For director, experience was the best teacher

January 27, 1995|By Michael H. Price | Michael H. Price,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

You never outgrow your need for Austin, Texas, not even when you're Richard Linklater and capable of defecting to Hollywood at any moment.

Mr. Linklater, a film director who maintains bases of operation in both Austin and Los Angeles, is not one to turn away from his origins.

"I always get back to Austin," Mr. Linklater said the other day from New York, where he had set up shop briefly to confer with actor Ethan Hawke on a publicity campaign for their new film, "Before Sunrise," a romantic drama opening this weekend.

"I make movies that come out of my experience," he adds. "Austin is the core of my experience, and so anything I do is going to have that same basic feeling, I believe, that I managed to get across in 'Slacker.' "

"Slacker" (1991) was Mr. Linklater's shoestring film in which an ensemble of unknown actors pretended to present a documentary on the phenomenon of hanging out with loafers, paranoids and street-corner philosophers. It was also -- thanks to word-of-mouth response -- his ticket to major-studio recognition. He followed through with 1993's "Dazed and Confused," a comedy about coming of age in the 1970s with sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

An Austin native, Mr. Linklater attended Sam Houston State University. He dropped out and held a variety of jobs -- oil-rig laborer, parking-lot attendant -- before digging in to film "Slacker" and becoming a self-made filmmaker.

Now comes "Before Sunrise," which Mr. Linklater calls a matter of "eavesdropping on two, hopefully, kind of interesting people."

Imagine "Slacker" pared down to two characters, given an exotic romantic twist, and transplanted from Austin to the deserted nighttime byways of Vienna -- and maybe there is a resemblance, at that.

The point, Mr. Linklater says, was a film that made it seem as if Mr. Hawke and France's Julie Delpy are "brand-new acquaintances discovering each other on a whirlwind romantic adventure that covers 14 hours in their existence."

"This demands a certain kind of honesty," he says, "and the ideas that we had to cultivate had to convey a certain kind of meaning that goes beyond the words themselves."

Mr. Linklater, 34, is primarily a conversation-driven filmmaker. And the people in his pictures are constantly yakking about something. Big issues like the meaning of life. Selfish concerns like getting high and staying that way as frequently as possible. Paranoid meanderings about conspiracies. Proclamations of love and propositions of lust.

If Mr. Linklater has a trademark, then, it is that he makes his actors talk for greater reasons than just hearing themselves talk or just firing off moronic one-liners. His players converse with conviction -- a rare quality in popular cinema.

"I love movies," he says, "and I keep trying to come up with ways to serve the movie-making process in ways that aren't being done much."

"My dialogue -- and the dialogue that Kim Krizan and I wrote for 'Before Sunrise' -- comes out of experience. Sometimes I'll have a thought that I think would make a good line in a movie, sometime, and I'll stash it away until a place comes to hand.

"Communication is hard," he adds. "People -- or at least the kind of people I want to attract to my movies -- can see right through the cliches and the glib one-liners, so I have to have my people, my characters, constantly talking because that's the way it is in real life: We don't have the correct response always poised and ready to say and then move on to the next clever and superficial comment.

"Because we as humans are constantly struggling to find the rights words to say, and therefore we talk a lot -- probably too much -- and often we say the wrong thing that works against us. But people talk a lot, they are articulate in spite of themselves, and that's what I want to come across in what I'm doing."

"Most of the entertainment industry just assumes that the audience doesn't want to see people really communicating, or really trying to do so," the director said. "But my audiences want this very thing. The entertainment industry says, 'Why should we pay to see what we get in real life?' I say the sitcom approach -- that glib, sarcastic, wisecrack-oriented style -- has nothing to do with real life, and we should strive to reflect real life in our popular entertainment."

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