News Column

Richard Linklater contemplates time in films

November 2, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 02--AUSTIN -- The walls of Richard Linklater's Detour Filmproduction offices snap with stylish design and color from the '50s, '60s and '70s. They're papered from top to bottom with posters for films made by directors not known for conformity: Wim Wenders' "Alice dans les villes," Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets," Samuel Fuller's "40 Guns," Jean-Luc Godard's " bout de souffle," Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Edipo re."

During the past 25 years, Linklater has made 16 movies that present a strong case for his inclusion among the great filmmakers on his walls. His work has been daring, innovative and varied, without conceding to an industry that often exerts overbearing control. He's won no Oscars -- in fact, he's been nominated only once -- and he's never made a film that earned more than $100 million domestically, though "School of Rock" came close. But Linklater's filmography has proven inestimably influential over time.

Linklater's films often contemplate time. Sometimes they include characters facing deadlines. Other times he uses a few hours or one day as his canvas to paint a story. He's currently editing his 17th film, his most innovative yet, at least in how storytelling pertains to time.

For the past 12 years, Linklater has worked with a little-known child actor named Ellar Coltrane as well as more famous players, such as Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, shooting a narrative that traces the life of a boy named Mason from first grade through 12th. The only comparable thing in fictional cinema would be Antoine Doinel, a character in five of Fran ois Truffaut's films, which were made during a 20-year span.

Coltrane was 6 when he appeared in "Fast Food Nation." He was 7 when production on the new film began. He turned 19 this year, and shooting on the "Untitled 12-Year Project" recently wrapped. Linklater is now editing and hopes to have the movie in theaters in 2014.

"This is a good example of how you shouldn't make films if you don't have patience," he says, laughing. "If you want immediate gratification, film isn't the place to be."

Coming home

Linklater returns to his hometown this week for the Houston Cinema Arts Festival, where he'll receive the Levantine Cinema Arts Award, honoring his career and his contributions to organizations that support independent filmmakers. Since he doesn't have a new movie to promote -- "Before Midnight" opened earlier this year -- Linklater will be represented by "Dazed and Confused," which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. That film rewarded patience: It made a modest $8 million at the box office but eventually became an oft-quoted cult favorite.

Linklater looks much as he did when he was a floppy-haired filmmaker who initiated a renaissance for independent cinema more than two decades ago. His temples have grayed, but he still exudes a youthful energy, clad in cargo shorts and a crumpled, red Western shirt. He has lived in Austin since 1984, when he moved there to study film. But his current project brought him back home, where he filmed at Miller Outdoor Theatre, the Cockrell Butterfly Center and Minute Maid Park.

Houston is where the Huntsville High School graduate began his informal study of film. After dropping out of college, Linklater took a job working on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I remember there was a 'Magnificent Ambersons' / 'Citizen Kane' double feature," he says. "It was at the River Oaks Theatre back in the day when it was just a single theater showing two great films a night. If we caught an early chopper I thought I could catch it, but it didn't work out."

Linklater didn't find much sympathy on the rig.

"I was seething, but no one could relate."

Remembering that job, Linklater turns to time. "I was the perfect age to do that," he says. "Twenty to 22. People would ask, 'Is that dangerous?'" He shrugs. "I don't know! When you're young you don't think that way. That's why that age makes a good soldier. You can get pointed in any direction. But it was a good time. It set me up for the future."

Having saved some money, Linklater moved to Austin and took film classes. He helped found the Austin Cinema Society and made his first feature, "It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books."

He started his company, which he named Detour after a 1940s noir that earned renown decades after its release. The name seemed fitting for an artist whose work shows great breadth; in Linklater's filmography the detours are the journey.

Charting a narrative

"Slacker" was the first of those detours to draw notice. More than 20 years later, it remains a beguiling piece -- jarringly plotless, youthfully innovative, funny and thoughtful. It touched on themes regarding class, media, paranoia and anxiety that would recur in Linklater's work. It was also framed within the span of a day, as was "Dazed and Confused," which tracked a matrix of characters through their last day of school. Some of the funniest lines in the movie deal with time, like the oft-quoted bit of brilliance uttered by Matthew McConaughey's David Wooderson: "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age."

Linklater's unplanned trilogy -- "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight" -- throws together the conversational characters Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also co-wrote the second and third films) in stories that cover just a few hours, concluding at the time of the films' titles.

The framework of the "Before" movies is compact: They run a combined five hours that represent about 20 hours in the two characters' lives. But they effectively convey the full experience of a couple who connect, lose touch, reconnect and stumble through adulthood.

"That's the tough thing about life, maneuvering around and figuring out how to negotiate space together in this world," Link-later says. "It could be people you work with. It's more grueling when it's someone you live with. What's common in people's lives statistically is still uncommon in movies. Did he cheat? Did she cheat? A lot of people do. Sorry to burst the bubble of most romantic comedies. The fictional structure they've created can't withstand that element of reality. Ours is built on a different reality. We can withstand certain elements of the real world that enter our little narrative.

"Most of us are pretty full of (expletive)." Linklater laughs. "It's true. What's the number? I think the average adult lies three times a day. We're constantly lying about little things, subtle things, like why you can or can't do something or why you can't be somewhere. You shade the world to make it work for yourself and what you want. Not to ruffle feathers, but it's a little dance everyone does."

The "Before" films are unique. Other movies have attempted to chart the bonds and fissures of human relationships, but they compress years into hours. The real nine-year gaps between the three films allow Linklater, Delpy and Hawke to chart their narrative across a broader span. The effect is subtly epic.

Taking the long view

Linklater was born in 1960. He's a peculiar fit in arbitrary generational categories. Technically, he's a baby boomer. Nothing about his films, however, suggests that. "By that measure, I should have more in common with someone born in 1946 than 1967," he says. "Those categories never made sense to me. Even the '60s, what people think of as the '60s started in what, 1967? With the hippies, and that ended around 1976. The clich s and enduring images, they don't really abide by a calendar."

Those distinctions are part of what drew him to his 12-year project.

"I discovered on this film that things have slowed down," he says. "I felt like the culture looks remarkably similar. The cars, the clothes, the hair. If you take 12 years -- 1969 to 1981 -- you get a pretty different look to the world. Or 1979 to 1991. You go through eras of fashion. With this, not so much. The phones are different. That's about it. Most of what we see in innovation and newness is in the technology realm. I don't know what it means. It's just an observation: thinking how little things have changed, rather than how much."

The most noticeable changes will be in the child himself. The character's name, Mason, seems apt: A life is gradually chiseled through adolescence into something more enduring.

"I'm really counting on the cumulative effect of growing up or aging or time passing in smaller increments," Linklater says. "Like a year: How much do you change in a year? That amount of time is enormous to a kid. As an adult, not so much."

He laughs.

"It's about a kid, but it's also about parents bumbling through parenthood, adulthood. Ethan said, 'Wow, they really grow up. We just age.' "

Linklater says the film may have come from his fascination with longitudinal surveys, which are observational studies that follow subjects during the course of many years. It's not the most arty of comparisons, but he also sees such studies as applicable to his trade. Which explains the choice of posters in his office. They represent the work of daring, iconoclastic filmmakers, who in some way influenced Linklater's own curious path.

"Every scientist knows they're in it for the long haul," he says. "You put forth your stuff, but you're part of a continuum. We do the same in the arts. You do your part when you have your chance, but you don't know if other people are going to run with different elements or not. Things evolve. It can be interesting to take the long view of time."

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