One should never attempt to guess what kind of film Richard Linklater is going to make next. Since 1985, the indie maverick has written and directed movies about everyone from eccentric Austin misfits (Slacker) to Texas high schoolers on the last day of classes (Dazed and Confused) to a young couple who meet on a train in Europe (Before Sunrise). He has tackled genres as varied as the western (The Newton Boys), political satire (Fast Food Nation), and science fiction (A Scanner Darkly). He released a coming-of-age movie (Boyhood) that he filmed over the course of twelve years, using the same cast of actors as they aged in real time, and a black comedy, Bernie, that was based on a Texas Monthly article I wrote about an East Texas mortician turned murderer.

On May 24, his twenty-third feature film, Hit Man, will appear in theaters and then show up on Netflix June 7. Like Bernie, this combination crime thriller and rom-com is based on a story I wrote for this magazine, about Gary Johnson, a technical assistant with the Harris County district attorney’s office who, at his superiors’ behest, posed as a professional hit man, eliciting confessions from would-be murderers who wanted to get rid of their business partners, spouses, or irritating relatives. 

Linklater’s fellow Austin resident Glen Powell, a rising young screen idol, plays Gary, a shy college instructor who discovers his masculine vigor in his role as a fake hit man. When he meets a beautiful woman who is looking for someone to kill her abusive husband, sparks fly.

I called the 63-year-old Linklater, whom I have known for more than a quarter of a century, while he was in Paris this spring. 

Texas Monthly: What are you doing in Paris? 

Richard Linklater: I’m shooting another movie, dude.

TM: Why don’t I know anything about this film?  

RL: It’s called Nouvelle Vague, and it takes place in 1959 in Paris, among the cinephiles of the French New Wave, in and around the making of [Jean-Luc] Godard’s Breathless. It goes all the way—in French, black and white, a kind of comedy about making a film. It’s been in development for about ten years. 

TM: When my article about Gary Johnson came out in 2001, you thought it might make for a good movie. But as I recall, you weren’t sure what to do with it.

RL: I remember just really loving Gary. And the undercover world of Houston seemed so bizarre. The clients seemed like this literal murderer’s row of characters. I was also just intrigued with the whole notion of hit men. When I was an underground punk in the eighties, I read a hit man manual that was published by one of those crazy, pre-internet alternative presses of the time. Later I found out it was written by a Florida mom—just entertaining BS. But I was flummoxed by this story. I thought, “What is the movie? Where does it go?” It’s just kind of the same thing over and over: a solicitation, and then an arrest.

TM: Brad Pitt’s company optioned the story so he could play Gary. They hired the legendary William Goldman to write a screenplay, but he couldn’t pull it off, and neither did other writers over the years. And then along comes Glen Powell.  

RL: He called me during the pandemic. He said, “Hey, you ought to read this article in Texas Monthly about a fake hit man.” I said, “Glen, I read that when you were in the sixth grade or whatever.” But we kept talking. Glen is funny and smart and a great collaborator.

TM: So you and Glen finish a screenplay and you decide to film it independently—and it’s set in New Orleans, not Houston, because at the time there were zero tax incentives to shoot in Texas. 

RL: It was set to be a real Houston movie, with all of Houston’s eccentricity. But our state thought otherwise, so off we went to New
Orleans, which is even more humid than Houston, I found out. I didn’t think anything could be more humid than Houston. And it’s even more lawless and a little crazy, so it made perfect sense. It was an easy adaptation—just change a few names of streets. You know, I’m trying to tell a story—that’s your main thing as a filmmaker, not some geographical commitment or loyalty. 

TM Talks Richard Linklater Hit Man
Linklater directs Hit Man stars Adria Arjona and Glen Powell.Brian Roedel/Netflix

TM: The movie was screened at all the major film festivals, and the reception was through the roof. 

RL: The films at international festivals are usually dark and very serious. Halfway through a festival, everyone’s just bogging down. But at the Venice Film Festival, they decided to premiere Hit Man—this dark but not insultingly dumb comedy—and people came up to me and said, “Thank you.” They were so grateful there was a movie that made them laugh and didn’t insult their intelligence.

TM: How much did Hit Man cost to make? 

RL: A little over ten, eleven million, something like that.

TM: And then Netflix bought it for $20 million. 

RL: The studios could have had it, but despite the overwhelming audience and critical response, they just acted like they weren’t totally convinced. It’s a weird time in our industry—not as good as it once was, put it like that. Netflix was the company that stepped up with the right attitude, like, “Hey, we love this film, and we want to make sure everybody sees it.” They made it an easy choice for us.  

TM: Hit Man will run for a couple of weeks in theaters before moving to Netflix. Did you try to persuade Netflix executives to let it run longer as a theatrical release before going to streaming?

RL: I think every single filmmaker whose film goes to Netflix has that conversation with them. You know, I have hopes that people will see Hit Man in theaters. But I also know that by the time a lot of them hear about the movie, it will be out of theaters. 

TM: What did you do when you heard, just before filming of the movie began, that Gary Johnson had died? 

RL: I had talked to him several times over the last few years—we spent time talking about the Astros and José Altuve and whatever he wanted to talk about. But I’d never met him in person. And I thought, okay, the film is actually happening now, and I wanted him to come visit the movie set. But he wasn’t returning my calls or emails. So I reached out to you, and then I got a text from you saying, “Rick, call me immediately. Something terrible has happened.”

TM: He was such a good guy. 

RL: I liked his dual nature, the fact that he could teach college courses [Johnson was a part-time psychology professor at a community college] and do this work at the same time. He just had this kind of chill nature, like the way he lived alone with cats and had a Buddhist garden. He was truly a Zen master. 

TM: What movie ideas are percolating in your brain right now? 

RL: I have a lot of scripts and projects I haven’t made yet, maybe eight or ten. And every time I get one made, there’s usually another that has joined the list.

TM: Are you starting to feel old?  

RL: Not really—not in my body. But you do look at the clock and go, “How many super productive years do I have left as a filmmaker?” I just jump to, like, age eighty-five in my mind. I think, “Okay, that gives me a couple more decades to do films.” I’m perhaps wildly optimistic or something. Delusional, maybe.   

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.