Richard Linklater has an effortlessly ironic view of big-time directing.
Enthralled as he is by the classics of world filmmaking - he's a moving force behind the adventurous Austin Film Society - he loves quoting the great directors of the past with amusement as well as affection. Over the phone from Texas a month ago, he said "I'm most proud of a scene when you set up a structure and boom! - what you want to happen does happen so spontaneously." I told him that reminded me of a famous quote from John Huston: "If you do it right, the thing happens, right there on the screen."
Linklater laughed and said, "I love the way there's always a great quote from one of these guys. I think it was a John Ford quote, or that Ford said it first and Orson Welles appropriated it - 'Most of filmmaking is all accidental.' I think the story goes that Peter Bogdanovich went to Welles and asked whether it's true that it's all accidents, and Welles said the director 'presides over accidents,' or 'conjures accidents.' It's like this God thing - 'The Earth is a big accident,' or 'Life is a wonderful accident.' "
Seen in that light, it fits that Linklater would go from the uplifting, virtuosic Waking Life to the down and dirty Tape; it's as if he's deflating himself. But Linklater chalks up the project to practical reasons. "I had signed off on the character designs for Waking Life, and the animators were working away. There was nothing full-time for me at all, just regular check-ins and meetings, but there was just enough going on that I couldn't quite go off and make a bigger film - so I made Tape."
Ethan Hawke sent him Stephen Belber's play about two fractious old pals (Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard) and an ex-girlfriend (Uma Thurman). After shooting the live-action component of Waking Life on digital video, Linklater got "interested in the concept of doing a movie where the digital image was the main thing." He considered Tape an ideal choice for digital treatment.
Asked what distinguishes a digitally shot movie from a movie-movie, Linklater says, "I see the digital palette as completely different - as different as a big oil painting vs. a little charcoal sketch. If you shoot the digital film like a regular film, with stately dolly shots and everything, then you're just cheating the audience image-quality-wise. Why not just shoot it on film, and have it look better?" But Linklater was going to rely on intimate portraiture and darting moves for Tape, which is set entirely in a Lansing, Mich., motel room. Going digital, he says, "was the right decision to articulate this nasty little story."
Two areas within the material itself drew him into it: "First off, it was very well written, and I love the characters."
Love the characters? After all, he just described it as this nasty little story.
"Yeah," Linklater explained, "I liked what they were about; I got all of them; I felt close to them, each in his or her own way. And I like that it had to do with how your brain processes memory and how that changes over time. ...
"It's kind of amazing how the brain processes things, sometimes - that's why it's astonishing that anyone would rely on eyewitness accounts. You could prove it a million different ways, especially over time, that no one's really capable of giving an accurate account. We do our best - that's all we've got - but we all see the world very differently, due to the way we're processing it all."
The idea that Hawke's character pushes Leonard's to apologize to Thurman's for a date-rape that may not even have been a date-rape fascinated the director "on a political and personal level. This whole notion of apology - who is it for? Of course, if you bump someone's car, you can say, 'Oh, I'm sorry.' But can you apologize for something you truly did that hurt somebody, something you did seemingly of your own free will - something that expresses who you are? The most I think people really can do is say, 'I'm sorry you feel this way.' The horrible thing in this world is we all have our own reasons why we do things."
Once again, a moviemaker's quote: Linklater is echoing the line director Jean Renoir gave himself as an actor in his The Rules of the Game: "In this world there is one terrible thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons." Linklater says, "Right - there's something dead-on about that. We rehearsed Tape for weeks, and at one point I said to Robert and Ethan, you cats are the same guy: You have the same skill set, and you've got each other's number, except Vince has chosen to do this, and John has chosen to do that. ... And there's always the girl - the one that got away. Everyone's got that one relationship, particularly in that age range, 17-21, when you're the most intense. There's always someone who you projected it all onto, and it didn't work out."
To Linklater, Thurman's strong characterization of that woman, an assistant D.A. named Amy, helps make the resolution "wonderfully ambiguous." To Vince's surprise, Amy refuses to wallow in her supposed abuse at his friend's hand.
"We seem to be in a culture of victimization where everyone is looking for excuses," says Linklater. "I guess it dates back 25 years or so. Suddenly everyone I met seemed to have been abused or to have come from a dysfunctional family. Everyone's dad was a molester, or just a bad guy. I see it in a kind of post-modern way, as 'Oh, we're all sort of social constructs.' But I don't want to go through life thinking that way, even if it is true. I like to think we have a little more control. Certainly what you're doing now, or what you as an adult have pursued, or how you spend your time and what you think about - that's more important than what happened to you when you were 7, or that your parents chose to get divorced."
Linklater could be summarizing his work to date when he concludes, "I like the way that people cast themselves in the narratives of their lives."
'Train of Life'
Made in 1999, Train of Life receives its local premiere at 3 p.m. Sunday, under the sponsorship of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts in Owings Mills.
Director Radu Mihaileanu tells an unconventional tale of shtetl life uprooted by the Nazi menace; Marc Savlov of the Austin Chronicle compared it to the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer: "It's a comedy, it's a horror show, it's a romance, and it's a call to Communist arms ... when it fires on all cylinders, it's one of the most shocking, affecting Holocaust films yet seen." Tickets are $7.