When Richard Linklater's era-defining indie film Slacker snuck into arthouses in 1991, few of its fans could've imagined that 15 years later, Linklater's résumé would include a pair of mainstream studio comedies (School Of Rock and Bad News Bears), and an unusual double-dip appearance at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, with an animated adaptation of Philip K. Dick's mind-bending science-fiction novel A Scanner Darkly, and a sprawling, fictionalized dramatization of Eric Schlosser's non-fiction bestseller Fast Food Nation. Over the last 15 years, Linklater has built a reputation as an amiable, mercurial filmmaker, willing to experiment and willing to fail, and always championing cinema's potential to tell offbeat, personal stories. Criterion has just released a long-awaited special-edition DVD of what may be Linklater's most beloved film, the uncannily astute 1993 high-school comedy Dazed And Confused; on the day before he flew to Cannes to present A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation to a mostly enthusiastic press, Linklater spoke with The A.V. Club about his new work, his old work, and why he wishes filmmaking weren't such a spectator sport.
The A.V. Club: Have you been to Cannes before?
Richard Linklater: Actually, I haven't. I think I've been to every other festival in the world.
AVC: Are you worried about the reception you're going to receive at Cannes? It has a reputation as the kind of festival where bad early word of mouth can cause long-term problems.
RL: It's kind of cool that Cannes audiences actually act like film is a big deal. I was in Berlin, and won an award for Before Sunrise, and people were hooting. It's kind of goofy, isn't it? You go to these festivals and get thrust into some kind of competition. It's sort of abstract. I don't take it seriously. As a former athlete… That's competition. A jury deciding what they think the best film is isn't really a competition.
Cannes rejected a few of my earlier films. I think they rejected Slacker and Dazed. Didn't want 'em. So I've got a little chip on my shoulder, I guess.
I'd be fine if there weren't film festivals, and you just made your films and didn't have to do anything from that point on. That would be really great, wouldn't it? I don't know. I'm in kind of an aloof time, where I'm not taking anything too seriously.
AVC: How did you and Eric Schlosser go about turning the reportage of his book Fast Food Nation into cinema?
RL: We just threw out all the statistics and history that's so well done in the book, and concentrated on the human drama of these people's lives. You know, Eric Schlosser, he's written plays and he's sort of a natural dramatist. I don't know if he wants anyone to know that. This is actually the biggest "drama" I've ever done, and so much of that was him.
AVC: Did you work in fast food at all growing up?
RL: I worked in a lot of restaurants.
AVC: Waiting tables?
RL: No, I was never that good. I was always like a busboy or dishwasher. You know, the true shit job of shit jobs. At hotels, I was always like the valet, or room-service guy. Service jobs, that kind of stuff. Probably the biggest job I ever had, for about two and a half years, I was an offshore oil worker. Hard-hat, boots, industrial settings. Now when I go into a meat-packing plant, I kind of get it. Guys with hard-hats and boots. Yeah, yeah. The real world.
AVC: This is a year of socially conscious films for you—Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly both carry their share of political comment.
RL: I'm getting nothing but assists from the current administration, on all fronts. [Laughs.] I think they're working for me personally. With the NSA spying and tapping phone calls by the millions. That's Scanner. And now these bogus immigration issues, where nothing's really different from the past 20 years, and yet they've chosen to put a spotlight on it to focus on something other than their own failings in other areas. I guess it's an electoral ploy of some kind, that's probably going to backfire. But that's what Fast Food Nation is, that issue. It's probably one of the few films that's dealt with immigration here. So, hey… thanks Bush, Cheney, Rove.
AVC: Its unusual timing for A Scanner Darkly, since you started it so long ago.
RL: Yeah, but post-9/11. You could see the writing on the wall post-9/11. The first impulse was to crack down on American citizens. The government's always looking for any excuse to declare us the enemy. They're not suspicious anymore of whoever we're supposedly at war with. That went out the window pretty quick. Now it's "Let's clamp down everywhere."
AVC: Were you already familiar with the novel? Did the trends in American government remind you of that book specifically?
RL: I was actually attempting to get another Philip K. Dick book made, but the rights weren't available, and Wiley Wiggins, my buddy from Waking Life and Dazed And Confused, he mentioned Scanner, and that rang the bell. I was like, "Oh yeah." I checked into it. Rights were available, but it was tricky too, in that I had to convince the Dick daughters that I had the right take on it.
Yeah, so much of Philip K. Dick's stuff is prescient. But I think Scanner's a really clear-cut case. The adaptation was fairly easy. I just had to adapt to the modern era, which wasn't hard. He wrote it in the '70s and set it in the early '90s, so there was a slight time-period adjustment. But not much.
AVC: Did you find it hard to make the complicated plotting comprehensible?
RL: [Laughs.] I tried to embrace it. In an adaptation, you're naturally kind of combing it and simplifying it a little bit. But I really tried to maintain the weirdness of the story, and the weirdness of the tone, in that it's both kind of tragic and comedic. Which I think works in his books very well. Scanner especially. It's hilarious, and darker than you can imagine. I wanted the movie to be both. I think usually in adaptations, you lose the comedic. People think drama drives story, but I thought the comedy was really the heart and soul.
AVC: Is there a different process working with actors who know they're going to be turned into animated characters?
RL: Absolutely nothing different.
AVC: What about working with digital video vs. working with film?
RL: A little bit easier, in a certain way. You know you can use the convenience of not having to change mags every 10 minutes. Plus the mobility. And you're not as worried about the final image quality. Well, we were. We lit it and treated it like a regular film. But it was all going to be animated over, so that aspect was pretty forgiving.
As far as the actors go, we didn't really talk about it that much. We knew the general style, but no actor can approach it going, "Hey, I'm going to be animated, so I'll act different!" The good thing is, if their radio mic is showing in the back of their jeans, we just don't animate it. Don't worry about it. Perfection is not the focus so much. So much of film production is perfection and technique, while this was a little more forgiving.
AVC: Is this a working method you plan to return to again?
RL: No current plans. I can't really foresee it any time in the future. I have a bunch of other things I want to do that aren't animated. I'm not really an animator. Some friends of mine had been working with this software, and I saw it as perfect for Waking Life. It just clicked that it was a good way to tell that story. But it doesn't work for everything.
AVC: Why did it take so long to get a decent Dazed And Confused DVD out?
RL: [Laughs.] It's simple. Sheer neglect by the people who own it, Universal. I mean, I can't rag on 'em too bad, because they did eventually allow Criterion to put out their own.
AVC: It's surprising that they didn't want to do right by it before, given that it owes its popularity to people watching it on video over and over.
RL: They never wanted to do right by it. Not theatrically, not on home video. They gave away the album. Every level you can think of. It was kind of weird to see a corporate entity going way out of their way not to maximize an asset. [Laughs.] Giving away the album, and it goes double-platinum. Not shipping enough videos, when demand is high. Every little thing they did was anti. What can you do?
And opinions get set, you know. They don't change. As we know from our government. The more power you have, the more of a bureaucrat you are, and the more ego you have invested in being right, the greater the odds are that you will never change your opinion. Those same people running Universal then, if you were to ask them right now about Dazed, they'd go, "That could've been an okay movie, but Richard just never quite got it." [Laughs.] That was their opinion then, and that would be their opinion today.
AVC: Opinions in the broader culture can change, though. You see movies all the time that get dismissed on release, and then five or 10 years later, the critics reappraise it and say, "That was really something."
RL: That's the history of art. You have to consider yourself fortunate if you ever get acknowledged. If you have a critical success that's also a financial success and that you feel good about… If things line up, that's pretty rare.
AVC: Is there any film of yours that you feel hasn't gotten the respect it's due?
RL: [Long pause.] You know, the two I thought of when you first asked that? SubUrbia and The Newton Boys. Two films I did in '96 and '98. I like 'em both a lot, and I just never felt they got any love.
You make a film and you can't really pick the way it's put to the public. You control the content, but the way it's marketed, or the poster, or what they're telling the public about the film, it's beyond you. Some people don't even see them, because they think they already know it. That can be frustrating, when something you've done is marketed in a way you think is antithetical to what it is.
Or testing… You know, whenever we test-screen one of my movies for an audience, we get a response that night, right after the screening. They fill out cards and all that crap. I've often said that we should talk to these people tomorrow morning, after they wake up and have some time to think about our ending. Right now they don't like it, because it's a tragedy and they're not supposed to like it. But I wonder if tomorrow, they'd appreciate it more.
Thank God for DVD and video. At least the work is available. Back in the '60s and '70s—or all of film history, actually—films came out and just disappeared. Maybe they got seen on TV. The difference then was that a film came out and maybe it would sit in a theater for six months, at one theater in town, and it had a chance to build a theatrical audience. There's so many films that we all love so much, like Bonnie And Clyde and 2001, that if they were released the way films are released now, they'd have been theatrical failures. Because they didn't open big. The studios would've cut advertising money and they would've gone down in history as huge disappointments. They just got lucky and got to catch their second wind. Even critics would go back again and write a new review.
It's hard to see a film one time and really "get it," and write fully and intelligently about it. That's a review. That's not film criticism. And there's so many expectations involved, too. You're going in to see the latest Scorsese or Kubrick film, you really have high hopes, and you can't help but find that it's not exactly what you had in your head going in. Until you can watch it again, you can't accept the work for what it intends to be. It takes at least a second viewing. Woody Allen… There are so many great artists, I think, who kind of suffer from being icons, legends, acknowledged masters. It's still just a film, you know? [Laughs.]
AVC: In your own case, there was a certain level of expectation after Slacker, which was so loose-limbed and experimental. While Dazed And Confused was freeform in its own way, it was more conventional in the style of filmmaking and the sense of humor.
RL: Exactly. It was my big studio sell-out movie. But it was also as personal a film as I've ever made. That was the niche I was trying to hit. I knew I had a film in me that was a fun, rock 'n' roll movie, but that was me, from the core. I didn't have any set idea of what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to tell stories that meant something to me, but I never said I was going to be the weird, avant-garde guy.
But I was lucky. Dazed at the time, I felt, got really good reviews. Made a lot of Top 10 lists. It got its love in the day, critically. I only felt there was a little bit—just a little bit—of "sophomore slump" imposition, where people, like, want you to fail. I only got a little bit of that. I think people kind of liked it for what it is. I don't think I ever was skewered on Dazed unfairly.
AVC: It certainly captures that feeling of being a suburban southerner, feeling underprivileged even though you've got it better than 90 percent of the people in the world.
RL: Well, we fuckin' all do. That's why anti-poverty things never fully take hold here, it seems. We see our poor as still having stuff. [Laughs.] You can get a double cheeseburger at McDonald's for a buck, you know?
AVC: Moving on to another suburban underclass film, do you feel up to talking about Bad News Bears?
AVC: What happened there?
RL: What do you mean?
AVC: Why didn't that movie… work?
RL: It didn't? [Pause.] It's my second-highest grossing film.
RL: I mean, it wasn't a big hit or anything. [Pause.] I don't think it's seen as a bomb. They clearly shouldn't have released it when they did, up against Charlie and the fuckin' Chocolate Factory. They should've brought it out in the fall. It would've been the only comedy out, and done much better. Little bit of regime change there at Paramount. That kind of thing happens. Again, I got no control over that.
I think it works. I like the film. It works on the level it was meant to. I think it's a good baseball movie, too, by the way.
AVC: It's odd how in Bad News Bears, the suburbs don't seem too different than they do in Dazed And Confused, even though there's a two-decade gap between when they're set.
RL: Some things never change. [Laughs.] There's a continuum there. Yeah. Same world.
AVC: Speaking of release dates, are you concerned at all about A Scanner Darkly being a summer movie?
RL: If it had come out this spring, that would've been a good time. Now would probably be an okay time to be in theaters. But summer's a crapshoot. I don't know. I'd be fine to make movies and have them never come out. But you have to deal with the business side. You can't get too emotionally invested, because again, you've got no control. There's going to be some huge film out that everyone goes to, and it probably won't be mine.
AVC: Do you see the future of filmmaking the way your neighbor Robert Rodriguez does, as an art form everyone will someday be able to try, the way they can pick up a pad and pencil now and write or draw something?
RL: Depends on the ambition of what you're trying to do. Some films really do take years to get going, but I'd say that most of the films I want to do are slightly smaller projects. Some could be sketches. They're not all oil paintings.
That doesn't mean they're not as ambitious as an epic drama that spans decades. In their own way, they can be more ambitious. It's really about the ideas, and what the right palette for those ideas is. I don't have any one template in my mind for what I want to do. The stories you want to tell, the characters you want to explore, that dictates the scope of the film. And I think I'm just small-time enough to not think too big, you know? [Laughs.] Typically speaking. I have a few that are slightly bigger, but I'll go into those hesitatingly.
I'm lucky that I get to jump around, do a big-budget comedy and then a smaller film. I don't even make a big distinction between them. No one believes this, but when I'm working, it's the same, whether I'm working on Bad News Bears, Before Sunset, A Scanner Darkly, or Fast Food Nation. I'm the same person, trying to make it work. I just love being on a movie set. I like making movies. I was shooting all this weekend on a longer-term project I'm doing. Can't think of a better way to spend a day.