Slacker: Slacking Off
This chapter about director Richard Linklater’s beginnings, from the 1996 book Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema, is by the former producer’s representative, creator and host of IFC’s Split Screen, and University of Texas at Austin professor John Pierson. It is preceded by an introduction by the author, updated for the Blu-ray release.
The following was written in 1995, four years after Slacker’s “official” national release and just before Before Sunrise came out. Everything contained herein is still true, only more so. Now it’s eighteen years later, and Before Midnight has demonstrated the full richness and maturity of Richard Linklater’s body of work. Sixteen features in, he remains very recognizably the same person he was when he first set out. Whether studio feature or indie, lower- or higher-budget, live or animated, cast with established stars or new discoveries, based on adapted or original screenplays, his films are fresh and full of life. Slacker was one of those DIY indie debuts that launched a thousand other films, most famously Clerks. It was also ground zero for the ever-burgeoning Austin film scene.
Richard Linklater lives and works in Austin, Texas, but he doesn’t like to be labeled a regional filmmaker. By 1995, with three features (and a Super 8 mm epic) under his belt, he had acquired a building just off the interstate to house his production company, Detour, and to hang his astonishing collection of Polish movie posters. Detour was named for the memorable Edgar G. Ulmer film noir about a hapless guy who goes spiraling downward in a terrible cosmic twist of fate. In an alternate reality (to cite his own fresh-off-the-bus character who kicks off Slacker), Rick might have been that ill-fated character—or else just stayed obscure. But in his reality, Rick’s life has been that of a charmed underdog.
Rick shot Slacker while Steven Soderbergh was conquering the boomer world in mid-1989. Although it showed as a work in progress at that year’s Independent Feature Film Market and secured a $35,000 German television sale, it was too soon for overnight success. Rick opened Slacker successfully on his own in his hometown a year later, in July 1990. Austin embraced it, but the rest of America may not have been ready. Austin is an easygoing college town with good food, great music, an excellent alternative weekly, and, especially in the West Campus neighborhood, a ton of talkative twentysomethings with time on their hands. When the national release via Orion Classics followed another full year later, in the summer of 1991, the audience was ready to identify with, and the media were primed to analyze, Generation X. Rick’s career was launched in the process. By then, he himself was a twentysomething only by the skin of his teeth.
Slacker made Richard Linklater the voice of a generation, but he wasn’t really one of them. As the multi-brats, like his doppelgänger Kevin Smith, were massing at the gates, Rick was the last of the Mohicans. His inspiration came from Max Ophuls’s La ronde and Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. You’ll find Michelangelo Antonioni and Rainer Werner Fassbinder one-sheets on his walls, and he’d much rather talk about Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du lac than either Jaws or The Brady Bunch. In short, he is a self-trained art-film brat of the highest order—my kind of guy.
The unfinished Slacker previewed at the IFFM in the midst of Roger-mania. Michael Moore had returned to give his blessing to the next wave of filmmakers. Ironically, none of them could get my attention because I was too busy selling Michael’s film. Luckily for me, Slacker didn’t make Sundance on that go-round, and I had another chance at it.
I went back to Rockport in July 1990, to teach again at the Maine Photographic Workshop. I threw the new issue of Film Comment into the car when we left New York. I found something interesting in the very back that Robert Horton had filed from the Seattle Film Festival about this plotless movie in which “the people keep moving, like fish swimming blindly upstream.” This was Slacker, and its writer-director sounded quite articulate. I found out firsthand soon enough because he tracked me down a day later on the phone. I was the one who was slacking off. Rick was well aware of the challenges his work presented. He’d already weathered some festival rejections (Sundance), grudging invitations followed by mediocre reviews (Dallas’s USA Film Festival), and only a modest profile in his best showcase (Seattle). John Hartl’s Seattle Slacker review had invoked the hippest association of that era by saying, “Twin Peaks has got nothing on this place.” Better yet, the substantive Film Comment piece had reached me and Michael Barker at Orion Classics.
Rick explained that he was in the middle of preparations to open virtually on campus at Austin’s Dobie Theatre, but promised to send his tape immediately. Two weeks later and just four days before the opening, he finally sent it, along with an apologetic letter. I thought maybe he was a slacker after all. But then I noticed the press clippings he’d included. His $23,000 film was getting more coverage in Texas than that summer’s $50 million boondoggle, Dick Tracy. Maybe that’s because the Warren Beatty film only had Madonna songs, while Slacker had her (alleged) Pap smear. Rick also enclosed the amazingly well?timed July 16 Time magazine eight-page cover story “Twentysomething.” The subheading was “Laid-back, Late Blooming, or Just Lost?” Clearly there was something going on here, but the film couldn’t just work in the abstract. I popped it in the VCR one night with my fingers crossed.
Slacker instantly felt like an engaging twenty-four-hour tour across the four corners of a hanging-out college town with an amusing collection of about a hundred losers and schmoozers, conspiracy buffs, angry romantics, vanishing poets, and wacky philosophers. As day turned to night in the film, it may have gotten a little tedious. I may have even shifted into my own dream state. So I watched again the next day. Suddenly I became acutely aware of the absolute brilliance of the structure. The deft filmmaking touch illustrated by the clever links between the three dozen different episodes demanded respect. On top of that, this self-financed, credit-card, family-money, film-stock-in-the-refrigerator feature deployed a crane and a Steadicam in two key early sequences to give it a much bigger scale. It’s definitely not just two people in one location.
As Slacker opened to its first of many consecutive sellout weeks in Austin, Michael Barker showed up in Maine to help teach my course. Now he did know about the film; he’d even sent spies to a Texas cast and crew screening. Although I hadn’t yet had a postscreening conversation with Rick, I decided to take a calculated risk and invite the Barker clan over to see the tape after a rich lobster dinner. The plan worked. Michael got into it. The next day I screened it for the class, with a result that was to become familiar. The younger students flipped; the older ones found it tedious and indulgent. Of course I felt great falling into the youth camp, although I was mid-thirtysomething then.
Ethically, I couldn’t go any further with Orion without calling Rick. I got his machine and said, “Call back, something is happening.” When he did, I told him I wanted to represent Slacker. Then I added that I believed we might have a pending sale. He authorized me to let Barker show the tape to his partners Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom back in New York. They were ready to buy what was for them, in 1990, a rarity: an American independent film. Thinking they had a scoop on a difficult 16 mm film, they decided to use their 1985 deal on My Beautiful Laundrette as an exact model. That meant a $100,000 advance—no more, no less—with another $50,000 or so for 35 mm completion costs.
Rick was thrilled to have a real offer from a top-drawer company, but once he ran the numbers, he concluded that it would be mighty nice to get a little more to cover his deferments. Orion wouldn’t budge. Although we were close to an agreement in principle, I suggested that we inform other distributors about the sold-out run at the Dobie and cagily hint that nothing would prevent them from buying a ticket. New Line sent some Dallas staffers, Alison Brantley flew in for Avenue Pictures, and Mark Tusk at Miramax cadged a bootleg tape from either an agent or the actor Steve Buscemi. He’s still not telling. Unfortunately, nobody was biting.
Pending an Orion closing, we had submitted Slacker to the three September festivals. Telluride and Toronto turned it down without a second thought. The New York Film Festival suggested maybe New Directors/New Films would be appropriate. Orion Classics, as was their wont, did not despair, renege, or lose interest. Their operating method was like mine. If they liked it, they figured others would too. But not everyone. Even as the hometown Dobie remained full, a few complaints filtered through. One letter said: “Why are the lives of these unproductive, pretentious, and boring people documented on film? The movie does not mean anything.” The documentary description is suggestive. Rick made a scripted movie using the characteristics and contributions of his players. Slacker feels real.
For a while it looked like Slacker might get snakebit yet again, even with Orion Classics and me giving it the Sundance push. Competition director Alberto Garcia simply did not particularly like the film—and he was a mid?twentysomething. He stalled. Although I’m sure he hated giving me any satisfaction, since I was known to satirize his meteoric rise from print shipper to programmer, Alberto finally came through with an invitation for Slacker.
The Sundance experience was up and down, or down and then up. The first show was in the best theater, the Egyptian, at what seemed like a great time, Saturday at 10:00 p.m. But the late start posed problems for a ninety-seven-minute talkfest. The audience broke into thirds: one-third loved it, one-third walked out, and one-third fell asleep. Now, I’d already developed my theory that nodding off in Slacker wasn’t necessarily terrible. Nevertheless, the normally unflappable publicist Cara White, of Clein and White, wasn’t too keen on the results. The rest of the week improved with earlier showtimes. Although Rick went home without a prize, juror Gus Van Sant told him that he’d had his vote.
Beginning with Sundance, Slacker was now following in the footsteps of the previous year’s Metropolitan. They’d both had to overcome Alberto Garcia’s resistance to get into Sundance, where they’d both thrived. Metropolitan had pioneered the strategy of stepping out of that January festival into New Directors/New Films at MoMA two months later as a means of enhancing credibility. This move entailed the complete empowerment of the New York Times, since the “newspaper of record” printed just about the only serious New Directors reviews. Slacker already had Orion Classics as its distributor; the year before, Metropolitan had used Vincent Canby’s rave to land a deal with New Line.
Unfortunately, this time Canby didn’t roar with laughter throughout the film; he roared with laughter throughout the short that preceded Slacker, a comedy that mocked some grandmotherly type entrapped by a rocking chair. Once the feature got under way, he settled down and eventually tuned out. When Rick and I made the ritual trip to the New York Times lobby for the early review, his excellent cinematographer, Lee Daniel, came along with a hidden video camera. The paper was twenty minutes late, so Lee had time to interview a few New York City slackers, namely the half-dozen oddballs whom I’d seen there waiting for that first edition every single time I went. The review was the definition of the word mixed. It may have killed distribution prospects. Bernard and Barker have always claimed that they never put all their eggs in the New York Times basket. Over the years they had overcome some genuinely bad Times reviews, most notably for The Night of the Shooting Stars and Wings of Desire. This review wasn’t nearly as bad as those. In fact, we were still trying to decide if we could pull the quote “A fourteen-course meal composed entirely of desserts.” However, Rick wasn’t a Taviani brother or Wim Wenders.
The New Directors audience wolfed down all fourteen desserts. MoMA’s Larry Kardish was a big fan of the film. After stumbling over its name in the introduction, he demonstrated why he wasn’t part of the commercial marketing world when he told me, “Everything about Slacker is great except that terrible title.” Michael Moore came to the show and was the first person to actually admit, “I slept a little, but it was great.” Rick’s mom was there. He explained that he’d hit her up for the same amount of money she’d contributed to his sister’s wedding, on the theory that he wouldn’t be getting married.
One way to dissipate a less-than-stellar Times review is to wait a while before opening the picture. Slacker was set to open at New York’s Angelika Film Center, the ideal venue, in early July—a full three months later. That spring marked some major changes in my life and some surprising developments for American independent film. The whole concept of the self-distributed, hometown theatrical opening of a film is quite risky. If it doesn’t work, distributors will never pick your film up. And even if it does succeed, they may discount the results as fixed.
Slacker was gearing up. The delayed release provided time for Clein and White, which had written a fantastic press book, to work all the other press angles, and it also gave Orion Classics more time to perfect the poster and trailer. Although Rick had “meaningful consultation” rights on these materials, he wasn’t happy with the less-than-subtle choices in the trailer.
Both the trailer and one-sheet highlighted the film’s biggest and possibly cheapest laugh—the Madonna Pap-smear girl. Whether it’s slicing an ear off, eating a dog turd, or hearing Bob Eubanks tell a disgusting joke, movies are remembered for their most notorious moments. Now it just so happens that Madonna herself was sitting in the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles when the trailer came on-screen. As the character tries to market the Pap smear, complete with a single pubic hair, she says, “It’s like sort of getting down to the real Madonna.” Reportedly the entire audience turned to monitor the rock goddess’s reaction, but she’d already bolted.
The July 5 New York opening occurred day and date (distribution lingo for simultaneously) with the “official” reopening in Austin. Slacker resumed its string of sellouts at the Dobie and built up a steady following at the Angelika. A year after the Generation X cover story, Newsweek called Rick’s film “a compelling comedy of zonkitude.” Slacker held steady for weeks. This was very gratifying because the astute Angelika film buyer, Jeffrey Jacobs, had balked a little at the booking. L.A. was quite a bit softer after some poor reviews. I got to express my own feelings about the film very clearly in the L.A. Times. “There is nothing better than a $20,000 film from nowhere, and Slacker was just the most original work I saw last year.” As Michael Moore had returned in triumph to the IFFM in 1990, Rick returned in 1991. Amy Taubin wrote in the Village Voice, “Richard Linklater was the person most filmmakers wanted to be.” Throughout the fall, Orion Classics played off the picture in every possible college market to great effect, and the gross kept rising, eventually reaching $1.2 million.
The theatrical release of Slacker had been a modest, quantifiable success. The cultural impact was much greater; slacker became a household word. Rick may not have invented it, but he sure was the popularizer. St. Martin’s Press even had a tie-in book that sold over 20,000 copies.
In July 1992, three years after shooting Slacker, two years after I saw it, and one year after Orion Classics opened it, Rick went into production in Austin on Dazed and Confused. Because of pacesetting directors like Rick, the lag time between first and second features has decreased every year, as the number of opportunities has increased. Dazed had more than a few wrinkles along the way, some of which stemmed from his art-film-brat personality. On the one hand, Rick reached out to meet the mainstream audience halfway with a teen genre comedy. On the other hand, like Slacker (and this must have worried Tom Pollock), his second feature had multiple plots, seventy-eight characters, and an open ending without any particular lesson being learned. The central character, Pink, had Rick’s haircut and perhaps his internal conflict about sports, but it was the incoming freshman played by Wiley Wiggins who was Rick’s 1976 age—a double surrogate . . . At least Dazed and Confused has a happy home-video ending. It never quite got its due theatrically, but the videocassette became a smash, with the youth of America actually pulling the soundtrack album up the charts months after its initial release.
Rick and his Generation X Siamese twin Doug Coupland may never fully escape from being cospokespersons. But if the channel-surfing generation boasts, in Rick’s words, of “total nonbelief in everything,” then he must be in it but not of it. He still writes program notes for his beloved Austin Film Society. On one schedule he called Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running “my favorite film, period.” There are still some things worth believing in.