Take Two

Made on a shoestring, Slacker was a hit. Now fans wonder if Hollywood money will change Rick Linklater’s style. Straight hair, curled lashes: Linklater checks a shot on the set of Dazed and Confused.

October 1992By Comments

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 “honey wagons” (portable dressing rooms for the cast), two catering trucks, and a mobile production office with a woman sitting out front talking on a mobile phone, her lap filled with papers and a file box of cards. The time was almost midnight, the scene was suffused in artificial moonlight, and as I rounded the curve in the road, the park seemed haunted, the perfect teen gathering spot, circa 1976.

And there, at the center of a swirl of activity—actors, extras, an army of crew—were Rick Linklater and his cinematographer, Lee Daniel, shooting a movie, just as they had three summers ago. Linklater was in cutoffs and a T-shirt, and he and Daniel looked like a pair of slackers themselves, trying to make the movie on their own terms, all of the expensive Hollywood paraphernalia and talent around them notwithstanding.

The difference this time is that they can’t go back. Like it or not, they are running a huge business and making a movie that has already been compared to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Last time out, the core group was 7; this time the cast and crew numbers about 125. Instead of recruiting his friends, Linklater interviewed and hired crew chiefs, and then the chiefs hired their own people. I was told that Linklater doesn’t know the names of all of the workers on Dazed. Auditions were held in New York, L.A., and Austin, yielding a cast of professionals, though there are a few amateurs. Dazed and Confused began shooting in July with a seven-week schedule, extremely short for a Hollywood production. The night of the beer bust in the park was about halfway through the shoot.

One story in particular points up the differences. Lee Daniel tells about coming home one day in 1989 when Linklater and he were roommates, and Linklater told him to look in the refrigerator. There, instead of a six-pack, he found 20,000 feet of Eastman color negative film. Daniel never even asked Linklater where he got it. Instead, he just started accumulating the equipment they needed to make the movie.

A few days after visiting the park set for Dazed, I sat down to talk to Rick on the patio of the classy Four Seasons Hotel, where he had finished lunching with his lawyer. Even so, he didn’t seem to have changed. His boyish good looks and charm continued to serve him well. Dressed in his customary slacker attire—cutoffs and a T-shirt—he didn’t look like a man who was directing a film with a budget of almost $5 million. Even though we were friends, he was not too forthcoming about the movie, though he did allow that he was tired because they were shooting only nights now, the schedule running from seven until sunup.

The location where Dazed and Confused takes place—a small Texas town—is familiar territory to Linklater. When he was ten, his mother, who was a single parent, moved the family to Huntsville to take a college teaching job. He finished his last year of high school in Houston, returned to Huntsville for two years of college, then worked on offshore oil rigs for a few years. Having saved up enough money to slack for quite a while, he traveled to Austin, where he spent a few years just watching movies. During this period, while seeing any independent, art, or foreign film that drifted through town, Linklater met and became roommates with Lee Daniel. Together they began to hang out with the group that would form the Austin Film Society and later produce Slacker.

After he made Slacker, Linklater traveled around the country, promoting the film and tossing around different ideas for his next project. Frequently, he mentioned a plan to shoot a low-budget version of Knut Hamsun’s book Hunger in Galveston. During an interview with film critic Gary Arnold in Washington, D.C., Linklater trotted out another concept, this one for a seventies high school coming-of-age film. The idea struck a nerve.

Arnold knew producer Jim Jacks and gave him a call. Linklater says, “Jacks had liked Slacker. From a studio perspective, Slacker was the kind of film everyone sees and likes and thinks is funny, but Jacks wasn’t sure about the filmmaker. Was I going to do these weird things forever?” What finally persuaded Jacks to give the project a try was the novelty Linklater had shown in Slacker plus his wish to do a recognizable commercial genre like a high school comedy. Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel (the latter previously associated with such films as Field of Dreams and Edward James Olmos’ American Me) were partners in the company Alphaville Productions—named after a 1965 film by French new wave director Godard—and had a special deal with Universal Pictures.

Alphaville flew Linklater to Los Angeles for a meeting with the Alphaville people, who turned out to be very interested in Dazed and Confused. His first draft was a mammoth 150 pages, but he and friends pared it down. Jacks and Sean Daniel liked it and gave Linklater the go-ahead to make the movie, on which they would serve as producers. The script is smart, playing to Linklater’s strengths. Rather than being a narrative, the movie consists of a series of incidents held together by more than twenty characters. It could have been shot Slacker-style, with a minimal budget and nonactors. But once the Hollywood money was in place, the old Slacker folks found industry professionals from Los Angeles in their faces, and occasionally in their hair.

The two cultures clashed, and the resulting friction emphasized their differences. Though Linklater makes the final decisions, the Slacker people work by committee, constantly tinkering with the film even as they are shooting it. This is how they made Slacker. Even though members of the imported crew are accustomed to working on independent productions, they’re not familiar with the Austin group’s intense collaborative ways.

The “outsiders” are also used to some level of efficiency and planning on a set, while Linklater’s style is deliberately fluid. Frequently Linklater and Lee Daniel will huddle in a corner, whispering about changes in shots and scenes, while the first- and second-assistant directors and any number of crew heads (sound, makeup, hair, wardrobe, set design) stand on the sidelines, excluded and annoyed. What the L.A. people probably don’t understand is that the boys are deliberately jerking the rhythm. Part of a film should be about the filmmaking.

After hanging out for a while on the Dazed set, I finally wondered whether the Slacker people can retain their purity of vision and still make a movie acceptable to Hollywood. The signs are good. Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel are sympathetic producers, and everyone who has seen footage (they wouldn’t show me any) says it’s very funny, though that’s all they will say.

Watching Rick Linklater and Lee Daniel making their movie at the core of this movie—keeping everyone off guard and pushing the script—I had no idea how the finished film would turn out. But even if I wasn’t sure the guys had their movie, after watching that girl walk across the field that night, I knew they had their time and place and heart in a way that Hollywood motion pictures al-most never do.

Louis Black is the editor of the Austin Chronicle.

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