Making Movies In Real-time

Richard Linklater Returns to Celebrate the Anniversay of the Filming of ‘Before Sunrise’

On The Town | Mazin Elfehaid | July 2007

Linklater on former film location at the Albertina (Photo: Alexander Tuma)

It was a sticky-hot summer evening when film director Richard Linklater strolled into the auditorium of the Austrian Film Museum. Dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and sandals, with bronzed skin and floppy hair that seemed to suggest he spent more time at the beach than anything else, he looked at first like just another film fan.

In fact Linklater, the 47-year old creator of Vienna’s modern classic Before Sunrise and its Parisian sequel Before Sunset, fit so perfectly into the milieu that he went almost totally unnoticed by the crowd.

But he was the guest of honor, here Jun. 17-20 for a mid-career retrospective at the Austrian Filmmuseum. And with the museum’s Director Alexander Horwarth close behind and towering over him, heads swung round, as the microphone was pressed into his hands.

"Thanks for welcoming me here," Linklater began, swaying awkwardly back and forth, perhaps uncomfortable about the large audience, or perhaps about his right arm, which was packed into a large plastic brace from recent shoulder surgery.

Linklater had agreed to three discussion evenings during this visit, with screenings of several of his most famous films and talk-backs to follow.

"This is a brand new print," he said, "and we’ll talk more after the show." The lights dimmed, and Dazed and Confused, a film about one crazy night in high school, rolled across the screen.

Linklater has a diverse portfolio: From this adolescent film and the lyric duo Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, to science-fiction like A Scanner Darkly and The Newton Boys, a period piece set in the 1920s, each of Linklater’s films seems almost to have come from a different director.

"This is a unique film," Horwarth said, "because at first it seems like a genre-film."

But, as the audience related, there is more too it than that. Many of the film’s fans feel it is a highly accurate portrayal of what high-school life in the United States and even other parts of the world is like: The boredom, the constant driving from place to place looking for things to do, and the generally nutty experiences that can result when teenage rebellion is mixed with lots of idle time.

"My goal was to make a film about what being a teenager was like," Linklater said. "Everything in the film is true… (and) based on my freshman year in high school."

At first glance, Dazed and Confused seems in no way the type of film the creator of Before Sunrise would have made. But looking under the surface, and you realize what binds Linklater’s films together is the importance he places on (often extremely witty) dialogue, and the sense of time and place experienced by the audience.

Before Sunrise, for example, is based entirely on the idea that two strangers meet on a train and decide to spend one night together in a strange city (Vienna), and have just this one chance to get to know each other. The sequel, Before Sunset, compresses time even further, occurring in something close to real-time.

"I’d call it ‘documentary realism,’ a real-time document of these two peoples’ encounter," Linklater said.

Linklater is often heavily involved in writing the scripts for his films, building the film almost entirely around dialogue — very little tends to happen in terms of action — much the way it might have been done on stage. This gives the films a certain familiar vocabulary, and Linklater prides himself on the fact that traditional plot structures don’t play a big role.

"Character and story is different from plot," he said. "In life, there are a lot of stories and characters, but there isn’t a lot of plot. (But) plot dominates the movie industry, and it’s horrible, it’s the enemy.  It’s the strait jacket we find ourselves in."

But the elephant in the living room – the big question everyone wanted an answer to was, Why did he choose Vienna to shoot Before Sunrise?

"I could have set it anywhere," he admitted freely. At first he had considered the United States, but on a visit to Berlin he suddenly wanted to set the film there, or at least in Europe. However, he didn’t meet any interested parties there, and when he came to the Viennale in 1993 for the premiere of Dazed and Confused, he met people who were interested, and who were willing to support the project.

"I sat in an apartment and hotel room for three weeks and rewrote the story," Linklater said, but added that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy were heavily involved in the writing process as well, though they didn’t receive credit, a mistake that was fixed for the second film.

"If I had cast two different people, it would have been a different movie," he said.

Although almost everything in those films is scripted, with little improvisation, the screenplay itself was often a fluid entity. "I could never afford to just turn on a camera and let it roll, because of my low budget. But the dialogue was often changing up to the last minute or between takes."

The sequel, Before Sunset, was even more tightly scripted, due to the long takes and reduced budget. Nothing, says Linklater, was cut from the film.

But with nine years between the films, were there originally plans for a sequel?

"Of course not! No one wanted one, that’s kind of why we were compelled to do it.  Actually, it’s the lowest grossing film to ever spawn a sequel," he said, as the room erupted with laughter.

"But working together again was scary," he admitted. "We thought, ‘if we screw this up, we’ve screwed up the first film too.’" The fact that shooting for the film took place in 15 days didn’t help take the pressure off either, and so it was scripted to a tee.

On the third and final evening of the retrospective talks, we were treated to an almost three-hour long discussion with the filmmaker, an event entitled "The School of Film." Linklater, rarely at a loss for words, related how he got into film and his thoughts on the subject in general.

A college drop-out, Linklater spent the early 80’s working on an offshore oil rig, making money and going to the movies — in one word, a slacker. He began hanging out at the University of Texas at Austin art department, but didn’t enroll in a program; everyone, it seemed, was doing some kind of creative work.

"Because I got a late start, I always felt I was a little behind, trying to catch up all the time," he said. "I still feel that way today."

Two years after moving to Austin, Linklater started the Austin Film Society, which is now a two-million dollar organization, giving $150,000 in grants annually.

The scene at the time was exactly what a budding young iconoclast needed. A slacker, said Linklater, is a seeker, someone who isn’t satisfied with becoming just another cog in the machine. So he drops out of the economic rat race.

"(The University of Texas) wasn’t about what you are going to be, where you get your money from, it was ‘what are you, what do you do?’"

One of Linklater’s early films, Slacker, is precisely about this time in his life.  Like many of his films, it takes place in one day.

Despite his individual voice and distaste for the studio system – something that he says is shared with all directors, including the ‘masters’ – he thinks good can come from it too.

"It’s not that they try to control your film directly," he said. "But if they feel they won’t make money from it, they’ll pull funding out from under you. That’s what happened to me on Dazed and Confused, and it’s only with DVD and VHS that the film achieved success."

So what does the future hold for a filmmaker as varied as Richard Linklater? One of his new projects involves Ethan Hawke, who is again co-writing; he is also working on another, somewhat more far-fetched idea, again compressing the story telling.

"I really like the idea of real time," he said. This current project will expand on this idea: He plans to film a group of young people as they undergo the transition from first grade to twelfth grade of school.

In its sixth year of production, Linklater meets with the actors once a year to do a bit of filming. Once shooting is complete (six years from now), he plans on spending a while in the editing room, before releasing the film, which will be feature length.

As for a third ‘Before’ film, Linklater is not sure.

"You can’t do a film just to work with the people you like working with," he said. Though in a quick brainstorming session in front of the audience, he decided that if he were to do a film, it would probably revolve around the two characters as they are in "daily life," removed from the extraordinary circumstances in which they had previously met.

After three hours and much perspiration, the extraordinary session with Richard Linklater was over, leaving behind too many interesting insights about himself, his films, and the industry he works in to absorb all at once.

The audience was impressed; Linklater was someone who seemed so extraordinarily ordinary, so completely real. Perhaps that is why, in the end, so many of his characters turn out that way too.

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