Since his feature film debut with 1991’s cult classic Slacker, Richard Linklater has consistently mined the margins of American identity. Following up Slackers’ narrative vortex of 24 hours in the less-than-motivated lives of a hundred different characters with the quintessential stoner movie Dazed and Confused and several other films, Linklater has established himself as a master auteur, the writer/director of a whole new mode of social filmmaking. High Times originally planned to interview him on September 11  during the Toronto Film Festival, where his two new films, Waking Life and Tape, were premiering. Instead, we spoke to him several weeks later, when he was back home in Austin, Texas.
High Times: We were originally supposed to do this interview on September 11, and for obvious reasons couldn’t connect. What was it like being at the Toronto Film Festival, by all descriptions a normally great party, as it ground to a halt, with suddenly little going on and no one able to get home?
Richard Linklater: I was in a room with a lot of New Yorkers when all this was happening. All we could do was watch it unfold. It was really strange. This is very rare in our lives. We are pretty coddled in America. This is far more routine in other parts of the world. Now we have to deal with it; we all have to find a way to carry on.
I remember when I met you in Austin, it was my first trip there. All I knew was that I was going to Texas, to the capital where the man who was then perhaps our future president resided and ruled. For all I had heard about Austin, I was expecting a far more conservative environment and found instead that everyone was wearing Ralph Nader for President T-shirts and hugging trees, so to speak.
Yeah, the whole Austin community is quite cool. I think Nader got about 38 percent of the presidential vote here. [Actually 10%—Ed.] Austin’s great. The old joke is the only bad thing about Austin is that it’s surrounded by Texas. That’s not entirely true either, however. I grew up in Huntsville, which is in East Texas, and I’m still fond of that time. It used to be far more of a libertarian place, then it changed into Republican. Huntsville’s where the prisons are, where all the executions take place.
A friend was visiting here recently and he wanted to know where the gay area of town was, but we don’t have one. There’s no need for any kind of ghetto that way, because people are accepted everywhere you go. In that way, Austin is a place where people from all over gravitate to. It’s a more openly tolerant community than most other places.
Now that all the pundits are lining up to predict the future of our culture in the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, we’re hearing from a lot of quarters that irony is dead, that everything fringe and frivolous is now even more marginalized and perhaps even obsolete. As a director whose subjects have included many of these themes, what do you think of this?
I think irony will ultimately creep back in, but that will only be told by future events. If the government, as well as the people, works in such a way as to take away civil liberties in the name of security, then some of these things may become much more scarce, but at the same time all the more necessary. Fear has always been used as a way to keep you in place. A lot of this control is pretty much the way things have been going for a while now, and what has happened can well further that. Give our government a bully pulpit, without opposition, and they will certainly take it. The fact is, we’ve imposed this on other countries for a very long time, pretty randomly and consistently it would seem. If you don’t like it, well, it happens every day. Now we know what it feels like, and it’s pretty unfathomable and so bizarre.
Speaking of the unfathomably bizarre and that same kind of loss of control, watching your new movie Waking Life is very much like a dream-state suspension of belief. The way you converge dream and “reality” creates this anxiety of awakening. At a certain point you just want to know for sure whether you’re dreaming or not.
I often feel that way anyway. There’s always this question of is this the real world or another level of consciousness? It’s the basic question of existence: Where does this reality come from? In its way, Slacker was very much a document about that. I was trying to articulate a greater sense of psychological connectedness. I feel that connectedness even more now, particularly in the way that we all shared the pain. Our day-to-day reality is much more connected than we realize. We experience everyone’s pain and joy.
The film hits on many levels—psychological, scientific and philosophical. I didn’t want it to be one thing, one meaning or one way of seeing it. There’s a gamut of territory and mystery here, and I didn’t want it to be all feel-good stuff. Our biological aloneness and separateness are really scary. I was trying do deal with it as the most fundamental questions you ask yourself when you’re eight years old, and remembering my own wonder then about life and death, the universe, future, evolution. I wanted to make a weird film where everyone could take their own personal inventory.
You bring so much information as well as speculation about the nature of dreams and reality to Waking Life— where does this come from? It feels like you did a lot of reading and serious research for this.
I’ve always been around academia. My mom was a teacher, and I like the idea that you can talk about ideas all the time. I did a lot of research based on my own experience. I’m a natural lucid dreamer, so a lot of the research was what I did to help myself to understand that. I think it has a lot to do with how your mind is wired. It’s not a personality thing, but it’s a discipline that anyone can do. From what I’ve read, I believe it has to do with a temporal-lobe instability. People who have that are far more likely to have out-of-body experiences and visions. The way that people try to change themselves, from meditation to fasting to drugs, may offer the same experiences as a temporal-lobe seizure, which is a lot cheaper than drugs.
What’s the deal with lucid dreaming?
I was always one of those people who confused reality. The opening scene in Waking Life, where [Wily Wiggins’ character] is floating up into space, actually happened to me. My dreams became my memories. I always gave a lot of credence to dreams. What this character goes through—a series of false awakenings where he is trapped in a dream, knowing that he is dreaming at times but still unable to get out of it—has a lot of signs, like being unable to read or adjust light levels by switching a light on and off, and it comes from what I’ve read to confirm my experiences with this. But these are important indicators, because once you know that you are dreaming, you can take it any place you want. For me it’s more of a discipline, a meditative state. You have to train yourself for this in the waking world. One trick is to disrupt your sleep cycle: set your alarm and wake yourself for a minute or two before going back to sleep. It disrupts your REM cycle, and as you fall back into it, you just keep close track of your dreams.
In the accumulation of events, or all these things that maybe didn’t happen except in Wily’s mind, and all the abstract ideas that people share with him on the nature of existence throughout the movie, there’s this sense that maybe reality is just a construct of the mind.
I did a lot of reading about brain research, and it makes you think of Descartes’ Meditations. What your brain is doing is making models. It looks for patterns. You take a bit of information and fill in the
gaps. It’s reasoning, or visually rendering the world comprehensible, and one does that awake or asleep. The movie as such never really ends, it just keeps going in conversation with itself. When you think of psychic connectedness, you see how we’re all connected on this level of consciousness. You can see us as fallen angels and think of how we’ve all fucked up, or you can think of us as highly evolved apes, in which case we’re doing pretty good. To me, we’re apes ascending rather than fallen angels.
Rising or falling, it seems like we’re all just floating in Waking Life. I heard that for the scenes where Wiggins floats you tried a helicopter but ended up using a hot-air balloon.
Yeah, the helicopter was too noisy and choppy. But that effect of floating worked best with a hot-air balloon. I had never been in one before and really recommend it. The best thing about doing a movie is that you discover all these things in trying to figure out how to do something. When you’re up in the balloon you don’t know where or when you’re going to land; it’s a whim of the air. You have to have a chase crew on the ground following you; it’s an FAA regulation.
I’m not sure how aware you are of your audience demographic, but Dazed and Confused, Slacker and now most certainly Waking Life are all quintessential stoner movies.
It has not been my intention, but I have been glad to hear that. I was really surprised when I saw that High Times did a reader’s poll and Slacker ended up as a drug movie, because I hadn’t really thought of it in that way before. Dazed and Confused makes a lot more sense in that way, but that was a much more autobiographical movie. It was about growing up at that particular time in the ’70s, that feeling of being stuck and having no options. Doing drugs was the only way for kids to express a general fuck-you to the small town they were stuck in. The one thing you don’t have in those teenage years is freedom.
Even without setting out to make a bunch of “drug movies,” maybe there’s a bit of osmosis being where you are in Texas, with all that Mexican dirtweed everywhere you go.
I remember growing up with those large $10 commercial Mexican bags. I guess pot is just everywhere, but when I was a kid it seemed inevitable that it would be decriminalized. I’ve actually never been much of a stoner. I always feel half-stoned anyway. I like the way my mind floats through a day. Films like Slacker and Waking Life are about trying to capture the way the mind wanders through experience. Any time you get into that, it’s inherently trippy.
Feature films are, by nature, a group enterprise. In Waking Life, however, you turned over the entire movie to over 30 different artists to individually animate each image in the film, in effect making them a whole post-production crew of cinematographers. Does that kind of collaboration naturally appeal to you?
The collaboration was the fun part. In shooting the movie I didn’t get too expressive with the camera. A lot of it is just talking heads. The strength of the animation is the expressiveness of the human face. It was like casting twice—first the actor, then each animator who was matched up to the actor. I like that there was no one style. It grants each character their own individual status. The main themes of my movies are individuality and identity. Waking Life has a real handmade feel about it. The challenge is to have a certain cohesiveness with all that individuality. I could never have shot this as a live action film; you’d want to smack these characters.
Real cinema aficionados love film but despise video, because it looks so cheap and crappy. With Waking Life and Tape, you do a lot to reinvent digital video as something quite different than the ugly bastard child of film. How and why did you do this?
Tape is what I hope will become a category of digital film. I think it’s otherwise immoral to spend $100,000 on a digital film, because it looks shitty. I thought Tape, which is an adaptation of a play, would work as a digital film. Video has its own properties. It should be its own thing, not a substitute.
The look is really in-your-face, with the camera going all over the place.
It’s really fun to use the camera like a percussion instrument. I was thinking of it as a cubist collage, and shot in a way to refract reality, how a ten-year-old event is seen through the characters remembering and seeing themselves and each other in very different ways.
When we last talked you were creating your own film studio. You brought me by the old Austin airport that recently shut down, and you had some sort of deal with the city to turn it into a big movie-production studio. How’s that going?
It’s really happening. Alan Parker has a $50 million movie shooting there now. We have about five or six airplane hangars we’re turning into sound stages. The city seems aboard. They gave us a $1 a year lease, and we’re managing it for the city.
“We” being who?
It’s under the auspices of the Austin Film Society, which I helped start in 1985 as a way of bringing a lot of independent and foreign films to Austin that normally wouldn’t get shown here.
Another thing that strikes me from that trip was having dinner with your friend Lewis Black. When he told me that he started the Austin Chronicle and the South by Southwest music and film festivals, all I could ask him was what was Austin like before he totally changed it. He said it was a lot better. Would you agree in terms of your impact?
I feel pretty much the same way. I’ve done my part to ruin Austin. Austin’s creative community has been largely forced out, having to continuously move further east. I haven’t given up hope however; so long as the spirit stays the same, there will still be that rush of energy. Wherever you live, so much of what you think about that city is a projection of yourself, of how you feel about where you’re at.
All films are a reflection of a particular transient moment. This is true of the very timely Slacker or your period pieces like Dazed and Confused and The Newton Boys. With our world suddenly changing, what can artists look to as still defining the zeitgeist?
Just as the 20th century didn’t start until World War I, I think it’s clear that the 21st century just started. It didn’t start right after December 31. This is the delayed thing that people were conjuring. The ’90s now feel like a cakewalk. There was a lot of discontentment, but it was a time of prosperity in comparison. All any of us can do is feel our way through the present moment. I put a lot of faith in the human spirit, that it will find some norm. As to what to hold on to? I’m afraid of absolutists, especially the right wing of every faith, which is more about politics than religion. When you see that heating up worldwide, it’s very scary. I’ve always treasured nonabsolutes. I’ve stayed away from political statements, enjoying the mysterious areas and not looking for answers. I like ambiguity, resigning yourself to the impossibility of truly knowing. It’s a very poetic place.