This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I’ve always been kind of obsessed with cinematic storytelling, the boundaries of it, and pushing that,” says Richard Linklater, 54, who will receive the Sonny Bono Visionary Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Jan. 3. And like prior recipients of the Bono honor, including Quentin Tarantino and Danny Boyle, Linklater — from his 1991 breakthrough film Slacker to his current awards juggernaut Boyhood — has struck a path distinctly his own.
He compares his oddly plotted (if not plotless) style to the path of the Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon, ignoring standard routes and racing riskily off a cliff into thin air. “I’ve largely replaced the notion of conventional story with a time structure,” says the Texan. “It’s depicting how we drift, how your mind might drift through a day.”
This freewheeling method made it tough to find backers for Slacker, his anthem to Austin, Texas, youth. “It’s the first thing I really went all-in on, and it’s not a real film. I mean, it’s as experimental a film as any that grossed a million dollars at the box office,” he says of the $23,000 budgeted indie sensation. “It doesn’t have a story, but it feels innate to perception.”
With his first Hollywood-backed film, 1993’s high school epic Dazed and Confused, released by Universal’s Gramercy Pictures, the director says, “I was trying to sneak my own film into their system and constantly finding out that was hard to do.” Dazed became a cult hit and helped put Matthew McConaughey on the map.
Linklater’s talky, drifty 1995 film Before Sunrise, about star-crossed lovers, launched one of the least predictable franchises in film history, earning him (and his stars/co-writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) two Oscar screenplay nominations (for sequels Before Sunset and Before Midnight). Linklater calls it “the accidental trilogy.” Each film “had its own little trajectory,” he says. “But in each case, it took about five years to realize that [characters] Jesse and Celine were with us still. It was a long gestation, and a long recovery time after. Those characters are exhausting!”
Linklater added rotoscope animation to the mix with his 2001 Waking Life and again with his 2006 Philip K. Dick adaptation, A Scanner Darkly. “It was a really weird film to try to get made, particularly because it was so interior,” Linklater says of the latter, adding that he didn’t want to give it the usual Hollywood action-movie treatment that Dick’s novels tend to receive, but instead set out to capture the author’s “weirdness and primarily his humor.” Linklater was thrilled later to hear one of Dick’s daughters comment, “That Robert Downey guy was just like him.”
Despite his tendency to meander, Linklater insists his work involves more structure than many people think. He says the most fluid part of his process is actually at the script stage. “Boyhood was resisting being a film,” says Linklater, who first considered telling the story in the form of a novel, then ultimately decided to shoot it as a movie over 12 years, as his young star, Ellar Coltrane, grew up for real. “The biggest hurdle for a filmmaker is we’re all control freaks, but Boyhood required a certain degree of giving up that control to an unknown future. I struck gold with Ellar, but if he’d become someone I didn’t anticipate, the film would’ve drifted a little bit in that direction.”