Throughout his more than thirty years as a filmmaker, Richard Linklater has made a career of immortalizing the often unappreciated significance of everyday life. The Oscar-nominated director’s twenty narrative features have spawned iconic sayings and scenes—like Teresa Taylor of the Butthole Surfers hawking Madonna’s pap smear, the birth of Matthew McConaughey’s signature “alright, alright, alright,” and Jack Black rocking out with schoolkids, just to name a few. Other notable moments, though, illustrate something significant about how Linklater’s career has developed, his worldview, and the ideas he’s returned to again and again over the years, from It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books to Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Here are seven of them.
“Should have stayed at the bus station,” Slacker
In the opening minutes of 1990’s Slacker, Linklater plays a loquacious man who gets off a bus and into a cab. Unprompted, he tells the cabbie about the dream from which he’s just awakened. (What he describes is actually Linklater’s first feature-length film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, an in-joke for the scarce few who’d seen it at the time.) That leads to a conversation between the two about the possibility that each road not taken generates an alternate reality in which another version of yourself leads a significantly different life.
In the film, Linklater’s character speculates about what would have happened if he hadn’t immediately jumped in the cab but had instead hung around at the bus station longer. Maybe a beautiful woman would have come up to him. Maybe they would’ve hit it off. Maybe she’d have offered him a ride to her apartment. Maybe they’d have moved into together. “Shit, I should have stayed at the bus station,” he says, the scene’s comic kicker.
Though it’s played for a laugh, this is an idea Linklater returns to repeatedly in subsequent films, including Waking Life and Before Sunrise: Each decision we make, even seemingly trivial ones like hopping in a cab versus bumming a ride, could wholly reshape our lives and the lives of those we encounter.
The scene was the first one filmed for Slacker, and it opens the film. It leads into an elaborate crane shot that establishes how the camera drifts from character to passing character again and again (a narrative approach American audiences hadn’t seen before) for the duration of the film’s one-hundred minutes. John Pierson, the producer’s representative who secured national distribution for Linklater’s breakthrough, says it makes for a “rip-roaring start” to the movie that launched his career.
“Good game,” Dazed and Confused
Slacker ultimately grossed $1.2 million at the box office, a small but impressive figure for a movie made on a production budget of merely $23,000. Filming his follow-up, Dazed and Confused, during a sweltering 1992 Austin summer was a trying experience for Linklater, as he fended off interference from Hollywood producers for the first time. Linklater favored longer, more naturalistic takes that allowed characters to meander in and out of the scene. But this time around, as his longtime editor Sandra Adair remembers, he was pressured to cut the film as a “faster, funnier, stupider” comedy.
One point of contention was the brief moment during a baseball scene when the two teams perform the “good game” ritual, a moment familiar to anyone who ever played Little League, in which the two teams line up to exchange high-fives (and, more subtly, insults) at the game’s conclusion. For the director, it was one of many tiny, true-to-life details that would lend Dazed a fully realized sense of time and place. To the budget-conscious executives supervising the shoot, the exchange did nothing to further the film’s story and was therefore expendable. But Linklater prevailed, and the moment remained, the sort of early-career victory that likely emboldened him in future struggles with studios.
By all accounts, Linklater didn’t let on to the cast or crew how much he was having to fight the studio. Wiley Wiggins, who played the freshman pitcher Mitch, among other roles in Linklater films, says it was only during the filming of the baseball scene that he realized the pressure that Linklater was under. “I just remember people coming up and whispering in his ears,” Wiggins says. “He had to excuse himself a little bit, and I could tell that he was getting stressed out.”
Just before the film’s release in September 1993, Linklater penned a long article in the Austin Chronicle about the difficulty of the production. “I have a very frighteningly real urge to just keep walking, get in my car, and leave,” he wrote about his thoughts on the day of the baseball shoot. “If they have in their minds how I should make my film, then maybe they should just do it themselves.” He didn’t drive off, though, and ultimately he won the war to make Dazed the way he wanted—even if the studio never seemed to understand what it had, judging by how the film was marketed as a stoner comedy instead of the episodic slice of life that Linklater envisioned.
“The space in between,” Before Sunrise
In October 1989, Linklater took a return train trip to Austin from New York, where he’d been hoping to attract attention for Slacker at an industry conference. He stopped over in Philadelphia, where one of his sisters was living at the time, and ended up hitting it off with a woman who worked at a toy store into which he had wandered. “We just spent the whole night walking around town. While I’m doing that, I’m thinking this could be a film,” he remembered many years later. “It was this wonderful connection. We just talked—kind of intense and beautiful. But I was also thinking, ‘I want to capture this feeling.’”
Six years later came Before Sunrise, in which a pair of twentysomethings, Jesse and Céline, meet by chance on a train and disembark together to spend a night walking and talking around Vienna. Through an extensive rehearsal process, stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy had helped develop the script into a masterful depiction of the ineffable spark between two people falling in love. During a scene late in the film, Céline gives voice to much of what originally inspired the director—and a feeling that’s continued to crop up throughout his films.
“I believe if there’s any kind of God, it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me, but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something,” she says. “I know it’s almost impossible to succeed, but who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
“God is posing a question,” Waking Life
After the commercial and critical failure of 1998’s The Newton Boys, Linklater had difficulty for several years attracting funding for his work. But instead of giving up or taking a director-for-hire gig, he returned to his experimental, low-budget roots to make Waking Life. It was the first feature film made using a computer-assisted rotoscoping technique developed by Austin animator Bob Sabiston (a technique Linklater would return to with 2006’s A Scanner Darkly).
Essentially a spiritual sequel to Slacker, Waking Life stars Wiley Wiggins as a nameless main character who wanders through a dream state, encountering a parade of typically talky Linklater characters. The centerpiece of the last ten minutes of the film is a monologue by a man at a pinball machine, played by Linklater. The speech touches upon a Philip K. Dick essay, the Acts of the Apostles, and a visit to the land of the dead during which Lady Gregory, the patron of poet W.B. Yeats, explains to the nature of the universe to him.
While standing next a pinball machine, Linklater’s character says to Wiggins’s: “There’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity. And it’s an instant in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, ‘Do you want to, you know, be one with eternity? Do you want to be in heaven?’ And we’re all saying, ‘No, thank you, not just yet.’ And so time is actually just this constant saying ‘No’ to God’s invitation,” he says. “She tells me that actually this is the narrative of everyone’s life. That, you know, behind the phenomenal difference there is but one story, and that’s the story of moving from the ‘No’ to the ‘Yes.’ All of life is like, ‘No, thank you. No, thank you. No, thank you.’ And then, ultimately, it’s ‘Yes, I give in. Yes, I accept. Yes, I embrace.’ I mean, that’s the journey. Everyone gets to the ‘yes’ in the end, right?”
It’s nearly six minutes of Linklater at his oddball, brain-teasing best. Time and again—as with the dime-story philosophers of this film and Slacker, or Céline talking about the divine power of human connection in Before Sunrise, he’s been drawn to having his characters muse on the metaphysical.
“Real magic in the world,” Boyhood
Linklater’s interest in hearing his characters sound off about imperceptible truths supposedly hidden behind the façade of our earthly existence is founded in the aesthetics of those discussions rather than any belief that they actually reveal profound truths. If you want to better understand his own worldview and sense of wonder, he told me, look toward a brief exchange in Boyhood when the young main character, Mason, asks his father if there’s any “real magic in the world,” like “elves and stuff.”
“I don’t know. I mean, what makes you think elves are any more magical than something like a whale?” his dad answers. “You know what I mean? What if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean, there was this giant sea mammal that used sonar and sang songs, and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car, and you could crawl through the arteries? I mean, you’d think that’s pretty magical, right?”
“Yeah,” Mason says. “But, right this second, there’s no elves in the world, right?”
“No,” the dad says. “Technically, no elves.”
Linklater was inspired to write the scene after reading an article about whales that included some of the very facts that Mason’s dad cites. He found it amazing. “We all need things outside ourselves, and you can find that in science, you can find it in the arts, or you can find it in religion. I just think science and the arts are more fun. I find it more compelling than, you know, Bronze Age stories from the ancient world,” he says. “That’s what’s unfortunate to me: when people think the world lacks so much that they have to invest in something otherworldly.”
“It’s a gift to be striving at all,” Everybody Wants Some!!
Linklater’s career was made possible because, when he moved to Austin in 1983, the city still offered dirt-cheap rent. For several years, he was able to live purely off his savings from having worked on an offshore oil rig. He arranged his entire life around his pursuit of becoming a filmmaker. Decades later, his 2016 film Everybody Wants Some!! speaks to the joy of settling on a single-minded purpose. College baseball player Jake—echoing the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” by French philosopher Albert Camus—tells his new love interest Beverly about writing an essay on Sisyphus, the Greek mythology figure damned to roll the same boulder up a mountain repeatedly for eternity.
“The gods intended to make Sisyphus suffer, but they actually bless him with something to focus on, something he could find meaning in,” Jake says. “It’s a gift to be striving at all, even if it looks futile to others. Yes, it’s ridiculous to roll a boulder up a mountain over and over and over again, but so is everything else in life.”
“Things only mean as much as the meaningfulness that we allow them to have,” Beverly responds.
“That how I tied it to baseball,” Jake adds. “Just accepting it—good, bad, whatever. Just getting in that groove, the world kind of goes away, and I’m just doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
The scene stems from Linklater’s own journey of settling upon the interests, like film, that mattered to him—interests that attracted a community of people who felt similarly passionate. “It’s stupid because someday it’s not going to matter,” he says. “But it matters to you and the people around you and the way you’re proceeding through life and the hours of whatever life you’ve been granted. Once you make peace with that, then everything goes into play. It might not mean anything, but damn it if I’m not going to maximize whatever is in my realm for its own sake. Just because it’s better to do it than not do it. You’ve got to turn that corner, and you pick up people who feel the same way. They also dedicate their lives to this.”
“No one would miss it,” A Day at the Office
When the Pompidou Centre in Paris honored Linklater last November with a six-week exhibition of his work, the museum’s curators asked him to make a twenty-minute film considering the question: “Where are you now?”
Titled A Day at the Office, the resulting short film begins with a Houston Astros jersey-clad Linklater feeding pigs, chickens, and goats on his Bastrop County farm as he amusingly undercuts buzzword-laden advice from a trio of studio executives on the other end of the phone. “You could lose that scene entirely and nobody would miss it,” one of the execs says. “By that same token, we could just kind of not make the movie at all? And no one would miss it?” Linklater responds.
Fellow Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols says it’s the most accurate depiction he’s ever seen of how meetings between directors and the companies funding their work often go. Rebecca Campbell, CEO of the Austin Film Society, notes that its depiction accurately represents Linklater’s attitude toward studio notes. “He really doesn’t have any tolerance for the shallowness of the industry,” Campbell says. “He doesn’t react to it. He just goes about his business.”
As much as Linklater loves movies for their artistry, he’d rather walk away than be asked to alter one of his films purely in the interest of achieving higher box office returns. By all accounts that willingness has granted him a steady confidence to fight for his work, film after film.