Richard Linklater on Being Screwed Out of ‘Dazed’ Money and Why the Oscars Should ‘Get More Hardcore’
The celebrated filmmaker sat down with us to discuss his dream-like Netflix film “Apollo 10 ½,” the state of cinema, how to fix the Academy Awards, and much more.
“It really is optimistic, isn’t it?” asks Richard Linklater.
I’ve convened with the celebrated filmmaker at a hotel in Austin, Texas, where his latest movie Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood is debuting as part of the SXSW Film Festival. Linklater’s lived in the area since attending film classes at Austin Community College in the early ’80s, and went on to inspire a generation of indie directors with Slacker, his 1990 portrait of the city’s colorful characters (including a young Alex Jones), before helming cult classics Dazed and Confused, the Before trilogy, and Boyhood.
And Apollo 10 ½, now streaming on Netflix, is a nostalgic journey through Linklater’s past and a celebration of childhood wonder and imagination. Narrated by Jack Black, it tells the fictional tale of Stanley (Milo Coy), a fourth-grader growing up in a Texas suburb in the shadow of NASA who, through a series of curious circumstances, becomes the first person to land on the moon.
“I was trying to capture that moment of—the real world’s looming but you can still get trapped in your youthful fantasies,” he tells me.
Linklater first conceived of the project during his second year making Boyhood and shot the film prior to the COVID-19 shutdown using a mixture of live actors in front of a green screen (who were later animated in post using the rotoscoping technology from Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) and 2D animation. The result is a hazy fantasy evoking a bygone America.
In addition to editing Apollo 10 ½, the tireless 61-year-old filmmaker spent his pandemic helming a documentary that he describes as “a portrait of criminal justice in Texas,” which will be out later this year on HBO; working on his Sondheim adaptation Merrily We Roll Along, filmed over twenty years; and penning his next feature—“an oddly funny true-crime story” based on a piece written by Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the story Bernie was based on.
We spoke about all that and more over the course of our wide-ranging chat.
There’s something nice about Apollo 10 ½ that almost makes it feel a bit out of step with what’s going on in cinema right now. Maybe it’s just “film Twitter,” but there appears to be this air of cynicism to the point where you’re seeing people hate on, say, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch for being too optimistic.
You feel that? Yeah, I do see that.
Probably a product of the times we’re living in.
Yeah. But wasn’t film always a nice escape? Famously, in the ’30s during the Depression, they liked to dance and a bit of escapism. I mean, there’s a place for it. People want that in movies, but I don’t think they want it in art movies—they want it in mainstream movies. You never know what cultural moment you’ll be hatched into. But this was a cool film to be working on for such a horrible time these last two years. A film set in 1969, from a kid’s point of view, music playing. It was a heavenly escape for all of us. I was so glad to be in a bubble of elsewhere.
It’s funny how that worked out. I was reading an interview with Peter Jackson about his Beatles doc Get Back, and he discussed how therapeutic it was to just go down to the studio during the pandemic and watch the Beatles for hours and hours.
We all have our pandemic projects! I feel sorry for people where it didn’t work out. We got lucky. We wrapped right as the shutdown was coming—made it by like three days. I think the tone of the movie would have been the same regardless, but it was kind of baked into the story. There’s this naïveté inherent in youth but I wanted to capture the dissonance between my life seeming good with my friends and my fantasy life, and I’m excited about the space program, and then when I turn on the TV there are body counts in Vietnam and people thinking the future was going to be terrible.
I’m 37 and 9/11 happened when I was a teenager, followed by Afghanistan and Iraq, so this sense of optimism and near-universal patriotism is somewhat lost on my generation. We didn’t have a galvanizing moment like the moon landing.
I know! No one has since. I’m trying to think of upbeat moments where everyone is celebrating something… I think it’s the last time the whole world was united over something positive. It was an achievement. There’s a dialogue to be had about the money that was being spent, and that’s in the film a bit, but it was something to rally around for the next twenty years.
We’re living in a very divided America right now, and when you look at Last Flag Flying and Apollo 10 ½, was there a part of you that wanted to make these unifying, quietly patriotic films because of the times we’re in?
[Laughs] Yeah. Films to me aren’t partisan exercises—they’re storytelling—but you can’t help it. There must be something in me begging for some kind of unity and, hey, we’re just Americans, we can have these differences. To remind us, hey, we could be united as a country. That said, the world was really screwed up at the time of [Apollo 10 ½]. There were things to be optimistic and excited about, and ways that the world was really screwed up. I’ve always felt that push-pull.
SpaceX’s Elon Musk moved to your backyard of Austin not too long ago. What are your thoughts on Musk?
You know, I’m optimistic. I like the attention toward that—even though they’re still at the Mercury stage. I don’t want to be the naysayer, because the long-term plans are great, but when young people talk about it I go, well, we did this in the early 1960s. But I’m just glad they’re doing anything. NASA is by far my favorite government agency, and what they have on the horizon is very exciting, including the Janus space probe and the Artemis mission. It looks like it’s going to be suborbital is going to be private. Citizens can go, and then the missions to the moon will be larger government missions with NASA.
Watching Apollo 10 ½, there’s this beautiful sense of camaraderie because everyone in this town has ties to NASA. But a lot of people watch the reports now about Jeff Bezos going to space, and other celebrities buying expensive tickets to space, and feel alienated from it. It feels increasingly like a luxury travel service for the uber-rich.
Well, so was plane travel if you go back to the ’30s. The average schmo could not get on an airplane. So, the more the rich do stuff the costs come down. I guess it will become…
…like the Titanic?
[Laughs] There’ll be a steerage section. Hey, I’ve got one more seat because my rich friend couldn’t make it! But no, I don’t know how it’ll work out, and I hate anything that’s a bifurcated thing dividing rich people from the rest. I think that’s just a product of where we are right now. But I’m excited about the technology. They finally built a rocket ship that’s going to be bigger than the Saturn V. There was a long pause, and guys who were kids then have finally taken it over. It’s really important for us to train and explore. I’m pumped, man.
You know, we are at the nine-year mark of the Before series—the gap between all the other films. Is that door still open?
[Laughs] Swing-and-a-miss with that one! But yeah, no door is closed ever. There were lives to be led. You can’t do a movie if you don’t really have a core idea that you’re passionate about, and until that emerges, you can’t really force it.
This is your first film for Netflix, and we’ve seen filmmakers’ attitude toward them as a film distributor change drastically in a short period of time. In the early days, a lot of folks were resistant but now you even have the Scorseses of the world making Netflix movies.
Obviously, every filmmaker loves film—and we love seeing films in the theater. I have a theater and the Austin Film Society means everything to me. But there’s only a handful of filmmakers who can say, oh, I would never do that! People who really dictate those terms. But I’m an indie guy and we’ve always had to adjust, and make it work. Netflix was great. They liked the script and they trusted me. If you do an indie film, you watch it in a film festival, in a year it’s in theaters, and then it’s out of those theaters. Hopefully, people will watch this one in theaters—it’s going to have a theatrical run. I remember as far back as A Scanner Darkly, by the mid-2000s I was like, hey, can you make this available sooner? I love day-and-date, because I’m that kid who lived nowhere and you read about something that’s far away, and you can’t get to it. It felt elitist and coastal. I grew up in a town where it was like, well, there’s this film everybody’s talking about and maybe someday it’ll come to our town.
The pandemic seemed to have sped this up a bit, but are you worried that the theatrical moviegoing experience will only be reserved for studio tentpoles—the big franchises—and independent films will no longer be shown in the theater?
It feels like we’ve been fighting this for a while, but it’s really on the audience. If the adult-ish audience don’t want to go to a theater—that audience is the most cautious, and the most challenging to get into the theater in the first place. It’s just demographics. I do think that audience prefers Netflix, but I don’t know. I’ll miss theatrical as the sole place where people took chances on things. Indie films used to play and now… the big films won that battle. I could see younger generations coming up fifteen, twenty years ago saying, “We’re going to see Transformers!” and then looking at indie films and thinking, “Oh, that’s not big enough for my attention.” There’s a generation now that didn’t have to fight for indie cinema. It’s available. They didn’t have to go to the theater. For us, it meant something. “Oh, Jim Jarmusch has a new film? I’m going first weekend. I can’t wait.” It was a deal for that generation.
I am one of many people who felt Boyhood should have won you a number of Academy Awards. But I’m curious how you feel about the Academy Awards at this point, because you’re one of many great filmmakers who hasn’t won an Oscar yet and they have a pretty bad history when it comes to which films—and filmmakers—they award Oscars.
You get really philosophical about it. It’s just weird to be in it sometimes. You get closer to it and you think, ah, it’s just a big TV show and you might get bumped up to a speaking part—but probably not—and yet it’s a celebration of what you love, and also not. I wish they’d get more hardcore. There were two ways to go, and instead of reaching out to a younger audience just get more rigorous. Don’t pander. Don’t cut categories and say, “Well, nobody cares who edits.” Bullshit. The industry should! And they do. But that’s been going on for a while. They took away the Lifetime Achievement Award. You’d see Satyajit Ray or Robert Altman, and they’d be a part of it, and it was a highlight to see the aging filmmaker come up and get their honorary Oscar. It was a beautiful moment and usually the person would die the next year, so it was almost a curse. But to me, that was one of my favorite moments, and they said, no, we’ll just kick that to the Governors Awards. I’ve been a member forever and I’m proud of it, but I don’t give a… you know… I think most people have a weird ambivalence and attraction at the same time.
I’ve gotta ask how Merrily We Roll Along is going.
We’re rolling along! We have one down and eight to go. It’s going great.
And is the plan to still film it over twenty years?
Yeah! We’re going to cover that timespan. I say that and the future is uncertain, but we’re off and running. It’s crazy. [Laughs] It’s a fun challenge and feels like a big, wonderful experiment. It’s fun to have these weird projects going.
Next year will be the 30th anniversary of Dazed and Confused, which is crazy to think about. My generation grew up adoring that movie. Everyone had the poster, the VHS, and the soundtrack.
Yeah, and it’s like… where’s my money? How come a movie that cost less than $7 million has $12 million in interest against it?
Wait—you didn’t make any money off Dazed and Confused?
How does that happen? We’re talking about one of the biggest cult hits ever.
I don’t know. Ask Universal! [Sigh] Hollywood accounting. I remember really asking for a piece of the soundtrack, because I picked all the songs, and they were like, oh no… First film, you know? N.W.A is still pissed off about that first contract. Everybody has that story of getting screwed with their first project. That film was an indie success. It made more than it cost theatrically, and over the years it’s been everywhere.
The home video money on that must have been massive. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars.
At least about 30 or so! I don’t know. That’s such a cliché to bitch about. But I did go through the Hollywood experience. Here I complain but they did green-light the film, and they wouldn’t green-light the film today. Cast of unknowns? Period film when not much happens, riding around? One film out of Sundance? I don’t think there’s a pitch for that movie today, so I sit here very, very blessed that I came along at a time when studios were going, hey, we’ll make this and this and then throw some chump change over to these guys. I’m still grateful I got the film made, and got it made the way I wanted it to.
Lastly, what was it like to reunite with Jack Black on Apollo 10 ½? You two seem to have very special chemistry together.
I feel so fortunate to experience the joyousness of being around that funny, brilliant guy. And there was a lot of narration for this movie. He was like, “Just don’t make me leave my house.” I said, “I promise—you’ll never have to. Just get a good mic.” It was so wonderful, because he’d come back and watch the scenes and go, “Ha-ha! That’s what it was!”
I’m sad we never got a School of Rock sequel. I know you guys were cooking that up a bit.
Nah. It wasn’t meant to be. You’ve gotta do it for the right reasons. Just don’t do it for economic reasons. It’s gotta be something substantial. And it’s the same with the Before films: you don’t do it just to do it, you do it because you’ve got something to say. There’s the victory-lap sequel, and there’s something with a little more purpose. I want to do the latter.