Is “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater’s 1993 journey through the pot-smoke of seventies stoner culture, a drama? A comedy? A detailed anthropological study of the bongs, beer, and hazing rituals that defined adolescence in 1976? Well, sure. Its meticulously observant romp through the last day of high school in Austin, Texas might qualify as all of the above. But to me, first and foremost, “Dazed and Confused” is a musical. That’s right. A musical.
No, characters don’t break out in song and dance. But the liquid gush of beer from a keg spout, the jarring slam of a school locker, and the bubbling of bongwater define Linklater’s film every bit as much as its images. When these sounds ride atop a wave of era-defining seventies rock songs, Linklater’s film becomes as visceral and rhythmic as “Grease” or “West Side Story.”
“Boyhood,” Linklater’s current film, would seemingly have nothing in common with the doobie-huffing, Visine-drenched vibe of “Dazed and Confused.” And in many ways, it doesn’t. But like “Dazed” and many of Linklater’s other films (most notably, “School of Rock”), its dramatic impact is enhanced by his thoughtful, sonic integration of sound and music.
Written and directed by Linklater, “Boyhood” follows the arc of a boy’s life from childhood through adolescence. We’re along for the ride as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) drives the often-beautiful, always confusing, and sometimes agonizing road towards self-discovery. Birthdays. Road trips. Family dinners. Alone, these bits and snippets might seem mundane, but their cumulative effect is transformative and supremely moving… in great part due to the way songs accentuate each phase of Mason’s life.
Unlike “Dazed and Confused,” the music of “Boyhood” reflects an era 38 years after that which Linklater grew up in. “Dazed…” was his life – its characters, events, and soundtrack shaped from his own formative history. In drastic contrast, “Boyhood” ventures into cultural landscapes experienced by a much younger protagonist. Mason didn’t grow up listening to Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, and Nazareth. Linklater was forced to vicariously immerse himself into Mason’s shoes, absorbing pop-culture cornerstones that would accurately reflect the character’s formative years.
Linklater’s approach to “Boyhood” is unprecedented. The film was shot intermittently, over a twelve-year period, with cast and crew meeting for a few weeks each year. Filming began in the summer of 2002, and was completed in October, 2013. As a result, we see the film’s stars, including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as Mason’s parents and Lorelei Linklater (daughter of the director) as his sister, literally grow before our eyes.
After screening at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, “Boyhood” took home three major prizes, including awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress. The accolades are well-deserved. And as with “Dazed…,” “Boyhood” uses music to superb effect. As Mason weathers the beautiful, cruel journey towards defining his place in the world, songs like Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue” and Family of the Year’s “Hero” accent each bittersweet step.
During SIFF, I spoke with Linklater during a round-table interview, enthused at the prospect of learning how he selects the music that’s so crucial to his films. Sharing table space and questions with fellow journalists including Kathy Fennessy and Nick Tiffany (both credited below for their respective contributions), I found some answers.
But as Spinal Tap’s fictional music documentarian Martin DiBergi might say, “I got more. Much more.” Linklater also offered his thoughts on how the Internet has impacted teenage rebellion, why “Boyhood” was filmed in Texas but could have been made anywhere, and whether or not his directorial style changed over the 12-year arc of “Boyhood.”
Fennessy: Were you last here—the last time I saw you, and was it also the last time you were here–with “Dazed and Confused”?
Linklater: I’ve been here since, but not at the festival.
F: That was one of the highlights of SIFF for me.
The “Dazed…” premiere was 21 years ago tomorrow, because my daughter [Lorelei] had just been born. I left her birth in Mexico, and flew to the premiere in Seattle. It was that close, like two or three days. [This interview took place on May 31].
F: That [show of people] was amazing, and I’m guessing a lot of that was from “Slacker,” because I don’t think there was much advance word in Seattle as to exactly what “Dazed and Confused” was [about], but there was this huge line, a really good Q&A, people loved it—it was awesome.
Doughton: So “Dazed…” premiered at SIFF?
Because “Slacker” [Linklater’s film from 1991] had been here a few years before.
D: So, things came full circle?
Yeah. The studio [Gramercy Pictures] had given up on the film at that point, and I said, “Well, I’m gonna show it in Seattle.” They said, “Yeah, do whatever you want.” They didn’t even come up and watch it.
D: How did you choose the music for “Boyhood”?
I didn’t need a music consultant on “Dazed…” I could tell you every song, everything. But with this, I realized that I know what I like now, but I don’t pretend to know what a nine-year-old is hearing in their world. And actually, Ellar and Lorelei, my two representatives of this generation, were not that much help, because they’re so strange in their own way. Lorelei’s listening to medieval musicians—the most modern she’d get would be Joanna Newsom and the harp. Ellar was just really advanced. He was the eight-year-old listening to Radiohead. I’d be like, “What are you listening to?” Ellar: “Pink Floyd.” He knew what he liked. We had to kind of “normal” them down a little bit for their parts, at least up to a certain point, so I ended up with these—not in the first few years, but as we got probably to the second part of the movie—I got some kids roughly their age; a little older. I’d go through all the charts, all the hits, and listen to stuff I liked, and then give ‘em to people. It was important to me that someone had an experience with the song, and they would write notes or tell me about, “Oh that song was on all that summer” or “It played at the pool.” I needed stories, and the song at the end, when he’s driving away, “Hero,” I didn’t know that. It works so well in the movie, but one of my interns–and kind of music consultant–Ben, he suggested it. And I said, “What did it mean?” He said he had a breakup—or something had happened–and he was driving away and that song was on. I don’t know if it was from his collection or the radio, but he felt like everything was going to be okay. I said, “That means something to me that you had an emotional reaction.” It wasn’t my personal experience, but it was important to me that it was somebody’s. Everything in the movie, frankly, is somebody’s experience.
D: So, it wasn’t just about picking through the charts for what happened to be popular at the time, but getting consultants together…?
I needed to get it right. And some of them were like, “My sisters love this song–girls like this song–I hate it” or “I like some of it,” and I was like, “Okay, maybe that fits here or there.”
Tiffany: If someone came to you when you were six until you were a senior, how different would it have been?
It would be…both. You know, I think it’s different. Making a choice with Ellar, the kind of ethereal, arty kid–both of his parents are artists, and I kind of thought he’d grow up and be a musician or something–he ends up being a visual artist. He went in that direction, and that was a part of it: when I realized he was taking pictures, because that’s what I do. I was behind the camera and writing, so that expressed one side, but if you really put a camera on me, there would be that side—the kid who’s riding and reading and all that—but then also I was playing football, basketball, baseball. There would be some similarities for sure.
Tiffany: What can you tell me about the use of technology in the film?
As an older person, you have to think about the differences. I don’t want to be the old fuddy-duddy saying, “Back in my day, it was better.” I think the world’s so much better in so many ways, that information and all that’s good, but I do wonder—I do always appreciate what comes out of maybe nothing or boredom or whatever. I mean, my little peanut observation from this whole 12 years is… I really thought there would be more cultural change. And my theory now is I think the internet, it satisfies something in the individual to be heard or to feel engaged. But I don’t see a lot of physical change in the world, like even in architecture or cars. If you go back, it doesn’t look that much different, but if you jump back—if you started this in 1959 and ended it in ’71—look how different everything would be. If you started in ’70 and ended it in ’82, look how different it would look–fashion and everything–but I think it would be different for someone your age’s perspective. You probably see all this difference. An older person doesn’t maybe pick up on all of it, but I still think there’s maybe a lot less in the culture. I didn’t sense there were any new movements. Punk rock didn’t emerge in these 12 years, but I think it comes out of boredom or frustration or a feeling of impotence—why you would stick a safety pin in and start your own band? No one has to do that anymore, because you feel empowered through all these devices. You’re not viscerally reacting to this oppressive culture in the same way.
T: People my age are concerned that the layout for Twitter or Facebook has changed! [Tiffany is 18 year old] Was there anywhere else, other than Austin, where you considered setting the film?
It was a practical consideration, being based in central Texas. You can get a lot of different looks—we traveled to Houston–but it was kind of like my own life. I never really left Texas, growing up. We couldn’t afford it. We took one vacation my whole life. I never went to summer camp or anything. Texas is such a big state, you do get a lot of looks even within being geographically restricted. It’s not the worst state to be geographically restricted to, but technically, I kind of like that in literature or anywhere—you get really dialed into some specifics, but it’s, of course, telling a pretty universal story, so I think you could make this film…in France. You could make this in New York City, and it would have a similar ring, I would think.
T: How have these last 12 years of filming this affected you as a director… how you see certain things? Have you changed your style in any way?
Not for this film. I mean, that’s a director’s job: it’s a tonal challenge. So, when I had this idea, it was whole—the tone, the whole thing–so my job was to stick with that tone for the effect I wanted for this film. That doesn’t mean in other films, I can’t do something very different, but I just had to think in terms of this film. Someone told me once, “I think your filmmaking improves as it goes.” Hey, I wasn’t 18 when I started–I was 40 or whatever. It wasn’t my first film. I felt I had a visual plan. In the meantime, I did a lot of other films, but a pretty wide variety within that, so it’s storytelling. What’s the most effective way to tell a given story? That’s what I spend most of my time thinking about in this world—how to tell a story. Not just what story, but how to tell it.
Special thanks to Kathleen Fennessy for transcription assistance.