Linklater: His slacker-free life creates impossible movies

At times, Richard Linklater makes a movie that delights the masses. "School of Rock" is great fun; "Boyhood" is a masterpiece. But beyond that, he keep making interesting movies in interesting ways. Now a documentry (9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1, on most PBS stations), profiles him. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

A quiet calm seems
to encase Richard Linklater.

It's like he doesn't
understand that what he's trying is impossible. Maybe that's why he
gets it done.

In an era of
mega-million-dollar movies, Linklater made his first one for $3,000,
editing it at the public-access studio in Austin, Texas. He made his
second (“Slacker,” 1991) for $23,000; it got national
distribution. A decade later, he made “Tape” -- with three movie
stars, no less – for $100,000.

“People used to
obsess about that more,” said Linklater, subject of a PBS
documentary. “I don't think anyone talks about budgets anymore, in
the low-budget realm. They just figure it didn't cost much.”

Still, stories about
his work spread. Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) says “Slacker” is
what got him started.

Those skills let
Linklater do other impossible things – including “Boyhood,”
filmed over 12 years as the actors (including kids, one of them his
daughter) aged. It beat the mega-movies at awards time.

And they let him
resist taking outside offers. Only twice, Linklater said, has he make
a movie “that I didn't originate, that was probably going to get
made with or without me.” Both had special appeal:

-- “School of
Rock” (2003) drew him, he said, because of the “music and the
Jack Black character.” It became a huge hit, spawning a Broadway
show and an Emmy-nominated Nickelodeon series.

-- The unsuccessful
“Bad News Bears” remake (2005) drew him because of “the

Baseball, after all,
was a prime force in Linklater's youth. “We really thought he would
be a sportswriter,” his stepmother says in the film.

He was born in
Houston, but spent much of his youth in Huntsville, Texas. That's the
home of Sam Houston State University, where his divorced mother
taught and where Linklater had a baseball scholarship. But a heart
condition in his sophomore year forced him to quit.

That led him to what
he calls, in the film, “my best semester ever.” Linklater, who
had won a high school literary competition, spent much of it in the
library, absorbing the classics.

He then worked an
offshore oil rig, spending his off-time in Houston movie theaters. He
took the money to Austin, where he started the film society, bought a
camera and made movies.

“Austin, I found
very pleasant – and all of Texas, I found very easy to make movies
in,” said Linklater, 57. And the city seemed to savor him. Already
known for its music, it became an indie-movie spot.

Karen Bernstein,
co-director of the PBS film, arrived in 2001, a decade after
“Slacker” opened. “I saw ... this sort of clamor to have any
kind of place in Rick's movies or Rick's work with the Austin Film
Society,” she said.

Louis Black, the
other co-director, has covered Linklater from the beginning, as
co-founder of both the Texas Chronicle and the South by Southwest
festival. “Rick has developed so many artists,” he said, citing
Texas natives Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke.

Hawke had already
been a teen star when he worked with Linklater and Julie Delpy to
develop the intimate story of strangers who met on a train. Few
people saw “Before Sunrise” (1995), which Linklater calls “the
lowest-grossing film ever to spawn a sequel.”

More would see the
sequels; “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013)
both drew Academy Award nominations for their collaborative scripts.

In between those
successes, Linklater had a string of five straight box-office
failures – none of which seemed important when the world discovered
“Boyhood.” It won an Oscar (for Patricia Arquette) and was
nominated for five others, including best picture and Linklater's
direction and script. The Golden Globes named it best drama; most
other groups named it best picture.

Linklater did the
awards circuit ... then was back to business. “Rick is a very
practical man,” Delpy says in the film. He is, McConaughey adds,
“so Buddhist he doesn't even know he's Buddhist.”

He's calm and
efficient, getting things done. Which lets him keep making impossible

-- “American
Masters: Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny,” 9 p.m. Friday, PBS;
check local listings

"Snowfall": A drug drama adds depth and female ferocity

TV shows often start well and then sag in quality; it's kind of a tradition. Lately, however, some have gone in the opposite direction. One example is "The Bold Type" (9:01 p.m. Tuesdays on Freeform), one of the year's happiest surprises; another is FX's "Snowfall," closing its first season with strong episodes on Aug. 30 and Sept. 6; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When “Snowfall”
began, the scenes seemed familiar:

Tough young men
battered each other for control of drugs in Los Angeles. They keep
doing that in movies, on TV and (one assumes) in real life.

But as the series
nears its powerhouse season finale, there's extra depth, Now women
are involved.

“It's very rare
that you get to see women portrayed as villains,” said Emily Rios,
who plays Lucia. “So that's the exciting part .... She gets to be
her own antagonist.”

Also emergng
fiercely is Cissy Saint. Her view is more traditional – the mother
trying to save her son.

“You're seeing
your family fall apart,” said Michael Hyatt, who plays her. “You
can't help but fall apart a bit yourself.”

This is 1983 Los
Angeles and she thinks her son Franklin is a pot-dealer; instead,
he's bringing the crack that will shatter their neighborhood.

Stories of the Los
Angeles drug war have been told often. John Singleton, the “Snowfall”
producer, fueled the trend with his first movie, “Boyz n the Hood,”
in 1991.

But “Snowfall”
steps back to the start, before crack took over. Ironically,
Singleton said, “it's a nostalgia show .... These were the best of
times and the worst of times.”

Franklin is a
college-bound kid who sees the potential to make a fortune. On Aug.
30, his mother rages. “You've got to pray that you have created a
strong enough, healthy foundation that when your child trips, he can
pick himself up,” Hyatt said.

A week later -- in
the finale, directed by Singleton -- Lucia has her turning point.

“I was was very
surprised as the scripts came,” Rios said, “to see where she was
going ... She gets to be her own hero and her own savior (and) her
own worst enemy.”

-- “Snowfall,”
10 p.m. Wednesdays, FX.

-- Aug. 30: Crises
for Franklin, for Lucia and for Teddy, a CIA agent doing the
Contra/cocaine deal.

-- Sept. 6: Season
finale, including a drastic move by Lucia.

"Elian": In Cuba, Miami and beyond, the story still stirs passions

As the new millennium began, there were fierce arguments about the future of young Elian Gonzalez. Now, 17 years later, an intriguing documentary has re-visited the people on both sides. Here's the story I sent to papers.

By Mike Hughes

Clearly, this wasn't
your usual TV interview.

Elian Gonzalez had
once been the best-known child on Earth. Now he was being asked to
recall a controversy that had drawn cascades of emotion.

Many people had been
discussing it – loudly and passionately – for decades ... but not
him. “My father and I tried to almost never talk about it,” he
says in “Elian,” which debuts Thursday on CNN.

Trevor Birney, the
documentary's producer, could sense that. Watching his son being
interviewed, he said, Juan Miguel Gonzalez reacted like someone who
had rarely heard the story. “Juan Miguel cried for most of the
three hours.”

There were also
strong emotions on the other side of the issue,Birney said. “What I
hadn't factored in was how much trauma remains.”

Certainly, this was
an issue that seemed designed to rip emotions:

Donato Dalrymple was
fishing off the coast of Florida, on Thanksgiving week of 1999, when
he found Elian, almost 6, in an inner tube. “It was definitely a
miracle,” Dalrymple says in the film.

The boy had left
Cuba with his mother, her boyfriend and others, but their boat sank
and most of the people drowned. In Miami, Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's
great-uncle, was given temporary care; Lazaro's daughter Marisleysis,
21, became a prime caregiver. The the fights began.

Cuban-American community – with a deep dislike of Castro's Cuba –
wanted Elian to stay; his father wanted him returned to Cuba. Courts
ruled in the father's favor; in a pre-dawn raid, on the day before
Easter, federal authorities seized Elian and returned him to his

In Miami, that
brought rage against the Clinton administration – strong enough to
tip votes in the state that decided the Bush/Gore election. “Had
the Elian event been handled better, we might not have had the Iraq
war,” former U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, says in the film..

Birney can relate to
that intensity. “I come from an area of conflict – Belfast, North
Ireland – and I understand how this can happen,” he said. So he
proposed a documentary, looking back at the situation. CNN agreed
immediately, he said; the key people hesitated ... then agreed to do

There was
Marisleysis, who had been in an emotional whirlwind. She was a key
spokesperson and a loving surrogate mother ... then saw Elian
snatched away after five months. “She was a young, 21-year-old
woman and suddenly it was all gone,” Birney said. “It was a
struggle to get on with her life.”

She started a hair
salon, married and had children, Birney said. “She's a very busy,
proud woman” who still would like to see Elian some day.

Elian's own life is
also crowded. He had a normal-enough boyhood, Birney said, except for
the fact that he sometimes met Fidel Castro. “The family did
benefit from knowing Castro.”

Elian, now 23,
graduated from college and has an engineering job at a factory,Birney
said. “He has a girlfriend and wants to start a home.”

In the film, he
speaks glowingly of Cuba and harshly of Americans ... except
Marisleysis: “I think she tried to give me the love I didn't have
at that moment .... She was just a girl.”

And she was
surrounded, Birney feels, by well-meaning forces who dug in too
deeply. “They overplayed their hand. It was a no-win situation.”

-- “Elian,” CNN;
debut from 10 p.m. to midnight Thursday (an hour later than
originally scheduled), rerunning from 2-4 a.m.

-- Also 10 p.m.
Saturday, rerunning at 2 a.m.

-- Part of an increased schedule for CNN Films; plans call for "The Reagan Show" on Sept. 4, a "9/11" rerun on Sept. 10 and "Legion of Brothers" on Sept. 24.



The Voyager -- the never-ending journey to worlds beyond

Think of them as the Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripkin of outer space, working tirelessly for us. For 40 years, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have kept sending reports about our solar syste and beyond. Now they'll be the subject of a fascinating PBS documentary Wednesday (Aug. 23), Here's the story I sent to papers: 

By Mike Hughes

Let's ignore any
complaints about underachieving government projects.

Instead, consider
the Voyager spacecrafts: Far surpassing their assignments, they've
continued for 40 years, going beyond our solar system. That outstrips
some (but not all) of the humans involved:

-- Suzanne Dodd, the
current project manager? When the Voyager was launched, she was a
teen-ager in Gig Harbor, Wash. “I was more concerned with getting
my driver's license,” she recalled.

-- And Ed Stone, the
chief scientist? He's actually had that job from the start. “You
might say (I could) make a career out of this,” he joked.

Now the epic story
is being told in a “Nova” documentary that includes many of the
key people.

Stone, the former
Jet Propulsion Lab chief, is 81, savoring decades of findings. “None
of us knew that a spacecraft could last 40 years,” he said. “When
Voyager was launched, the Space Age itself was 20 years old. So there
was just no basis to know that things could last this long.”

It won't last
forever. Stone estimates that Voyager 2 will quit transmitting data
in a couple years, but Voyager 1 may continue for another decade.
That's far from certain, he said. “Voyager has taught us that what
we think we know, we probably don't fully know.”

This was a project
that had to be rushed, to meet a planetary alignment that happens
once every 176 years. Technology was limited -- most cellphones have
more computing power than the Voyager, Stone said – and
improvisation was needed. Also: “There was a little bit of
subversiveness in there,” said Carolyn Porco, a Voyager imaging

The first idea was
to design four spacecraft for a 12-year journey to Neptune, Stone
said. That was considered too expensive, so JPL offered a compromise
plan that would only guarantee reaching Saturn. Quietly included,
however, was an attempt to use the gravitational pull of Jupiter and
Saturn – creating a “slingshot” effect that could propel the
craft much further.

“It was done
stage-by-stage,” Stone said. There were close calls, but the crafts
kept sending back photos and data on the planets. “We just had a
flood of new information, which was really a joy, (showing) how
diverse the bodies are in the solar system.”

His favorite finding
involved one of Jupiter's moons, about the size of ours: “Before
Voyager, the only known active volcanoes in the solar system were
here on Earth,” Stone said. Then the Voyager discovered “10 times
the volcanic activity of Earth, in this little moon. That ... really
told us our (Earth-centric) view of the solar system was just too

The unlimited
approach is to keep looking for signs of life. There are proposals,
Porco said, involving two moons. One, at Jupiter, “has a
sub-surface ocean, salty ocean, habitable zone. (It) could be a
place where life has gotten started.” The other, at Saturn, is also
sub-surface. “It's laced with organic compounds. There's possible
evidence of hypothermal activity on its seafloor, just like on

And what if there is
life, somewhere beyond the solar system? Both Voyagers carry a
“golden record,” complete with a stylus and instructions for
playing it. “It will last a billion years,” Timothy Ferris said.

Ferris, then a young
Rolling Stone editor, was given the last-minute task of producing it.
He included classical (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky) and
regional sounds (Mahi, Mbuti, Mariachi, more). He added cuts from
jazz (Louis Armstrong), blues (Blind Willie Johnson) and rock (Chuck

Why not Bob Dylan,
instead? Dylan's strength is lyrics, Ferris said. “I don't think
the lyrical brilliance is as likely to reach an extraterrestrial.”

We may never know,
but the Voyagers – clearly our employees-of-the-millennia – keep
trying, taking that golden record deeper into space.

-- “The Farthest:
Voyager in Space,” 9-11 p.m. Wednesday (Aug. 23), PBS; repeats 10
p.m. Sept. 13

-- Marks the 40th
anniversary of the twin spacecraft. Voyager 2 went first (despite the
name), launched Aug. 20, 1977; Voyager 1 went on Sept. 5, but passed
it up, as planned.

-- They've gone more
than 10 billion and 12 billion miles, adding almost a billion each
three years.


Excited about the eclipse? So are scientists and TV people

Sure, there are times when science-talk causes me to blank out. But if the subject involves turning day into night, blackening our world ... OK, you've got my interest,. Now Americans are ready for an eclipse Monday, and TV is ready to cover it. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

As Americans
prepared for Monday's event, we heard stories of past solar eclipses.

People have
screamed, cheered, wailed; they've been awed or gaga or breathless.

That's pretty silly,
right? Still ... “If you were going to have a natural event ... to
get breathless about, it might be this one,” said James Bullock,
who chairs physics and astronomy at the University of California,

He's one of the
scientists who will be featured in TV coverage before, during and
after the event. All seem to agree that this is a big deal. “It's
the most amazing natural phenomenon that happens from the surface of
the Earth,” said Angela Des Jardins, head of the Montana Space
Grant Consortium.

And it's rare: The
U.S. hasn't had a total eclipse since 1979; it hasn't had one span
both coasts since 1918. Here it is, reaching Oregon at 1:15 p.m. ET
Monday and leaving South Carolina at 2:48. It will cut through Idaho,
Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri and Tennessee, while touching the edges
of others.

That strip is only
70 miles wide, Des Jardins said, but the rest of us won't be
abandoned. “The entire U.S. will experience at least a partial
eclipse ... which is going to be absolutely amazing as well.”

But for TV people
and scientists, that total-eclipse swath will be the key.

On one end, the
Science Channel will have a base in Madras, Oregon. “That will be
the first place that the eclipse will be visible in the United States
(and it usually has) about 95 to 98 percent chance of a clear day,”
said Marc Etkind, the channel's general manager.

At the other end,
Science will be based in South Carolina, where Mike Massimino – the
forner astronaut who's done six “Big Bang Theory” episodes --
will host. That night, there will be specials on PBS and Science,
gathering material from the day. “We will be collecting all of the
great images and getting the results of some of the science
experiments,” Etkind said.

Some of those
involve the effects on the Earth; others involve astronomy, said Amir
Caspi, head of a NASA project. “When the solar disk is blocked out,
you can actually see the solar corona.”

Caspi – featured
in both the PBS and Science projects – is trying to determine why
that outer corona is so much hotter than the sun itself. He's also
wondering why the corona has “well-formed loops and arcades and
fans .... They look like they were freshly combed and not snarled and

All research must be
quick. “At any one location, ... totality lasts about two minutes,”
Des Jardins said.

One solution is to
spread out the observations. She has 55 student teams from 30 states;
Caspi will have two jet planes, combining to catch about seven
minutes of eclipse.

Most of us will
settle for a couple minutes of not-quite-totality. We can watch with
modest caution, Des Jardins said. “Watching the eclipse in general
is not dangerous. The thing that's dangerous is looking at the sun
with no protection, and that's true any time.”

Some of those
watchers might be transformed, Bullock said. “It's spectacular ....
A whole generation of kids (could) be inspired by this physical,
astronomical event that is not ... in a video game.”


-- Preview: “Great
American Eclipse,” 9:02 p.m. ET Sunday, Science; reruns at 12:08
a.m. ET and at 11 a.m. ET Monday.

-- During the
eclipse: ABC, CBS and NBC all plan live coverage from 1-3 p.m. ET.
The Science Channel has live coverage from noon to 4. News and
weather channels are expected to be involved, especially during the
stretch (1:15 to 2:48 p.m. ET), when parts of the U.S. are in total

-- That night:
“Nova” has prepared an hour for 9 p.m. Monday, viewing the
science of the eclipse; it will edit that throughout the day,
inserting new footage; Science will have a new hour at 9:02 p.m. ET
Monday, rerunning at 12:20 a.m. The Science special will rerun at 8
and 11:06 p.m. ET Tuesday; the “Nova” one will rerun at 8 p.m.