Louis Black met the Austin-based director Richard Linklater in January of 1985 at Liberty Lunch, “one of the great, now long-gone Austin clubs,” Black remembered the other morning by phone.
Black, the cofounder of both The Austin Chronicle and the South by Southwest Festival, had recently published an obituary for the American filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Linklater, then a 24-year-old ex-college baseball player still a few years away from making his first feature, approached the editor to chat about the piece. “We began talking about Peckinpah, about movies,” Black explained. “And 30 years later, the discussion is still ongoing.”
He’s referring both to their friendship, and to Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, the documentary Black made with codirector Karen Bernstein, opening tomorrow. Black and Bernstein’s project is a film about the love of film: theirs for Linklater’s—Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Boyhood, Everybody Wants Some!!, are a few highlights—and Linklater’s for cinema in any dimension: consuming it, creating it, talking about it. It’s also a celebration of the director’s particular obsessions: the collaborative nature of a film set; his fascination with making movies about time; his unwillingness to kowtow to Hollywood.
Dream is Destiny is remarkably intimate without really even touching on its subject’s personal life. In one memorable scene, Linklater takes Black through the journals he kept in his early twenties. The camera zooms in on an 8 1/2 x 11 spiral-bound notebook, its cover emblazoned with a school logo, its yellowed pages filled with meticulous, cramped handwriting. Black reads aloud from a catalog of the director’s spending habits. “Beer, gas, movie, Pepsi, movie, gas, Pepsi, breakfast, movie, movie, Pepsi, movie.”
“A lot of Pepsis and movies,” Linklater marvels.
Later, Linklater, looking like an overgrown kid in a lime green T-shirt, floppy bangs hanging over his eyes, peruses another passage: “Here’s the day after Thanksgiving, a very visual day: ‘I saw three movies today: Fitzcarraldo, Bonnie and Clyde, and Taxi Driver.’ ” He pauses and smiles. “That’s a pretty good day!” Then a cloud passes over his face. “It’s painful though to go back,” he says wistfully, “and feel the angst and uncertainty of yourself at an earlier time. Not that there was any . . . that’s just how it was going to be.”
It’s a moment that speaks volumes, without saying anything explicitly. In that way, in fact, it’s a lot like a Richard Linklater film. “I’m not interested in Rick’s personal life,” Black told me when we discussed the process of making Dream Is Destiny. “I’m interested in film.” He tells a story about screening the documentary at Sundance. “People kept coming up to me and going: you know I shot a film. I saw this and now I’m going to go home to work on it. Or, I haven’t shot a film, but I’m going to get a camera and do it. That,” he added, “was the best compliment of all.”
At what point did you think to yourself: “I need to make a documentary about Richard Linklater’s career”?
My friend Karen Bernstein who codirected and cowrote it with me had worked on a number of American Masters: Clint Eastwood, Lou Reed, Ella Fitzgerald. She approached me and said, Why don’t we do one on Rick? I said sure.
I’ve done many things in my life, and most of the time it’s because without thinking I answered a question, Sure. In ’81 some friends came and said, Let’s start a newspaper, and I said, Sure. In ’86 some friends came and said, Let’s start a little festival. We started South by Southwest. I usually say sure, and then wake up a few days later and discover that I have made a commitment. And then I have to scramble.
But no regrets?
No, none. I’d produced a bunch of films, but I never directed one. When I came to University of Texas I was a graduate film student. I wrote a little student film, and on the first day of shooting, one of the guys said, where do you want to put the camera? The heavens opened and god said: You realize you’re not a director at all.
I had no idea where to put the camera. And I was perfectly okay with that. I’d made my peace.
Now you’ve done it. Do you feel more like a director?
Yes. Actually, I’m old and dear friends with Jonathan Demme. We showed him a cut in Lisbon for the film festival there. I kept saying, You know, I’m really not a director. He finally turned to me, almost angry. He said: You made a film; you’re a director.
Linklater also didn’t set out to be a director. He thought he’d be a baseball player or a novelist.
Yeah, well, I think Rick has always been a little more deliberate than that. He came to me at one point and said, We’re shooting this film. Will you be in it? It was Slacker. He said, The role was written for you. I believe it’s disgruntled paper reader, something like that. We could always get someone else to play it.
I almost didn’t go. I’d been involved in student productions. They were messes. Graduate students never finish their films. But thank God I went, because now I’m in Slacker.
So what was Rick’s reaction to Dream Is Destiny?
Even better: When Rick does interviews, and people ask, When did you give them the go ahead to make the film? Rick always says, Well, I really still haven’t.
I don’t think he’s ever said yes. When he saw the film I believe he said something along the lines of, Well, it’s not too embarrassing. Rick really doesn’t like to talk about his own work.
A friend of mine came up to me and said he’d worked on The Newton Boys as a production assistant years ago. He’d run into Rick at a restaurant and went over and reminded Rick of this. Rick was very friendly and pleasant but they chatted for about 30 seconds. I said, What you should have done is said, you know, everybody says that Minnelli’s The Pirate is his best musical, but I think it’s Yolanda and the Thief! If you’d done that, you’d still be talking to Rick right now.
The documentary tugs at some threads in Linklater’s work: his interest in how to represent time; his perpetual outsider status; his unwillingness to make concessions to the industry. What makes him so unique as a filmmaker?
I think it’s genuinely his passion for film. I know with myself, and I don’t want to project: I had learning disabilities. Movies were a place where I felt very safe. They taught me an enormous amount about narrative, but also about humanity. I think the resonance of film to Rick is remarkable, in that he has almost no interest in the politics of the industry. I know a lot of people who started out as outsiders and then their role in the industry becomes very important. To Rick, that’s never been the case. What excites him is making film. It was really interesting to talk to him. The Newton Boys and Me and Orson Welles didn’t do well. He said, every film I made was my film. Nothing was taken away from me.
Rick was very clear: He’s gotten to make some great films, and they’re his films. I think he’s reconciled that he’s a filmmaker, not a power player.
Your film is also a snapshot of Austin at a moment before the world discovered it. Do you recognize that Austin in today’s Austin?
Austin’s been incredibly amazing to me. I’m very confident that I wouldn’t have gotten to do the many things I’ve gotten to do if I’d gone anywhere else.
Within Austin, pronouncing Austin dead is one of the town’s favorite hobbies. About ten or twelve years ago at an opening party of South by Southwest Film, Rick and I were talking about how, sure, Austin had changed and we missed certain things, but so much of what we really valued was still there. What we really value is the people and the collaborative community.
Even now, Austin has clearly lost itself once again: The traffic is horrendous and prices are outrageous. But there’s something collaborative and cooperative that’s still really there. It used to be amazing in that you could decide to go to the movies five minutes before, drive and park and it would be no problem. Certainly it’s become a big city and you have to plan to go to the movies. But it’s still about people and community.
A friend of ours said once that she was in Los Angeles and whenever anybody got good news in L.A., even your best friend, there was always a sense that it meant things were being taken from you. There was a sense of disappointment. In Austin, everybody’s so happy for everybody else.
I’m one of the villains of having helped change Austin. As editor of the paper, and with South by Southwest, especially, I’ve undermined the very things that I valued. I remember at a certain point in the ’90s, when Austin was growing outrageously because of high tech, the Chronicle was constantly editorializing about smart growth and limited growth, and on a weekly basis, high tech companies were coming in to get 40, 50 copies of the paper to send to recruits to show what a great town this was, that something was going on.
On the subject of that cooperative spirit: I loved that moment when Linklater was talking about how he liked film because it was collaborative, over fiction writing, which was solitary. I was like, Oh, yeah! He’s a baseball player. He’s a team sports guy!
We actually talked about how one of the hardest experiences in my life was when we started the Chronicle, and suddenly I became a manager. We were 15 years into it and I had to go into therapy to learn to be a decent human being. Working with friends was a nightmare. He said, you know, a lot of that got worked out in sports.
When people ask: Was there something you learned from making this film that you didn’t know before? The thing that struck me as extraordinary was that Rick made a film [in 1988] called It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow by Reading Books. He basically shot it as a lesson for himself. He wanted to finish a feature.
We were interviewing Kevin Smith in L.A. He was like, you must have gotten to see Plow when he made it. I said no. Then I thought, that’s odd that he didn’t invite me to the screening. When I saw him, I said, So when you finished Plow did you screen it? He said, I had to do it on Cablevision, because I used their editing equipment, but no, not really.
It was an exercise to get him ready. From there he goes and makes Slacker, which is remarkable on its own terms. And he follows that with Dazed and Confused. And at that point I realized that the learning curve was deliberate and straight up, not just straight up, but by leaps. It really indicated his seriousness and his focus. I think Dazed is one of the great American films, and it’s really his first Hollywood film.
It’s amazing to see the footage of Rick shooting Dazed. He looks like a baby.
I covered it for Texas Monthly so I went to the different shoots. I went where they were shooting in the park. I’m driving along and all of a sudden there are endless cars parked, then there’s trucks, then there’s all the teamsters. It’s this extraordinary production. I walk through and there in the middle, leaned over the camera, is Lee Daniel, the cinematographer, and Rick.
Rick at that point had this Prince Valiant haircut that it took him way too long to get rid of. He was in shorts. And as much as I saw all this rigmarole around him, I realized, this is Rick and Lee, and they were making their film.
When you watch him on [the set of] Everybody Wants Some!!, it’s certainly with more confidence and more command, but he’s making his movie.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The post Louis Black on Making a Film About Richard Linklater’s Obsession With Film appeared first on Vogue.