RICHARD LINKLATER: TAKING UP THE SLACK
No exploding helicopters. No $20 million-a-picture stars. No CGI aliens. Just people talking. So how come Richard Linklater’s films hold the attention better than most blockbusters? Story: Leigh Singer
If the likes of Michael Bay, Sam Raimi and James Cameron are seen as modern cinema’s men of action, many would label Richard Linklater their polar opposite: Inaction Man. It’s an image of the Texan-born, self-taught director cultivated through his films since his feature debut ‘Slacker’, the no-budget, story-free flick whose collection of beatniks, stoners, anarchists and aimless graduates was said to encapsulate the disconnection of an entire generation. Through his 70’s high-school paean ‘Dazed and Confused’, the twenty-something dropouts of ‘SubUrbia’ to the animated dream state of ‘Waking Life’, you can tell a Linklater film. In terms of high-concept narratives and plot, nothing much happens.
Verbally, however, it’s a different story. As Elvis almost sings, a little more conversation, a little less action. His characters are all world-class yakkers. Conspiracy theories, philosophy, life, the universe, Madonna’s pubes, there’s nothing that isn’t discussed in a Linklater film; because he seems to believe a thousand words is worth just as much as a picture, if you’re looking for someone to helm your next superhero franchise the total gross for Linklater’s movies to date is roughly half of what ‘Spider-Man’ made on its opening day you probably won’t have his number on speed-dial.
Still, you don’t become one of the lynchpins of indie cinema if all you do is stick a camera in front of actors rambling on in coffee houses. The big blunder is to mistake Linklater for one of his dazed and confused characters. In fact he’s constantly proved to be one of the most active and restlessly inventive filmmakers around (seven films in just over a decade, most of which he’s also written, is hardly taking it easy). His freewheeling, laid-back, character-led dramas are the antithesis of today’s studio fodder; his quirky observations and sly humour highlight people in the margins when Hollywood is focused solely on the product’s bottom line. And he’s only getting started.
This year’s earlier ‘Waking Life’ was a groundbreaking combination of filmed live-action, overlaid frame-by-frame with computer animation. The result was the nearest thing cinema’s come to capturing dreams onscreen. “I've made films on Super8, 16mm, 35mm, 35 Cinemascope, animated, digital,” Linklater said recently. “These are just momentary tools. None of that shit matters. It's your ideas that count.”
So if you’re looking for a filmmaker prepared to shoot a one act play with three characters set entirely in a single hotel room, all on digital video cameras that you could buy from your local Dixons, then you probably know who to call.
Ethan Hawke did. He saw Stephen Belber’s play ‘Tape’ onstage and took it to his buddy Linklater the two are developing a kind of indie DeNiro / Scorsese thing, Hawke having starred in ‘Before Sunrise’, ‘The Newton Boys’ and posted a cameo in ‘Waking Life’ and you can see why immediately. Belber’s script has more of a storyline than most of Linklater’s work, but this brooding exploration of past obsessions and the slipperiness of truth, is right up Linklater’s alley, though at a darker end of the street than where he usually hangs out.
‘Tape’ starts with sometime pot dealer Vince (Hawke) in a motel room in his Michigan hometown. His old college friend turned neophyte filmmaker John (Robert Sean Leonard) is also back home for a film festival screening of his movie. Vince invites him over, ostensibly for a celebratory catch-up, but actually for more sinister motives.
Seems that back in college, John had a one-night stand with Vince’s true love, Amy (Uma Thurman), after they had broken up: a one-night stand that may not have been strictly consensual. Backslapping quickly turns to bitch slapping as Vince probes away at John, trying to get him to confess and repent to rape. When John finally starts to crack, we learn that Vince has been recording the entire conversation. He has evidence on tape. And he’s invited Amy, now a successful Assistant District Attorney in town, over to his room too…
“This is a film that’s really about the process of memory and how people often choose to play a different role in their memory of certain situations than they did when the situation actually happened,” Linklater reflects. “I thought it was also interesting because we live in an age of apology and I wanted to explore what an apology really means today.”
Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word, as the three characters cagily circle each other, switching between desperate self-defence and sniping vocal and sometimes physical attacks. It’s strong, heady stuff, with a caustic humour that ignites all the hurly-burly, and given the extra frisson of the friction between real-life spouses Hawke and Thurman, as well as the sparring of former ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ co-stars Hawke and Leonard, who according to Leonard, also once “shared a girlfriend some years ago”, just to add to the intrigue. The one room setting only ups the claustrophobic intensity and, amazingly, becomes less stagy as the film goes on. No small achievement.
“I like the challenge of restrictions,” Linklater smiles. “Most of my films have to deal with time constraints and I’ve often said that I’d like to make a picture in real time. This was my opportunity to do that. It demands that every note be perfect. You can’t just cut a scene because it didn’t turn out as well as you’d like.” There’s also no doubt that due to endless reality TV shows, Big Brother et al, we’ve gotten more used to gawping from multiple angles at characters “trapped” in an enclosed space, but it doesn’t deny the skill of Linklater and his crew in bringing potentially suffocating material to such vivid life.
The opportunity to experiment also came courtesy of the technology and Linklater jumped at the chance to make a live-action DV film. “DV minimises the production aspects,” he asserts. “I also like the mobility - you could put those cameras technically in places you can't put a bigger camera.” There aren’t many movies you can rehearse for two weeks, shoot in six days and bring in under $100,000. Or directors who can do it. But ever self-effacing, Linklater credits the medium, his collaborators, basically anything and anyone but himself.
“The DV technology also allowed us to shoot the entire film in sequence,” he says. “In this film the actors are the whole show.” Hawke, Leonard and Thurman respond to their newfound freedom and fluidity with superb performances; at first, it’s you the viewer who needs time to adapt to seeing big Hollywood stars in pictures the texture of your dad’s holiday footage, albeit ten times more artfully composed. America has taken a little while to sign up to the Dogme 95-inspired DV movement, but it’s scant surprise that the likes of Steven Soderbergh (whose upcoming ‘Full Frontal’ is also a digital effort) and Linklater are leading the way.
The more films he makes, the more the moniker of ‘Slacker’ is revealed as a misnomer. Linklater’s characters aren’t simply the mythical Generation X, but a generation who ask Why?, grappling with and striving to find their way in the world. Don’t mistake a love of language and ideas for pontification and indecision after all this is a guy whose first ever Super 8 movie is entitled ‘It’s Impossible to Learn to Plough By Reading Books’. In his own way, and on his own terms, Richard Linklater is a filmmaker still constantly exploring his medium: a man of action. And as we all know, actions speak louder than words.
‘Tape’ opens on July 12th
24 hours hanging with the odds and ends in a US campus town. No story, no budget, no stars (though Linklater himself kicks things off as ‘Should Have Stayed at Bus Station’), but somehow utterly beguiling.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
24 hours hanging with 70’s high-schoolers on the last day of term. Features a bunch of upcoming stars, great hair and a soundtrack so good even Alice Cooper sounds cool.
Before Sunrise (1995)
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy talk themselves into a love affair one night in Vienna. Forget Paris, this is the city and the movie of true romantics. Given a joyous coda in ‘Waking Life’…
The fallout from ‘Dazed and Confused’, a blackly comic look at what might have happened to those carefree 70’s teens if their twenties capsized. Unsettling.
The Newton Boys (1998)
The adventures of four bank-robbing brothers in the 1920’s. Based on fact, jaunty and good-natured, but Butch and Sundance these boys aren’t.
Waking Life (2001)
More random encounters with chatty folk, but given a unique computer-animated look that conjures up a dreamworld never seen before. Like ‘Slacker’ on acid, but so much more.
Versatile and experimental he is; ideal for every project he may not be…
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Talkers
Frodo the Hobbit (Wiley Wiggins), unsure whether he’s dreaming, sits down in Bag End with Sauron (Uma Thurman) to discuss existentialism, childhood memories and the futility of taking over Middle Earth, seeing how nothing last forever anyway. By the time Frodo awakens, he and everyone else are enslaved and under the rule of Gollum (Ethan Hawke), who makes it mandatory to worship the Dark Lord and grow wispy goatee beards.
Look Who’s Talking and Do They Really Mean What They Say?
Hilarious family comedy sequel with John Travolta, Kirstey Alley, Bruce Willis as the voice of Mikey the wisecracking infant going through a crisis of faith and featuring Julie Delpy as the voice of Juliette, the seductive yet troubled
French poodle from next door. Ethan Hawke essays the voice of God.
24: The Movie
Groundbreaking film project based on the hit TV show. A security guard on a university campus learns of a conspiracy plot to replace the hip local coffee shop with a Starbucks. His efforts to thwart the takeover and still attend his European literature reading group play out in real time. Stars every single actor ever used by Linklater, with a cameo from Ethan Hawke as a computer-animated cheerleader.
'© Highbury Entertainment 2002. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'
BACK TO FILM JOURNALISM INDEX