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Small Wonder

Richard Linklater Investigates Big Themes With Low Budgets

RENDERED: Richard Linklater, all rotoscope style

By Cole Haddon | Posted 7/12/2006

Since emerging as one of the í90s independent film forefathers with his 1991 debut, Slacker, Richard Linklater has spent 15 years outsmarting Hollywood. Ten films later, heís become one of the most respected directors in both the indie and studio worlds, despite the fact that his moviesí total stateside gross amounts to a mere $149 million--with School of Rock and Bad News Bears contributing $114 million of that. In fact, without his major studio releases, including 1998ís The Newton Boys, Linklaterís other seven films havenít even brought in the budget of just one of these movies. In other words, Linklater has figured out one very simple rule: Keep your movies small, make their budgets back, and theyíll keep letting you do whatever the hell you want.

"I do OK in L.A.," he says, laughing. "Iím functional, I guess." But, as he explains while seated in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, thereís a reason why he stays firmly rooted in his beloved Austin, Texas. "The downside to being too close to the industry"--Hollywood--"is it gets you kind of business thinking, like opening-day grosses, per-screen averages, and all that. Iíve found that it doesnít help me at all to think in those terms."

Keeping his head clear keeps Linklater focused on telling the best stories he can, relying on his language-driven character pieces like Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, and his new A Scanner Darkly. Because of this, heís never had a shortage of big names willing to line up to work for a pauperís payday, from Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman to Scannerís Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and, returning from exile since her 2002 shoplifting conviction, Winona Ryder--even if it means long stints in Austin, where Linklater insists on shooting most of his projects.

Itís not that big budgets scare him. "Each film has its own needs, what it needs to be told effectively," he says. "But when youíre doing smaller, character-based films that puts you into the smaller budgets. Thereís less pressure there in that way. I have to think small, in a way--smaller in scale, not in themes."

Scanner is an example of that, where, upon first reading the script--with its shape-shifting "scramble suits" and hallucinations--a live-action budget was calculated around $20 million to $30 million. Linklater knew that would never work, if only because the budget would force sci-fi author Philip K. Dickís novel to be morphed from a small-scale exploration of drug-induced paranoia, government spying, and identity into something bigger.

Like other Dick adaptations that ditched their source materialís nuances in favor of big-budget simplemindedness, such as Total Recall, Impostor, and Paycheck, "you couldíve taken the idea of the scramble suit and the undercover narcs assigned to themselves and run with it and turn it into an action thriller of some kind," Linklater says. "I think, if our budget had been big enough, we probably wouldíve had to. But I wouldnít have been around to do that."

To solve the problem, Linklater recruited a big-name cast, convinced them to work for nothing, and then shot everything digitally. Then, by using a computer animation program called interpolated-rotoscoping (the same technique Linklater used on Waking Life), animators "painted" over the DV footage and transformed the drug-fueled reality game into an even trippier experience for somewhere around $6 million.

For Linklater, it was important to get his adaptation as accurate as possible to Dickís novel--something that has never really been accomplished except with, in his opinion, Blade Runner, based on Dickís novel Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep? A Scanner Darkly "has resonated with me as probably his most personal work, like I felt that he mustíve lived this world," Linklater says, alluding to Dickís personal drug-abuse battle. "He mustíve known these people. And thatís been confirmed to me, not only by the memoriam at the end of the book--that kind of makes it hit home, like, ĎOh yeah, these were real peopleí--but the more I got to know about his life, the more clear it was to me that this was largely autobiographical to him."

Itís really no surprise that Dickís surreal explorations of reality have maintained a special place in Linklaterís heart, since so much of his own work has drawn from the same ontological questions about life, perceptions of reality, our roles in the worlds we choose, and the philosophies that bind it all together. Both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset were entirely driven by intricately scripted two-person debates, and Waking Life has been called a cinematic adaptation of The Idiotís Guide to Philosophy since, sans any discernible story line, manís entire philosophical history is crammed into 100 minutes.

"Iíve always had that kind of questioning attitude toward the world," Linklater says. "I never felt I had the answers. More importantly, the questions were a little more intriguing than answers. So, I guess, as I try to define characters via dialogue, theyíre often those kind of self-conscious characters who are asking questions and wondering about such things. Itís just part of being human, being alive.

"Thatís what I like about Philip K. Dick," he continues. "He was asking some pretty basic questions. How do you know youíre a human? How do you know youíre not dead? What does it really mean that youíre a human? Youíre alive, but are you really?"

With Scanner, Linklater also gets to make his first on-screen political statements, a trend that continues with this fallís adaptation of Eric Schlosserís Fast Food Nation. Here, the fear that Big Brother is watching, that the government is prying into every second of our lives, boils to the surface as undercover narc agent Bob Arctor (Reeves) is assigned to spy on his friends and his real-world self.

"When you think about it, from the time he wrote it until now, itís become reality," Linklater says. "Back then, it was like some paranoid conspiracy thing from the margins, crackpot ideas, but now itís like, ĎOh, he was right after all.í They are spying. It seems like every week we find out a little more about some government program designed to keep us safe, but I think, at this point, citizens are just data to them."

When pressed if Scanner and Fast Food represent a marked shift toward more socially conscious and even politically driven filmmaking, Linklater attributes his ability to even tackle such topics to his growing clout in an industry he enjoys a love-hate relationship with. "For years, Iíve tried to get certain movies like that made, but Iíve just had trouble getting them off the ground," he says. "Maybe now itís just that Iím able to get these films made. You kind of canít help but reflect the times a little bit, though. Itís been a strange century, thus far. It demands a certain response, I guess."

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