Louis Black is a film producer, the co-founder of the Austin Chronicle, a senior director at the South by Southwest music festival (which he helped to found), and an original board member of the Austin Film Society, which itself was founded by director Richard Linklater (Slacker , Dazed and Confused , the Before Sunrise trilogy [1995/2004/2013], Boyhood ). That filmmaker is the subject of Black’s directorial debut, Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny , which was co-produced and co-directed by Karen Bernstein. The film will be broadcast on television this week as part of PBS’ long-running American Masters series.
I’ve been watching American Masters for years, but I don’t know anything about how it’s produced. Specifically, I don’t know if these films are produced independently and then distributed by PBS, or if PBS is hearing pitches and then funding production, or if the station itself is assigning filmmakers to particular subjects…
In our case, we pitched it to them, they were interested, [and] it was kind of an independent production with the understanding that if they liked it, they would accept it, and if they didn’t like it, there would be no relationship. So we did it as an independent production, and fortunately they liked it, and it became an American Masters. I think their relationship with every project is probably a little different.
So while you’re producing and directing this film along with Karen Bernstein, you know where you want it to eventually broadcast, and you’ve even had conversations with that potential [television] distributor. What kind of formal considerations do you then have to take into mind, while producing the movie, to get it to a place where it can air on PBS?
As a writer, I don’t think I would believe myself, but: Karen and I worked really hard to make the film we wanted to make, and I didn’t actually think about what the reaction was going to be. I didn’t even think about what Rick’s [Linklater] reaction was going to be … I didn’t have bigger considerations. I wouldn’t believe it myself if somebody said to me, “I wasn’t really that concerned about what Rick was going to think about it,” because that seems ridiculous! But it was actually true. I had to have the film work for me, and for Karen, and for my partner Sandy [K. Boone], who’s an associate producer on it. It wasn’t like we had to jump through certain hoops. We were aware of American Masters, and we were aware that we were making it for a [specific] audience, but I really had to make the film that I felt strongly about.
You’ve mentioned a couple times that it had to be the movie you “wanted to make.” Richard Linklater is an artist who’s been the subject of a wealth of critical discussion, even if all his individual films did not get their proper due … there have already been nonfiction features about his work (including Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater  and 21 Years: Richard Linklater ), and a number of his films have been released by the Criterion Collection with additional interview clips and other footage on the discs … what it is that you wanted to say about him that hadn’t been said already?
Well, that’s almost more grandiose [than it was]. Karen said, “Let’s do a doc on Rick,” and I said, “Sure.” My whole life, you know … in ’86, two friends came to my partner Nick [Barbaro] and I, who published the Chronicle, and said, “Hey, let’s start a little regional music convention”: South by Southwest. Somebody comes and says, “Let’s do this,” and I say yes without stopping to think it through.
Rick and I met in ’85 at Liberty Lunch. He came over to talk to me because I’d written an obit for Sam Peckinpah that he really liked and wanted to talk about. We started talking about films, and 31 years later we’re still talking about films … and we also entered into what became a very long discussion on [Linklater’s] films, but in the same way we’d talked about so many different films. At a certain point what I really wanted to do justice to is that for as much attention as Rick has gotten, I think that people have a hard time making sense of his filmography, because it’s so disparate.
I’m finishing a book on the films of Jonathan Demme, a book I’ve been working on for most of my adult life, as I like to say. And with both Jonathan and Rick … there’s only two books on Jonathan, one of which is just interviews … and it’s because both of these guys are addicted to making films and made all different kinds of films. I think they’re harder to grasp than other filmmakers. Certainly Rick is revered and respected as one of the great filmmakers of his generation—but in terms of having a handle on him, I think it’s hard. So what Karen and I really wanted to do was be organic about the body of his work. I think the defining thread [of Dream Is Destiny] is an auteurist study. It’s about a director. It’s not thematic necessarily, although I think there are consistent thematic [concerns across Linklater’s movies]. But the thread that connects all these films is this director who has an incredible passion for film and an equal passion for people.
With regards to finding a unifying thread: Dream is Destiny doesn’t separate Linklater’s movies into stages so much as it separates them into categories. First it presents a series of films that seem to come directly from Linklater’s voice (Slacker, Dazed, the Before trilogy, Waking Life, Boyhood, and Everybody Wants Some!! ), then films that Linklater himself says would’ve been made without him (School of Rock  and Bad News Bears ), and then a third category of films that don’t originate with the director’s own material, but that your film seems to find representative of his voice regardless (A Scanner Darkly , Tape ).
To a certain extent it’s chronologically loyal, but we do deal with the Before trilogy together, and we do [group] some of the other films too. One of the things about Rick is that when you talk to him … I kept looking for drama. So I’d say, “The Newton Boys , it’s your first big Hollywood film, $20 million-plus budget, and it doesn’t do well. What’d you think?” He said, “Well, you know, I got to make the film I wanted to make.” And then Me and Orson Welles , which is a film I really love, and that’s pretty neglected, same thing: cost him a ton of money, didn’t make any money—“Well, you know, I got to make the film I wanted to make.”
With Rick, there are those personal projects, the ones that really emanate from him. And then there’s his works-for-hire. But in every case, he brings the same level of cinematic enthusiasm. And what I think is really remarkable is his love of people. His films seem to be autobiographical, but as Julie Delpy points out about the Before trilogy: [those characters] aren’t Rick. It’s Ethan Hawke, and Julie, as much if not more than Rick personally. His films seem so autobiographical, but they’re not … there’s a cinema verite immediacy to some of them, but they’re really carefully-crafted narratives.
Another subject that’s constant in Dream Is Destiny is the practicalities of film distribution and financing. There’s a section on the way that press and grassroots promotional tactics—which is obviously connected to your own personal work at the Chronicle—helped get Slacker to a major distributor. There’s a clip included that details how Before Sunrise was shot in Europe for the sake of tax subsidies. There’s a section about what the financial failure of The Newton Boys  meant to Linklater and how it resulted in his next films (Waking Life  and Tape ) being shot with digital video formats. Why was it important for Dream Is Destiny, within an auteurist study, to keep a focus on the business and finances of filmmaking?
If the film works, what it should say is “go make your own movie.” It shouldn’t say “just admire the fuck out of Richard Linklater,” it should say “go make your own movie.” It was real important to us that this was about a kid from a small Texas town—who was extraordinarily talented, we’re not all that talented—but who went out and made movies, and built a career, and did it methodically. The leap from It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books , a film he essentially made single-handedly, to Slacker, one of the great independent films, to Dazed and Confused, which is to my mind extraordinary … his learning curve isn’t straight up, it’s incrementally incomprehensible. The leaps he makes in those three films! But the reality is, this isn’t a Hollywood studio filmmaker, this isn’t John Ford making three films a year. This is a modern independent filmmaker who’s determined to make films. And who has had some successes, but for the most part has never had megahits. So financing was a reality, and how his films did theatrically was a reality, and promoting them was a reality. We wanted the film to really be about that.
Also, he helped build the film culture in Austin, a very wonderful and unique film culture. Rick was very involved in that. And we wanted to at least allude to that.
That’s a subject I could watch a whole movie about. When I was writing about Everybody Wants Some!! last year, I found myself obsessively combing through the series of 1980s cinema that Linklater has programmed for the Austin Film Society, “Jewels in the Wasteland”. It occurred to me that he has a professional-level aptitude for that job as well.
Absolutely. When he did those 80s films, it was amazing. You get to see a film, introduced by Rick, then afterwards it’s like you’re in the living room with him. He wants to know what you think, he’s gonna tell you what he thinks. This guy is a brilliant filmmaker, and yet it’s always a conversation. I ran into him as we were both going into the theater for Veronika Voss . He said, “have you seen it,” and I said “once”. He said he’d seen it four times—and he could tell me what he took away from each screening. It had affected him in different ways, and his memory of it was unbelievable. And at one point, he goes, “you know, there are black-and-white films … Veronika Voss is a white-and-white film.” Which, of course, it is.
He has a genuine and deep passion for film. And he really believes in the social mission of film. Even Robert Rodriguez went to Hollywood for awhile, when he made his early films, then came back to Austin. Rick never went to Hollywood. He stayed involved in the Film Society. He stayed involved in programming films. Because he really has a sense of the social mission of film: the way it tells the story of humanity, but also creates community.
RICHARD LINKLATER: DREAM IS DESTINY. NOT RATED. SCHEDULED TO AIR ON LOCAL PBS AFFILIATE WGBH ON FRI 9.1 AT 9PM. ALSO CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FOR RENTAL ON VOD OUTLETS.