When you’ve directed as many films as Richard Linklater, it’s rare to encounter a “first” in a new one. His nineteenth narrative feature—Where’d You Go, Bernadette—isn’t his first featuring an undiscovered child star (the delightful Emma Nelson). It’s not his first time adapting a seemingly unadaptable book (he did it twice in 2006 alone, with Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly). Nor is it his first international project (the Before trilogy bounced around Europe). It is, however, his first film with a woman as the central protagonist. It’s also the first time he’s shot somewhere that could pass as Antarctica (actually Greenland). The result is a movie with lead actress Cate Blanchett as the title character, playing a cutting, genius architect.
The best-selling novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette was widely beloved, which adds to the pressure involved in bringing its story to life. We caught up with Linklater ahead of the film’s August 16 release to discuss why he related to Bernadette, telling stories outside his Texas base, and how he brought the book’s imaginary architecture to life.
Texas Monthly: What attracted you to this story?
Richard Linklater: The character! Bernadette and her whole world. She reminded me a lot of my mom, in a way. The intensity of the mother/daughter relationship, I’ve been around my whole life, with two sisters and three daughters. The idea of the artist out of work, I thought that was a really interesting element. The portrait of a long-term relationship that’s kind of drifting and disconnected at the moment, that’s reached some stasis … Four of my last five films, I’ve realized looking at it, they kind of deal with parenting and middle-age issues. It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I’m in that phase now!’ So I guess it’s something I’m thinking about a lot these days, and the portrait of an artist not practicing her craft is kind of a nightmare situation. I can’t exactly relate, but I can feel it. There’s a lot—it’s very compelling, even though it’s obviously a challenging adaptation.
TM: You tend to be attracted to those. Neither A Scanner Darkly nor Fast Food Nation are intuitive stories to adapt for films.
RL: I like when people are like, ‘I like the book—how the hell would you make a movie out of that?’ ‘Well, I think I have a take on it …’ It was one of those. You want to tell the story of what’s compelling to you in the story, and I think that could be different to different people. There’s enough material there—you could make a five- or six-hour limited series out of this and put it all in. The idea of a feature-length means you have to make some choices about what it is and what the story can’t contain. It’s a challenge, but it’s a fun one.
TM: Was there already a script for it when you got attached to the project?
RL: There had been a previous draft. [Annapurna Pictures head Megan Ellison] wasn’t happy with it, and she told me, ‘There’s a draft, but don’t read it.’ She liked my take—that Bernadette’s not crazy, she’s just being viewed that way until you get to know her. I wanted the film to feel like someone you might meet and be like, ‘Oh, they’re quirky’ or ‘They seem like an asshole,’ but then you peel away the layers and really get to know someone. We all have that—someone you don’t know but have judgment of, then find out, ‘Oh, they were in that eighties band,’ or you hear that something crazy happened to them, or they had this weird thing in their lives. Everybody’s kind of walking around, and they don’t know the stories people have in their past, and if they did, maybe they’d understand them. And so, layer by layer, you really get to know more about her.
TM: There are times in Boyhood where it’s almost Patricia Arquette’s story, but this is the first time in your career where a movie is indisputably about a woman. What’s that like for you, coming off Last Flag Flying and Everybody Wants Some!!?
RL: Everybody Wants Some!! is about as bro-male as it gets, but it’s also a critique of that. Like I was saying before, four of my last five movies have dealt with this, and I think they all have strong female points of view. You could argue that Julie in the Before trilogy—her voice, her position, that’s a real 50/50 relationship in relationship to the movie. There’s a strong female voice there. You could call Boyhood “Motherhood.” I guess I had made my mother/son movie, and I wanted to make my mother/daughter movie. And, gender aside, this thing about an artist who’s not making art is interesting, whether it’s a male or a female character. I guess I didn’t really think about it—it’s there, but you’re just trying to tell a story, and this one happens to be about Bernadette.
TM: How’d you find Emma Nelson to play Bernadette’s daughter, Bee?
RL: Twenty years ago, when you’d go to cast, you’d have to go to all these towns and meet people and put them on videotape. Now it’s so easy to get people to put themselves on tape, record a monologue, and send it in. Agencies are just sending people around like that. We had like six hundred auditions. Vicky Boone, my Austin-based casting director, who’s wonderful, she had to go through all of these and say. ‘Hey, what about her?’ You get from six hundred to maybe one hundred to fifty, then to twenty and ten—it was a huge undertaking, to say the least. And then we were up in New York, where we had a final callback, bringing people in to read with Cate and Billy [Crudup], with different young actors to kind of hang out with them. They’re very professional—and good. By thirteen or fourteen, there’s a lot of talented people. It’s a really tough decision in a way, but I always liked Emma. She hadn’t been in a movie, but I was impressed by her. She was like, ‘Acting’s it. I don’t have a Plan B. I’m an actor.’ She was thirteen. [laughs] She’s just cool, very confident, very smart. Even though Emma has a sister, she seemed like someone who grew up around adults. She’s very conversant, and she wasn’t intimidated meeting Cate or Billy. She just jumped right into a conversation, voicing her opinions. She didn’t give any ground. She wasn’t deferential, and I like that. And she’s completely natural—she could just start saying lines from the movie and not change, just completely herself. That’s someone I knew I could work with.
TM: We did a piece in the magazine about the various actors you’ve worked with early in their careers. What are you looking for, when you’re looking at six hundred tapes?
RL: [laughs] Thankfully, I don’t have to look at all six hundred—that’s part of Vicky’s job. I look at maybe a hundred. I think I’ve always had a nose for unique people. And also, the more I do it, there’s a person who’s just a natural-born actor or performer, and I think I can sense someone who’s meant to be there. Other people are more conflicted or are not quite ready. Some people, I can just tell, “Oh, they’re ready,” even if they don’t have experience. On Everybody Wants Some!!, J. Quentin Johnson, he’s gone on to be in Hamilton, he’s from Athens, Texas, he was a UT student. I was like, “This guy’s got it, meant to be there.” Opportunity meets a talented person. You guys should do a story on him—he’s having that career that he fits into so perfectly. But you’ve got to want that. When I work with young actors, all the School of Rock kids, I tell the parents, “You know, they don’t have to do this for a living. There are a lot great things in life. Don’t think that because you got this one break or opportunity—it’s not who you are. You’ve got to love it so much that you’re going to make sacrifices to do it. It’s got to be in your blood. If it’s not, please don’t pursue it. It’ll only bring you heartache.”
TM: You’re one of the quintessential Texas filmmakers, but Bernadette is not a Texas story in any way. The setting is such a part of this, though. What sort of relationship do you have to form with a place like Seattle in order to tell a story set there?
RL: I actually have a pretty close relationship to Seattle. They discovered Slacker first, way back when, in 1990. That was the first place I screened it, before we even showed it in Austin. I get back there fairly regularly over the years. My parents lived in Portland for a while. The music in the ’90s, that whole scene, made it feel like a sister-city to Austin in a way. It’s like a super-sized Austin as far as technology goes. So I get it—I get how an industry can hover above a town the way that it does around Seattle now. But I never signed on to be the Texas filmmaker. I’m just telling stories. It’s where it takes you. To go to Antarctica and the North Pole—every story’s a challenge to figure out how to tell it.
TM: The logistics that Bernadette has to figure out to tell a story that goes there, I imagine you have to figure out how to go there too.
RL: This whole movie was problem-solving. Bernadette speaks of it in the movie, about how she has to get inside of it and figure out what it wants to be—same thing here. How the hell do we do this? Some movies are more straightforward than others. This one was like, “Oh my god, how do we do this?” It was tricky.
TM: Does that extend to the elements of the book that mean a lot to people? Particularly the two homes Bernadette designed—the Beeber Bifocal and the 20 Mile House. People have their own visions for those. What’s it like to try to bring those to life?
RL: You feel a big obligation for readers. They’re attached. But everybody has their own version in their heads, and you just come up with your best. I remember taking my production designer, Bruce Curtis, to see Pliny Fisk and the Center for Maximum Potential out in far East Austin. Fisk is probably the most green builder in the country—a lot of innovation. I know a lot of green builders recycling everything. Architecturally speaking, we really did base a lot of that around people in Austin. You just jump in on all that, and do your best. You have a book as a template, and then you have to envision it—what would the 20 Mile House look like? That was fun. I’m an architecture buff, an amateur architect myself, so it was really fun to dig into that. I guess that was another thing that attracted me to this book.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.