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