How Richard Linklater help change US indie cinema

Speaking at Karlovy Vary Film Festival, Richard Linklater discusses the legacy of the Austin Film Society alongside fellow Austin filmmakers David Zellner and Andrew Bujalski

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 06 Jul 2018
  • Slacker

Within the Red State of Texas, the state capital of Austin is a solitary dot of Democrat blue. Here in this liberal oasis, far from the film industries in Hollywood and New York, a film community has been bubbling away since the mid-80s. Largely responsible for igniting the fire of Austin cinephilia is 57-year-old filmmaker Richard Linklater, who founded the Austin Film Society there almost 33 years ago.

The legacy of this venerable institution is currently being celebrated at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic with a retrospective titled Made in Texas. The programme includes films like David Zellner’s poetic coming-of-age film Kid-Thing and Andrew Bujalski’s wonderful Computer Chess, a bizarro comedy set during a chess software programmer convention in the early 80s. Linklater’s breakthrough film Slacker, a loose string of mini-narratives celebrating Austin’s eccentric locals, also screens alongside six other features and a dozen shorts.

Today, the Austin Film Society manages the Austin Studios, which includes sound stages built in the abandoned Mueller Airport outside of town, and provides grants to support emerging filmmakers based in Texas. Initially, however, the society’s purpose was to simply show interesting movies. Speaking on stage at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to Variety’s Peter Debruge, Linklater describes how when he moved to Austin in his early 20s as a wannabe filmmaker, he was disappointed with the repertory scene, particularly the films on offer at the University of Texas.

Richard Linklater at KVIFF

“The campus was showing the same films again and again, and I was just greedy to see more,” he recalls. “So that’s when I found out you could rent films and I realised you could maybe hustle people into coming along.” He did the maths: “I realised you could rent a film for 100 to 150 dollars and if I could get 75 people to pay two dollars to see them, we could do it in a kind of cooperative way.” Foreign language films by directors like Yasujirō Ozu and Rainer Werner Fassbinder were suddenly playing on campus thanks to the newly minted Austin Film Society, as well as avant-garde contemporary fare like the experimental cinema of James Benning.

Linklater describes these gatherings as “film freaks wanting to do what film freaks have always done,” but these screenings had an educational dimension too. “I wanted to see all these movies while I was working on my own films,” Linklater explains. “I had all this passion for cinema and it was a good place to channel that and I found like-minded people around me. We were this kind of gathering steam, a loose coalition of people. No one got paid anything, it was an all-volunteer organisation for ten years.”

During these early days of the Austin Film Society, Linklater made his first feature, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, shot on Super8 for a few thousand dollars. Back then, this kind of indie production was practically unheard of in Texas. Debruge asks Linklater if there was anything around him to suggest he could make a living being a filmmaker. “The answer isn't just not ‘no’,” he says, “it’s like, ‘hell no’. That was so far from the thinking of where I grew up.”

A visit to see the folks back in Houston in 1984 gave Linklater hope that a career in film could be possible when he spotted in the paper that local filmmaker Eagle Pannell had a feature – Last Night at the Alamo – screening at the city’s film festival. “I’d never heard of it, but here was a local guy, he was ten years older than me, but he’d gotten a grant and made a feature film!” (Last Night at the Alamo also screened as part of Madi in Texas at Karlovy Vary, with an impassioned introduction from Linklater.)

Linklater would go on to make his own mark on the US indie scene six years later when he made Slacker, with many of his friends from the Austin Film Society lending a hand on the production. “I said to them, I’m going to make this 16mm feature, which was a big deal back then,” Linklater explains. “There was maybe one film a year made in Austin, and it was usually an exploitation film, kind of in the legacy of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That was made near Austin, and we all love Tobe Hooper, he’s kind of a legendary character. And I Iove that movie and appreciate it, but I wanted to show a different Texas that wasn’t a western, it wasn’t cowboy hats and boots, and it also wasn’t a horror film, so it was something else.”

That "something else" is essentially a series of vignettes taking us on a tour of Austin’s teen culture and weirdo burnouts. The film was pretty much financed on personal credit. “They were giving away credit cards back then,” Linklater recalls. “So I took all these credit cards and I’d just be using them for film stock, everything, until they would take them away from me.” Being financed purely on plastic meant Linklater couldn’t pay people a salary, but he could help them out in other ways. “I’d be like, ‘You need a tank of gas?’ I’d give them my credit card and I’d say, 'while you’re buying your tank of gas, buy some Gatorades and waters and snacks because that’ll be craft services.'”

As well as maxing out the cards in his wallet, Linklater also received $2700 from a local film fund. It didn’t last long (“I spent it in an afternoon”) but it did give him some validation, and some much needed kudos with his parents. “I was at that point 28 or 29, and my family was kind of wondering, What are you doing with your life? But once I got a grant for Slacker, they were like, 'They gave you money?' And I was like, 'Yeah, they think it’s good.' I parlayed that and I was then able to get money from my family. That’s the thing about filmmaking, you have got to be a cheap hustler.”

It was this experience that encouraged Linklater to start a grant system as part of Austin Film Society when it started to turn a buck. “It left an impression on me that that’s an important evolutionary step in your life, to get a little bit of outside validation,” he explains. “We all think we’re good, but to hear it from someone else, and from an organisation, can be very beneficial.”

Slacker is undoubtedly a US indie touchstone, but it wasn’t exactly embraced when it screened at Sundance back in 1991. ”We were treated like the weirdos,” recalls Linklater. “They were excited about all these other films because they seemed like real films and we were the weirdo outcasts. Slackers did not win anything, it was just some odd film that was playing there, but it caught an audience.”

One of these fans was David Zellner. Like Linklater, Zellner thought professional filmmaking meant moving to LA or New York, but the success of Slacker made him rethink his options. “I remember hearing about Slacker and how it was made here and wasn’t like a studio movie,” says Zellner. He remembers renting it as soon as it was available in his hometown. “It felt like a transmission from another planet. It was so strange to me but at the same time, it was so relatable because it was made here in Texas. That was so exciting to me, that you could do something so original and personal while still in Texas. It was a big part of me and my brother moving to Austin after that.”

Andrew Bujalski grew up at the opposite end of the country in Massachusetts, but he now resides in Austin and has made most of his films there. Speaking on stage with Linklater and Zellner, Bujalski reckons the first time he had any concept of Austin was as a teenager going to see Slacker with his father.

“Your dad took you to Slacker?” Linklater says incredulously.

“Well I was a movie-crazy kid,” says Bujalski, “so my dad was supportive. ‘You want to go to the weird movies, I’ll take you to the weird movies’. He slept through it and thought it was the worst movie he’d ever seen. I said, 'Dad, you were asleep, so how can you say that?' But I was smitten, I loved the movie.”

Zellner and Bujalski have both been recipients of Austin Film Society grants, but even before the society had their grant system in place it’s been inspiring these filmmakers. “Some of my most formative filmgoing experiences were in the 90s through the programming of AFS,” says Zellner, “because it was either stuff that was not available or I needed direction to films I wasn’t familiar with. Kiarostami or Fassbinder or Bresson, there were so many eye-opening experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise at that time.”

Zellner wasn’t the only future filmmaker learning their craft by devouring films at the Austin Film Society. Linklater recalls one University of Texas student who used to haunt their screenings. “I remember thinking years later, what happens to guys like that? He clearly loved movies but he seemed so awkward and quirky when I’d talked with him a few times. And then I was at the New York Film Festival years later and I look up, we had this moment of recognition. It’s the awkward, dorky UT student who likes movies!” And that dorky fan fan's name? "Wes Anderson”.

“And that’s not insignificant,” Linklater continues. “Wes loved movies so he’d [come to the Austin Film Society], he found us. I'd go to these other students and say, 'Hey, we’re showing a Fassbinder retrospective,' and they’d go, 'Oh, I’m trying make films, not watch films.' What does that mean? To this day when I talk to film students and ask, 'what movies are you watching?' If they aren’t watching movies they aren’t going to make it. I’ve never met a filmmaker who doesn’t live, eat and breathe movies.”

Over the last nine days, young film fans at Karlovy Vary have been doing just that, devouring the films that have emerged from the Austin filmmaking scene as well as other great films from around the globe. Maybe one of the dorky film fans attending these screenings will go on to be the next Richard Linklater or Wes Anderson.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival runs 29 Jun-7 Jul. Richard Linklater, David Zellner and Andrew Bujalski were in discussion with Peter Debruge at the 53rd KVIFF