In the early nineties, director Richard Linklater surprised even some of his closest collaborators by choosing to follow the success of his oddball indie Slacker with a coming-of-age comedy for a big Hollywood studio. He thought his own high school years, back in the late seventies, “sucked,” and he wanted to push back against nostalgia both for that decade and for being a teenager. This ran counter to popular teen movies, including Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, that were driven by plots not exactly true to life. Instead, Linklater envisioned making a film that better reflected how he and his friends had spent their time in high school—often just cruising around the streets of his hometown of Huntsville, looking for something cool to do.
When writer Melissa Maerz read an article a few years ago in which Linklater discussed this anti-nostalgic intention for what became Dazed and Confused, she wondered how the movie wound up playing like a celebration of the seventies. That curiosity inspired her to conduct the hundreds of interviews from which she drew her thorough, funny, and bittersweet new book out today, Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.
While putting together the book, Maerz realized that she had landed in the same trap that Linklater had. “I went into it thinking, I’m going to explore the nature of nostalgia in this movie. I ended up writing a book where a lot of people are being very nostalgic,” she told me. “Where a lot of people are just saying, ‘Oh my God, I miss the nineties. I miss that time. I wish we could go back to when film was like this.’ I didn’t think that the cast and crew would still feel that way. I mean, a lot of people cried when I interviewed them.”
Set in an unnamed Texas town on the last day of school in 1976, and released in the fall of 1993, Dazed was a box office flop, though it was widely praised by critics. Its Austin production, during the summer of 1992, proved trying for Linklater as he fended off pressure from the studio to make it a “faster, funnier, stupider” movie. Yet that conflict “was a war that both sides ultimately won,” as Maerz puts it, once Dazed found later financial success through home video and DVD distribution. It became “a classic film that makes every new audience feel good about the worst time of their lives,” as Maerz writes in the book.
Over the course of about eighteen months, Maerz interviewed nearly 150 sources, though not all of them ended up in the book. The film’s large ensemble included then little-known actors such as Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey, and only a few actors are missing from the oral history. The cast’s experience of the filming, during which most of them lived in the same downtown Austin hotel, reads something like high school itself. There were cliques and crushes, jealousies and backbiting. “It’s kind of relatable, the innocence of the cast hookups,” Maerz says. “It was like these people who were connecting to each other because they were excited about embarking on something creatively. There is a sweetness to the book that I didn’t expect.”
Maerz also spoke with much of the crew, as well as a number of critics and other filmmakers who count themselves among the film’s fans. But perhaps the most fascinating material comes from her interviews with folks who grew up in Huntsville around the same time as Linklater, including some of his old friends, though the odd specificity of what they relayed to Maerz raises questions about how their own memories have been recast by the movie. “Think about your high school experience. If somebody made a big film about that, I think it would be really hard not to blur the film that you’re watching and your real experience,” Maerz says.
Fittingly, Linklater himself serves as the narrative’s dominant voice. When Maerz first approached him, he told her he was sick of talking about Dazed, but he eventually granted her hours upon hours of interviews, even discussing his complicated romantic entanglements of those years. His script, which early on included quieter, more contemplative scenes for some characters, evolved significantly even as shooting was under way. “You have to let a film be what it’s meant to be, and ultimately Dazed wanted to be more of a party movie,” Linklater says in the book. “I think that’s why we’re here talking about it almost thirty years later.”
If there’s a villain in the story, it’s Jim Jacks, the producer with whom Linklater repeatedly sparred. Among other demands, Jacks wanted Linklater to tone down the profanity and to add female nudity. Though Jacks died in 2014, he’s present in the book thanks to previously unused material from another journalist’s interview. “He sounds to me like this super nerdy guy who wanted to kind of relive a high school experience he never had by being surrounded by these young people who kind of felt like they were indebted to him,” Maerz says. “I also think he deserves credit, as a lot of people said in this book, for being the person who did have an eye for actors, who did know that Linklater was someone worth bringing to Universal.”
As the book makes clear, Linklater ultimately concluded that an anti-nostalgic movie isn’t possible; whatever you elevate onto the big screen tends to read like an endorsement. And if Dazed was always destined to be “a god-awful failure of an anti-nostalgia movie” (as actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass describes it), Maerz notes that it seems fitting it was made in a city whose longtime residents are known for glorifying its past. “Linklater told me that when he first moved to Austin, it was like, ‘The Armadillo [World Headquarters] closed last year. You missed it. You might as well go home,’” she says. “Austin is kind of a perfect place to make a movie about nostalgia in that way.”
Dazed was set seventeen years before the year of its release. That’s like putting out a movie today set in 2003. Maerz argues that the teenage world it depicts, which wouldn’t have been all that unfamiliar to the teens of 1993, has disappeared in 2020. Rock ’n’ roll is no longer the dominant popular music among younger people. Fewer teens are even bothering to get their driver’s licenses. (When’s the last time you heard of someone driving anywhere to buy concert tickets, as happens in the film’s final scene?) Yet the movie’s lasting appeal carries on, thanks to its depiction of the insecurities and thrills of teenage life.
“I love the fact that nothing really happens in Dazed and Confused. That’s not an insult,” Maerz says. “No one is really transformed in Dazed and Confused. I love that about it, because people don’t change like that in high school. I love that it doesn’t end at an ending point. I love that these kids are going to be going back to school again next year. They’re not graduating. We don’t know what happens to them next year. It feels like they’re still kind of caught in this endless loop of boredom. That feels very real to me.”
The Austin Film Society will host a virtual conversation about the book between Melissa Maerz and Richard Linklater on November 18.