Gregory Kirschling
July 15, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Talking to Richard Linklater is a little like costarring in a Richard Linklater movie. The interview’s done. He’s free to go back to work. But as if he were a character in one of his own conversation-friendly indies — such as last year’s Before Sunset, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy walk around Paris gabbing elegantly in real time — the director just keeps on talking. About ”sunny Southern California.” About how he loves Bull Durham except for that dumb scene where Tim Robbins screws the girl in the locker room. About how Raging Bull is probably in his movie top 10 of all time. And about Eric Rohmer, the French director who also loves characters who like to talk.

What’s unusual about this is that Linklater has a movie to go shoot. On a cloud-dappled Valentine’s Day, under the shade of a Texas Longhorns cap, he’s sitting in the bleachers overlooking a Little League field in Encino, where he’s filming a big-studio remake of 1976’s baseball comedy The Bad News Bears.

Shouldn’t he be running around, barking orders like a normal moviemaker? ”It’s not the usual thing to see the director hanging out,” agrees star Billy Bob Thornton, who played football and baseball with Linklater and the movie’s kid actors during downtime on the set. ”A lot of directors are very intense, but Rick just kind of takes his time. He’s very laid-back.”

And yet somehow, he’s very productive and prolific, too. Bears is Linklater’s fifth film in four years — following Waking Life, Tape, School of Rock, and Before Sunset. He’s on a real winning streak. Waking Life and Tape, released within two weeks of each other in 2001, were a critically romanced twofer. School of Rock, starring Jack Black, grossed $81 million in 2003, granting the indie-bred director considerable new clout (and scoring him a return gig at Paramount for Bears). Before Sunset, which he made for just $2.7 million, earned Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination this year. Few other directors have so expertly and swiftly toggled between studio films and independents.

Observing him on set, it’s not so clear how he does it. As Linklater drinks in the view, which mostly includes a couple of gone-to-seed palm trees flanking the field, he’s asked how many shots he’s got left today. ”A bunch,” the Texas native drawls genially. ”Every day’s a hustle.” Not that you can tell by hanging with him.

”Rick is always so buoyant!” says Hawke, who stayed up talking with him till 4 a.m. on the night they first met in 1993. ”I’ve been his close friend for years, and he’s never complained to me about anything. He doesn’t complain.”

Linklater likes mavericks and outcasts. He shot to self-made fame — and put Austin on the film map — in 1991 with Slacker, an utterly original, talkative, nonnarrative little movie that celebrated dozens of offbeat Texan bohemians. His second film, the studio high school comedy Dazed and Confused, is the stoner-friendly teen classic that helped launch the careers of Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Parker Posey, among others. It might seem a little funny that an antiauthority guy like Linklater is now filming a Hollywood remake, but consider Bad News Bears more carefully. It fits snugly into his subversive filmography.

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