This Fall, I have had the opportunity to spend a decent chunk of time with the writer-director Richard Linklater on the occasions when he left his home in Austin, Texas and traveled to the coasts to promote his most recently released film, Bernie. The dark comedy, which was released back in June, earned some of the best reviews of any film this year, generated considerable box-office for a low-budget indie, and is now considered to be on the bubble of scoring a nomination in the Oscar categories of best actor (for Jack Black, in the performance of a lifetime) and best adapted screenplay (for Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article served as the basis for their script). I recently sat down with Linklater, one of the more unassuming guys I've encountered in this business, for a half-hour chat about his life and career, which you can watch at the top of this post or read about below.
Linklater, 52, was born near Houston, Texas, but grew up in a small town that he likens to the one in The Last Picture Show (1971). Growing up he loved going to the local drive-in to watch movies, but, he says, "I can’t explain to anyone how far away the idea of making a movie yourself was to my consciousness … They were just these things that came from Hollywood.” He knew he loved movies, and realized in junior high school that he was a talented writer, but it wasn't until he went to Samuel Houston State University and started seeing independent films for the first time that he realized that it was possible for even someone like him, far removed from Hollywood, to become a filmmaker.
The kid who was inspired by the indie-minded films that were made within the studio system during the 1970s (those by people like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich), and the young man who carefully studied the true indies that began to be made outside of it in the 1980s (those by people like Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers), ultimately became one of the central drivers -- along with Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez -- of the indie boom that hit in the 1990s. Unlike previous generations of independent-minded filmmakers, he says, “I didn’t have to go to L.A. I didn’t have to make an exploitation film to prove I was a filmmaker and had some value. I made a film from my own backyard that actually got a national audience. That would have been unthinkable 10 years before, 20 years before.”
Most of the film world first heard of Linklater when his film Slacker started to stir up discussion upon its release in 1991. But, as he recalls, “By the time I was being treated like an overnight success, I had been making films for eight years, had a closet full of short films, and had done a feature on a Super-8. So, by the time anyone saw Slacker, which was the first film that got national distribution and people were paying to see, I felt I had already put in my decade, practically." He adds, "I felt ready to go to whatever new level.”
The next level, it turned out, was working with a studio. Dazed and Confused (1993) had a small budget and was distributed like an indie, but it was, Linklater emphasizes, "the whole studio experience -- cards, notes, committees." Having gone "through the system” once to see what it was like, he says, he now felt ready to do anything and everything. And that was exactly what he went on to do.
Few careers make one question the value of the "auteur theory" more than Linklater's. He is a demonstrably talented and enduring filmmaker who has, by his own choosing, virtually never repeated himself over the last 20-plus years. He has directed studio films (School of Rock), dialogue-driven indies (the Before… trilogy), literary adaptations (Fast Food Nation), remakes of mediocre films (The Bad News Bears), sci-fi flicks made with rotoscopic animation (Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly), and the list goes on. “I’m lucky to be in that category, I think," he says, because it means that people know that "I can do all different kinds of things.”
This is not to say that a common thread through his work does not exist. His films tend to be packed with dialogue, not action; his characters tend to be rather introspective, like him; and, he says, “I’ll come out and admit it: a lot of my films are very autobiographical," adding, "Any film of mine, I can explain my own place in it." Asked to do so, he replies, "You know, something like Slacker or Dazed and Confused, that is my life, friends, family, my own personal experiences. Before Sunrise was based on a night I had. Even when I do studio films—School of Rock, like, I lived in that room, and, in a parallel life, I am Jack’s character. A guy who has some passion—it wasn’t rock and roll, it was filmmaking—whose laying around in a little room, and everyone thinks he’s kind of a bum, but he does have something to maybe say. Bad News Bears? I am Billy Bob Thornton, you know? I was a baseball player who was right on the margins of maybe being on another level.”
His connection to Bernie is grounded more in geography and curiosity. Both Linklater and his film's protagonist, a real man named Bernie Tiede, hail from west Texas. And, after Linklater read Hollandsworth's article about the legal predicament in which Tiede had landed himself, he started attending his trial every day. Tiede, a pillar of his small and close-knit community who had become the live-in companion of a mean-spirited elderly widower named Marjorie Nugent, was now being charged for murdering Nugent. There was no dispute that Tiede had killed Nugent -- he admitted as much when the authorities eventually located her found her body in a freezer -- but it seemed so out of character that virtually none of his neighbors could believe he had done it without just cause, which prompted the virtually unprecedented step of the prosecution motioning for a change of venue. When they were granted it, Tiede was doomed.
Around the same time that the case was coming to an end and Tiede was sentenced to life in prison, Linklater signed on to direct a studio film that already had a script and star, School of Rock (2003). Though the collaboration between Linklater and his lead actor, Jack Black, was something of an arranged marriage, the two hit it off and eventually produced a film that became an instant-classic. Even as far back as then Linklater was considering about making a film about Tiede and approaching Black to play him, but he concluded that the actor was just too young for it. Over the ensuing decade, however, his desire to see through the project never wavered -- “That’s a good litmus test," he says, "if years later you’re still writing, reading books on the subject, taking notes" -- and eventually he felt the time was right to go to Black, who immediately signed on, along with Shirley MacLaine (to play Nugent) and Linklater’s friend and fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey (to play the local district attorney, Danny Buck). They, along with a host of carefully-cast colorful locals who serve as sort of a Greek chorus, popping up throughout the film to chime in on the case -- one being McConaughey’s actress-mother, but the others non-actors -- formed the film’s small cast.
Because of the economic downturn over the last few years, it has become harder than it has been in a long time to raise financing for indie films. Linklater wanted to make Bernie on a $12 million budget, but, even with three household names attached to it, he eventually had to settle for $5 million, which meant just a 22-day shoot. He says he's tempted to complain about things like this, but then pauses to remind himself of where he came from: “When I meet with directors of my own generation, we all look at each other and go, ‘God, it’s gotten so hard!’ There’s a little bitch-fest for a second about how hard it is to get money for your next project. And then I go, ‘Whoa—we got lucky. We got really lucky. We got a lot of films made. I think that about myself. I got so many films made in the nineties and in the 2000s that would never get made today. I don’t think they would get made. It’s just a different time.”
Despite its budgetary constraints, Bernie proved to be an unmitigated success. It earned favorable reviews from 92% of critics, according to RottenTomatoes.com, and grossed $9.2 million, nearly double what it cost to make. In return, its grateful distributor Millennium Entertainment has given it a very formidable awards push that could, conceivably, land Black his first trip to the Oscars as a nominee and Linklater his first since he was nominated for best adapted screenplay for Before Sunset (2004) eight years ago.
Linklater, a father of two eight-year-old daughters who still calls Austin home, is taking it all in stride. He's proud of the work, telling me, “I think my last two films are two of my best -- Me and Orson Welles didn’t have the distribution that Bernie had, but in a whole different way I think that’s one of my best films, and I think Bernie is, too.” But my sense is that he's too busy working -- his next film Before Midnight, the third installment in his beloved series of films with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy -- to fully realize that he has helped to pave the way for and inspire another generation of youngsters to study and pursue indie filmmaking, just as others did for him.
He does know this, though: “This is the best time ever to be a filmmaker, because you really can make a movie the way a novelist or a painter writes a novel or a paints a painting … It used to be, ‘I’m a filmmaker—if the man would ever give me money.’ You could sit around for decades complaining. Now there’s no excuses.”