Where to Start with Richard Linklater

Proud Texan filmmaker Richard Linklater has established a diverse range of directorial features over the course of the thirty-plus years since his debut film Slacker (1990), contributing to the broad canon of American cinema with some of the nation’s biggest low-budget cult hits and a host of beloved crowd-pleasers.

Renowned for the naturalistic presentation he fosters in perhaps his most devoutly followed series of films, The Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight), and praised for the experimental nature of his rotoscope-animated projects Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), Richard Linklater has also found great success in exploring the limits of the contemporary filmmaking space, famously filming his Oscar-winning critical darling Boyhood (2014) over the course of 12 years in an attempt to depict an honest representation of coming-of-age in the 21st century.

His work is broad in genre and visual style, but it is recognisable for his dedication to the theme of The Self, and The Self’s place in its immediate environment. From coming-of-age hits like Dazed and Confused (1993) and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), to his real-life documentary-turned-drama Bernie (2011), Linklater’s films are focused on characters who are experiencing struggles between who they are and who they want to be perceived to be. Even in the filmmaker’s most famous studio offering School of Rock (2003), Jack Black’s Dewey Finn is thrust into life as a supply teacher when he assumes the identity of his flatmate Ned Schneebly (played by that film’s screenwriter Mike White).

This creative fascination with fakers, and the ways in which we all present a version of ourselves in any given situation, has fostered uniquely collaborative filmmaking processes, Linklater’s films undergoing vast rehearsal periods that help cast members to find their own voices and contribute to the overall messaging of any given film. This devotion to the naturalistic, or at least the nucleus of an identifiable reality, has fostered some of the great collaborations of the 90s, 00s, 10s and 20s, from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine in The Before Trilogy (1995-2013) to Jack Black as Dewey Finn and all the way through to his most thematically self-aware work with Glen Powell as Gary Johnson in 2023 festival favourite (2024 release) Hit Man.

Exploring the work of such an experimental, risk-taking American filmmaker can be considered a necessity for any film fan pursuing deeper knowledge or looking to broaden their horizons, but with more than twenty directed features to his name, and more enticing projects coming up (including a period piece on the making of A bout de souffle (1960) and the filmmakers of the French New Wave, and an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along”, which is set to star Paul Mescal and shoot over the course of 20 years, unfurling in reverse), it can be difficult to find an entry point. That’s why, in this Guide, we at The Film Magazine offer to you the three best ways to first engage with this renowned filmmaker’s great work. This is Where to Start with Richard Linklater.

1. Dazed and Confused (1993)

Richard Linklater’s debut drama feature Slacker was made with little more than a do-it-yourself attitude – it was filmed without permits or professional actors, Linklater having to star in the film himself – but became a festival hit that earned the Texan filmmaker a relatively huge (for a director of his experience at the time) $6million budget for his sophomore feature Dazed and Confused.

Dazed and Confused is a coming-of-age film following a group of teenagers on their last day of school in 1976. Set in Texas, as many of this director’s films are, some of Dazed and Confused’s characters are out to get high, others are wasters left to consider what’s next for their lives, others are bound for college or a big job. It’s a film with a large number of characters and a broad spectrum of potential character destinations, all of which come together for a unique and lasting representation of burgeoning adulthood that has rightly been reassessed as one of the most important films of the American independent cinema movement of the 1990s (which included Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Gus van Sant, among many others).

Having broken into the public lexicon with Matthew McConaughey’s “all right, all right, all right”, and having since become available as a part of the Criterion Collection, it would be easy to assume that this entry into Richard Linklater’s catalogue was always destined for its current status as a symbol of great American filmmaking, but that isn’t the case. In 2024, the director told Sight & Sound (Vol. 34, Issue 5) that, “In every boxing career… there’s the title fight, but the real fight was back here. There’s the fight that makes or breaks you, and that was Dazed and Confused for me.”

Confronting issues that arose from a relative lack of control (due to the unusually high budget for a filmmaker as fresh and unproven as him), and attempting to navigate the politics of working with big producers and production companies, Linklater openly admits to Dazed and Confused contributing to his relative lack of interest in the so-called traditional machinations of American filmmaking in the decades that followed. But what this revelation indicates most strongly is how unusual and special it is that such a unique vision, tackling such a niche and specific subject, could still find a universality that has made it relatable to members of the generations that followed, even despite the obstacles standing in the creator’s way.

Every filmmaker strives to find the nuggets of truth that appear to be in abundance in this particular Linklater entry; a cool and quietly iconic “peace and love” from one of cinema’s most individualistic visionaries.

2. School of Rock (2003)

Richard Linklater has spoken at length about how he isn’t against the possibility of working on a film written by someone else, or even one produced by a studio, but that it just hasn’t worked out that often for him. One time that it did, he provided the children of the 1990s and 2000s with one of their most exciting and memorable childhood movie experiences, School of Rock, proving that his identifiable themes and unique visions are apparent even in his adapted works.

School of Rock tells of burnout Dewey Finn (Jack Black), an unemployed musician who’s just been kicked out of his band when he assumes the identity of his flatmate and best friend Ned Schneebly (Mike White) in a desperate attempt to make some money and pay his share of the rent. Finn, as Schneebly, takes on a class of a wealthy school children as their supply teacher, initially expecting to get away with doing very little and eventually learning to find great pride in teaching them music. As is the case with all moral tales, Dewey is eventually found out, his swindle laid bare, but it is such an emotionally-charged and musically-inspired journey to get there that it has become one of the great family films of its era, a movie that almost everyone under the age of forty has seen and enjoyed.

As a Director for Hire, Richard Linklater could have simply made a passable family movie and star vehicle. School of Rock had the music licensing to pull a distinctly average film to a decent box office, as well as a unique lead performance, but Linklater didn’t phone this in. The director lifted everything beyond the frame established by its potential, moulding this story into a bigger and better shape, one representative of relative greatness. Under Linklater’s guidance, Jack Black’s unique talents were not only illuminated but greatly emphasised, one scene in which he presents the class with his idea for a song being presented in one long take, the director clearly acknowledging the genius of his leading star, a man who was born to play the part. The children’s roles are also spotlighted, each character introduced with uniquely memorable physical/audible traits or positioned to be important within the narrative. Their collective skills as actors, and primarily how natural they each appear to be in their roles, is testament to Linklater’s lengthy rehearsal processes and in particular his talent at directing actors.

Richard Linklater wasn’t trained to make movies, but he made them anyway. He wasn’t wealthy, he didn’t go to film school, and he wasn’t from New York or Los Angeles, but he made films anyway. That rock and roll attitude, that career of smashing down boundaries and working outside of the “norm”, hits like gangbusters in School of Rock, the very essence of this filmmaker’s “stick it to the man” attitude ruminating through the dialogue, the presentation of the action, and the selections in the music. “You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore” are lyrics apropos of Linklater’s own journey, and that nucleus of truth drives School of Rock, Richard Linklater’s most accessible film.

3. Boyhood (2014)

Even in a career that features films using rotoscope animation, that tackles real-life subjects and stories, that confronts traditional filmmaking etiquette, and that boldly opposes the status quo, Boyhood (2014) remains Richard Linklater’s most risky, boundary-pushing work.

Chronicling the life of a young boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who’s navigating school, puberty and his parents’ divorce, Boyhood takes place across twelve years, and Linklater remarkably filmed it over the same period: 2002-2013.

Through this marvellous achievement in film production, direction, and organisation, Linklater invites us to witness the quite literal adolescence of a 21st century child, encouraging us to see ourselves in how he grows, how he changes, and how he overcomes obstacles. As is typical of a Richard Linklater film, we see Mason adopt new attitudes, evolve personalities, and eventually confront his idea of Self. Supported by frequent Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke (as Mason’s father Mason Sr.) and the Academy Award-winning (Actress in a Supporting Role) performance of Patricia Arquette (as Mason’s mother Olivia), Coltrane offers perhaps the most raw and relatable coming-of-age performance of any child actor in history, his efforts in part due to the structure of the filmmaking journey and Linklater’s own honest approach to collaboration on dialogue.

It cannot be overstated how much of a feat it was for Richard Linklater to achieve his vision over a 12-year period. The director filmed each update in the child’s life over the course of three days each year, somehow getting his actors (each growing in stardom – especially Ethan Hawke – and some growing quite literally) to return time after time, despite changing personal attitudes, industrial changes, and funding challenges. The technical achievement alone – putting together a visually coherent film with equipment that was being revolutionised year-on-year due to the advances in digital technology – was one only a hard-headed veteran or a true master could conjure, and in Boyhood Richard Linklater achieved that.

There is no other American film that can boast the same technical achievement that Boyhood can, and no other English language feature that can claim to have better captured adolescence in the 21st century. If emotionally-charged, raw and real movies are your thing, then Boyhood is where you should start with Richard Linklater. Even if it isn’t, Boyhood is a necessary inclusion in anyone’s film-viewing journey.

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In the same Sight & Sound interview that was linked in the Dazed and Confused entry, Richard Linklater lamented the lack of opportunities for independent filmmakers and the lack of funding for independent films in the contemporary space. He spoke of how his only advice to filmmakers looking to make independent films in the 2020s was to “be born thirty years earlier”, suggesting that the only route into making films that filmmakers wanted to make was through studio franchises and previously established intellectual property. For a filmmaker like Linklater, who always opposed the way of things, to make such a shocking admission is surely enough evidence of the decaying space for arts across the world. To think, if Linklater had been born thirty years later, we may never have had Slacker, Dazed and Confused, The Before Trilogy, School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly, Bernie, Boyhood, Hit Man or the many more noteworthy projects and experiments of this unique and important filmmaker.

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