dir. Richard Linklater
Opens Fri Oct 26 at the Egyptian.
Richard Linklater lay supine on a hotel couch, watching the Mariners get beat down by the Yankees in Game One. Barefoot and blue-jean casual, he was instantly familiar, and as gregarious as you'd expect after watching the opening scene of Slacker, his 1991 debut. Ten years and four films later, Linklater has written and directed Waking Life, an experimental collage of animation, philosophical inquiry, and surrealism, departing from the more straighforward narrative structures of Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and Suburbia. After chatting briefly about the tendency of Seattle sports teams to choke in the post-season, and what that might reflect about our city's psyche, we got down to business.
Has Waking Life been kicking around in your head for a long time?
Yeah, the idea, the core, the fundamental idea and structure of it--it almost pre-dates my interest in film.
What is that core idea?
Um, it's kind of like what happens to the lead character, the way he sort of proceeds through space, where he sort of awakens into a kind of multi-level reality, if you can call it that. I just tried to approximate that. I thought that was an interesting character structure. That's pretty fundamental, to ask yourself, "Is this real?"
A lot of people have pointed out that, compared to your other films, Waking Life is the most like Slacker. Structurally it's a series of relentless digressions, with a ton of characters and events related mainly by association. But there's more of a story.
Where Slacker has no story, the story [in Waking Life] emerges. It's always there, but you become aware of it slowly, and it has a cumulative effect on the viewer thematically. But [the scenes] are unrelated technically to one another, which is sort of against narrative traditions. I remember when Slacker came out, someone was like, "Oh, you can only make this film once." And I was like, "I don't know; this is kinda the way I think."
My narrative aspirations are to follow the thought process or the way time unfolds, or I'm thinking about how the brain works or how you make connections--the constructive aspect of our memories and how we construct the world visually through our brains. Thinking about it, it seems like you just kinda imagine the story, or you're hitching ideas onto a narrative. I think [the two films] are both primarily about ideas, but they're very different in tone. For one, Slacker is very much in a time structure and a place. Waking Life is probably another reality altogether, so there's no real time or space structure to it. Yet it's a similar idea. It's a narrative that really hitched to a bunch of ideas.
So many ideas and philosophies are offered up in the film--
Yeah, a lot of chips on the table.
In a dream or at a party or in the course of a month, if you're exposed to that much stuff, you don't necessarily remember it all, you just remember being exposed to a lot of interesting thoughts. Did you worry that specific ideas would be lost in the gestalt?
I like the idea of the aesthetics of the idea at the moment you're hearing it. Like, not that you're disagreeing with it necessarily, it's just to be sort of taken in and processed. Obviously, some are gonna resonate; others, y'know--people are going to take it differently. It's all about your own personal, highly subjective experience. I don't think it would ever be the same for two people.
Which is really different from most of what passes for contemporary discourse--which boils down to Idea Being Asserted and Response Being Demanded.
Yeah, and so it's like the people who agree with it think it's good.... Y'know, it's like, take any political movie. That's why they don't really ultimately work or stand the test of time. 'Cause you hit the moment and it gets into you and you go, "Yeah!"--and then you look back and it's like, "Eh, that's kinda like propaganda." Like everything else, it's been reduced to storytelling and simplicity, and it doesn't really get into multiple layers. My litmus test for ideas that sort of qualified--I think it was just the inventory of what was interesting to me, and I think I'd circled back on some really fundamental "eternal mystery" kind of questions, y'know? The ones there really aren't answers to? I saw [Waking Life] as sort of an odyssey, in that these people are sort of helping the main character in his awareness; like, that's what we all do for each other at our best. If we're being honest or sincere, or we can communicate or share our experience. Y'know, some people can bring you into that. I don't think I'm one of those people who necessarily does that in person, but some people--Speed Levitch, for instance--he's one of these guys who just kind of demands a certain aliveness in a moment; he kinda pulls you in. Some people have that kind of force. I think it's an attractive quality. It's a scary quality to a lot of people: the intensity of having to confront something like that.
It's an interesting role that you have, both as filmmaker and actor, as the guy presiding over this film. It's almost like Gurdjieff, moving through these meetings with remarkable people. So when you say you're not necessarily the kind of person who can shake people into some sort of awareness, are you counting the films you make in that assessment?
I think I'm more of an observer in my own head. Y'know, I'm not saying that it's a good quality at all, but I just kinda wish I had more of an immediacy sometimes. I'm always questioning.
Many filmmakers have tried, with varying degrees of success or even follow-through, to make movies about dreams.
Doesn't really work in cinema. Fundamentally.
It seems like if you make the dream state explicit, then you've almost violated the whole idea.
Yeah, you've shattered the dream.
But in Waking Life, you make it really explicit, and so we enter this dialogue with dreaming, which is really interesting.
It was that contradicting notion of being awake in your dreams that intrigued me. Y'know, like once you're at that level, then it's sort of like being aware you're watching a film. See, it was really my feeling that dream and film are so similar that to make [one] about [the other] is like a redundancy that sort of cancels out the whole thing. People don't want to go see a movie about dreams. I don't. To me, what happens in Waking Life isn't about dreams; it's another experience. It's about being awake and in another state of reality.
And the animation really echoes or establishes that.
That's the way your brain kind of imagines or remembers. So it's a perfect form for the ideas. I know that; I knew it when I saw it. I saw the animation and I was like, "That's it. That's the way it should be."
It gives you so much license to play with the structurelessness. If there's a guy talking about how we're all basically chimps, you can make him actually be a chimp. Perfect, right?
Yeah. You can't really take your eyes off of it, and I think that's an interesting anchor for the whole piece. You're pulled into it in the way you're pulled into your own--say, a dream. Y'know, you're sort of pulled into it almost beyond your will. I mean, it's just happening in front of you; you're challenged, looking at it, figuring it out. So that being an anchor was an interesting way to put in information or have ideas that have no place in cinema. It was a good anchor for all those digressions.
How actively did you preside over the animators?
They were given a lot of freedom. It was primarily Bob Sabiston's department, but as a director, you have sort of... veto power, I guess. Without wielding a club or breathing down their necks. Several hours a week, I would watch everything and be kind of like, "Hey. That's great. Capture the character, keep going," or "That doesn't seem to be the essence of who they are. Keep working or get another animator." It was kind of like the way you encourage or work with actors. At the end of the day, you would hope they feel like they were given free range to express themselves. And whatever ideas you brought to it, it helped their ideas go to some level that neither of you could have imagined. So I was always really happy with what they were doing, 'cause they were, like, talented painters and illustrators and, like, cool people. So if you cast well--y'know, it's like, it works. It goes to some other level.