When, in 1989, then-28-year-old Richard Linklater rounded up a bunch of friends and ne'er-do-wells in his hometown of Austin, Texas, to film a lo-fi, shaggy-dog odyssey of a movie, he didn't have a title, didn't have what a studio exec might call a story, and had only $23,000. But Slacker, as his breakthrough feature came to be called, which followed various characters as they wander around Austin—just generally digging the scene and waxing poetic about life, outer space, and conspiracy theories—struck a nerve. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991 (two years after Steven Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape and a year before Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs), it caught one of those huge, zeitgeist-y updrafts of acclaim and floated off to the aerie of cult status. In retrospect, Slacker's success now looks foundational, helping to usher in the mid-'90s heyday of American independent cinema and pave the way for a major American artist.
With his rather Fellini-esque approach to plotting (as in, casual), as well as using Il Maestro's trick of making his hometown the main character, Linklater broke form with contemporary Hollywood filmmaking and found his voice—a lot of voice. The chatty ebullience of Slacker would come to be a hallmark for the writer-director of logorrheic trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013). But unlike Tarantino's dialog, which sizzles with the sound of a lit fuse, Linklater's conversations are just that—loose-limbed, unkempt attempts at communication. His stories and his characters are never strapped down to the rails of the plot, but wildly ambulatory, discursive, and dreaming aloud. Working with a regular retinue of actors (frequently including fellow Texas native Ethan Hawke), Linklater's films play in a recognizable reality of nuances, often in hyperawareness of the passage of time.
His follow-up to Slacker, 1993's Dazed and Confused, has become a classic of the high-school-flick genre, not for any adolescent Sturm und Drang, but for its enduringly quotable lines and its verisimilitude to actual high school behavior. In Dazed, as in high schools everywhere, dudes drive around; there is a kegger; people think, people talk; and Ben Affleck wields a frat paddle. It's like life, man.
And life is Linklater's main topic. Whether it is in courtship (the Before trilogy), in childhood (School of Rock, 2003), or in adolescence (Dazed, Slacker), Linklater's movies follow characters on the cusp of becoming, and spend most of their time pondering the big imponderables. His latest, Boyhood, out this July, proceeds with his customary joie de vivre, but unfolds over the course of 12 years. Filmed over a few days a year for more than a decade, and starring Hawke and Patricia Arquette as divorced parents raising two children, played by Ellar Coltrane and Linklater's own daughter Lorelei, Boyhood is epic, sprawling, and impressive by any standard. Following Coltrane's character, Mason, from the time he is 6 until his first day of college, the movie is a document of becoming, and a sort of manifesto from the Zen-like director—spanning a decade but always in the now.
Legend has it that Linklater "discovered" Dazed's breakout star Matthew McConaughey back in 1992 in a bar in Austin (because, of course). Alas, their first conversation is lost to history. But more than 20 years later, the two friends got on the phone in Austin to talk about lessons learned, Johnny Football, and living in the moment.
MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY: Yo, K-A-T! Yo, man.
RICHARD LINKLATER: We could be really cryptic and boring. People wouldn't even understand what we're talking about. So I guess we should try to communicate here.
McCONAUGHEY: Well, you know what, it's all right if they have to figure it out. I'm not telling anyone why I call you K-A-T. I can't or I'd go to jail. [laughs] Let's talk Boyhood ... It's great! All your stories are personal for you in some way—a time, a place, a season. What was personal about this one? Was there anything about your childhood that inspired this film or influenced it?
LINKLATER: I was hitting 40. I had been a dad for about seven or eight years, and I wanted to express something about childhood. You know this now: when you have a kid, it puts you so much in the present tense with their lives, but you can't help but churn through your own life at that age. It's such an interesting refraction. So I was thinking a lot about development and childhood. I wanted to do something from a kid's point of view, but all the ideas that I wanted to express from my own life were so spread out. I couldn't pick one year, one moment. I was going to maybe write a novel—some little weird, experimental novel. And it hit me, this film idea: What if I filmed a little bit every year and just saw everybody, this family, age? The kids would grow up, the parents would age. In a way, it's a simple idea, but so damn impractical.
McCONAUGHEY: So did you get together with Ethan [Hawke] and everybody and say, "Hey, guys, here's this idea: we're shooting now, and then I'm going to come find you in two years, and on and on for the next 12 years"?
LINKLATER: Everybody got the idea, this desire to bite off the whole thing—to go with a kid from first grade through 12th grade. I called up Patricia [Arquette], who I had only met once, and she jumped aboard. I sat down with Ethan and told him what I was thinking, and he wanted to do it. Then I started casting, looking for kids. Lorelei, my daughter, demanded to have the part. I had the luxury of, every year, just tapping in. I would hang out with her and Ellar, the boy, and just try to pick up where they were at their age, what I felt they could do that year, and then work stories around all that. But pretty soon Lorelei was the sullen teenager who did not want to do it anymore.
McCONAUGHEY: [laughs] You told me she said, "Write me outta this thing. I'm done."
LINKLATER: She's like the person on the TV series who wants off. "Can you kill my character?" [laughs] I'm like, "No. That's a little too dramatic for this movie."
McCONAUGHEY: You said you couldn't pick out just one moment, and this film is definitely not about moments per se—one chapter goes right into the next without demarcations. You didn't even break it down into sections by age. One chapter goes right into the next. As a viewer, you have to go, "Wait a minute. He looks two years older. His hair looks different." You don't have mile markers or year markers—it's seamless.
LINKLATER: I wanted it to work the way life does. It just flows from one thing into the next, kind of like a memory. The dynamic was such that I knew I was filming a period film even in the present tense. It was like, "By the time anyone watches this, this will all be past." I sometimes think that way even in the biggest moments of real life. Like, "This will all be a memory, even while you're having it." This is how quick everything is in the past tense. This whole film felt like that. It was like a memory, even though it was very much of-the-moment while we were shooting it. So I didn't want to put those markers—a year or a date or an age. But for the most part we filmed a little bit every year, about three days a year.
McCONAUGHEY: Your personal point of view is reflected in the last lines of the film. "You know how everyone's always saying, ‘Seize the moment'?" Nicole says, "I'm kinda thinkin' it's the other way around. You know, like, the moment seizes us." And Mason says, "It's like always right now." And in the scene at the sound check, Mason says to his dad, "What's the point?" His dad says, "I sure as shit don't know. Neither does anybody else. We're all just wingin' it, you know? The good news is that you're feeling stuff. You gotta hold on to that." I don't want to be too didactic, but if you're going to say Eastern or Western philosophy, that definitely leans to the East. I know you well enough to know there's a lot of that philosophy that is your own personal approach and understanding of life.
LINKLATER: Yours too, I would say. Everybody just wants to appreciate time as it's passing, to be in the moment. It's the hardest thing to do. You're either in the unknown future that you're working toward, or you're in the past that becomes a little abstract. How to just be in the moment? You're one of the more in-the-moment guys I've ever met, Matthew. You're here. As an actor, you're there in the moment, and you are in life too. Boom—here's another moment. On a philosophical, religious spectrum, it is a little Eastern, Buddhist, but it's a pretty nondenominational quest. It's almost like personal therapy—how to get through life, how to appreciate your moments.
McCONAUGHEY: I believe there is a science to satisfaction. We get ahead of ourselves, or get behind, and quickly—the moment after you do something, obviously, it's already been written. It's so easy to look back and go, "Oh, well, now I see the science. I can connect the dots to see how I got to here right now." But even as you say that, you're already in a new moment, a new situation. So it's always life.
LINKLATER: It only makes sense looking backward. It can only be lived forward but understood backward. I realized a long time ago that, even as a kid, it's all about the choices you make, the things you pursue. In the end, you're a sum of your choices. Like in high school with Career Day. What do you want to be? A lawyer? A doctor? A teacher? What school do you go to? Who do you have kids with? It's like, wow, these are big things. I wanted to depict the way it hits a young person, how that unfolds. Ellar—and this is where the film and life overlap pretty thoroughly—he was a very contemplative, thoughtful young man. That was subject matter for the film. And by the end, he was like, "Wow, I've had this experience. Even though it's fictional, this has been my childhood." [laughs] That's a unique spot for a young man, and for Lorelei too. Not many people have their whole lives filmed, have this depiction of themselves maturing and going through awkward phases. We were building up to all the very legit questions, like, "What does it all mean?" That's where you get to at 18, Mason's age at the end of the movie. You have to think about that stuff and realize that the adults around you don't know either. No one presents you the key.
McCONAUGHEY: No. And, whether it comes from your father or from other heroes, it's about the message, not the messenger. And the messengers—our parents or our heroes—they didn't have it figured out either. Most of them didn't even practice what they preached! But that doesn't undermine what they were trying to teach us. That was a realization I came to in my early twenties. I go, "Oh, I can still find incentive from that which my father taught me, even though I find out now, after he's gone, that he didn't practice it." [both laugh]
LINKLATER: He had this ideal self, something he felt he knew about life that he was going to communicate. But living life is much more complex than that. For me, this movie is about how you take that in as you mature. It's also a depiction of bumbling through parenthood. Who is ever ready for that? You don't know what you're getting into and you feel like you're making it up as you go. The parents in the movie were young, and you can feel that they were just doing their best, but, man, your kids have no choice but to come aboard for that trip through the parents' lives.
McCONAUGHEY: Yes. Watching Boyhood, I had this underlying tension that something dramatic or tragic was going to happen. But your films never have the big, dramatic movie moments. The mother says, "Don't text and drive." And then he's looking at the picture on the phone and my movie-watching mind said, "Oh, this is where the car wreck happens." Then the guys are camping out in an unfinished house, and talking about girls, and I'm thinking, "Oh my God, this kid's going to lose his virginity ..." But, no, that doesn't happen. And then I remind myself, "This is a Linklater film." You keep a certain innocence, a charming eye on everyday happenings. It's not like you're saying every moment is significant, but all the moments together have significance.
LINKLATER: They all add up. I've watched it with an audience a few times now, and you can feel it in the audience at that campout. They've got those blades out and they're throwing and they're hitting the sheetrock. It's like, "Okay, someone's going to lose a limb, or there's going to be blood ..."
McCONAUGHEY: Or lose their virginity! That's what I thought it was.
LINKLATER: It is funny how we're conditioned.
McCONAUGHEY: That's just me.
LINKLATER: It's everybody! Even on Dazed and Confused, where's the car wreck? Where's the teen pregnancy? It's amazing we got that movie made. But when you think back, the essence of your life is the little stuff, the little things you remember. I'm really counting on the cumulative effect of all this adding up to something, a feeling, an experience, for it to really mirror the ebb and flow of life. I've never really been that plot-y. Plots are artificial. Does your life have a plot? It has characters. There is a narrative. There's a lot of story, a lot of character. But plot? Eh, no.
McCONAUGHEY: You have a great relationship with time. Your ranch in Bastrop [Texas] basically burned down—six buildings burned down. But you've got this graceful relationship with your past and your future so that, no matter what happens—whether it's really good or really bad—I wouldn't know if you just won the lottery, had a newborn, won an Oscar, or your ranch just burned down.
LINKLATER: [laughs] But if the Longhorns lost—that, we would know about.
McCONAUGHEY: You roll with it! And it's not that you're not caring, but you immediately get on with it. It's a long view.
LINKLATER: At those moments, when you're kind of pressed, when life just walloped you—I feel this when movies come out—it's that eternal laughter at the human situation. "Oh, you've taken those possessions a little seriously, haven't you? Those are gone now." That one building, the stone hut that you liked—I remember standing up on that and going, "This will be here 300 years from now," six months before it went. I was up on the World Trade Center about five months before September 11. I remember standing in the observation room on the roof, looking out, going, "God, this is like our pyramid. These will be here 3,000 years from now. This building is so massive." And then, "Nah." You just don't know. Don't think anything is forever. Anything that confirms for me the transitory nature of reality isn't bad. It's a good lesson in human hubris.
McCONAUGHEY: A lot of us misinterpret the affirmation of that transitory nature of life and we become fatalists. We don't take care of our things because we're like, "Hey, what's it matter?"
LINKLATER: It all matters. We're here to give our best effort, right? And to manifest it to the fullest of our abilities, I believe. That's that Zen thing again—you just can't be too attached to the results—like you winning an Oscar for best actor. These moments when you're getting applauded or, conversely, getting shit on [laughs], you have to have a pretty similar attitude or else it's really unhealthy or you're very vulnerable.
McCONAUGHEY: That was pretty much how I felt. Mind you, it was three months [of campaigning], and it was unabashedly a race, a competition, a campaign. I chose to embrace it and go, "Let's get in and see what this game is about." But in the last four years, I've been more process-oriented in my life and in my work than I ever had been in my life, not even thinking or caring about the result. Not surprisingly, I was happier with my work, and more than ever in my life, people came to me and said, "Wow, that resonated with me. Hey, I wanna give you a trophy." [laughs]
LINKLATER: Well, what the hell? It confirmed the process.
McCONAUGHEY: So, with your place getting burned down, when did you first giggle? Or did you have a giggle?
LINKLATER: [laughs] Pretty quick. It was like, "Oh, what can you do?" The default position should be joy and humor—that should be the setting. But you have to work for that. It's given to you as a young person and it's slowly taken away from you. That's a challenge. I fluctuate. I'll be very joyous in what I'm doing one day and then something gets under my skin. I think, "This element sucks and I'm just not happy about it." I have another voice in me going, "You're so fucking petty right now." And yet, it's a real thing to be worked out or exorcised in some way.
McCONAUGHEY: I have to call myself on my own bullshit all the time, whether it's on something petty, something vain, or whatever. And I usually get past it a lot more quickly when I try to have that giggle.
LINKLATER: If I read some study about climate change, say—about things that are really global-size troubles in our natural world—it can get despairing. And then a part of me kicks in and is like, "Well, yeah, but we do have this ability as a species. Things can get better. We're kind of incredible." I find some optimism and hope in potential.
McCONAUGHEY:You could get angry about it, too.
LINKLATER: There's plenty of anger, if you want to go there. All of these emotions are choices in the buffet in front of us. Like, "Hmm, what sounds good today? A little anger with that politician who is pissing me off."
McCONAUGHEY: You and I have talked about innate ability before, talent. Do you think hard work and having a dream is enough to succeed?
LINKLATER: Sure isn't. You see it in sports a lot growing up. Some kids work really hard, but they're never going to be at that level. Innate ability means everything. In sports, hey, if you ran the fastest 100 meters, you're good at it. It's pretty obvious. There are other worlds where it's much more subjective. You could be developing at a different rate than everyone around you. It's hard to know what anyone has in them. It's very mysterious, but I'm fascinated with it. I find that, the more I make films, I'm less encouraging to people who want to be writers, directors, actors. I'm like, "Well, if you could do something else ..." I got plenty of discouragement, and I didn't hear it because I was so passionate. I knew I was going to do something in film. If I didn't end up a writer and director, I was going to run a theater or distribute films or write about them—something. I was all in. So, if you can discourage someone, you're probably doing them a favor.
McCONAUGHEY: À la Mr. Turlington, Mason's photography professor in Boyhood. That was my favorite mentor. He was pushing him but also discouraging him.
LINKLATER: A little kick in the ass. But there's an element of luck, too, like the athlete who never gets injured. There's so much out there to trip you up, there's got to be some good old-fashioned luck and timing. I used to believe in some kind of fate, but the older I get the more I believe in randomness and, I don't know, timing.
McCONAUGHEY: I've said about you, "Rick's so Buddhist, he doesn't even know it." And I mean that with a wink. But what I mean is you never say the word no. You allow complete freedom of form for creativity, for the actor, at least. Yet at the same time, you're a guy who loves blue ribbons, gold medals, rules and structures of the game. You like your first-place trophy, man. I've always been fascinated with this relationship between the creativity of the arts and the structure of the athlete—because you're not all free-form.
LINKLATER: Yeah, it's a combo of both. Boyhood, for instance, that wasn't just a free-for-all. I knew the last shot of the movie the second we started shooting it. It was very structured. Every movie I do, I believe in that architecture. I believe in clear storytelling. I believe in communicating what you're trying to communicate, even if it's just a feeling. Even if I haven't fully defined it, I want you to feel it and maybe also not be able to define it. Within that specific structure, you know what we're not doing. [laughs] Here's what we're avoiding. Here's the kind of acting, here's the kind of drama, here's the kind of look we're not doing.
McCONAUGHEY: Many, and maybe most times in my life, I put myself in the right position via process of elimination of where and what I didn't want to be.
LINKLATER: My early life, I didn't know what I wanted to be, but I knew what I didn't want to be. That's why ultimately I wanted to be a filmmaker. You're more motivated by the films you think don't work, by the films you don't like, what's to be avoided: "I don't think that works. I don't think in that genre." You're defining your own sensibility and what you want to communicate vis-à-vis what you don't find satisfying.
HEN YOU HAVE SUCCESS, YOU ACT LIKE THAT'S JUST HOW IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE. IT WORKED; WE WON . . . IT'S AS IF THE HUMAN MIND IS MORE GEARED TOWARD TROUBLE. IT ASSUMES A CERTAIN SUCCESS. —RICHARD LINKLATER
McCONAUGHEY:You and I have talked about how often we humans put our failures under a microscope, but how seldom do we dissect our success.
LINKLATER: When you have success, you act like that's just how it's supposed to be. It worked; we won. But when you lose, it's like, "Okay, this, that, or the other could've been." It's as if the human mind is more geared toward trouble. It assumes a certain success. There's a part of our brain that is looking for threats and trouble. It can get you in trouble, but it also kind of keeps you on your toes. When it works, there's a reason it worked. It's because you systematically approached it in a certain way. That sounds boring but it's just working methodology.
McCONAUGHEY: It's a hell of a lot more fun to figure out the science of what went right rather than dissect the failure and keep harping on what went wrong.
LINKLATER: Yeah, that's bitter and usually more emotional. Sometimes it's not even logical. I've always felt that, with everything in life, there should be a certain amount of tightness and looseness at the same time. Even with your plans, like, "Okay, we're going out tonight." Fine, where are we going? What are we doing? Where does it get loose in there? Where is the room for the improv within the plan?
McCONAUGHEY: I call it "conservative early, liberal late." I want to get in early, understand the rules, understand the width of my sandbox. Is there any broken glass in the sandbox? How wide is it? Where are the boundaries? Okay, now that I know what it is, what the field allows, let's get four dimensional. Let me blow in the wind. Let me improvise. Now let's fly.
LINKLATER: That's the perfect analogy, the sandbox. It's like, "Oh, this is a studio film. These are their expectations. We've got to hit these notes." You have to know where you are. You've got to know when you're the pimp and when you're the ho. If you're a ho and you do a pimp move, you get killed. [laughs]
McCONAUGHEY: Now let me ask you some real serious ones here at the end. Who are you taking number one in the NFL draft this year if you're the GM?
LINKLATER: For pure aesthetic enjoyment, from a Texas standpoint, I take Johnny Football [Manziel, from Texas A&M]. No one will fault you. He's the fun choice.
McCONAUGHEY: I'm starting to lean that way the more I'm studying this guy, watching him on [Jon] Gruden's QB Camp. He's a special kid in a different way than Tebow was. This guy, Manziel, really has an ability as a pure pocket passer. Talk about innate ability, you either got it or you don't. This guy has it.
LINKLATER: That's fun to watch. Take the fans along for that ride for better or for worse. Just do it. Hope you get lucky, too.
McCONAUGHEY: Hope you get in the right system, hope you got good blocking on your blindside, and hope you don't get injured. Turn the page.
LINKLATER: [laughs] All those intangible things, particularly in the quarterback spot—that's the one thing no one's ever figured out. You can't really predict that. Hey, turn the page, man. I like your attitude toward everything, Matthew, it's always fun.
McCONAUGHEY: Roll these sprockets, press record—it's live. I hope you got it on film.
LINKLATER: Oh yeah, we got it.
MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY IS AN ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING ACTOR. HE WILL BE SEEN NEXT IN CHRISTOPHER NOLAN'S INTERSTELLAR, OUT IN NOVEMBER.
'VE NEVER REALLY BEEN THAT PLOT-Y. PLOTS ARE ARTIFICIAL. DOES YOUR LIFE HAVE A PLOT? IT HAS CHARACTERS. THERE IS A NARRATIVE. THERE'S A LOT OF STORY, A LOT OF CHARACTER. BUT PLOT? EH, NO. —Richard Linklater