Sundance 2016 Interview: Richard Linklater, Louis Black And Karen Bernstein On DREAM IS DESTINY
Somehow this was enough to result in the wonderful documentary Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, which Black co-directed with Karen Bernstein of American Masters. Dream Is Destiny is an unpretentious look at the most down-to-earth filmmaker I can think of: Richard Linklater. His stories in another director's hands would reek of pretension, but Linklater somehow manages to tackle big ideas - the intangible kind most art filmmakers dishonor in translation - in a way that honors what it means and feels like to be alive.
If you were to read a synopsis for many of Linklater's films on paper, you might easily classify them as art films. In a way they are, but the label also feels 'off', almost condescending, about the fact that what Linklater is really driving at is a plain picture of life as we know it, through youth, growth, connection, aging, rumination, and simply living spelled L-I-V-I-N. Linklater's films feel real because he's not putting on any airs.
Consequently, they are real. In a landscape where most filmmakers focus on the sensational as stories worth telling, Rick looks between the lines of the extraordinary and ends up finding it where we already live on a daily basis. We all experience drama in our lives, but for most of us, it has less to do with the intensity of Daniel Day Lewis or Meryl Streep than it does the stimulation felt when a simple connection is achieved. Linklater's films consist of the type of characters who go see those films, but for him, the action happens on the way home.
Sentiments like the ones expressed above are shared at large throughout the indie film world. Fans adore Linklater because he's cinematically having the best conversation we've all had in our own lives, but with cathartic articulation. Intellectuals may prefer his subjects in the form of highfalutin essays, proudly flaunting million dollar words, but his style is the antithesis of showboating and it results in a more direct and rich emotional experience. There are so many different ways to put into words the significant influence Linklater's career has had on so many of us, individually, and frankly speaking, I'm not sure he'd enjoy reading any of them, including mine. But that shouldn't stop us from expanding on the conversation.
I'm particularly glad Linklater's modest embarrassment in the face of flattery did not prevent the production of Black and Bernstein's own cinematic love letter to the original (don't call me a) 'slacker', which made its premiere at Sundance earlier this week. With the benefit of friendship, they're able to present a familiar account of an artist who already feels like an old friend to strangers.
On the one hand, I feel bad that their incredibly representative documentary has resulted in Linklater's discomfort, as he suffers the heart-felt adulating introductions of festival programmers and hosts of celebrations, lauding him as the man of the hour. Perhaps, like every natural born sceptic, he's on some level distrusting of attention. I hope this film helps him get over this and allows him to see himself as clearly as he's able to see his surroundings. I hope he knows that he deserves a portrait as good as Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny.
ScreenAnarchy: To start off, I'm wondering if you guys can please talk about the initial conversation about making this film.
Louis Black (LB): Karen came to me and said, "Why don't we do an American Masters on Rick. I said, "That's a great idea." I feel that Rick doesn't get the full recognition he deserves. He hates this part actually and we kind of backed into it. We kind of asked Rick and he didn't say no.
Richard Linklater (RL): I was busy, I had a production going on.
LB: It's the ideal time to ask Rick because when his production is underway he won't answer for awhile and if you get him the right way he'll say yes just to get you to go away.
RL: Yeah, sure.
LB: Karen and her team, we did research, and Debbie, the editor and Bob Johnston did this remarkable job of finding footage from old productions. I mean, literally, finding any kind of documentation that existed. Like scenes of them getting ready to shoot scenes of Slacker, a scene where they're rehearsing Dazed upstairs, like in a hotel or something; Cutting to them doing the rehearsal on the set, and then cutting to the shot in the movie.
I'm not sure what we had in mind when we started, but what became real obvious was there's a remarkable story being told and we're telling it in a really strong way. We were getting great interviews because it was for Rick and they knew we were working with him.
Karen Bernstein (KB): We have hours and hours of materials left.
RL: Probably enough for another documentary.
KB: We do. What's interesting about it was that by the time everybody basically said `Okay, let's do this`, but it wasn't even a definite agreement, it was time for him to start his film. So then it was quickly like `Oh my god, we gotta get this together. Let`s grab a camera. We got Picturebox involved and we just spent the next four months on Rick`s set, not getting kicked off by him, which was pretty amazing.
There were times where we had to keep our distance, you can see in the footage - we slowly get a little closer and closer and closer each week. And that was the first idea of the film, remember? We're going to do some behind the scenes and we'll tell the story of Rick through that.
And then it became - I think because we found so much incredible stuff - there's so much about you, amazingly. Who woulda thunk it? But there`s really a lot out there.
RL: I think it's that I came up in the era of documentation, by the late 80`s everyone had a video camera.
KB: So there were interviews that we found that we actually never used. But there was one that we never found, which is you outside of the Adobe the day that Slacker opened. Remember that?
RL: What was it - an interview?
KB: It was an interview that he remembers shooting with somebody outside of Adobe. That was the only thing that we never ever found, but it was really kind of a detective hunt.
But the great discovery came when we were tipped off by Rick himself, because he said, I think cause we were talking about 'Louis is going to come interview you in a week or something' and you said to me 'You know, he's interviewed me before.' And I said, 'Oh, yeah, right, the time Louis told me about. We looked at it and it's not very good' kind of thing. It was just shot very badly. And you said, 'No, no no, it was for a cable access channel'.
RL: It was for Austin Access, yeah.
KB: Everybody had forgotten about it except for Rick. Of course, because he has an amazing memory.
KB: So Suzanne Mason, God bless her, went through tape - VHS tape after VHS tape in somebody's basement. She basically had to sit herself in somebody`s living room and kind of go through VHS tapes and she found it, miraculously. And it was in good shape. It was really incredible.
The archival footage is such a treat for fans. Especially, the younger stuff. How is it for you watching that stuff?
RL: They sent me a link so I saw the full cut before Christmas. It was pretty weird. It's pretty weird to see yourself. It makes you accept your veteran middle-age status. (Laughter) Makes you go, "Huh, that was a long time ago now! That guy was a lot younger or..." whatever.
Wrapping BOYHOOD, does it sort of feel like you've crossed a hump in your career?
RL: Well, you know, it did. I couldn't quite define it... or there wasn't really anything in it to define it, but I do back-to-back, like Before Midnight, that trilogy kind of ending into the next year with Boyhood. I don't know what's in it, but I'm at the end of something. Or two things are coming to a conclusion. But today I don't feel like there's a demarcation because the next film I have is kind of related to everything else I've ever done... I'm not a different person.
I think one of my favorite aspects of the film is when you cut from behind the scenes footage to the take itself, because you can kind of feel your invisible presence in all your films. But it's great to literally go from seeing your direction behind the scenes right into the film itself.
LB: I love where Matthew imitates Rick directing Shirley and then it cuts to Shirley... and I realized the other day, I was talking to some people at a social gathering about my film, and I realized for about 30-35 years people have come up to me to talk about their film and you sit there and you go 'Okay, I don't have to hear about your film'. Sometimes it's great, but now I realize - now I'm the one talking
RL: How does it feel?
LB: It's so hard.
RL: And now you have to get introduced. You have to make 1000 introductions. And conversely, I've been quoted as saying 'Oh I know enough about documentaries to never agree to be the subject of one.' Now, I see how it happens. It was weird, I was like, 'Oh my god. How did this happen?'
KB: Cause you never said no, (laughing) so we just kept going.
That's the same as yes.
RL: I'm in a phase where I'm more open. I'm in more of a yes mode these years. It gets you in trouble.
LB: What I really hope is that the film kind of speaks to the greater aesthetic of Austin and The Austin Film Society and what we all do which is... I think, it really becomes so much about process.
RL: Yeah, I'm glad it's about that. It's not totally about me - it's about the community.
LB: The community that you helped create.
KB: As an outsider coming to Austin, cause I've only really been there on and off since 2000, I had the advantage of looking at this and really, having met Louis - I think you were one of the first people I met, and being kind of amazed by it all; because you can't just like walk into the New York Times and smoke a joint with the people running it, but somehow in Austin you can.
RL: We're just big enough and just small enough
KB: Yeah, it was all possible and you didn't feel like you had to hustle anybody. It was just... they were there.
RL: That's what I felt just starting the film society. I'd run into Louis at a club - I'd been reading him for the couple years I'd been in Austin - I'd just go up and start talking to him. 'Hey, we're gonna start showing these films'. He'd say 'Come by the office'. He gave us an ad, and you know, I was an immediate board member in what we were doing, you know? It was there. People were like, 'You're doing something cool? Is it good for Austin? Yeah, I'm in!' So much is put on individual achievement, which is a myth. No one does anything alone.
LB: But there's exhilarating personal creative talent which is created in community and it's not de-emphasizing individual visionaries and artists, but the reality is that we get to exist in a community that really, it's fun, like all the time.
Louis, what were your first impressions of Rick?
LB: You know, he would start talking movies-
RL: Peckinpah had just died and you'd written a cover story. That's the difference between Austin and everywhere else - there it's a cover story! So that's where it began right there ...
LB: I think your chronology is slightly off, because I think it was January or February at Liberty Lunch that we met, and then you didn't ask for an ad.
RL: That was months, that was half a year later. But I started talking to you first...
LB: It was probably January or February...
RL: You said come by
LB: And yeah, we wanted to talk movies.
RL: You gave me a lot of really specific advice, "Go talk to Chuckie..."
LB: We would run into each other. The funny part is when they made Slacker and I didn't take it seriously at all, cause I, I said this in the movie, I knew film graduates who didn't finish their film. I, at this point, had been an extra on the set of a Paul Martel movie
RL: And a Danny Burns film
LB:...and I realized how shockingly boring movie making really is - true story. Most of them were never released. They were these student films, all of which were nightmares because they had no idea what they wanted to shoot. They weren't ready. They had no sense of cinema or narrative. So when Rick asked me, my thought was 'They're not filmmakers'. So I literally almost didn't go, then last minute I decided I wanted to know.
RL: We got you outta there in an hour.
LB: They had it down and it was like so efficient - the best run set I'd ever seen. They got me out of there really quickly. But I still didn't think it was anything until-
RL: But I had made a Super 8 feature before.
LB: I interviewed Kevin Smith and he said to me, "Oh, you must be one of the people who got to see Plow early on." But you never screened it!
RL: I never gave it to you.
LB: It was so remarkable because I knew people who made first features that were among the worst things ever...
RL: I didn't want to be that guy. I made that first movie for me.
LB: What's remarkable is the authority that you had in that first interview. It's not like, "I'm a great filmmaker", it's just that I'm a filmmaker and I already made a film - that we didn't even know about! And so with Slacker, I fast-forwarded a couple times to watch the long takes, but then Chris Walters wrote a review on the front page of the Chronicle which gets you in the paper and when I read the rough draft, I said, "Oh my god! This one is actually about something?"
It was mind blowing and then what was even more mind blowing was that it wasn't until I saw Dazed that I got how deliberate Slacker was. I mean Slacker still looks a little loose and a little easy, but then we watched Dazed and it was a much more disciplined version of Slacker in certain ways.
RL: I remember - this makes me flashback - after Slacker came out and it was it's little indie success and I was headed into something else and you said - with Louis, you have to earn your way. He's a lot. He's an editor, he runs a lot - and I remember at the film society, he said "We've got a nonprofit status and if you do any bullshit with the money I will bust you! Don't fuck around!"
(Louis cracks up)
RL: I was like, 'I got it, no scandal.' He'd always throw me this little jab. It was after Slacker that he was like 'Oh, you're doing this. Well we'll see if you're more than just a cultural manipulator or phenomenon'. But It was a challenge to keep your game up. What a friend would say.
Rick, when SLACKER did start generating this phenomenon, were you shocked?
RL: That's a tough one because part of you, you sort of envision something. You kinda conjured it. So the best version of it. Then there's also, when things don't work you kinda go, 'Well, that didn't fulfill what I was hoping for." I'm not even talking about film, just in life, where you just go for it.
But to think that I was kinda just in a bubble, making film, talking about the energy that I thought was around me and my friends and kinda what it felt like to be young in 1989 or whatever. Just something that I've been thinking about all these years. Just to see that kinda pop mean anything to anyone outside that thing. That's what you kinda hope for, but you'd be crazy to expect it.
Right, or delusional.
RL: Yeah, you'd be a little delusional, but it taught me a lesson. It's something I knew, kinda artistically, if you're just honest then you'd be surprised how - y'know Tarkovsky talks about that - you'll connect if you're just honest about your approach to your art. The feelers are out and people will just connect. It was two-fold. I certainly didn't expect - there was no entitlement, I wasn't like, "Oh yes, of course." It made no sense that a film with no story would ever hit the national stage at any level, but then when it all happened it kinda seemed in retrospect to all make sense. It's kinda like, you know. I don't want to feel guilty about it. I've worked really hard. No one put in more hours. So I thought, "Ah, I'll just go with it."
Even with things that happen in your life. Yeah, that's great it happened, but then you also, there's also a part of you in a parallel world that things don't move quick enough in. I thought I would have made more films. I had a lot of ideas, but life doesn't go quick enough.
It's like that great Ebert story who wrote a great review of Martin Scorsese's first film. Who's That Knocking at my Door? Kind of an elaborate student grad film, but it got made into a feature and he spent years on it and (laughing) Ebert wrote a review like 'In 10 years he is gonna be the American Fellini". Then he gets a call from Scorsese and first thing, he's like, 'Is it gonna take 10 years!?' That tells you everything. It's like, it could happen never, but it could happen sooner. So that's the ego and whatever else is swimming around. Isn't that funny?
One thing about The Austin Film Society that I'm more than a little jealous of, generationally speaking, is that it seems like you guys all basically bonded by finding these prints of films that were otherwise unavailable. These days everything is available and the act of watching a movie feels less sacred.
RL: Well we try to make it sacred and I think anyone, anywhere can. You know, we're still showing hundreds of films a year and you have that 35 scope print, 200 of your best friends come out. It's up to the film lover to go. It has to be available, but you also need an audience that values it. It's cool in that, cause those prints are still out there, that experience is still out there. You just have to... I worry about, generationally, if people haven't had that experience enough it doesn't mean enough to sustain itself, kinda that cultural communal vibe that you get...
LB: Watching a movie on the big screen with an audience in a dark room
RL: There's something about the buzz of just... people in the room.
LB: They don't have to be like-minded, but if you got to a Douglas Sirk retrospective the audience is going to be made of people who are really there.
You laugh in public but you don't necessarily at home. That kinda thing.
RL: Yeah, the public quality is very important.
LB: There's something remarkable and magical about the way we got to come up. There's a projector in the room and prints were passed hand to hand and we ran the Film Society... the film's suddenly following in our footsteps, there's something incredible about watching films with your friends.
RL: And just the prints. If the exhibition was showing something I'd go over there in the mid-80's and just ask to borrow the print and just take it home for the day and watch it. Just the culture of movies kinda supported one another.
Since you're kind of the poster child for the DIY Indie movement, are you getting sick of the conversation about "the death of film" coming to your door?
RL: Not really. I don't know if it's in those terms or not. It used to be two things. Early on it was probably over-inflated, like 'You made a film? You finished a film? Well, we'll show it whether it was good or not". Now the bar is so much higher, because there are so many more films that actually are watchable with a lot of elements that would compel you to watch it. And then you can't make the excuse that you can't wait around to make a film anymore - that's the good side.
That makes me think of the Coen brothers hustling around BLOOD SIMPLE and how all the studios watched it simply because they accomplished finishing a movie.
RL: Yeah. It was like that. There were submissions, even 25 years ago, when I first came here. They had about, at that time, and I remember talking to Robert Rodriguez. They had 212 submissions and I was like, 'Holy!' 212 films got in? You know, it was such a big deal to make a film, but what's it now? 7000? It's crazy. That tells you everything you need to know.
LB: SXSW has maybe 2500-3000 narrative features and Sundance has twice as many.
RL: Just do the math. How many novels are published in a year?
Now that you're closer to the Ethan Hawke character in BOYHOOD rather than Mason, I'm curious how Lorelei feels about your early films, now that she's of the age of SLACKER and DAZED AND CONFUSED?
RL: You know, it's been interesting to watch those with her. We did the 20th anniversary of Slacker a few years ago here. And she saw it for the first time I think, and she liked it, just artistically. I don't think she relates to where I fit into all of it. I think her favorite film of mine is A Scanner Darkly.
Do you have a favorite moment of DREAM IS DESTINY?
RL: I'm embarrassed by all of it. (Laughter) No, I'm kidding.
KB: Actually the first e-mail you wrote me after you watched it.. It's not tooooo embarrassing. Actually, you were one of the bravest people I know.
Have you guys had a chance to see Noah Baumbach's DEPALMA yet?
RL: No, I heard about it.
It's so good. And one of the things that makes it so good is that Noah Baumbach is a friend and when you have a friend making the film, I think the same charm really translates to the final product of your movie, which is one of the reasons it's so good.
RL: Yeah, I have my own prototype here. I did a film about, it was a portrait of a friend, Augie Garrido - a baseball coach. I hadn't know him as long as Louis and I have known each other, but he was kind of my own example. That's a film that I made that didn't get into Sundance.
LB: Sour grapes.