AUSTIN DAZE: We enjoyed the rough cut of your film, “Scanner Darkly” at SXSW. How did you get involved with the project?
RICHARD LINKLATER: Well, I think some time after we finished “Waking Life” I was thinking of doing another animated film. I had referenced Philip K. Dick in “Waking Life” a lot and had been thinking about several of his works that I thought would be interesting books to adapt into movies. One was Ubik another book of his, written in the late 60s, but the rights to that weren’t really available so I segued into Scanner Darkly. I remember it was Wiley Wiggens, an actor I had worked with several times, who actually suggested Scanner. So I went back and looked at that novel again and started thinking about that again. And it actually felt like Philip K. Dick’s most personal film–that was the world he lived in. He was that guy to a large degree. So I really responded to it on a personal level and I thought it would be a really challenging film to make but would work well animated where it wouldn’t really work as live action as well. Hollywood had actually adopted it before and tried to make it but it never got off the ground. We were able to do it by keeping our budget low.
AD: Tell us how you actually made the film–the animation process.
RL: What’s interesting about this process is that you do it just like you do a normal movie: you have a script, you cast it, you rehearse it, you shoot it–although we shot it on 24p cameras, we didn’t shoot on film–then you edit the movie just like a regular movie. And then you sort of redo the whole movie in animation. So we’ve spent a year and a half in this office animating. Probably 500 hours a minute of human time per minute–it’s a huge undertaking. 500 hours of an artist’s time to produce one minute of film. It’s mind boggling. At the end of the day the animators spend much more time on the movie than I do. We shot it in 23 1/2 days–it worked pretty quickly. Everything went very smoothly. The post-production was actually very difficult on a lot of levels–I’m glad we are finally done. I’m really happy with it though. The sound mix. Everything.
AD: How involved was the Philip K. Dick camp in making the film?
RL: Well they were great.
Just to even qualify to make the movie I had to go talk to his daughters. I flew up to the bay area and met with Isa and Laura, two of his children. He has three kids: two daughters and a son in Southern California who I haven’t met. They control the estate and are very, rightly so, protective of their dad’s work. They just wanted to know, because this book was so personal to him, how it was going to be handled and what my view of it was–particularly the drug element. Because they said, “Our father would still be writing if it wasn’t for drugs so we just want to see how you are going to handle that element”. And I said, “I want to just make an honest film that depicts more than the ‘just say no’ message but shows the upside of these guys using it”. It’s set in the future where a lot of people are addicted to some new drug out there but then we find out that there’s actually more sinister forces behind that epidemic. So I wanted to show the down side of that addiction, but then in a way, in a strange way, the up side too. And then the viewer can make up their own mind. The down side so far out-weighs the upside. That was his point too. At the end of the book he wrote a tribute to all of his fallen friends and stuff, of which he was one also.
But the Dick estate was very supportive. I think they liked the idea that I saw it as a comedy too, which is strange for a movie to be both a comedy and a tragedy in the same movie–that’s a hard thing to pull off on a tonal level. They thought that I was trying to tell the whole story, which sort of excited them. I wanted to make an authentic adaptation and not just take some ideas and make a different kind of movie, or make a typical genre movie out of it. But I wanted to take this book and make a Phil K. Dick genre, which is it’s own thing that doesn’t really get attempted much. Most of the Philip K. Dick films that I have seen, they are always interesting, because his ideas are so profound and interesting, but often an element that has been lost in his works that have been adapted to film is the humor. You see bits and pieces of it but that’s it. I think he is a very funny guy and by all accounts he was this very lively, very imaginative guy. And he writes in a very wickedly funny way so I was really hoping to keep that element in the movie. And they appreciated that too–that I was trying to do that.
So I think at the end of the day they let me do it just because I was sincere in my attempt to do an authentic adaptation of that story and be funny and tragic and hit the right elements on the drug thing.
AD: It’s the closest adaptation of a book I’ve seen in a long time. Was it hard to pick and choose what to leave in and what to leave out?
RL: That was fun. With writing it, you go through the book and you have to think like an editor. You have to think the book is a ten-hour or twelve-hour movie that you have to cut down to 90 or 100 minutes. But I thought if I could keep those main characters. I really didn’t change much–a little bit about Freck is kind of a combination of two characters but all the other guys are all there. You kind of go on your instincts and say, “Ok, this will fit in the movie or this is less important”.
AD: Is this what our world will become? This film is set in a not too distant future. Is this a social political commentary on the paranoia caused by homeland security and the War on Drugs? Do you feel this future is imminent?
Paranoia plus a generation equals reality; equals the world you are living in. Remember back in the 80s, global warming? It was kind of a fringe paranoid schizophrenic idea. If someone was going around talking about global warming it was kind of humorous. You sort of laughed at them. They had a few facts and figures but it was pretty much a joke from the fringe. And then look at us now. Not only is it a fact, it’s still in dispute. It’s interesting in our cultural how fringe thinking; paranoid thinking; cynical-outsider-thinking has to be confronted by the mainstream a generation later. So much of it. And it’s just these cranks on the margins of our culture that are actually the seers of what is really going on. William Burroughs’s definition of a schizophrenic: someone who has just realized what is really going on.
The two un-winnable wars on terror and drugs–you shouldn’t call them wars, they should be approached in a different way than war–you see them joining at some point where it is this perpetual un-winnable, or not even attempting to win, just wars for wars sake. Orwell’s idea of the continual war for the continual peace. I mean there are wars outside our country, which this hints at–they’re down in other regions–fighting over some of these issues in the movie. But then there is always the domestic war that is going on, about our own government’s relation to its people. Government and corporations–they become more powerful together–and their relationship to the unruly masses, all of us, who maybe aren’t happy with their control. It is about the government’s clamp down and the government’s surveillance and keeping up with us. It’s amazing how we sort of just get used to things. We just get worn down.
A good example, I think, is airport security. The 19 guys who flew those airplanes were not citizens–they were not from this country. When you are going to have a “War on Terror”–if you wanted to target a profile–you wouldn’t pick domestic citizens at all. You would pick people from other countries. But their first impulse was to start strip-searching grandmothers just to kind of show control. It’s like, “They’re keeping us safe”. They’re not keeping us safe. They are just breaking us all down psychology. Meanwhile all these shipping vessels are coming in unchecked.
It’s really creepy and we are just sort of being conditioned to accept a lot of things.
AD: What do you want people to take with them from the film?
RL: Wow. I don’t know, I think it’s one of those things people will take things based on how they are oriented, probably.
AD: Is that what you want?
RL: Yeah. I don’t have any one message. I think any time people can question authority–I don’t know. On one level you just want to tell a story and hope people like your characters and get invested in them and some of the plot intrigues of the characters. You hope they care something about them. But at the same time, it’s kind of your ultimate paranoid story where nothing is what you think it is. It’s the ultimate paranoid nightmare about yourself in relation to the people you think are friends and your own desires and how all of us are manipulated. I mean that idea that you could be used in such a way is a deeply dark and tragic story. There is something to always keep in mind. You have to be watching your back a little bit.
AD: Tell us the difference, besides the obvious, between writing an original screenplay and writing a screenplay based on a story, book or a previous film. Now that you have done all of the above, which do you prefer?
RL: I can’t say I prefer any in particular. When you adapt a book, you feel like you do have a partner, which is great. You can always refer back. I felt like I had my own relation with Philip K. Dick as I was making this and I was feeling like I could always refer to his writings, read interviews with him, things like that. I had this beyond the grave relation with this author which was wonderful. Really wonderful. But at the same time, at some point I felt like spiritually I had permission from him. I was granted like, “Make the movie, you’re the right guy. You have the right world view to pull this off”. I felt empowered somehow that I could just take it and make it my own. So it’s a combination of that. The Philip K. Dick in my head was approving what I was doing. It’s important to be delusional.
At the end of the day, you’re a filmmaker with a script. To what degree it’s personal–you’ve wrote it or whatever–you’ve made it your own and you’re making it. Even when it’s a script I didn’t originate, say something like, “School of Rock”. By the time I’m making the movie, I’ve personalized it, I’ve rehearsed with actors, I’ve cast, I’ve totally made it my own somehow. That’s what a director does. It’s a fun process.
Sometimes when something is autobiographical, something even based on a personal experience or something, sometimes you’re maybe even more vulnerable. You’re more in your own head but I like that too. It depends.
AD: Tell us about your screenwriting process.
RL: It depends on the project. On something like “Scanner Darkly” it was pretty systematic. I just went through the book and took notes; wrote out on note cards different scenes. And in this case, I’m pulling exact dialogue from the book too so it’s editing and compiling and then bridging gaps and making it all work. You feel more like an architect. I think on other things I’ve written, I might spend years just kind of having ideas and writing them down and then eventually it will all line up and I’ll think, “Ok, I’m going to sit down and write that screenplay right now”. And I’ll spend anywhere between two weeks and three months actually working every day. Usually I’ll have an outline–I’ll work it into a pretty tight outline: scene by scene, beginning, middle, and end. I always like to know the end. That kind of final note that you are trying to hit. I know some writers who just start with a blank and let it go. I’ve never really done that. I’ve always been more specific.
I make a lot of notes and I know the story and I just kind of work though it. Like running laps around a track, you just sort of work through it once and maybe haven’t done all the dialogue but you know all the beats. And then another track you’ll do the dialogue and then maybe that one day the dialogue isn’t coming to you to well so you just keep working through it and you know, if some scene is not gelling you just go on to the next scene. You just work on something else. With writing, you have to be your own best friend. I’ve never had writer’s block or anything like that because there is always something to be working on. If you sense it’s not your best day for dialogue then just work on that transition in the third act that is going to be tough or spend your time thinking about something or write description. Just take it easy on yourself, don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself and just keep working. A lot of it is just sitting down and doing it when you don’t feel like it. If you just sit down for three or four hours a day, you just do it. My early 20s I had trouble writing. I felt like I had it all in my head and it was just like, writing is such a big deal. And at some point in my late 20s it just got easy for me. Like an athlete, once you take the pressure off of yourself and just perform you hit this space that’s much more who you are–If you take away these barriers that we create for ourselves in our heads.
AD: What’s up next for you?
RL: I’ve got a couple of scripts that I’m trying to get done. One is a day in the life of Chet Baker, the jazz musician. It takes place in the 50s and is kind of a beat jazz movie from 1954–kind of an odd idea. Another one deals with the Iraq war and is very contemporary. It’s seen through the eyes of a parent who has lost a kid.
AD: When is “Fast Food Nation” coming out?
RL: I’m done with that. I just finished it. That’s premiering in less than two weeks at the Cannes Film Festival. I think it will be out in the fall. I’m really happy with it. It’s different than anything I’ve ever done before. It’s very dramatic, really packs a wallop at the end. “Scanner” and this are similar in that by the end they are both sort of devastating–they are both kind of tragic. So I’m in some sort of weird phase right now. Maybe that is just the times we are living in–it’s just like, “Oh god, Oh f**K. Is there not a happy ending in sight?” It’s funny how films reflect the times in some way. It usually takes a little while, there’s lag time in movies–just a little bit, but it can usually be pretty instantaneous. Like the great Vietnam films really weren’t until the 1970s. The war had been going on for years before they kind of figured it out. The Iraqi thing is a little quicker.
AD: It’s been about two years since our last interview. How has the Austin film scene changed?
RL: I’m probably not the best person to ask because I’ve been so busy. I’m practically AWOL from Austin film scene. It seems like there is more documentaries and more independent films than ever being made. I think on the local business level, there are less films coming here than there used to be. That’s a potential dangerous thing. The local government needs to incentivize productions to come to Austin. That’s on the chamber of commerce level. But on the underground film level, it seems like there are a lot of filmmakers. It seems better than ever. But again, I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask. I’m where I want to be at, but just really busy. ***