Richard Linklater laughs at the juxtaposition. The writer/director of "Slacker," the movie that inspired the pop-culture term, is dining at San Francisco's posh Ritz-Carlton hotel. You can easily pick out the erstwhile slacker in the sea of dark suits and white hair; he's the one in the thermal pullover and jeans.
This isn't a case of Slacker Goes Nob Hill. It's just Hollywood custom that Castle Rock Entertainment would house the director of its new film, "subUrbia," in swank digs. Yet six years after "Slacker" introduced Linklater to the world, the 35-year-old remains anti-Hollywood. From still living in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, to his support of young filmmakers and grass-roots political causes, Linklater is making the most of an enviable position: He has Hollywood's respect (and cash) but retains a large measure of independence.
Respect means it took about three phone calls over a weekend to get approval from Rob Reiner's Castle Rock to make "subUrbia" for $3 million. Independence begets the confidence to attract and film someone else's material (Eric Bogosian's) for the first time. His fourth film is a long way from "Slacker," where he couldn't count on crew or cast members showing up every day because nobody was getting paid.
Linklater calls "subUrbia" a missing link in his film autobiography. (The studio says the peculiarly capitalized title is "just a design thing.") If "Slacker" and "Before Sunrise" portrayed his late 20s, and "Dazed and Confused" profiled ages 14 to 17, then "subUrbia" focuses on age 20.
"When you're in high school, your head's still full of 'Oh, you can do anything. You can be president. You can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer,' " Linklater says. "By the time you're 20, you realize that it's all bull. You kind of know your limitations, whether you come from the wrong class or whatever."
Those realizations trap the "subUrbia" characters geographically and emotionally in the faceless fictional Texas burb of Burnfield. The story revolves around the night when a former high-school pal (Pony) visits five 20-year-olds at the all-night convenience store where they hang.
The rub: Pony has become an MTV rock star, a success in our culture; the others are hanging at a convenience store, metaphorically chained there by a lot of fear. Over the next 12 hours, they detonate that fear by challenging one another's views of idealism, cynicism, race, class, success and selling out. Bogosian's dense, in-your-face script exposes the suburbs' seamy emotional underbelly.
"It was a challenge to me, because it was inherently more dramatic than some of the other stuff I've done," he says. "More confrontational. I mean, I feel those things, too, but they're usually not my first impulse in my own stuff."
It helped that Linklater identified with the insularity that is suffocating these young characters. He grew up in the little town of Huntsville, Texas, raised mostly by a mom who married three times. There he first became aware of class and economic privilege. The experience seeded "a certain resentment toward privilege that is inherited."
Like his "subUrbia" characters, he knew he had to get out. He lived with his father in a Houston suburb for his senior year of high school. Linklater wasn't even a film geek then, he was a jock: quarterback on his high-school team and a left-fielder good enough to play two years of Division II college baseball.
His life changed during his freshman year of college when he saw "Raging Bull." "I thought, 'OK, film is an art form.' I didn't
know that at that time. It just got me thinking different about cinema. Wow, a film can do that." A year later, he saw "Taxi Driver" and was hooked; soon he dropped out of school and began devouring films and everything written about them.
He worked on a oil rig for two years to finance his interest in filmmaking. This new passion had opened up the world he had been living in in his head; he had never left Texas or ridden on an airplane until he was 22 years old.
Not only did his first film take him around the country, but he did it all himself -- lights, sound, everything. He calls the film a "formal experiment" in which he did things like film out of a train window for two minutes.
Then came the unexpected success of "Slacker," which was followed by "Dazed and Confused" and the $2.7 million "Before Sunrise." It was considered a bomb in the United States, but its international take pushed its grosses over $25 million.
Linklater's next turn will be to go big-budget, big-studio for the first time. He's got $20 million to direct and co-write "a 'GoodFellas' Western" about the Newton Boys, a true story of four brothers who were some of the most successful bank robbers in history. They robbed 80 banks and six trains, between 1920 and 1924 without killing anyone.
Then he plans to do a film about another subculture that he was a part of -- Texas high-school football. "That's when I'll come out of the closet as a former jock," Linklater says.
Pub Date: 3/30/97