I first interviewed Richard Linklater in 1991 at a now-defunct diner in Fairmount, a kind of a themed encounter meant to play on the content of his first big movie, Slacker, an informal portrait of folks hanging out in Austin.
Slacker was full of stoners and riffers and artists and other found objects, and the let’s-rap-with-Richard hook to that first chat was in keeping with the early image of Linklater as the Austin filmmaker who just happened to point his camera at a cozy circle of kindred, laid-back spirits.
That day in the diner dispelled any such notion. Spend just a few minutes with Linklater and you quickly see that underneath the friendly Texas/Louisiana drawl is a shrewd, canny, observant, motivated guy, with a pronounced streak of DIY independence.
There have been crowd-pleasers — Bad News Bears and School of Rock, more recently Everybody Wants Some!!. But even a time-capsule treat like Dazed and Confused, which so vividly captures coming of age in the 1970s, contains a layer of sophistication — showing the way old, outmoded social hierarchies were being discarded by a new generation (take that paddle and flake off, Ben Affleck).
So, no. he’s not a slacker. And he’s not one to repeat himself. His latest, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is opening Friday. It’s based on the wryly funny bestseller by Maria Semple, and set among the kind of plutocratic characters you don’t find in Linklater’s staunchly middle-class (or lower middle-class) movies.
Cate Blanchett plays an eccentric and tart-tongued architect — effectively retired due to creative setbacks and frustrations — who disappears amid a personal crisis, leading her tech billionaire husband (Billy Crudup) and daughter (Emma Nelson) to conduct a frantic search to find her. The search is urged on by the daughter, who has a faith in her mother that others lack.
The movie is the portrait of an artist in the midst of a creative crisis (and at war with suburban moms like the one played by Kristen Wiig), but that’s not what drew Linklater — who generally has three or four movies brewing at once — to the material.
Mostly it was another chance to draw on his experiences with his own mother, whom he memorialized in Boyhood, the role that won Patricia Arquette the Oscar.
“Bernadette reminded so much of my own mom, who was a great woman, but kind of unstable, you could say, and she would leave us for days at a time and we wouldn’t know where she went,” Linklater said.
"And I felt I’d made my mother-son story, with Boyhood, and I’ve got three daughters, and two sisters, and I’ve just kind of had a front-row seat to the mother-daughter thing my whole life, and so the material really engaged me on that level.”
And though writer-director Linklater, 59, is never short on inspiration — he’s currently plotting biographies of Bill Hicks, con man John Brinkley, and another coming-of-age movie set in 1969 — like every artist he’s sometimes beset by fears of not being able to do what he needs to do. For Blanchett’s character, this fear has become debilitating.
“There’s that idea of the artist who’s not creating, and that’s the stuff of nightmares, and it’s happened to people I know. And I’ve sometimes had problems getting movies made, but I’ve always been able to kind of trudge through those rough patches with some hope. But it’s really easy to see how those days could stretch into weeks, and a year. And the chance to explore that, and the idea of someone who gets her mojo back, that was exciting,” he said.
Linklater also liked the idea of a movie that shows how hard it is for parents to balance the obligations to self, and the obligations to family.
“I’ve seen it with my own partner, Tina [Harrison]. It’s like how many passions can you have?” he said. “Becoming a parent is the best thing in my life, but then there’s this other thing that you have to do, and the intensity of that conflict is what makes Bernadette so interesting.”
There is also the suggestion in the movie that Bernadette’s eccentricities may be the symptoms of clinical mental-health issues, but the movie resists the urge to make any kind of diagnosis.
“I think with the artist, the art is the therapy. What’s not so easy is to find the passion or the desire or the inspiration, and that’s the journey Bernadette is on,” he said.
For Linklater (and so many other filmmakers), the “rough patches” of getting movies made seem to get bigger and more formidable every year, as backers and distributors willing to gamble on his type of movie grow more scarce. During our conversation, he praised partner and indie distributor Annapurna for going all in on Bernadette. The next day, I read in the trade papers that Annapurna (interested in making Linklater’s con man movie with Robert Downey Jr.) may be — gulp — on the verge of bankruptcy.
That would leave guys like Linklater with even fewer indie options, at a time when the industry consolidates around big-tent blockbusters that cater to all-ages audiences — though Linklater admits to being nonplussed by the ascendancy of the kind of movie that draw adults to adolescent and pre-adolescent fantasies.
“It’s almost unrecognizable, this place we’ve got to as a culture, this infantilization of everything, the constant turning back to what was comforting when you were 9.”
That’s why he hopes audiences will cut Bernadette some slack.