 1993 breakthrough hit following adventures of a group of students at a Texas high school. Then came Before Sunrise, and international recognition.
In that cunningly crafted 1995 film, which starred Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as two inordinately handsome strangers who fall for one another on a train, the witty, discursive, philosophical Linklater style was perfected, but a stubborn rumour persists that Hawke and Delpy had wildly improvised some of their dialogue. "Oh never never," he says, "we don't improvise at all, it's all very scripted, very workshop, very specific, you know I'm way too structure-based to cope with that kind of thing.
"I mean get a camera and film the two most interesting people you know, walking and talking, and see how it works out," he adds. "Not well!"
Two sequels to Before Sunrise have followed at nine years intervals, the most recent, Before Midnight, being the best in my opinion. "Before Midnight put us in a tougher cinematic territory," he tells me, "because it wasn't about falling in love, but staying in love, and sticking it out through the rough middle part of a life.
"They don't make films about that for a reason, because it's kind of challenging and less sexy, and yet it seemed pretty vital to our characters to make it work."
Now and then, Richard Linklater has experimented on a slightly broader, more commercial canvas, in films like The Newton Boys (1998), Bad News Bears (2005) and Me and Orson Welles (2008). One of them, School of Rock (2003) even made big money, but he's always been most comfortable working on a smaller scale.
"When you're learning," he explains, "there's the cinema that makes you want to make films, that you're kind of in awe of, you know Kubrick or something. But then there's cinema where you go, oh maybe I can do that, you know like an indie film you see that seems more accessible, something you can start with. It was always the scale of films like that that made me feel more comfortable. I never had an epic vision of cinema, mine was kind of more backyard."
Even now, given the success of Boyhood and the huge esteem in which he's held, financing projects is still hard work. "I don't have people saying to me what are you going to do next, okay let's do it. It's always subject to budgets, and you're always asked how cheap can you do it, it's always a bit of a game to put together the financing for every film I do. It's a bit of a struggle really."
Small-scale films are harder and harder to make in America, and meanwhile, mindless blockbusters flourish. "The bigger spectacle, tent pole films have clearly won," he says, "because when you have an audience that knows the film isn't good, and they've heard nothing good about it, but they all go anyway, then you've completely won. It's like fast food, isn't it - we know you know this is bad for you, and you don't even like it, but everybody goes. It's a triumph of marketing, I guess."
But Linklater says this wistfully, with no bitterness, and has more plans in the works. He doesn't even rule of returning to the 'Before' saga at some point. "I don't know if that's the end of them, it's too soon to say. If it is just the trilogy that's fine, but you never know."
His commitment to his projects is total. In his delightfully macabre 2011 film Bernie, which was based on a true story, Jack Black played an effete but charming small-town Louisiana mortician who's accused of murdering a nasty and vindictive local widow. Linklater subsequently campaigned for the real Bernie Tiede's release, and when Bernie got out, the film-maker put him up for two years in his garage. "He was great," Linklater says sadly. Bernie watched over the family animals, and read newspapers to Linklater's pig. But a few weeks back Bernie was rearrested, and sent back to prison. "It's heartbreaking," he says, "southern justice, but you know at least he had those two years so I hope that will help him."
Meanwhile, Richard Linklater is watching with mounting dread the unfolding saga of the US Presidential election. Is Donald Trump electable? "It's like Leicester City, isn't it," he laughs. "You never know. Trump is currently behind in the polls, no one thinks he could win but conditions could change, something could happen that could swing it. The best expression I heard for Trump's fans is the middle-finger voter."
In 2002, Richard Linklater embarked on a staggeringly ambitious project. Based on his own early life, Boyhood would use the same child and adult actors whom we'd watch grow and age through time. He and his cast convened for a few weeks each year in Houston, shooting the film in patches. Child actor Ellar Coltrane played the growing protagonist Mason, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette his well-meaning parents, and Linklater's daughter Lorelei was Mason's older sister.
Linklater filmed it over 12 years for just $4m, and wove his takes into an extraordinarily profound and powerful meditation on the process of coming of age. And somehow the fact that we visibly saw Mason grow made us empathise all the more keenly with his trials and disappointments.
But it was an exhausting process, and at one point Linklater's then-teenage daughter decided she'd had enough. "But then she realised she was getting paid," he says. "It was hard to make, but it worked in the way I had hoped it would."