Richard Linklater: A slow-cook director eyes the microwave
The news this week that Richard Linklater could be tackling Maria Semple’s bestselling “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” was greeted, among those who follow such things, with unbridled happiness. Here was one of the most well-regarded novels -- and, more important, one of the most unconventional -- of recent years being taken on by a director who himself was the patron saint of the uncommon.
By telling her story via such fragments as FBI reports and hospital bills, Semple had taken an unwieldy concept and made it look easy. Linklater, coming off a massively complicated 12-year shoot that produced an unassumingly uncomplicated movie, pretty much epitomized the quality. It was a project hatched in development heaven.
It might seem like the “Bernadette” announcement was the result of a director with new muscle figuring out what he might want to do next after the massive success, Oscar voters notwithstanding, of his recent opus “Boyhood.”
But Linklater had already figured that out. In fact he had figured it out, written the script, cast the actors and shot the movie, and was now in post-production on that film, a college baseball dramedy. Titled “That’s What I’m Talking About,” it’s a sequel of sorts to his early-career high-school classic “Dazed and Confused.” Linklater had made the movie at the same time as his “Boyhood” was rolling out. In fact, he sneaked it in, somehow, between that summer period when he had to hit the hustings to promote “Boyhood’s” release, and that late fall period when he had to hit the hustings to promote its awards campaign.
“Bernadette,” then, would actually be his next movie. How quickly it will move will depend in part on the state (and existence) of a script. But given that rights to the book are owned by the financially autonomous Megan Ellison (also Linklater’s collaborator on “Talking About”), it might not suffer the usual holdups. If Linklater could make “Bernadette” by the end of 2015, in a similar feat of film-production sleight of hand as “Talking About,” he would have two movies in the can barely a year after “Boyhood” came out on DVD.
Richard Linklater has never been one to hurry. His debut movie, after all, was called “Slacker,” and his midcareer renaissance has been largely due to the fact that he was not hurrying -- the slow-cook joys of 2013’s “Before Midnight,” gestating for several years in his and his actor-writers’ minds (and in fact taking shape, if one is to be accurate, over 18 years, beginning with the first film of the trilogy,"Before Sunrise”).
And “Boyhood” was the quintessence of crock-pot filmmaking. It was movie he’d been thinking about for years, then plotted and shot over more than a decade, never spending more than a few days each year on set, knowing the final product would be incalculably better if he made it for little bursts of time over a long period instead of the inverse.
And of course both movies featured the theme of time and its slow creep, an ingredient that separated it from a hundred similarly oriented, and less worthy, romantic comedies and coming-of-age movies.
All of which is to say: Richard Linklater had achieved new heights by not rushing. And his next two movies could be made very quickly. It was almost, one could argue, like Linklater was offering a retort to his own career. “I spent years making the kind of movies that needed and benefited from long preparation methods. So now i’m going to turn around and work really fast. Let’s see how that goes.”
When I ran into Linklater last weekend at a Los Angeles hotel -- on the eve of an Oscars, and at the end of a season, in which he would watch a long-eluded directing prize first materialize in and then slip through his hands -- he seemed to be in good spirits. He was very happy, he said, to be in the middle of postproduction in a Texas editing room (and in fact eager to get back to it). Part of the appeal was no doubt of an understandable relief from the brutal endlessness of awards season. But one couldn’t help wondering if a small part wasn’t also the idea that another movie would be ready, and soon. (“That’s What I’m Talking About” is due from Paramount in the fourth quarter and will likely end up in at least some of the fall festivals.)
How Linklater’s post-"Boyhood” work will turn out -- and, even more important in modern Hollywood, how it will be received -- is an open question. The modern film business, with its harsh publicity glare, can be a cruel game of can-you-top-this. Directors, having made bold excursions, are caught between fans who want more of the same and fans who seek a brave new exploration. That’s a near-impossible position, a knife’s edge between people on one side ready to accuse you of repitition and people on the other crying out, essentially, “You built up all that capital and then spent it on this?"(Incidentally this is not limited to outsiders; a version of this debate plays out in a filmmaker’s mind too.)
The modern exemplar of this is Terrence Malick who, after dazzling many with “The Tree of Life” several years ago was criticized for making follow-up work that: a) branched too far in a new direction, or b) didn’t branch far enough.
The bar is high for Linklater. Even with the baseball movie being a comedy -- and especially with the “Bernadette” novel being beloved -- the comparisons to the epic humanity of “Boyhood” will be frequent and, almost inevitably, not always favorable.
Then again, if anyone is immune to the bob of the movie-industry wave, it’s Linklater, a director who has long looked at Hollywood fashion and expectation and responded with a kind of principled shrug.
And making these movies quickly, despite the inherent dangers for a man who won his new prestige by making them slowly, may be the good way to go. For all its grand scope, “Boyhood” is ultimately about the preciousness of time, and the seizing of the here and now (or, in the movie’s endearingly offbeat patois, “sometimes the moment seizes you”). Linklater may be heeding his own advice after all.
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