21st-Century Slacker

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Slacker, a couple of dozen filmmakers remake Richard Linklater's indie flick.
21st Century <em>Slacker</em>
The infamous Madonna Pap smear scene. Photo by Partick Rusk

A man and a woman sit at an Austin bar, just near closing time. Their conversation is witty, teasing, self-consciously “intellectual.” 

“I’m an anti-artist … dedicated to the destruction of all art,” the man, played by Lars Nilsen, says, by way of flirting with the woman, a photographer played by Sarah Gay. The scene conjures up a curious sense of déjà vu: The images are crisp and pristine; the visual markers – a third character, played by Byron Brown, is busily typing away on his smart phone – entirely of the moment. Yet we seem to have heard this dialogue before. 

This is one of the segments that make up Slacker 2011 , a remake of Richard Linklater’s seminal 1991 indie Slacker, directed by more than two dozen Austin-based filmmakers. Already this year there have been screenings at the Sundance Film Festival and in Austin celebrating the 20th anniversary of the original’s release. But the Slacker 2011 project, produced by the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and the Austin Film Society, to help raise funds for the Society’s Texas Filmmakers Production Fund, is the most vivid proof yet of the extraordinary impact this shaggy dog, DIY comedy continues to have on a whole new generation of artists and moviegoers.

“It was the movie that made me realize human beings make films, and that they weren’t just things that magically appeared from Hollywood,” said Jay Duplass, the director (with his brother, Mark) of the comedy Cyrus, who first moved to Austin in 1991 to attend the University of Texas. 

Duplass, who lives in Los Angeles, but is spending the summer in Austin, shot his contribution to the omnibus in just three and a half hours on a recent Saturday morning, using himself and his wife as actors. In the spirit of the micro-budgeted original, he said he didn’t seek out a filmmaker permit. He just called a few friends to help him, gathered at the corner of 21st and Guadalupe Streets, and yelled “Action.”

Shot in 1989 and 1990 at locations throughout Austin for a reported $23,00, Slacker is a series of loosely linked vignettes, in which a collection of artists, dreamers, conspiracy theorists and perpetual grad students muse on topics timeless (who really killed JFK?) and picayune (one woman famously tries to sell two characters a sample of what she claims is Madonna’s pap smear). 

An early cut of the film screened at a handful of festivals in the winter and spring of 1990 and had an eleven week run in Austin that summer. The finished version premiered at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, before opening in a handful of theaters on July 11, 1991. And while its initial commercial run was only modestly successful, grossing $1.2 million according to the website Boxofficemojo.com, its impact on the Austin artistic scene was immediate and enduring.

“It helped create that myth of Austin as this place to come make movies that can catapult you onto a national stage,” said Alison Macor, the author of Chainsaws, Slackers and Spy Kids: Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Austin.

For the film’s director, who went on to make Dazed and Confused , and School of Rock among many other titles, Slacker also seemed to represent a shift between an old way of thinking about his native state onscreen and a more forward-thinking vision. "I think it spoke to so many Texans that didn't really feel too well represented by John Wayne movies that were shot in Arizona,” said Linklater, via email, just a week after his newest effort, the comedy Bernie starring Matthew McConaughey, and based on Skip Hollandsworth's 1998 story "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas," had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. “There's another culture, educated and post-modern, that you'd never associate with Texas. How could you given the enduring stereotypes?”

The Slacker 2011 project was developed by two programmers at the Alamo Drafthouse, Daniel Metz and Lars Nilsen and is set to have its world premiere at Austin’s Paramount Theatre in late August. Earlier this year, they reached out to Linklater, who gave them the go-ahead but didn’t want to be otherwise involved. (“It would be against the Slacker ethic to not give one's blessing to someone else's weird inspiration,” he said.) Working with the writer-director, Bryan Poyser ( Lovers of Hate ), they then contacted two-dozen or so Austin-based artists, including Bob Byington ( Harmony and Me ) and Chris Eska ( August Evening ). Individual scenes were divvied up, and each director was given a stipend of $500. According to Metz, some have stuck close to the original script, while others used it as inspiration to go in a completely new direction. (Metz produced the “anti-artist” segment, which was directed by Scott Meyers.)

Of course, remakes are normally the domain of Hollywood looking to make a few bucks off a dust-coated property – and they are usually reserved for films that have achieved iconic stature, not a word-of-mouth cult object like Slacker. Is a new generation of Austin film artists in danger of placing too much cultural baggage on the shoulders of a modest, deliberately rough-around the-edges effort? 

In predictably low-key, Slacker-style fashion, Linklater shrugs off any such concerns: “I've never felt the film itself was burdened by any particular expectation. I figure the same type of people that hated it then would likely hate it now.”

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