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Some filmmakers are born, not made. And of the born ones, a few make films that look as if they are not films at all, but just happen to have happened. —from The Guardian’s 1991 review of Slacker
Richard Linklater made Slacker in 1991 for about $23,000. Though it was only his second feature, (and Linklater himself only 31), it showed a director already in possession of a distinctive filmmaking style. It was a narrative approach others would later attempt to imitate, some because it felt so fresh and original, others, perhaps, because it grossed more than $1.25 million.
If his artistic vision seemed established from the outset, his path to filmmaking was less so. Up through his sophomore year in college, he held out hope of a pro baseball career with the Houston Astros, a dream that informs his just-released Everybody Wants Some!!. Instead, he dropped out of college to work on an offshore oilrig, a job that gave him time to read, write, and deepen his love of storytellers like Edward Albee and Leo Tolstoy.
When—much like Tolstoy—your artistic theme is essentially “life,” how do you tackle it? For Linklater, the answer is the way we live it—in moments. Those moments are captured in his trademark style of minimal camera movement, loose structure and looser narrative, the best and most well known examples being Dazed and Confused and the Before (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight) trilogy. Minutes can meander for hours, and hours for years (see his masterful Boyhood). Without being artsy or precious, Linklater is a master of stretching time while rarely stretching our patience. The encompassing sense of place and perspective in his work is felt, rather than fed to us. Linklater shows us love, towns, grief, boredom, school, childhood, cars, fights and bewilderment as we’ve experienced them ourselves—all made profound because they trade on our memory, not our credulity.
Though most revered as an iconic patron saint of independent film, he’s occasionally taken on more commercial projects, and those he’s chosen to helm (Bad News Bears, School Of Rock) have Linklater’s grip on real life to thank for snatching them back from the brink of being too cute or cliché to resonate. Which makes us very impatient to see what he and Cate Blanchett will do with his upcoming film version of Maria Semple’s best-selling novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
We’d add to The Guardian’s review that some filmmakers are born independent, and those who are, are likely to stay that way—happily. Linklater’s long made a habit of offering his loyal stable of stars percentage points versus Hollywood salaries, a practice he’s called “betting on myself.” Making art largely for yourself is a risk, but when “yourself” is also frequently “all of us,” it usually pays off. Sometimes at the box office, often in critical acclaim, and always in the satisfaction of making the stories you see in your head. However it goes, you can’t lose too badly.