Richard Linklater, a Texas filmmaker with Alternate Views

By Michael Karpienski | Last Updated: March 02, 2024
In 1990, 30 year old Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater released his debut micro-indie film called Slacker. Created from a shoestring budget of $23,000, Linklater shot a film unlike anything shot before on a Super 8 camera. And how did he manage this? Almost entirely from budget limitations and the many creative decisions made in an effort to make a film by any means necessary.
Consisting of a huge cast almost entirely of non-professionals — people who, in Linklater’s words, “embodied the essence of what I wanted for the character” — majority of Texans living within 5 miles of the University of Texas campus in Austin. Having made the film, Linklater talked owner and manger Scott Dinger of the Dobie Theater to show his film alongside larger budget films such as Brave Little Toaster. And what was the result? A sold-out film. For weeks and weeks after its release, where every Austin local went to see the film to see friends they knew or see the world they connected with right before their eyes.
In short,Slacker was an enormous success. Having cost around $20,000 to make, the film ended up grossing $1.2 million dollars. But how can a film seemingly about nothing, be so successful and pave a new direction in film making? And what is Slacker about anyway?
Slacker is a film not driven by plot or conflict. In fact, one can debate that there is no story in the usual understanding of story. That’s to say, there are no great and impactful scenes of drama or action. There is no central character. Instead, among the huge list of actors, we only see each of them one time only. There is no character arch nor story development. Through this, Slacker achieves something no film had done before: a deep sense of place.
During the film, we get a chance to see how it really is to be living and wandering as a young twenty-something in Austin in 1990. For a 97 minute running time, we are given that odd feeling to be kicking around UT campus. We stumble upon random people. Sometimes homeless, other times stoners and intellectuals. We watch them questioning time and existence in that philosophical way of a questioning youth — all the while feeling that we are locals of Austin. And not by watching a film about it, but experiencing a city and taking it all in without that notion of a central character experiencing the whole thing in place of us.
In essence, from budget restrictions Linklater managed to create a new kind of film-making technique where conversations and ideas take the focus. Where sitting and walking and having characters sharing ideas is the cheapest form of film making. And to do this, the film follows one inanimate character after another, connecting us from one person to the next, without emphasis on anyone through the course of the film, treating each person and interaction equally as so it goes in life.
The film starts with the director himself, Mr. Linklater, taking a taxi and sharing with the driver about a dream he had just experienced. “In the dream, I was reading a book — or since I was dreaming, I guess I wrote the book in my head — in which every thought you have creates its own reality. It’s like . . . every choice or decision you make, the thing you choose not to do, fractions off and becomes it’s own reality. And it just goes on from there . . .”
The film begins with such a reflection on existence. Next we see Linklater’s character leave the cab. He then walks out onto the street and notices that a woman had just been run over by a car and runs to a payphone to call an ambulance. Suddenly, the camera drifts to another character passing along the sidewalk in the shot. Then, after a beat, the camera zooms in on this inanimate person, following him as he enters his house, climbs up his stairs, and picks up the phone. The whole transition from one character to the next feels smooth and graceful, and before long we are following another character for a few minutes in time. Until we watch him get cuffed by the police, walked to the police car, while the camera pulls away and begins following a guitar player who is walking away from the whole thing, suddenly taking us into his universe for another minute until a woman passes and we enter her world when she enters a cafe.
In writing, this type of following one character to the next, scene by scene, might feel jaunting. But in film, which allows for a more soft panning and movement of shots, it works quite well. But what’s more, it worked well because of Linklater’s strong sense of rules in making Slacker, which we have included below:

Linklater’s rules for filming Slacker:

1.— Scripts are limiting. It’s better to just have an idea of structure. Know where you are going from the beginning of the film to the end and understand how each of the scenes are linked. Notate for the actors what should happen in each of the scenes, so that one scene connects to the next and it is all continuous. “For a film that seems so structureless, in a way Slacker is all about structure. But within that structure, there is a lot of freedom.”
2. —Next, create a ‘sample dialogue.’ The word sample is used because it is not good to close off freedom and spontaneity from a scene with two people by being tied to words or the script itself. Since the structure and the layout of the scene and overall film was already formed, the real freedom came in when the actors could have fun and come up with their lines in the moment, using the sample as only an idea. From this openness, Linklater found his own style that seemed very real and natural, as it really is walking the streets in Austin, Texas.
More than likely, you have seen Linklater’s film Dazed and Confused. There is a less chance that you have seen Slacker or Before Sunrise or even Waking Life (also filmed around UT Austin). With that said, if you have not seen any of Linklater’s lesser known films, please do it for us and stream one of Linklater’s great films. If you are craving romance or like Ethan Hawke, watch Before Sunrise. Or want something philosophical and intellectual? Watch Waking Life. You will not be sorry! And share your thoughts with us. As a Texan who went to UT Austin myself, I would love to discuss Linklater’s films with you!

-MIchael Karpienski