The "Dazed and Confused" director embodies the '90s paradox: a slacker with ambition
Richard Linklater is hooked on a feeling. From across the room, the CD rack on the floor of his apartment looks pretty mundane—it’s one of those low-budget, black plastic modules on sale at any local Kmart. Look a bit closer, though, and it’s the discs themselves that stand out—Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits; the Eagles’ One of These Nights; Turn the Beat Around: The Disco Years, Volume 1; Alice Cooper’s Greatest Hits.
”Isn’t this great?” chimes Linklater with the sunny grin of an 8-year-old on Christmas morning. ”I bought them for research, and I kept all the receipts, so Universal paid for them. It was my only perk—I promise.”
Universal, of course, is Universal Studios, and Linklater’s comment is one of the only indications—aside from the white walls lined with posters of cult films like If… and Two-Lane Blacktop—that this laid-back guy in cutoffs, high- top sneakers, and a T-shirt is a movie director. In fact, Linklater could be a character from his films—one of the anti-careerist hangers-out in his 1991 debut, Slacker, or a grown-up version of one of the ’70s potheads in his new movie, Dazed and Confused. This afternoon in Austin, Tex., his home of nine years, unopened mail spills from the couch onto the white shag carpet; the bathtub is coated with brown scuzz. Linklater, who looks a decade younger than his 32 years, is playing one of his prized videotapes—a vintage Jerry Lewis telethon. He must turn up the volume on the TV, though, to hear it over the Thin Lizzy CD cranking on the stereo.
Slacker—a groundbreaking slice of twentysomething life in which Linklater’s restless camera wandered from one aimless and quirky character to the next—took over two years and a little under $30,000 to make. ”I saw people discussing it with such an intensity that I felt I had to see it,” recalls Michael Barker, then a vice president at Orion, which distributed Slacker. ”It tapped into a certain generation.” It also eventually grossed over $1 million and led the fledgling filmmaker to a deal with Gramercy Pictures, a subsidiary of Universal, for Dazed and Confused.
Like Slacker, Dazed and Confused centers on a group of characters muddling through life, this time in high school in 1976. ”I wasn’t satisfied with teen movies I had seen,” Linklater says, a trace of a drawl sliding out of his throat. ”No one got it—that it’s not about big issues. It’s about hanging out and driving around and waiting for something to happen.” Nothing does happen, which allows Dazed to capture the full-bore lassitude of the generation that fell between the boomers and busters—the lost generation that grew up with Led Zeppelin, Earth shoes, ”Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” and the prevailing sense that their time could never compare with the hallowed ’60s. ”It’s not a spoof,” asserts Sean Daniel, one of the film’s producers. ”Ridiculous bell-bottoms and bad hair are treated with dignity.”
Hence Linklater’s CD library, which helped jog his memory of growing up as the son of divorced parents in Houston and a smaller Texas town, Huntsville. Linklater describes himself during that time as ”a jock who had a good time,” and his looks retain that mix of stocky athleticism and stoner mellowness (typified by his circa-1974 Jackson Browne haircut). ”I had the feeling back then that everything was f—-ed,” he says. ”From Watergate on, it was like, ‘Okay, they’re all crooks, the whole oil embargo is a big sham.’ The ’60s hippies were saying, ‘Hey, man, it’s a conspiracy,’ and they were kind of right. At some point they believed, but we never really did. Healthy cynicism was our birthright.”
Thin Lizzy ends; next, Linklater puts on Mott the Hoople. ”I’m in the first wave of people who would have any interest in a movie about high school back then. Anyone younger wouldn’t be able to, and anyone older would have no interest. So,” he shrugs, ”for better or worse, I’m it.”