It’s no Hollywood – and that’s a good thing. Andrew Dickens visits Austin, home of Richard Linklater, to see how it helped him make the Oscar favourite
In the middle of a car park, in the middle of a former airfield in Austin, Texas, is a small white ‘portable’ cabin. It’s the kind of construction that, at my school, housed overflow lessons from the main buildings. They were usually unpopular lessons, or lessons taught by unpopular teachers. This cabin houses something very popular: Detour Filmproduction, the creative home of Richard Linklater. In times of security fears among film companies, arguably Hollywood’s hottest director works from an office penetrable by a sturdy spoon. It’s very Linklater and, as they say here, very Austin.
I’m here to see the city that shaped the man who made 2014’s best film: the brilliant Bafta- and, justice be done, Oscar-winning Boyhood. Shot periodically over 12 years, it’s a story in which nothing but the ordinary happens to a Texan family; it puts our lives on screen and is beautiful for doing so. The phrase “doing their own thing” is one you hear a lot in this artsy, liberal oasis within a proudly conservative desert. Unique filmmaking is Linklater’s thing.
“Austin provides conditions where Rick can push the boundaries of cinema,” says Rebecca Campbell, executive director of the Austin Film Society (AFS), founded by Linklater in 1985 as a way for him and his cinephile chums to watch hard-to-find films, and now based in a bigger cabin next to Detour. “The AFS was a group of misfits who only wanted to live and love movies. That outsider culture was a comfortable place for him to explore his ideas, and became the subject of his breakout movie.”
That film, Slacker, the $23,000 1991 indie template (it inspired, among others, Kevin Smith to make Clerks) that journeys aimlessly through Austin, taking snapshots of geeks, freaks and coffee shop philosophers, made Linklater’s name.
Then came Linklater’s first big hit: 1993’s high-school classic, Dazed And Confused, another low-budget Austin-set film. Its alumni included a young Ben Affleck, Renée Zellweger and Milla Jovovich. Most notably, it launched the career of a drawling unknown called Matthew McConaughey, now one of Linklater’s frequent collaborators. His “alright, alright, alright” catchphrase, aired again when he picked up his Oscar last year, was the first line he ever uttered to camera.
The film’s success would help send those stars to Tinseltown, but for Linklater, the bond with Austin was already unbreakable. He stuck around and continued to make films, nearly always here, always in his own way.
He’s done conventional comedy (School Of Rock, Bad News Bears) and romance (the Before trilogy), but he’s also done an entire film on a camcorder (Tape) and tackled existentialism (Waking Life) and science-fiction (A Scanner Darkly) using rotoscoping – an animation-over-live action technique that dates back 100 years. It took a man like this to make Boyhood, and it took a city like this.
Linklater arrived in Austin in the mid-Eighties, armed with a Super 8 camera, and taught himself to make films. Here he met kindred spirits, not least in Nick Barbaro and Louis Black, University Of Texas film graduates who had already started the alternative, culture-based newspaper the Austin Chronicle, and would later create the South By Southwest (SXSW) festivals. Black helped Linklater found the AFS.
“When the Summer Of Love self-destructed, that wave rolled across the US, eventually to Texas,” says Campbell. “It was called the Cosmic Cowboy era. Those roots gave rise to SXSW and The Chronicle – when these guys arrived in the late-Seventies, the vibe had been erased elsewhere, but Austin was just catching up. It was a cheap place to live and wasn’t all about career ambition.”
Austin today isn’t quite the same; shiny offices have appeared, the population and cost of living have soared, and most filmmakers require a full-time ‘other’ job (Linklater worked just 15 hours a week as a bellhop). The slacker spirit, however, remains.
Austin isn’t pretty. Dusty pick-ups clutter the streets; it’s ramshackle, with the emphasis, in places, on shack. But its charm isn’t superficial; it’s warm and friendly and embraces true individuality. The weird are welcome. And they really do their own thing here; big multinational chains are spurned in favour of local brands. It’s at one such homegrown institution, the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, that I experience first-hand the city’s cinephilia.
At 7pm on a Wednesday, following trailers for obscure Russian films and a night dedicated to VHS-only titles, I watch a cinema employee give an impassioned introduction to Tony Scott’s underrated vampiric debut, The Hunger. The audience lap up his words, while I lap up a large, juicy burger and a glass of local (naturally) IPA; items, among many, I can order to my seat throughout the film.
It’s heaven, and perfectly normal in Austin, thanks indirectly to Linklater. Robert Rodriguez and Terrence Malick are both notable Austin residents, but the influence of ‘Rick’ is strongest.
“Linklater is at the spiritual heart of film in Austin,” says Janet Pierson, head of SXSW Film. “He gathered around him a community of people who love films. That he stayed here post-Dazed And Confused, was a critical moment. It put a stake in the ground, saying we can do things our own way and we can do it here. He’s a nice guy and a committed, talented artist. Other people became attracted to that.”
Those people form a new generation of ‘very Austin’ filmmakers, taking the world by storm: the Zellner brothers, whose Sundance hit Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter comes to the UK this week; Kat Candler who wrote and directed Aaron Paul’s best feature performance to date in Hellion, Mud and Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols. The list goes on. All different, all connected.
The AFS itself now supports thousands of local artists; through grants, affordable office space or with its all-singing, all-dancing (or whatever else you want to film in there) Austin Studios, housed in old aircraft hangers just yards
from Linklater’s cabin.
Outside the studios, three young men zoom around the car park in a red convertible; camera, mic and steering wheel in hands. The trio encapsulate Linklater’s legacy. They are part of Rooster Teeth, a production company that started out making online comedy videos by voicing over gameplay footage from Halo. Last June, the crowdfunding campaign for its first feature-length film, Lazer Team, became the first on Indiegogo to pass $1m. They’d only asked for $650,000. In November, it was bought by YouTube network Fullscreen.
Whether Boyhood adds to its trophy haul this weekend or not, Linklater has proved nice guys, who want to do their own thing, can finish first in Austin.