Feature by Julia Smith
Half-filmmaker and half-philosopher, Richard Linklater is the ultimate cult director. Keeping his films close to his heart and far away from Hollywood, he has left in his path a wealth of philosophical and critically acclaimed films.
Known primarily for his debut Slacker, in 1991, Linklater's career has been something of an uphill battle. With erratic highs and lows, it is the solidarity of his fan base that has kept his reputation glowing. Linklater fans applaud the philosophical impact of his films, savouring the intelligence of Before Sunrise, the edginess of Tape, and will swear blind that Waking Life is a misunderstood masterpiece. They will have waited with baited breath for the long anticipated Before Sunset, not to be disappointed. Nor does it seem that anyone will be disappointed with the arrival of Linklater's new film, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, a mind-bending movie to top them all. It is this which, after 15 years of being a cinematic wallflower, will bring Linklater into the limelight.
One of many indie directors of the early nineties whose success became the stuff of Sundance history, Linklater's rise in the filmmaking industry is overshadowed by the success stories of his peers (most notably of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino). Unlike them, Linklater's ascendency wasn’t so much a rise as a stumble. Smith, Tarantino and even Robert Rodriguez managed to cash in on their ‘calling card’ films after success at Sundance. But unlike his contemporaries, Linklater hung around in the background. Gaining critical acclaim for Slacker, it wasn’t until two years later that he made the similarly youth culture centered flick Dazed and Confused, which could not contend with other Sundance follow-ups (Pulp Fiction anyone?). Staying true to his indie roots (and borrowing a little money off Castle Rock), it wasn’t until another two years later that Linklater released his first genuine masterpiece Before Sunrise. Noted as a philosophical insight into romance and life itself, Before Sunrise became a sleeper hit, only to gain great mainstream importance on the release of its sequel some nine years later. Linklater followed up this masterpiece with an unfortunate turn for the worst. Although, The Newton Boys was by no means a bad film, it wasn’t a great one either. Straying from familiar territory, Linklater made this studio film based on the real life story about a group of bank robbing brothers. Imagine Bonnie and Clyde, without any of the involving storyline, and without Bonnie (or Clyde). This was in 1998, and whether he was feeling downtrodden after the turkey of The Newton Boys, or whether he spent too much time playing with his digital camera, it wasn’t until three years later, in 2001, that Linklater released Waking Life. Overlooked at the time because of another Linklater film of the same year, the edgy Tape, Waking Life has become a film that has attracted and repelled so many people that it has taken on the consistency of Marmite, you either love it or you hate it. Shot with digital cameras, Linklater used actors and acquaintances he had collected over the years to shoot vignettes. In each of these vignettes the characters discuss existence and the philosophy of life. The characters are then connected through a common protagonist in the form of Dazed and Confused's Wiley Wiggins. This digital footage was then rotoscoped, a technique by which animated images can be created over raw digital footage. With the variety of people involved (animation artists as well as actors), the film gives your eyes and ears an incredible visual treat. The people who disliked this film called it arrogant and self-indulgent, even boring. The people who did like it, however, saw it as a psychological and philosophical mind-trip of the highest standard.
Another two years later and Linklater produced a short post 9/11 film Live From Shiva’s Dancefloor. Weighing in at only 21 minutes, the film features Speed Levitch (a frequent guest in Linklater films) preaching on his favourite subject, New York. Like many of Linklater's films this passed many people by. However, it is just one in a long string of films which Linklater has made, not to provide for the Hollywood market, but to satisfy his own desire to make films, something which has helped shape his career over the years. 2001 also saw the release of the mainstream movie School Of Rock, A film which, although features much of Linklaters love of music and all things youthful and cultural, has been referred to as ‘Linklaters sell-out’. It is worth mentioning here that Linklater only directed School of Rock, and so this isn’t really a ‘Linklater film’ in the way that Waking Life is.
In 2004 Linklater made his first (albeit only) foray into television. This year saw the airing of Linklater's TV pilot for HBO, $5.15/Hr, a comedy about the weird employees of the diner 'Grammaw’s Home Cookin’. Little has been heard of any TV series to follow and, as often happens in Linklater's career, it was overshadowed by a more impressive project of the same year. This was Linklater's coup de grace Before Sunset. The film took Linklater's career to new heights of critical acclaim, which had been steadily growing since his success in 2001.
Since 2004, A Scanner Darkly has been the anticipated release of Linklater fans. Originally due for release last autumn, then on New Years Day, it is now being released this summer. And while fans were busily guessing about the new film, they were offered up another surprise studio film Bad News Bears. A remake of the 1976 film about a drunken ex-pro baseball player who has to make champions out of a bunch of little league kids, Billy Bob Thornton takes on the role previously played by Walter Matthau. A generic film like this doesn’t make waves and only bolsters the Linklater School of Rock ‘Hollywood sell-out’ image. But, it is becoming common place now for Linklater to direct studio films and whether for fun or for financial gain it surely isn’t injuring his reputation. Bad News Bears was followed by another surprise Linklater film, Fast Food Nation,which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival
A Scanner Darkly is the most anticipated film of Linklater's career. The film’s popularity, perhaps, has grown from the pool of fans who love Philip K. Dick, knew that the film had been considered by Terry Gilliam, and that, more recently, it was adapted by Charlie Kaufman (however, the script was lost when the production changed hands). Although Gilliam and Kaufman are pioneers of all that is weird, there are a few good reasons why Linklater's version will be just as good as anything Gilliam could cook up. Firstly, there is the technique of rotoscoping. Applied to a sci-fi fantasy story such as A Scanner Darkly it seems it could only enhance the quality of the ‘mind-trip’ story which Dick based on his own drug experiences. Secondly, Linklater is a fan of Philip K. Dick. Thirdly, Dick’s daughters themselves have said the film is the best film interpretation they have seen of their father's work. Marketed mostly to the teenage market, the distributors of A Scanner Darkly are intent on it becoming a ‘cult film’.
A Scanner Darkly should prove a great coup in the career of ‘The Slacker’. Linklater has finally grown up. He is in his early forties and has spent enough time making films that he has finally found the quality ingredients he needs to make a great film. But he’s in no hurry, his imdb biography is forever surprising his fans with films he has in various stages of production, just months before their release dates. And with such a variety of films under his belt, Linklater is now beginning to appeal to a larger audience.
This could be Linklaters year, the beginning of something new for the man who has always been an unknown quantity.