texasmonthly.com: Who came up with the idea to do a story on Dazed and Confused? How did you arrive at doing an oral history?
John Spong: Our editor, Evan Smith, first had the idea of doing a Dazed story. We were already planning a big UT piece for October, and Evan wanted something related that would appeal to a different, younger audience. Dazed has near-universal recognition to twentysomethings, watching it is as much a part of going off to college as the perennial high school graduation gift Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. So with Dazed’s tenth anniversary as the hook, and Matthew McConaughey as the tie to UT, we had something that fit nicely in the issue. We opted for the oral history model because that seemed like the best way to spotlight as many of the people involved as possible. An oral history is a great way to tell a story about an event, like a legendary ball game or the making of a movie, because the voices in the article, the event’s participants, are providing anecdotes they’ve refined over years of repeated tellings. And many of the players have gone on to become interesting figures in their own right. So their take on that event is usually fun to read.
texasmonthly.com: Just checking: Had you seen Dazed and Confused before you began working on this story?
JS: Oh, yeah. But never without beer. Researching this story marked the first time I’d seen it without beer.
texasmonthly.com: How many times have you watched Dazed and Confused? Do you like the movie?
JS: I’ve probably seen it a couple dozen times. I went to the Austin premiere at the Paramount back in 1993 and was just floored by it. Then Dazed ran at the Dobie Theater near the UT campus for a full year. So during that time, on Friday or Saturday nights when my friends and I didn’t have anything to do, or when a friend who hadn’t seen Dazed was in from out of town—because a lot of people outside of Austin hadn’t seen it at that point—we’d all get together, stuff cans of beer down our pants, and sneak them into the theater.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story? Why?
JS: It was a shame that Ben Affleck and Renee Zellweger were too busy to be interviewed because it would have been nice to talk to them, partly for the sake of completeness and partly because they seem to have stood out in the other players’ memories. Of course, that may just be because Affleck and Zellweger are such big wheels now. The rest of the story wasn’t particularly tough, which was kind of surprising. Usually Hollywood types are hard to get a hold of. They tend to be bored by reporters and would simply rather not lose an hour to conversation with someone they don’t know. But almost all the actors involved in Dazed look back on it as the favorite time of their careers. There was no pressure, they worked with people who became good friends, and the movie they made is probably the best-known work of their careers. So they were thrilled to talk about it.
texasmonthly.com: From the cast, who was the most interesting person you talked to? Why?
JS: The most entertaining interview didn’t actually even end up in the story. Esteban Powell and Mark Vandermeulen played two of the incoming freshmen, and when I talked with them (I interviewed them together), we watched the movie with a cooler full of tall boys. I was excited about the chance to drink beer with the eighth-graders—who are in their mid-twenties now, by the way—but I may have been a little too excited. When I listened to the interview tape later, it sounded like we may have had a tall boy or two too many because the quotes just weren’t quite there. That was too bad because Powell and Vandermeulen had completely different recollections of the movie from everybody else. It makes sense; they were a full ten years younger than a lot of the rest of the cast. The best example was when they talked about watching the film through the years. The older kids, like Joey Lauren Adams and Parker Posey, said they hadn’t watched Dazed more than once or twice in the past ten years, and most said they hadn’t seen it at all since the premiere. Vandermeulen, on the other hand, said rather sheepishly that he’d seen it around thirty times, at which point Powell jumped in with an exhilarated, “Dude, I’ve seen it like one hundred times!” Suddenly you remember that when the movie came out, these guys were actual high school kids, and you imagine that every first date these guys had in high school and college probably ended with them putting a dog-eared copy of Dazed in the VCR to impress the girl. Jason London was funny about that. He said that he always had a steady girlfriend after the movie came out, and then he got married fairly young, so he’d never needed “to play the Dazed card” with the ladies. But he said he understood why Powell and Vandermeulen might have tried.
texasmonthly.com: Do you believe this movie is still a must-see for teenagers? Why or why not?
JS: If you want to see what the last day of school in 1976 looked like, you have to watch Dazed. I was two years younger than the Mitch character, and scenes like the Little League game he played in looked exactly like what I remember.
texasmonthly.com: Was Dazed and Confused anything like your high school experience? If so, how so? If not, why not?
JS: That’s the other reason you have to see the movie. It is simply dead-on in its depiction of high school in Texas, regardless of the era. I graduated from high school in 1985, so a night on the town for me and my friends did not include a Plymouth Duster or a Foghat eight track. And by that time, smoking weed wasn’t as cool as it was in 1976, at least not where I went to school. But if you change the Dazed scenes so that the car is a jacked-up pickup truck and the music is Hank, Jr., and you swap the pot for some extra beer, you have a perfect picture of the Class of ’85.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing that happened to you while working on this story?
JS: There was another interview that didn’t make it into the article, that took place with an actress I shouldn’t identify. She was the only person who remembers the movie as a bad experience. In fact, she’s still pretty upset about the way she says the other girls on the set treated her back in 1993. I felt bad for her, but still thought it was remarkable how closely the set must have mirrored actual high school life, even behind the scenes.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think there will be an audience for this story?
JS: We tried not to get too deep into the minutiae of the movie. I’d seen it so many times even before the story was assigned that I mostly wanted to find out about the moments in the movie that have always been my favorites. Like that early scene when Dawson and Pink are walking down the hall, and Dawson raises his fist and pantomimes hitting a nerd walking by, scaring the nerd. I wanted to know who came up with that scene, Sasha Jenson or Linklater. But as Evan pointed out, that’s not going to be altogether interesting to someone who has only seen the film, say, five times or so, let alone your typical Texas Monthly reader. So we had to try to give the story a broad appeal, which meant more time talking about and with the familiar names, like McConaughey, Affleck, Zellweger, Posey, and Adams. But it also meant making sure that when we did get into little tidbits, the anecdote had to be good enough to keep the reader interested, like Lee Daniel’s story about making bedpost bongs in shop class. Hopefully, we walked that line well enough to keep the piece readable for the people who know the year, make, and model of Melba Toast (1970 Chevy Chevelle) and for those rare moviegoers who don’t hear “All right, all right, all right” in their heads whenever they see a picture of McConaughey.