"My daughter recently asked me, 'Dad, is your next film going to be about people just talking and talking and talking?'" director Richard Linklater recalls by phone from his home just outside Austin, Texas. "And I had to tell her, 'Yeah, probably.'"
Indeed, dialogue is never in short supply in a Richard Linklater movie, and never less so than in two new projects seeing release within a month of each other, Waking Life and Tape. But if Linklater's films are "talky," they don't seem so: The conversation is often so riveting that you hang on every word especially in the films he's also scripted, such as 1991's Slacker, 1993's Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life. The other scripts he's worked from including two plays, Eric Bogosian's SubUrbia and Stephen Belber's Tape also pack an overwhelming amount of verbiage into their running times, but there's a craft and control to Linklater's screenplays that challenges viewers to become actively engaged in his characters' convoluted conversations.
It's a control he strives to bring to each film he directs. "I think if you missed the credits, you'd think I wrote Tape," Linklater says. "There's a strong self-consciousness to all the characters I choose to direct." Still, several aspects of Tape set it apart from his other films. Financed by the Independent Film Channel but bumped up to theatrical release after its backers saw the final cut. Tape is a digital-video movie that unfolds in real time. While making Tape, Linklater revisited a few films that exist in real time or flirt with the concept, such as Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, but he found the notion of spatial limitations more appealing: "With this project, I was very interested in the subgenre of narratives in which characters are always on the brink of exiting a very confined space."
That space is both literal and physical, as Vince (Hawke) urges his filmmaking buddy Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard) to apologize to their mutual ex-lover Amy (Thurman) for a date rape that may or may not have occurred 10 years ago. The entire narrative takes place in a small motel room, with the dialogue centering claustrophobically on each person's responsibility for his or her own past. There's a moment in Waking Life when a character muses that, through cell death and regeneration, every person essentially becomes a biologically new entity every decade or so. But in Tape, there's no notion that being an older, different person makes one any less responsible for past deeds. "It's easy to apologize for something your forefathers did," Linklater says. "That's how governments act apologizing for slavery a century later. It's much harder for a person to apologize for something they did, something they live with and can never erase."
It's a very focused film, one the director terms "a humble undertaking, and more experimental than it probably looks." Tape's confined setting, modest scale, and dependence on the (often forced) performances of its small cast make it seem that much smaller next to the boldly itinerant, ecstatically unfocused Waking Life, in which several characters muse, in dramatically fluctuating fashion, about existentialism, love, and dreaming. "Waking Life presents a lot of contradictory information given the breadth of characters presented and asks each viewer for a subjective response," Linklater says.
Ultimately, the seemingly discursive Waking Life does return to one central concern: the human brain's navigations through both dreams and reality. Even though much of the action takes place in a dream state, none of the characters is interested in retreat. "Most of the characters are taking a stand for individuality, whether asleep or awake," Linklater says. He mentions a train-hopping character in the film who's looking to meet other dreamers: "He's talking about dreaming on an ideological level, the need to dream about a better reality and then strive to attain it. He's talking about the significance of believing that the moment in time in which you live is a crucial moment. [Waking Life] is very much about the future the characters share an excitement about ideas in a lot of different fields."
Which is not to say they do nothing but talk. They also climb telephone poles, shoot guns, and set themselves on fire. What's more, they drastically change appearance at least every five minutes. Waking Life was shot on digital video, then painted over frame by frame by a team of computer artists headed by Linklater's friend Bob Sabiston. The resulting feature veers from abstract to representational visuals as often as from abstract to representational thought. It's a film Linklater has wanted to make since seeing Sabiston's short films, which utilize the painted-video technique. "I couldn't see this film being done any other way," he says.
With several potential projects on tap ("Due to money [issues], I always have two films that don't get made for every one that does"), Linklater skirts the question of what he'll tackle next. He does allow that he might someday release his pre-Slacker feature debut, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, on DVD. "I stand by that one like I do everything I've done, good or bad," he says. Given his characters' penchant for articulating their creator's mental meanderings, Linklater's young body of work already stands as a remarkable journal of his thoughts, even as his films shade between awkwardness and brilliance. It seems only fitting to hear their director still actively engaging his past and, like the train-hopper in Waking Life, still dreaming about his future.Eric Allen Hatch writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]