THE PARK, FULL OF KIDS AND CARS, is drenched in moonlight. This bitchy high school junior has just traded words with an incoming freshman, who ignores her. Drunk and angry, the junior stalks away, her too-tight pants and her walk—half sashay and half waddle—flaunting a sexuality she barely understands. I stand there staring. In the pit of my stomach I remember girls who walked that way at my high school, and it would be generous to say they were less than kind to me. Reminding myself I’m only on a movie set doesn’t help.
The real time and place are the summer of 1992 in a park a few miles outside of Austin, but inside the park, on the set of Dazed and Confused, it is high school graduation night 1976 in a small Texas town. Lights, cameras, trucks, and production crew are spread out everywhere, and the actors are milling around: boys in bell-bottoms, girls with seventies Cher-look-alike hair, long and lank. A ZZ Top tape blares from the eight-track player and a Frisbee sails by; somebody pops open a beer. Everyone is talking and flirting in the nervous, desperate way that teenagers do in the heat of their adolescence. The set captures the period, but the greater story—the way that kids think, act, and feel and youth’s inevitable search for an identity—is timeless.
Rick Linklater and his friends are making another film—to be released next year—the first since Slacker, their surprise 1991 hit. Quixotic and highly personal, Slacker gave notice to the film community that Linklater was Someone to be Watched. The question now on the minds of those who care about such arcane things is this: Can he pull off another one? Now that he has the backing of Hollywood money, can he remain true to his vision or will he be co-opted?
Although in ways Dazed and Confused is more structured, it is not that much different from Slacker. A rambling day-in-the-life multi-monologue odyssey that moves almost haphazardly from character to character, Slacker focuses on the current version of the Beat Generation—the restless, the imaginative, the angry. To almost everyone’s surprise, it gained critical acclaim across the country. Standing on the set of Dazed and Confused, I couldn’t help remembering how loose the scene had been three summers back.
Linklater had called me one day. “Hey, if you want to be in Slacker, we have a great role for you,” he said. “Be at the G-M Steak House on Lamar at one-thirty on Saturday. But if you don’t come, it’s all right. It’s only one line, and we’ll get one of the crew to do it.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. Linklater had already made a super 8 feature, the decidedly avant-garde It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, and I figured that this new venture would likely be more of the same. Besides, making a movie is a totally boring endeavor. The day can consist of five minutes in front of the camera and twelve hours of sitting around. I didn’t want to waste hours on a film I was pretty sure I wouldn’t understand. But then at about one-fifteen the day of the shoot, I thought, “What the hell,” pulled on my signature black T-shirt, and headed for the set.
One van was parked outside the steakhouse, and inside a crew of seven had just finished setting up a tracking shot. I was in and out of there in an hour and a half. Slacker was shot like a renegade student production, on the run and hungry, held together by friends and promises. It cost about $23,000 to make, with another $100,000 or so in deferred expenses. (By way of comparison, permission to use the Aerosmith song that plays behind the opening credits of Dazed cost more than Slacker’s entire budget.)
Slacker proved to be as much a cultural phenomenon as a movie. The word “slacker” became shorthand for members of the latest lost generation, those souls wandering somewhere between college and real life. After an impressive eleven-week run at the small Dobie Theater in Austin, notice at the Seattle Film Festival, and a favorable article in Film Comment, Slacker was picked up and distributed by Orion Classics, making a respectable $1.3 million at the box office. Although it wasn’t wildly successful even in art theaters, it did become the film to see among the hip cognoscenti. Now it is available on video, and Slacker (the book), by Richard Linklater, was recently published by St. Martin’s Press. Ultimately, the movie’s success inspired Hollywood producers Sean Daniel and Jim Jacks to give Linklater almost $5 million to make Dazed and Confused.
The question, of course, was what kind of movie Linklater would make. He had hooked up with most of the Slacker crew while helping to found and run the Austin Film Society, an independent group of die-hard cinema enthusiasts. Although they loved Hollywood movies, their real passion ran toward the edge, toward eccentric independent directors and films that were as much about film itself as they were about a story. Linklater and the group were, after all, the children of filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola, Jean-Luc Godard, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and, in Godard’s words, the grandchildren of Marx and Coca-Cola—meaning the offspring of ideology and popular culture.
In their own way, Linklater and his cohorts were making a revolutionary movie with Slacker; they were trying for a tone more like real life and less like Hollywood. In the book, they reprint their manifesto, concluding with the words, “For now: The process is more important than achievement. The questions are more valuable than the answers. The attempts are more admirable than successes. To be continued …”
As I drove toward the set of Dazed and Confused, it became apparent that times had changed. Maybe a mile from the shoot, I began to see parked vehicles. The filmmakers’ encampment to my right included a small convoy of equipment trucks, two