Richard Linklater is trying hard to be Zen about his most recent experience in the unforgiving world of independent film.
The director of "Slacker" and "Before Sunrise" — now 50 and long removed from the time, in the mid-1990s, when he was hailed as the filmmaking voice of a generation — has just completed his 16th picture. A low-budget dark comedy called "Bernie" starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine, the movie was a steep climb even by his standards of scrappy filmmaking.
"It was my most difficult one to get made," he said flatly. "It took 12 years to happen, and even then it was tough. People can say shooting in 22 days makes a movie better. It doesn't."
Nibbling on a room-service fruit plate in a Santa Monica hotel after making the rare trip from Austin, Texas, where he prefers to live and work far from the confines of Hollywood, Linklater looks tan and youthful in a Brazil soccer jersey and cargo shorts. But hints of indie-world exhaustion creep through. "There were times [on 'Bernie'] when it was like, 'Are we going to make payroll this week?'" A moment later, though, he seems to catch himself. "I'm lucky to be able to tell the stories I want to tell. You [shouldn't] look at what you don't have. You look at what you do have."
The fruit of his recent labor will be on display Thursday night as the movie opens the Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs through June 26 and showcases more than 200 feature films, shorts and music videos from more than 30 countries.
"Bernie" is a shaggy, idiosyncratic work, possibly the strangest yet in a career full of strangeness. Set in the small town of Carthage, Texas, it tells of an effeminate, musical-loving mortician named Bernie Tiede (Black) who befriends and then commits a horrible crime against a repressed wealthy matriarch (MacLaine), leaving him to face the wrath of a local prosecutor (McConaughey). The movie is a dramatization of an actual case — the script was based on a 1998 Texas Monthly article about Tiede, and Linklater, who attended Tiede's trial, spent years researching it.
The director makes some provocative choices, such as mixing in documentary conventions — like talking-head interviews with Carthage town gossips — so viewers are uncertain what's taken from real life, what's being made up by Linklater and what's being made up by the real-life gossips he's depicting. To add to the trippiness, some of the talking heads are performers, while some are townspeople playing themselves.
The movie reteams Linklater with two actors with whom he has had perhaps his greatest successes: Black, who starred in his top-grossing film, 2003's "The School of Rock," and McConaughey, who anchored perhaps his most influential one, 1993's "Dazed and Confused."
"Bernie" is also in many ways Linklater's most personal picture, taking the director to the provincialism of his East Texas childhood that he has spent much of his career avoiding. "I couldn't have made this early in my filmmaking life," he said, describing a childhood in the town of Huntsville with a mixture of warmth and wariness, where he liked the generosity of inhabitants but said he felt intensely the small-town claustrophobia and nosiness."Even now, I had to back in very carefully."
Linklater came on the scene in the early 1990s with a Generation X hat trick — first "Slacker," then "Dazed," then "Sunrise." He could have written his ticket in Hollywood — as contemporaries such as Cameron Crowe and Steven Soderbergh did — and at least occasionally traded a degree of creative control for a larger budget and studio support. But he held back.
"The first 10 years of doing this, I was afraid if I stepped off the path [of smaller eclectic films] I'd never get back," he recalled. "So I said no for a long time." Instead, he made loose philosophical movies such as "Waking Life," or "Tape," essentially an off-Broadway drama rendered on-screen.
That changed with "The School of Rock," a studio comedy that grossed $81 million. "It turned me around. It made me realize that when they said I'd have creative control, they weren't always lying," Linklater said. He followed up that film with the much less well-received "Bad News Bears" remake in 2005.
He would still get studio offers after that movie, but he dug in his heels, remaining an independent filmmaker in a hostile climate — a noble or stubborn holdout, depending on your point of view. In the last five years, Linklater has made a historical piece about the American stage ("Me and Orson Welles"), an animated Philip K. Dick adaptation ("A Scanner Darkly") and a cautionary tale about the meatpacking business ("Fast Food Nation"). None were commercial successes. "But I felt if I didn't do these movies, no one else would," he said. ("Bernie" does not have a distribution deal in place.)
McConaughey said in an interview that it's not ego or pride that drives Linklater. "I've sent him scripts for these all-access kind of movies. And he likes them himself. He goes and sees them on a Friday night. He genuinely doesn't feel like he's the right person to direct them," the actor said.
Even though it's made his professional life more difficult, Linklater said he doesn't see that changing. He has for instance, talked to Warner Bros. about directing the remake of the 1960s animation-live action comedy "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" — but doesn't see himself jumping into a studio movie just for the sake of it. It's not preciousness, he maintains — just a greater need than most to find a personal connection to a movie's subject. "For me to do [a studio movie] I have to feel like I'm the right guy — maybe I'm the only guy — who could make it," he said, offering a point of view that might amuse some directors who regularly make studio movies.
That approach might make a person feel beaten down or even isolated, and Linklater allows that can happen too.
"I guess I used to think I had one foot in all these worlds — comedies, animation, all the things I've done. Then I realize I'm an outsider in all of them." He starts to add "I'm an outsider to myself," then, realizing this is a career path he's actively chosen — and no one wants to hear self-pity anyway — he stops and exhales. "But I guess I'm OK with that."