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Richard Linklater isn’t used to talking about himself, judging from the first couple of questions I ask. Just when I think he’s going to go off about something, there’s a slight hesitation in his voice, as if he’s uncertain how to proceed.

We’re sitting in a near-north cafe, and he looks pretty comfortable, casually dressed in black jeans and a T-shirt, his long hair splayed across his face, practically covering his eyes.

It’s a smothering, cruel Friday afternoon, but Linklater spends his time making movies in Texas, so it’s useless to complain about the weather. Tonight at Ka-Boom! Linklater will be the unofficial star–clips and the trailer to his debut feature, Slacker, are scheduled for screening there. This is the first time Linklater’s been in Chicago, and so he’s planning a long weekend binge of partying and hanging out. Fortunately I’ve gotten to him before any of that starts.

All I know about him is that he’s 29 years old, was born in Dallas, and taught himself how to make movies. The press book prepared by the distributor of the movie is not much help. “Don’t believe anything you read in there,” he says.

“I was an offshore oil worker for 18 months. I went two years to this east Texas college, which was pretty uneventful. I was an English and drama major. I learned just enough to know I could be learning on my own. I wanted to read, so I spent several good years just reading and watching movies. That was my “slacker” period, where I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was writing a lot.

“It was then I got to discover cinema. I was living in Houston, so I found myself in certain university programs. They still had repertory theaters then, and I was seeing all the classics and found out that making films was what I wanted to do. I always had this, like, visual memory. I could edit in my head, and it was just a process of discovering that film was it. I’ve been into the movies for about eight or nine years. I used to watch 500 or 600 movies in a year. I never went to film school. I guess it was always too personal. I didn’t want somebody in production saying, ‘No, you can’t do this.’ Had I gone to film school, I never would have made a film like Slacker–there would have been too many people telling me why it wouldn’t work.”

Linklater’s movie, which he finished last year, was a phenomenon when it debuted in Austin last summer, selling out its first 22 shows at a 200-seat theater. Linklater played it at a few film festivals before Orion Classics acquired it for distribution. It’s now being shown at various locations around the country, and starts an open-ended run at the Music Box beginning tonight.

Slacker is a loopy, very funny essay set in the forlorn, decrepit crevices of Austin, Texas. It coolly observes the off-center rhythms and crazy energy of a loose, fractured subculture–slackers, the dropouts, freaks, misfits, petty thieves, and thrill seekers (most of them in their 20s) who violently reject traditional society. In the film’s key line, one lost soul declares: “I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to get it.”

It’s a virtually unclassifiable work, scripted but with the feel of a documentary. It draws its loose, nonlinear structure, Linklater says, from such avant-garde films as Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty and from the plotless Eastern European village comedies of the 60s. The camera locates its subjects as if by radar, eavesdropping and then moving fluidly on to the next person– Linklater shoots in long, unbroken takes.

“That’s a form of story telling,” Linklater insists. “You go into a community, and you have people talking and communicating, passing on stories to other people. I’d seen other films by Bunuel. I was explaining my film to someone on the crew, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a Bunuel film like that.'”

Linklater says there are precedents in literature for gathering individuals’ unrelated stories. “But of course when I first thought about Slacker seven years ago, I wasn’t really familiar with this. Then you educate yourself and find out, sure enough, somebody else not only thought it up but wrote about it. What is original? It’s just whatever energy you bring to an idea that means a lot to you. The ultimate manipulation on my part is to create this pseudodocumentary feel– although we have all these dolly shots and we had a Steadicam for a little bit. Documentaries don’t usually have that kind of flow. But still I wanted to somehow make the film look spontaneous, when actually it was all planned out.”

Linklater shot Slacker in July and August two years ago, on $23,000 he scrambled together from family, friends, and private investors (“I’d been warning them for years someday I’d hit them up,” he says). There are 97 characters in the movie, and though Linklater wrote the script, the actors had some input. “I’m not saying I wrote every word up on the screen. Some of the film was written by the actors in a rehearsal-intensive atmosphere. Some of the best lines came about because an actor would say something, and I’d go ‘That’s perfect, we’ll write that in and work on it.’ Slacker came out of: what if you don’t get a good look at him or hear him talk, what if he just started talking, what if the interior thoughts came out in a social way? I wanted to explore that, or I guess I thought it would be fun to watch these strange conversations. The working method was getting the information to come through these people essentially playing themselves acting out a fictional situation.”

Linklater is a new, lively voice in a burgeoning regional American independent cinema. Artists like John McNaughton, Hal Hartley, Gus Van Sant, and Jim Jarmusch understand that if an alternative commercial cinema has any chance in the shadow of the monopolies and the conglomerates, they may have to alter the way movies are financed, made, and sold. “I thought Slacker would have a one-week showing at a museum. I don’t have any ties to the industry–it’s just an independent film from nowhere, and believe me, they think of Texas as nowhere. There’s a lot of resistance to anything that seems new or different, and if it doesn’t come out of New York, the people with power and authority dismiss it.”

Now, perversely, Linklater enjoys a certain legitimacy, because he’s made a film people are going to see, and that recognition has caught the attention of the establishment. “On its terms, the movie is very successful. I’ve got a couple of scripts, of various budgets. I like the Slacker-type film–really low-budget, kind of an essay, experimental, really plays around with ideas, takes chances, and you don’t really have to answer to a lot of people. I have a lot of projects that would fit comfortably into that but wouldn’t necessarily have a big audience. I always want the freedom to do films like this.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.