Richard Linklater: ‘Someone’s living back there, and he’s murdered somebody’


As his lodger is re-convicted for murder, the director talks about the Texan justice system, the art of storytelling and why hell always be a slacker at heart

At the start of Richard Linklaters 1992 breakthrough movie Slacker, a passenger in a cab monologues away about life and hope and the randomness of it all. The young man, played by Linklater himself, tells the driver about his weird dreams: having lunch with Tolstoy, being Frank Zappas roadie. He proceeds to create an alternate reality in which he stays at the bus station, rather than gets the cab, meets a cute girl, plays pinball with her, falls in love. Three minutes later, he gets out, saying: Man! Shit. I should have stayed at the bus station. Its beautifully constructed, and in a way it became the template for all the films that followed.

Linklater doesnt do drama. There is often no plot. His characters wander about, talk (how they talk!), fall in and out of love, get stoned and drunk and disappointed, make good and bad decisions. His films amble along gloriously, eavesdropping on life.

Talking to the director is like being in one of his movies. The conversation starts in the middle, and you dont have a clue how you got there. Brits take a gap year, hey? he says, as soon as he sits down. And we talk about how we didnt take gap years, how when we were growing up they were for privileged students. Yeah, I like the idea of a gap year, but we had no money. Who was going to pay for it? I dont come from the posh!

Rory Cochrane and Matthew McConaughey in Dazed And Confused. Photograph: Alamy

Linklaters new film is a return to college days a follow-up, 23 years later, to his third movie, Dazed And Confused. While that film celebrated the last day of high school in the summer of 1976, Everybody Wants Some!! is set in 1980, the weekend before college starts for a group of baseball-playing jocks. There are the familiar Linklater ingredients: youthful dreams, horniness, hippy dudes, punk, pot and endless chatter.

But its also a surprising film for a man who has become known for his tender sensibility. These boys are as macho as they come: sporty, stupid, endlessly competitive. When not getting stoned or trying to get laid, they challenge each other to knuckle-flicking fights. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that it is autobiographical. Young Rick Linklater was a ferociously competitive jock who had to beat everybody at everything. He won a sports scholarship to Sam Houston State University in Texas, and planned to become a baseball star. At college, he was one of 18 boys living in two houses with their eye on the same major league prize.

We were very competitive at basketball, card games, pinball, everything, he says. There was a lot of gambling. A college athlete is going to be competitive. You dont get to that level if youre not. Could he have made it? Every college player thinks theyre on their way. But, delusions aside, I might have toiled in the minor leagues for a bit.

Trailer for Everybody Wants Some !!

Towards the end of his second year, Linklater discovered he had a heart condition called atrial fibrillation. I was suddenly getting light-headed and I couldnt run any more. One minute youre starting left fielder, hitting home runs, the next its career over. I was 20. Today, he looks back at it as a blessing: I was so glad to leave that behind.

I tell him the knuckle-flicking game in the film made me wince, and ask if he played it. He grins. Sure he did. Is it as painful as it looks? He grins some more. Sure it is. Show me, I say. You want me to flick your knuckles? he asks, delighted.

He does, with his thumb and index finger. Ouch! I shout. We are sitting in a smart hotel in Los Angeles. People stare. I ask him to do it again. It is even more painful, and I shout louder. He nods. It hurts. Ten more and I would have drawn blood! Those guys are cruel.

Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklaters follow-up to Dazed And Confused. Photograph: Van Redin

At 55, Linklater looks little different from the young man he was in Slacker: boyish face, pinchable cheeks, tanned, smiling eyes, long fringe. Nor does he sound any different; there are the singsong sentences that often rise towards the end, as he asks one of those big questions that have been nagging away at him all his life.

As in the new film, he met a girl at college who was into theatre and this began his love affair with the arts. I saw it as a great relief; a new phase of my life. Why? Because youre an immature little twit when youre trying to win. Its a pretty base nature. I dont see the arts as competitive at all. It was a better angel of my nature. Sports is zero-sum: winner, loser, demonstrable.

At college, Linklater started to write plays. When he was told about his irregular heartbeat, he didnt brood on it. Instead, he decided it was meant to be, left college, and went to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. It was hard, dangerous work and well paid. It also gave him the opportunity to read novel after novel.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight

By the time Linklater returned to Texas, he had earned enough money to buy himself a Super 8 camera, projector, editing equipment, and to cut himself some slack. He moved to Austin, enrolled in film school, started the Austin Film Society, and decided he would become a director.

Looking back, he says, it was a ridiculous ambition. Nobody he knew did creative jobs like that. It was unheard of. If you could see where I grew up and the people I grew up around I cant explain how far the idea of making films would be from my background. His father did a dull job in insurance; his stepfather was a prison guard. Did he ever consider working in the prison service? No. But half the guys on my college football team did, and the other half became prisoners.

His parents married young and divorced young. When my mom was having me, she was 22 and I was her third kid. A little Catholic girl. A single mother, she went back to school, got an MA and went on to teach at university. I got to see my mom coming into her own. We grew up together she was always studying for tests and doing her dissertation. Boyhood is very personal.

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood. Photograph: Alamy

Boyhood is the groundbreaking film Linklater released in 2014. The story? A boy and girl grow up, and a divorced couple learn to respect each other. Nothing remarkable there, except that it was filmed over 12 years, so we see six-year-old Mason Evans Jr transform into a photography-loving 18-year-old student; his older sister Samantha (played by Linklaters daughter, Lorelei) go from adorable chatterbox to sulky teen; and, best of all, his mother, Olivia, in a wonderful performance by Patricia Arquette, grow into middle age, educate herself, move in and out of relationships, and almost wise up to life. As a conceit, its brilliant; but Linklaters humour and humanity turn it into one of the great movies of the 21st century.

Arquette won an Oscar for her performance, but Linklater missed out on best director, best film and best original screenplay (the film was nominated for all three). Is he making a sequel? Not currently, he says, chewing on bread and olive oil (he has been vegetarian since his 20s, and doesnt fancy anything on the meaty menu). Well, it wouldnt be Boyhood! I have no current ideas, but never say never.

Is it true that Lorelei got bored with the project halfway through and wanted to be killed off? Oh, there was one year she thought she didnt want to film. She was feeling self-conscious, puberty hit. But then she realised she was getting paid, and she was like, oh, OK!

Linklater talks a lot about his three daughters, always with pride, occasionally with fear. His greatest fear is that they dont follow their dream, whatever that may be. His twins are 11 years old, while Lorelei is now 22 and an artist. He says he is constantly driving home the same message to Lorelei: do your thing, never sell out to the Man. She is a passionate visual artist. I told her Ill support you in anything youre meant to be doing. Fuck money, fuck career, just do something that fulfils you and you might get lucky and you might be able to make a living out of it. I did.

Given the age difference, I ask if the twins have a different mother. Nope, he says. Same mom. Somehow. Do they live with each other? Yeah, he says, but it sounds more like a question than an answer. Were fluid. I have a couple of properties. But were always around. Lets put it like this: its an ongoing adult relationship that has produced three children. How long have they been together? The age of my daughter, plus nine months! He bursts out laughing; he laughs a lot.

Linklater with his partner, Christina Harrison. Photograph: Michael Tran/FilmMagic

After Slacker, he was regarded as a spokesman for Generation X, but Linklater never saw the slacker generation the same way as the establishment did. Slacker means two different things to me and the rest of the world, he says. The slacker world was the world I found myself living in. The 1980s underground was pretty interesting. Everyone I met was an artist of some kind, a musician or writer or painter; lovers of life, appreciators, and punk rocker-type people, who you didnt know what they did but you could tell they sure liked their music. Nobody talked about their jobs, what they had to do to pay their rent. It was no surprise that mainstream culture decided these were a bunch of lazy do-nothings, because, by their judgment, they were not productive. They werent fitting into the free-market society, and thats like Jack Black in School Of Rock: hes a guy with a passion. I admire anyone who is just living their life and following what they want to do.

Jack Black in School Of Rock. Photograph: Everett/Rex Shutterstock

School Of Rock, about a struggling rock singer who cheats his way into teaching at a prestigious prep school, is one of the few films Linklater has made for a studio. Most of his films are structured around a period of time rather than plot. So Slacker, Dazed And Confused and the swooningly romantic (and occasionally devastatingly bleak) Before trilogy, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, all take place on one day. In Before Sunrise, French Cline and American Jesse meet on a train in Europe, get off at Vienna and spend a day and night together. In Before Sunset, made nine years later, they are reunited in Paris: Jesse is now the successful author of a novel about a chance encounter he had with a woman called Cline nine years earlier. In Before Midnight, made another nine years later, they are a couple with twin girls, facing up to lifes painful compromises.

Linklater doesnt shy away from conflict: a confrontation between Cline and Jesse in Before Midnight is brutal, as they address their different resentments and everything unravels. But, at heart, there is an optimism to these films: however compromised, life has its beauty and meaning, even if its just a fractured memory of an afternoons love.

I guess I was interested in how cinema worked with reality, Linklater says. How you could sculpt out real time. I was never that interested in conventional storytelling my mind doesnt work that way. Im looking for experiential moments. Plot twists just seem antithetical to how we process the world. One thing follows the next.

With their broken, overlapping conversation, many of his films seem improvised. In fact, they are closely scripted. Im not interested in improvisation, Linklater says. Everything is structured. Anyone who thinks its improvised, get a camera and film the two most interesting people you know, walking and talking, and see how it works cinematically. It will be terrible.

Trailer for Before Sunset

The naturalism and pacing nod to Franois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer. Perhaps youre the most European film-maker working today, I suggest. Linklater smiles. I think Im an old-school existentialist. I should have been a French film-maker in the late 1950s and 60s. Id avoid the car ride with Camus, but I would have fit right in there. So many of my films are very personal explorations of ideas, things Im trying to learn more about or make peace with.

Has he made a good living? Overall, yeah. The pay scale in the entertainment industry is like in sports. Its not nearly as much as you think for most things, then the other end of the scale is more than you can imagine. Ive been lucky to get more-than-you-can-imagine, for whatever reason.

Did he enjoy his more-than-you-can-imagine experiences? Well, the trickle-down into my life enjoys it, because I then dont have to do certain things for money. Im not talking crazy money. Whats the most hes ever been paid? A couple of million? For something like School Of Rock.

Jack Black as the eponymous star of Bernie. Photograph: Deana Newcomb

While School Of Rock was made for $20m, most of his films are made on much smaller budgets (Slacker cost $23,000), and many are set in Texas. One of them, Bernie, is unusual in that it is not autobiographical and it has a plot. But art and life are rarely too far apart in Linklaters life, as turned out to be the case here. The film, released in 2011, was based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, a much-loved mortician who became the companion of curmudgeonly heiress Marjorie Nugent, more than 40 years his senior. In 1996, he shot her in the back four times and hid her in the freezer for nine months. When her body was discovered, Tiede, who had no previous criminal record, was sentenced to life imprisonment.

After the film was released, with Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine as the leads, Tiede appealed against his sentence. It was revealed he had been sexually abused as a child by his uncle, and claimed he had been verbally and emotionally abused by Nugent. His counsel argued that he shot her in a brief dissociative episode brought on by his abusive relationship with her. His sentence was reduced, and at his appeal in May 2014 he was told he could be released, after more than 16 years in jail, provided he had somewhere to live. This was where Linklater stepped in, suggesting Tiede move into the garage apartment of his home in Austin; Tiede has lived there for the past two years.

How is he doing? Hes singing in a gay mens choir, he has friends, hes trying to do good in the world. He works for two non-profit corporations that help people in prison, and people getting out of prison. Hes a real sweetheart.

The real Bernie Tiede at his sentencing hearing. Photograph: Kevin Green/AP

Linklater supporting Tiede in court the same day. Photograph: Kevin Green/AP

Was he not worried about taking in a convicted murderer? No. I did for a second worry that I was dropping him in on my family, and they hadnt met him. He smiles. Its not every day that, hey, someones going to be living back there, and hes murdered somebody. But if my family of all families cant deal with that And hes been great. Hes an incredibly nice, generous man, who did a horrible thing 20 years ago. He watches our animals. I have a small pet pig and he reads the paper to it every day. Pigs are unique in that way; they like people treating them as equals. Hes just there, helping out in any way he can.

But this month Tiede has been on trial again, with prosecutors arguing that the murder was premeditated and the courts were wrong to reduce his sentence. He could be sent back to jail for life, and Linklaters anxiety is obvious. The week after we meet, he is due to speak in court on Tiedes behalf. Im primarily there to give witness to how well hes been doing these last two years.

How would his girls feel if Tiede were sent back to prison? Oh, it would be devastating to everybody who knows him. It would be horrible. No, it would really shake up a lot of people to see the state of Texas be this cruel and crazy.

For Linklater, Texas is a muse of sorts, representing the best and worst of America. Theres a real openness and friendliness to people. Its not snobby. And the worst? We just executed a mentally retarded person. It can be a pretty unforgiving, Old Testament system.

The very worst of Texas, he says, is represented by creationist Ted Cruz, candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency. Cruz to me is more scary than Trump. He actually believes what he says. Trump doesnt believe anything hes just a needy narcissist. Cruz is seen as the smart guy, but nobodys asked him: How old is the world? Do you believe in biology? Because he doesnt.

Linklater has been telling his daughters to observe the contest closely, because America might not witness another like it. Ive seen every presidential election since the 1960s, and this is the craziest ever. Its the commodified stupidity of the political dialogue in the US. The divisiveness. Its all attitude and personality, like a reality show.

Linklater is already feeling nostalgic for Obama, and believes well look back at him as a political giant. But, typically, he doesnt talk about policy or achievement; he talks about Obama the dude. We havent tipped our glass to Obama yet, and were going to because there is such vast dignity and intelligence. He never embarrassed our country, not once. Not once. Hes so classy, and his wifes so classy. People give people hell when they screw up, Clinton and stuff, but nobody says: Think how much sex Obama has turned down in his lifetime. The more Linklater talks, the more I feel Im with the guy in the cab, shooting the breeze in Slacker all those years ago.

You think he couldnt be getting a blow job? he continues. Just the discipline and the bigger vision of what hes here for in the world the restraint hes shown. Hes got Michelle, I say. Yeah. Come on, though, hes a guy!

Is he supporting Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for the Democrat nomination? Im kinda liking Bernie. Ive waited for a candidate like Bernie Sanders my whole adult life, so when theres a guy there whos actually professing it, you have to support him. Im a natural socialist.

For now, though, Linklater is more concerned with the fate of another Bernie. A couple of weeks after meeting in LA, we speak again. Linklater has given his evidence for Tiedes defence to no avail. Tiede has been sent back to prison for 99 years or life. Im heartbroken, Linklater says. It wasnt really about truth or justice, it was about getting a win for the prosecution and they definitely won this round. But hopefully the legal process is open to another round and the truth can come out.

Trump, Cruz, Texan bigotry, Bernies reconviction: look, he says, hes aware how bleak the world can be, but despair is not his bag. Hes going to keep campaigning for Tiede, focus on all the positive stuff out there: his girls, the good people, the movies he still wants to make. People talk about how ambitious Bruce Springsteen was, because he had 500 songs in him that he wanted to express. I felt that way, and I still do. Like a musician, Ive still got so many songs in me.

Everybody Wants Some!! goes on general release on 13 May. The Guardian is hosting a special preview screening on 4 May at the Barbican, London EC2, followed by a Q&A with the director.

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