Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Richard Linklater

Wide Awake in America

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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In the fall of 1991, two events occurred that helped define the elusive Generation X: the dual releases of Nirvana's CD Nevermind and Richard Linklater's film Slacker. But besides just defining a moment in time, both artists proved quite a bit more versatile.

Nirvana may be gone now, but Texas filmmaker Linklater continued to make great films: Dazed and Confused (1993), a brilliant comedy that followed a group of kids graduating from high school in 1976; Before Sunrise (1995), an even better film about an American (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman (Julie Delpy) meeting for one romantic night in Italy; SubUrbia (1996), based on Eric Bogosian's play, and The Newton Boys (1998) about four Texas bank robbers in the early 1920s.

Now Linklater, 41, has topped all that with his newest film Waking Life. Like many great artists, Linklater drew inspiration from both his previous works and from a new breath of life that comes from being older and wiser. Waking Life emerges as perhaps Linklater's greatest film, and a new American masterpiece.

Playing a little like Slacker, Waking Life follows an unnamed character played by Wiley Wiggins (Dazed and Confused) as he wanders around and listens to dozens of characters talking, telling him their theories about life, the human condition, biology, evolution, free will, and other mysteries. Wiley eventually learns that he's dreaming and can't ever quite wake up.

But what really makes Waking Life special is its look -- it was shot in live action on digital video, then animated by more than 30 different artists using computers. The results range from very realistic to odd and surreal, with constantly shifting backgrounds and little psychic intrusions.

I recently met with Linklater in San Francisco. He spoke with just a hint of a Texas accent -- just enough to make him seem disarmingly laid-back. He even padded around his hotel room in socks. Nonetheless he's one of the most viciously intelligent filmmakers working today.

"The kinda weird thing is we've been trained to have answers," he says, referring to the intellectual college dorm-room talks his films evoke. "You turn in your answer and you get your grade. But you realize that for the most essential and important things there's no right and wrong. It's just interesting."

Indeed, Waking Life does not provide any answers, and even its questions seem to contradict one another. One character talks about how our bodies are biologically programmed to follow a certain course, while another insists that we're "writing our own Dostoyevsky novel populated by clowns."

In Slacker, Linklater scripted these types of diatribes himself. But here, he allowed for some improvisations.

"There's some very spontaneous scenes," he says, describing the "holy moment" scene in which two characters try to capture what the film critic Andre Bazin once theorized about the myth of total cinema. After a few moments of trying, feeling the holy moment as well as the awareness of the holy moment, the two characters (one of them played by Bay Area filmmaker Caveh Zahedi) simply turn into clouds.

"That's one of my favorite scenes!" says Linklater excitedly. "That was very spontaneous. I didn't know about that. We started rehearsing, I had written something about narrative cinema or whatever, and Caveh said he had his own ideas. So he just took that idea and ran with it. We could have started rehearsing, but I could tell that he didn't need my help. And yet I thought he could only do it once or twice, so I said, 'we're not going to rehearse anymore. We're just going to shoot it.' And it happened."

"I had no idea what I had. But then in the editing room, I thought, 'I gotta get the Holy Moment in this movie somehow.'"

Linklater initially directed the animators to interpret the scenes literally, simply animating the characters' faces as they talked. But the animators' instincts were to paint pictures of what the people were saying.

"They'd get bored," Linklater says frankly. "If you spent six months on a scene, you'd [be bored too]. So you see these kind of ghost images. Like when the guy talks about a gun you see a little swish of a gun. What most of them resorted to was implanting little things that they tried to sneak by us -- like we wouldn't notice!" he laughs.

"If you look closely, you'll see their roommate's name or their partner's name or a hotel name. They're just sneaking s--- in. And so, I was like, 'if you can get it by us, you can get it in the movie.' If you look in the fishtank, the fish are doing really weird s---! One even sprouts a leg and kinda walks off while the guy's talking about evolution. Stuff like that. I still see the movie and see new little things. I'm like, 'aw you f---er! You snuck that in there! But hey, you won. You got it by us.' It's usually in the spirit of the scene, though."

Completely baffled by all that's happened to him, the Wiley Wiggins character eventually goes to the director himself -- Linklater -- who plays the final character in the film. "He goes to the director looking for an answer... but all I do is go on my own tangent! I'm not going to spell it out for him," he laughs.

I point out that Slacker was a movie of its moment, whereas the ideas in Waking Life will probably live on 10 or 20 years from now.

"200 years from now!" he corrects me. "We weren't thinking in those terms, but if we haven't solved these problems in 3500 years, I doubt a hundred more years is gonna make any difference. If there were any real answers, certainly someone would have reported back by now!" he exclaims, laughing again.

October 16, 2001

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