Linklater's Being and Nothingness

WHEN RICHARD LINKLATER introduced his psychedelic Waking Life to the audience at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the writer-director asked for a show of hands to see how many of us might happen to be on drugs. Only a few responded in the affirmative. "Okay," said Linklater, cueing the projectionist to start rolling. "So the rest of you are just going to have to bear with us."

Actually, what's most distinctive about Waking Life is how extremely this eyepopping cartoon talkathon alters even the sober viewer's consciousness--and without taking it away. One leaves the theater dazed but not confused: seeing everything in the real world as if it were pulsing and twitching like the film's own animated figures, and wanting to talk up a storm.

Riffing really intensely on whatever: writer-director-actor Richard Linklater in Waking Life
Riffing really intensely on whatever: writer-director-actor Richard Linklater in Waking Life

It's no surprise that the 41-year-old maker of this motormouthed movie is something of a chatterbox himself--as I discovered after calling him at his home in Austin, Texas, back in August.

CITY PAGES: Waking Life is a movie that seems to have a philosophy of everything, including how to make philosophy palatable to the moviegoer. I imagine this desire for accessibility was very conscious on your part.

RICHARD LINKLATER: What kills most animated movies is that they're so damn expensive, so they have to be geared toward eight-year-olds. But if you do it inexpensively, the way we did, it really frees you up. Part of my pitch [to the funders] was, "Well, if nothing else, it's gonna be really interesting to look at."

CP: It's as though the animation, by appealing to the eight-year-old in all of us, buys you the right in the dialogue to "riff really intensely on whatever"--as the protagonist puts it.

LINKLATER: It's the ultimate pill-coated-with-sugar idea. I figured, okay, I'm never gonna have the chance again to get an audience with their eyes so wide open, so this is an opportunity to make a film that's all about ideas--a film that would just be hideously boring if it was live-action. [Viewers] won't be able to take their eyes off the look of it, and then I'm also going to be hitting their brains with a lot of dense information. They're going to have to work overtime to process both the content and the form.

CP: And the content--where does that come from?

LINKLATER: For me, it was about revisiting a lot of old ideas--conundrums about the future and where we're headed as a society--that I'd had when I was your average existential teenager about 20 years ago. I realized that I never really answered those questions I had back then--I had just moved on to other things. I guess I've always felt a certain existential isolation. And if you feel that your whole life, then once you start reading the people who have articulated it clearest, it really gets you. It doesn't help you, per se, it just digs into you deeper, and sends you on this kind of endless search. And that's what [Waking Life] is: a search. What is individuality? Identity? Freedom? I just threw all of that in [the script] and updated it to where I'm at now.

The core of the film--the whole idea of "lucid dreaming" and everything--is very personal to me. In a way, I think the movie is sort of a how-to manual on becoming conscious in your dreams--which is no easy thing--and a depiction of what the mind is capable of. And when I view that in a spiritual way, I don't think of it in terms of religion or mythology or otherworldliness necessarily, but in a real, biological sense. Everything takes place in the brain; it's all chemical. But that doesn't mean that we're not connected to each other on some other level. So I was looking for those connections and finding them through the characters and the actors I was auditioning, and what they were talking about.

CP: Some of those connections are to the characters of your other movies--particularly Slacker and Before Sunrise.

LINKLATER: I suppose you could call it a film-dream--wandering through my own past and my previous work, with a high level of awareness about that. And then, of course, there's the "Holy Moment" scene where [the protagonist] is in a movie theater watching a movie that's about movies. I like the tension in that scene, how it confronts Bazin's theory of cinema as a representation of reality--because here we are watching a film that's completely unreal, painted digitally in a computer. The scene is asking whether ideas--and characters--can remain fundamental in the context of all this new technology. And I say that they can. I mean, the technology is just a tool at our disposal, to create and communicate. I don't think the technology by itself means anything. It's what people do with it.

CP: I'd say the new technology has allowed you, paradoxically, to do what you've always done in terms of non-plot-based, free-associative riffing with dialogue--but really intensely.

LINKLATER: When Slacker came out [in 1991], some people said, "Oh, well, you could never do another movie like this." And I was like, "Well, I don't know, because that's kind of the way my mind works." And my goal as a filmmaker has been to capture that: the way the human mind works and ties into life--which is, by definition, a stream-of-consciousness, thought-by-thought, accumulation-of-ideas sort of structure. I mean, that's what the narrative of all our lives is: this series of interactions. At the same time, films can be a lot of different things. You could say that this one is sort of a repository for the ideas that can't find expression in typical films--that have no place in typical films. In a screenwriting class, the teacher would look at this script and say, "The whole thing is digressive--there's no narrative, no plot." Which is what I love about it, of course.

CP: It's resistant to the whole commercial imperative of movies.

LINKLATER: Film is an expensive medium, so [financiers] want you to do something that you've done successfully before. But if you're restless, like me, and you're trying to explore some other aspect of yourself, it can be tough--to get the money. I mean, all my films are personal to me. But how personal? I went to high school, like every other human, and I made a film [Dazed and Confused] about that. And yeah, it's personal: It actually happened to me. But is it personal to my core? Does it get at what's going on in my brain? This one [Waking Life], I can honestly say, came from the absolute deepest place [laughs]. And I know that sounds pretentious, or corny, but it's really true.

CP: Does that make it harder to put out?

LINKLATER: Kind of, yeah, because you feel weird even talking about it--like, you put so much of yourself into it, that to try to make it comprehensible is...[pauses]. I mean, that's the human dilemma: We have to articulate, to try to define things. But it's weird because the movie was made without concessions to commerce, and now it's out there in the commodity world, asking people to pay admission. And yet the thing I love about film is that every film has its own life: There ours will be, one film among four or five at a theater, out in the real world--and there's something kind of great about that.

CP: It sounds a little like having a child.

LINKLATER: It's not quite like having a child. I think when you have a child, you're trying to protect him, to put him forth into the world with all your best. But with this [film], I'm not really trying to protect it: It's just kind of out there on its own, out in the cold.

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