A true Texan, he takes aim with both barrels

Times Staff Writer

IN the closing credits of Richard Linklater’s hallucinogenic animated film “A Scanner Darkly,” an unusual list of names scrolls upward. It’s a roster of the lost: friends and acquaintances of the late sci-fi author Philip K. Dick who died of overdoses or had their lives devastated by drugs. Their names were taken from Dick’s book, on which the film is based.

“Between alcohol and drugs, I’d say all of us involved in the film have our own list,” says Linklater. “It’s like, ‘You know that guy who was here last week? He OD’ed.’ ‘Really? I didn’t even know he was on drugs.’ ‘You know that guy who was always drunk? Well, he just dropped dead because he drank himself to death.’ ”

“A Scanner Darkly,” which opens Friday, is a darkly comedic and ultimately tragic journey through the world of drugs and paranoia, as much a critique of America’s war on drugs as it is a cautionary tale of ruined lives. It tells the story of an undercover cop only seven years in the future who reluctantly follows orders to start spying on his friends as they wrestle with their demons.

“That’s the future world Philip K. Dick imagined, that it would be easy to set people against themselves,” says Linklater, who, with a pair of topical films coming soon to theaters, finds himself talking frequently these days about the intersection of life, art and politics. “In a situation where you have all-pervasive surveillance, everyone’s a suspect. That’s what he envisioned in a drug war kind of way, even before there was a drug war. He wrote all this stuff 30 years ago.”

In a post-9/11 climate, Linklater notes, it isn’t hard to imagine the same mind-set amplified by America’s seemingly unending war on terror.


“What would happen if the war on drugs were to be over? Or the war on terror were to be over?” he asks. “Nothing. You can’t declare victory in a war like that. So by calling it that, you’ve just enslaved all of us for a really endless Orwellian ideal .... If you look at the war on drugs, from the time it started, all that has happened is that the prison population has quadrupled. So that’s good for business. That’s good for politicians seeking reelection saying they’re tough on crime.”

Prisons, he says, are “really full of petty drug offenders who aren’t out to hurt anyone and haven’t often hurt anyone but themselves. They are kind of pawns in a bigger power game. So there are lots of things to be paranoid about, I think.”

He cycles through the themes of power, paranoia and the costs of feeding America’s hungers in a much different way in “Fast Food Nation.” The film, which opens this fall, shines an unflattering spotlight on America’s fast food industry, from immigrant-staffed slaughterhouses and teeming feedlots to contaminated meat supplies and the dreams of low-wage help working behind the counters of fast food restaurants.

Although it is fictional, the film is based on the 2001 bestseller by Eric Schlosser, who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater. It features an ensemble cast that includes Greg Kinnear, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Kris Kristofferson and Patricia Arquette. (Be forewarned: “Fast Food Nation” includes graphic footage of what happens to cattle inside the killing room of an actual meatpacking plant. It isn’t pretty.)

The films debuted this year at Cannes, and Linklater -- who describes himself as a graduate of the “Stanley Kubrick school of filmmaking: you buy a camera and you make a movie” -- is believed to be the only director to have had two movies officially entered in the festival at the same time, with “Fast Food Nation” in the competition and “A Scanner Darkly” on the out-of-competition program.

“I make the joke that I’m like that British bus,” he says. “You wait forever and then two show up at the same time.”


Into the limelight

FOR a kid from East Texas who once put in 12-hour shifts wearing a hard hat and steel-toed boots on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, the memory of being nattily attired in a tux and walking up the paparazzi-lined red carpet in Cannes seems a bit jarring.

“It was pretty crazy,” Linklater admits, noting that he much prefers movie premieres in the U.S., where the media obsess about glamorous celebrities rather than directors.

“But there, on the red carpet, you’ve got the camera following you to your seat,” he says, shaking his head in amazement. “Two thousand people get up and do this” -- he claps his hands. “The camera follows you -- the director -- and they say ‘auteur.’ It’s like being on center court at Wimbledon.”

While the Cannes jury would bestow the Palme d’Or for best picture on British director Ken Loach for his Irish-themed drama “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” few directors at this year’s festival received more attention than the boyishly handsome 45-year-old Texan who was raised in Huntsville, where his stepfather once worked as a guard at the state penitentiary.

His days at Cannes were crammed with press conferences, media interviews, photo sessions and parties. One day, the low-key, personable director was seated on a sun-drenched deck at a pricey hotel in shorts and a casual pullover as TV crews and print reporters trooped in one after another for their publicist-allotted 15-minute interviews.

A few days later, he was back at it again, appearing tired with a weekend’s growth of beard, only this time the interviews had shifted to a cabana on the grounds of the famed Hotel du Cap, where a gentle breeze came off the shimmering blue Mediterranean.

Near the end of the festival, Linklater was invited onto a yacht where a party was being thrown by some Texans who had come to Cannes to attend the annual American Foundation for AIDS Research party to raise money. He asked two of his stars, Keanu Reeves and Robert Downey Jr., to join him, but none expected the lavishness of this party.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal until we got closer to the yacht,” he says. “There was Al Green singing with this big band. There were backup singers, backup dancers. It felt so decadent. I mean, here was Al Green singing his heart out. Our jaws drop, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”

Reviews that came out of the festival were mixed. The Hollywood Reporter, for instance, found “Fast Food Nation” to be “punchless,” while the critic for the Village Voice wrote that while the film is “overflowing with good intentions ... what it lacks is satiric energy.”

As for “A Scanner Darkly,” the London Times praised its “striking” animation style -- a process called interpolated rotoscoping that overlays animation on performances filmed as live action -- and called its dialogue “deranged, trippy and extremely funny,” ensuring it a cult audience. But on his website, film critic Emanuel Levy called both films “disappointing” and used his review to prod Linklater to make better film choices in light of his last outing, 2005’s “Bad News Bears” starring Billy Bob Thornton, a new take on Michael Ritchie’s much-beloved 1976 baseball yarn, “The Bad News Bears,” which starred Walter Matthau.

“According to an old Jewish expression,” Levy wrote, “troubles come in threesomes, and indeed, with the two Cannes films following the crappy and unnecessary remake of ‘The Bad News Bears,’ which was an artistic and commercial flop, Linklater is now ready for a fresh start.” (The film grossed a tepid $34 million worldwide.)

Linklater knows enough not to get into public dust-ups with respected film critics, but he feels that Levy’s review went a little too far.

If the movie made $100 million, he says, “it would go down in history as not a bad movie and not be seen as a big flop. Everyone is an expert. That’s a guy who probably does know something about the industry, but it shows you how little anyone knows [about making comedies]. Comedy is hard to pull off. It’s not easy to make a studio comedy.”

Linklater has managed to move frequently between the studio and indie worlds, with films such as “Before Sunrise,” “Waking Life,” “School of Rock,” “Before Sunset” and “Bad News Bears.” “Scanner,” with a budget of $8 million and “Nation,” made for an estimated $10 million, fall squarely into indie territory. (Warner Independent Pictures and Thousand Words financed “A Scanner Darkly,” and “Fast Food Nation” pulled in funding from Participant Productions, backer of socially conscious films such as “Syriana” and “An Inconvenient Truth.”)

The films were “polar opposites” in terms of the difficulty he had in bringing them to the big screen, Linklater says. In “Fast Food Nation,” the difficulties all arose during principal photography, part of which involved outfitting cast and crew in full protective gear for scenes shot under a tight schedule and with little rehearsal time at an actual slaughterhouse in Mexico. The unit also moved to the desert for two weeks under a blazing sun to film scenes of migrants crossing illegally into the U.S.

By contrast, Linklater says, “ ‘A Scanner Darkly’ was a very smooth production that we did in, like, 23 days -- we came in a day and a half under schedule .... And then we had a long, treacherous postproduction period. The animation was much more difficult to achieve than they thought it would be. Everything dragged on.”

Although it is a time-consuming process, rotoscoping, which he used for the first time in “Waking Life,” appealed to him because “it’s shot live action, with real gestures, real people, real sound. I think the sound quality sounds like a real movie, not like some hermetically sealed studio animation recording. It’s kind of the sound of the real world that makes you think it’s real. Then, the other part of your brain is going, ‘Wait a second. This isn’t real.’ This is a graphic novel come to life. It’s not a painting, it’s something else.”

He says there is a “certain dissonance in your brain” watching the film that is not unlike the characters’ experiencing a hallucinogen called substance D, or “death” as it is known among its users. “The animation sort of elevates kind of mundane material ... so it’s kind of fun to watch on some level. It heightens your perception of it. It makes it more real.”

There was also a practical reason for going the animation route, Linklater says. “It keeps it very much in the low-budget realm.” The film was shot with two video cameras.


Strong esprit de corps

LINKLATER’S breakthrough film, 1991’s “Slacker,” revolved around 100 characters in a 24-hour period, and in the years since then, he’s developed strong bonds with the actors in his largely ensemble casts.

Wilmer Valderrama said he became a “big fan” after working with Linklater on “Fast Food Nation.”

“He’s a director of this generation,” Valderrama says. “He really allows himself to bend the rules of moviemaking. He doesn’t make conventional movies. He does all these ensemble casts. His endings aren’t necessarily happy endings.”

A lot of directors, Valderrama says, “shy away from these types of movies because it’s tough to give a beginning, middle and ending to each story line.” Linklater is able to “give each character some kind of closure, which is super tricky.”

Linklater, he says, is calm and relaxed on the set and always receptive to ideas.

Downey describes the director as “a cross between a guy you wanted to party with in high school and college and kind of a Southern gentleman soldier.”

By that, he explains, he means that Linklater has “a really wicked sense of humor,” but in rehearsal or when the cameras are rolling, he’s like a general engaged in a ground war. “You are just moving forward a tiny bit, every piece of ground you gain you try not to give up.”

Downey jokes that working with Linklater can be a bit like Richard Dreyfuss’ character relating to Quint, the obsessed shark hunter played by Robert Shaw in “Jaws.” Like Quint, Downey says, Linklater is standing there “wanting to tie knots all day long.”

With Downey, you’re never quite sure whether he is serious or kidding -- Linklater calls him “the living embodiment of Dada.” But things get clearer when he compares his director to a tennis coach “who says, ‘As long as we got two hours, there’s no reason why we don’t do drills for two hours.’ I’ve learned a great lesson from him and a couple of other people: Lack of preparedness does not make for spontaneous performance.”

Downey echoes Valderrama in noting that Linklater is open to ideas, wherever they came from. “Keanu would crack a joke to a gal who brought him a Coke while we’re eating excellent Austin Hilton Hotel food, and the next thing that would be in the script.”

Linklater, says Schlosser, who worked closely with him on “Fast Food Nation,” “has a massive ego -- I have to say it takes one to know one,” but adds that it is because of that ego that his friend likes to share ideas and screen credit with others.

Linklater, he notes, developed his 2004 film “Before Sunset” with the stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and “there are very few directors who would want to work so closely and in such a collaborative way with two actors and give them screen credit.”

Perhaps it’s Linklater’s love of sports that allows him to embrace such teamwork. A .400 hitter three years in a row in high school and fast enough to steal more than 100 bases, he received a baseball scholarship to attend Sam Houston State, but atrial fibrillation in his heart ended his baseball prospects.

Today, he has built a baseball diamond on property he owns about 35 miles outside of Austin, and on Saturdays, you can often find a game underway, whether he’s pulling in his Hollywood pals, as he did while making “A Scanner Darkly,” or inviting players on the University of Texas Longhorns baseball team to drop by for a few innings.

Downey chuckles that it’s just like that line out of “Field of Dreams” -- “If you build it, he will come.”

“And they do come,” Downey says. “He’s got Texas’ version of Shoeless Joe Jackson in every corner” of the diamond.


A personal philosophy

WITH every movie, Linklater says, he seems to have some aspect of his personal life exposed. In “Bad News Bears,” his ex-jock status came out. Now, with “Fast Food Nation,” it’s becoming more widely known that he’s a vegetarian. He hasn’t eaten meat since 1983, although he’ll occasionally have nonfarmed fish.

“It was never for my health,” he says. “It started from an animal rights movement. I read a book called ‘Animal Liberation’ by Peter Singer.”

But he’s not a big activist.

“Where I grew up, in Huntsville, I had bulls, pigs. It was rural. I had a bull named Bo. One day, they took him off to be slaughtered. I kind of grew up with hunting. It doesn’t really bother me. I don’t have a problem with hunters.”

What does concern him, though, and what comes through after watching “Fast Food Nation,” is how divorced humans in modern society have become from their food supply. “If they were closer, they could really make more informed choices” about what they eat, he says.

One obvious question for Linklater is why he chose to make “Fast Food Nation” as a work of fiction rather than a documentary.

“For someone who doesn’t do documentaries, it would have seemed pretty redundant to the material,” he explains. “It was Eric’s idea to jump behind the book, throw away the book, and just get into the lives of these people. I’d been trying to make a movie about industrial workers. I did an HBO pilot called '$5.15 an Hour.’ It’s about the lowest-wage workers in our culture. It was a comedy, but they still thought it was depressing. They didn’t pick it up. I think the mantra is, American audiences don’t want to pay to watch people work.”

Back in the early 1980s, when he was still working for an hourly wage himself, Linklater would spend his free time devouring books or going to the movies. For a while, he had dreams of becoming a playwright.

“I think my writing ambition segued into movies,” he says. “I had this visual thing. I could see movies go together in my head. Eventually, I bought a camera and started making movies. I’d see 600 to 700 movies a year. That’s a lot of movies for somebody who’s not a film critic.”

He says no one director has shaped his thinking but does single out Martin Scorsese, the German and French New Waves and British cinema as being important markers. “I’d watch a movie and then go read about the director, the producer, the actors. I educated myself pretty thoroughly.”

His big break came with “Slacker.” “I got lucky,” he says. “It was a weird film. It had no story, but it caught a moment culturally that was interesting that I couldn’t have predicted back in 1991. I think it saved me a movie. I was able to immediately segue into a bigger film that I wanted to do.”

That film was 1993’s “Dazed and Confused,” about high school life in a small town in Texas in 1976. Eleven years after the film opened, he was sued by three of his former high school classmates who alleged that he had lifted their names without their permission, causing them ridicule and embarrassment.

“It was all a big joke,” Linklater says, noting that the suit was later dropped. “I didn’t even know those guys. They misrepresented that they were classmates of mine .... I actually knew their little brothers better.”

He remains Texas-centric. But his is not the Texas of the White House crowd. “When I think of Texas, I think of the better part of Texas,” the Texas, he says, of LBJ, the late House Speaker Sam Rayburn, radio commentator Jim Hightower, columnist Molly Ivins and Rep. Lloyd Doggett.

“There is a populist Texas that speaks for the people,” he says. “That tradition, to me, is much more Texas than the current model of Karl Rove and George W. Bush. They’re coming off a different paradigm, kind of the plantation South and petroleum, rather than the other kind of Texas.”

He has a film that has been kicking around in his brain for years. It’s set in Texas and combines those two great Texas traditions: prison and football.

“And not ‘The Longest Yard,’ either,” he says with a smile.

Let’s see. Eleven men on a team. Would make for a big ensemble cast.


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