Richard Linklater’s Animal Rescue Show Will Make You Feel a Little Bit Better About America
The legendary filmmaker talks to Marlow Stern about his TV series “That Animal Rescue Show,” the deep sadness of Trump, and the Tao of McConaughey.
“It’s a beautiful day here,” Richard Linklater tells me. “I have my own pandemic refuge farm.”
The celebrated filmmaker behind Boyhood, Dazed & Confused, and the Before trilogy (to name a few), phoned me while strolling across his “acreage” in Central Texas, about 40 minutes outside Austin. And he appeared in good spirits, despite the country being just days away from one of the most important elections of our lifetime. And why wouldn’t he be? He’s surrounded by a medley of animals—ducks, donkeys, pigs, turkeys, and too many chickens to count—and his first big television series, That Animal Rescue Show, is debuting on CBS All-Access.
“I remember when they said they were going to release this around the election, I said, ‘Really? Could we be farther away from the climate of what everyone will be focused on?’” he recalled.
But the truth is, we need That Animal Rescue Show now more than ever. The 10-episode docuseries is a sprawling portrait of the animal rescue community of Austin, Texas—people with big hearts who are, in the words of Linklater, “in the exact spot they were meant to be in this world, who gave up other opportunities, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s a refreshingly positive show that makes us realize there are plenty of selfless, caring people in America, despite the considerable pall cast by a certain orange narcissist.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Linklater opened up about his lovely new show, whether the Before series will continue, how his adaptation of the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along (which will be filmed over 20 years) is faring during COVID, and much more.
Before we get into the show, how do you feel COVID is being handled down in Texas? I know the governor has been pretty hell-bent on reopening.
Yeah. We were one of those states where you had [lieutenant governor] Dan Patrick out there saying, “You know, hey, there’s more important things out there than life—like the economy.” That’s a very Texan kinda thing to say. So it’s been a struggle just like everything, from ballot access or everything. Everything is this unnecessary fucking struggle, isn’t it?
Are you optimistic about the election?
Oh gosh… I think I’m like everyone who lived through 2016, right? I don’t know one person who’s optimistic. You’re kind of hopeful but… let’s see where we are next week. But that’s good. You’re just really focused. The sports’ analogy being the team that’s up near the end of the game, still playing their game, focused, and not letting up. That is a winning strategy, and I’m not saying it will be in this case, but that’s the right way to approach it. I’m not seeing any overconfidence. And if this can’t get it done? Something’s really wrong from here on out.
Was making That Animal Rescue Show therapeutic on your part? Did you just want to make a nice show about rescuing animals given the hellscape that is America right now?
Well, this was conceived a couple of years ago, so yes, the hellscape of Trump’s presidency but not the 2020 hellscape! We just happen to be dropping this where the hellscape—between COVID, and the political atmosphere in our country, and the cruelty and hatred—it just happens to be dropped in the red-hot center of all that, this show that just seems so in a different universe, where people are kind, caring, and really passionate about what they do. It does seem like a strange artifact of a different mindset that is kind of lost to the national discourse. You can do things in your life that articulate something else—a different side of humanity, a different focus in life.
From a viewer’s standpoint, it did serve as something of a tonic—something nice that you can get lost in to take your mind off everything else.
Yeah! I’ve been pleased when people have said that. Oh god, it makes me feel good again. And I’m not some feel-goody kinda guy. I’m really not. I’m generally optimistic enough about stuff to keep moving forward in this world, but a couple of years ago when this was conceived it really came out of my love of animals and the people that do this. I remember when they said they were going to release this around the election, I said, “Really? Could we be farther away from the climate of what everyone will be focused on?” I don’t know. Whatever, man! To some degree, we were always going to be counterprogramming.
Do you have personal experience with these animal rescues in Austin?
We have a farm out here so animals have always been close. In addition to the dogs, we’ve got four pigs, three donkeys, three goats, three turkeys, a ton of, like, ducks and hens. Lots of chickens—too many to count! You know, a growing menagerie. A lot of them are rescues that we take in. Just a couple of weeks ago, a friend had some ducks from in town that had never been around water, so we now have eight new ducks on our pond, and it was great to see them—these ducks who’d never been near water—waddle in and immediately start flapping their wings. It’s like, oh, that’s where you’re supposed to be in this world!
It does seem like having animals in your life can improve one’s empathy and compassion. I’m reminded of how Trump’s the first president in a century without a dog in the White House.
Doesn’t that say everything? To be such a narcissist—to care about something else is just beyond his ability. It’s the same reason he doesn’t watch movies or listen to music. You notice he has no artistic idols? The only people he admires are those who have high ratings or made lots of money. You ask him, “What jazz musician changed your life? What book? What movie?” Nothing. It’s just astounding that this could be considered a normal human being. By any yardstick, we’re talking a deep, deep, sad pathology here that should be kept at bay or at least isolated. When you encounter people like this in your life, you just hope they don’t do too much damage. It’s the opposite of people who care about animals.
Slacker came out thirty years ago this year. It’s fascinating to compare that vision of Austin with the one in That Animal Rescue Show.
[Laughs] I would like to think, and I just know it’s true, that a lot of people in that phase of their life—young 20s—would evolve and start a rescue. Some of the characters in my show are straight out of Slacker, like the guy who lives with goats. And it’s people doing what they want in the world and not in it for the money.
I’m a big fan of Slacker and I wanted to talk to you about the state of the American conspiracy theory, because it does seem to have evolved quite a bit from the fun, pretty harmless folks in Slacker to the present-day.
It was fun back then. What happened? [Laughs] You know that book in the ‘60s, The Paranoid Style in American Politics? There’s always been this conspiracy theory thing going on in the American psyche, but somewhere it turned super malevolent. I guess it’s the internet. It used to be these fun fringe things that you could participate in and believe, and none of it was very serious, and the stakes of it were pretty damn low. I loved alternative thinking—not alternative facts, mind you—but alternative thinking. It just doesn’t matter too much if you believed Oswald didn’t act alone but it grew darker and darker. Once it’s really costing a lot of lives? I’ve been super anti-conspiracy for the last 20-something years. Now, I see it as malevolent.
The road from fringe to malevolent can be seen in figures like Alex Jones, who I know was in a couple of your films [Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly]. This is a guy who was yelling crazy anti-government crap on a street corner—
Well in our case it was public-access TV. [Laughs] And our film society manages the access stations. I totally believe in the citizens’ right to get on air, since it’s a nice notion, until it’s frothing stuff that causes harm.
It’s wild because he’s become this national figure—and a quite repugnant one—to the point where Trump appeared on his program during the election, and he’s out there accusing the Sandy Hook parents of lying about their children being murdered.
I know. I can’t explain to you how bizarre it was to—I haven’t spoken to Alex in about 15 years—but to see him go from that quirky guy, and he’s a friendly guy and we were friends to a degree, but now it’s pure market capitalism. He realizes there’s an audience of millions who want to hear this stuff, and that he can make a shitload of money if he supplies it to them. It’s a bit of a bargain, I believe. And it’s sad. If you could jump back to ’99 public access Alex [Jones], he was making videos, and the tone was more “freedom” and “anti-government.” I just never thought I’d see the day where he would be aligned with the government, and with a president where he’s carrying water for this kind of racism and all that stuff. It’s just crazy.
Before Sunrise also turned 25 this year. I really love those films. Do you see that saga continuing?
I mean, never say never! We just fell into this 9-year grid, and that happened twice sort of by happenstance. It wasn’t some grand design at any time. It hasn’t come together for another but we haven’t had the good idea. Before, Jesse and Celine were still alive in our minds, and it just hasn’t happened yet. And that last one [Before Midnight] was so hard to do. I can’t tell you. It was such a hard thing to depict. It’s not as sexy as falling in love, or re-falling in love. Just grinding it out in the real world as you head into middle age, like, who the fuck wants to see that and dig through that? [Laughs] Well, we did! But it’s a bit more grueling.
Well, you’ve got two years.
[Laughs] Yeah! I don’t know. I don’t think any of us feel a clock ticking. Hopefully it’s a long life, and who the hell knows. Currently nothing to report—but it could happen! We have a way of turning on a dime.
Have you been filming Merrily We Roll Along during COVID? No, we missed that completely. We filmed last year and there’s a two-year gap, so hopefully we’ll miss COVID altogether. It’s not like Boyhood where I filmed every year. It’s nine times over 20 years, so right off the bat there’s a two-year gap and we’re falling into that. We’ll call it our COVID gap, and it just happened to align with Sondheim’s story.
Hitching your wagon to a group of actors for 20 years must take a lot of trust.
Yeah. I guess it’s not much different than 12. Leaps of faith, you know. It happens in life a lot—you get hitched to the family you’re born into, or you take a job with someone and end up working at it forever. You just make it work. And hopefully, you’re having a good time and enjoying yourself and it’s a good thing in your life, which we all trust it will be. That’s the good thing about the arts: the overwhelming vibe you get in the workplace is we’re all here for a reason.
My biggest fear in hitching my wagon to actors these days is bad stuff coming out about one of them, and I know some bad allegations recently came out about Blake Jenner, who’s in your film.
Oh no, is that where this is going?
It is a pretty unique problem though, right? What do you do when you’ve committed to an actor for twenty years and something like this comes out about him?
Yeah. I don’t know. To be honest, we’re still grappling with that. I can’t even tell you what we’re doing. I don’t know. What do you do when someone gets caught up in something? It’s very complex. Nothing is as simple or cut-and-dried as people would like it to be usually.
I consider Boyhood a classic, and am still a bit peeved that it lost Best Picture to Birdman, which is the type of navel-gazey Hollywood film that doesn’t speak to me.
[Laughs] Oh man… Well, that wasn’t a navel-gazey one at least!
It struck me as a “woe is us, actors have it so hard!”-type thing.
As far as Boyhood goes, do you see that story continuing?
Yeah, I think that was that. You know? That was always the idea, and the conception. If that’s the conception, you maximize it, that’s what you’re meant to do, then I have trouble building on that. Those were those years that I wanted to depict, so I feel like I’ve done it and I’m trying not to be redundant. There’s got to be a reason to do it more than just ‘cause you could do it.
I’ve always been fascinated by the way you explore the passage of time in your work, and how relationships are shaped by time.
It’s kind of an instinctual thing! I never sat down and said, “I’m interested in time.” I think early on I was striving to tell stories that got close to the way of how real life felt, or depicted how the brain worked and how it felt to be processing time. I was interested in that as a storytelling narrative-propulsion device, and fell into that on numerous occasions. I’ve always been super aware of time passing and the finite nature of living. I’ve always thought, “Wow, we’re here so briefly. Look at how quick a decade goes.” I’ve treated time as a storytelling device more than plot.
It sounds like you subscribe to the “just keep livin’” mantra that Matthew McConaughey espoused in Dazed & Confused, which to me is the greatest fusion of a movie character with a real-life persona perhaps ever.
[Laughs] But if you really break it down, numerous other characters in that movie were very close to who they really were. I think with Matthew, he’s just unique. You know, I just did an event with Matthew for this book he has out, and people wanted to know, “How is he different?” and I said, “He’s not at all different.” He’s older but that was him. He had a lot of thinking behind everything. The “all right, all right, all right”—he had a philosophy behind that, and that was the first thing he uttered on screen. There’s a system in his brain that’s processing and thinking through everything. It’s very methodical and intentional in a way that you wouldn’t guess. He’s got this, “Hey, everything’s chill” Jimmy Buffet-vibe, but everyone who knows Jimmy Buffet knows this guy is a maven with a plan. Maybe they’re having fun doing it but they’re not floating in the breeze—they’re making things happen. Matthew is the engine of all things Matthew. When people say, “You discovered him,” I say, “Nobody gets ‘discovered.’ Matthew created himself.” Everybody cuts their own swath in this world.
I think you have as well, Richard. Thanks for taking the time to chat and I’m looking forward to watching more of That Animal Rescue Show. I do find it to be soothing.
[Laughs] Good! We could all use some soothing. I hope it’s the soothing we all want by next week. Can’t say we haven’t tried. They should have put that as their campaign slogan: Vote Biden-Harris for a National Soothing. A soothing candidate! I’ll take it.