- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

You're making movies in your mind all the time," says independent filmmaker Richard Linklater. "Some work, and some don't."
Mr. Linklater, 40, first attracted a following 10 years ago with his debut feature, the discursive, fringe-of-campus social comedy "Slacker." He recently spent a day in Washington to promote a couple of projects that had been lingering in his imagination for several years. Their production periods prolonged in the case of "Waking Life," which required about a year's worth of computer-animation enhancement, and compact in the case of "Tape," shot on digital video in a single week overlapped in ways that accommodated more or less simultaneous releases.
"Waking Life," which opens today, is one of the most refreshing and offbeat pictures of the year. Returning to discursive comedy, Mr. Linkater shifts the emphasis to popular metaphysical speculation.
The movie blends conversational episodes, originally shot on video, with a systematic covering of animated illustration, which stylizes the talking-heads footage in a wistful and distinctive way. A poetic, often free-floating sense of figures and settings is added to the sound of a few dozen people sharing their reflections, usually hopeful but sometimes sinister, with an inquisitive young dreamer played by Wiley Wiggins. The character is an acknowledged alter ego of Mr. Linklater of about 20 years ago. He rambles and levitates, usually around Austin, Texas, the filmmaker's birthplace and residence.
Based on an unproduced one-act play by Stephen Belber, "Tape" was brought to Mr. Linklater's attention by Ethan Hawke, who had played a principal role in his unsuccessful 1998 feature "The Newton Boys." Mr. Hawke is joined by spouse Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard in a three-character, one-setting comedy-drama about a group of former high school friends reunited, at the age of 28, under less than genial circumstances in a motel in Lansing, Mich. It opens Nov. 16.
Both movies have been ready for some time they were introduced at the Sundance Film Festival in January but the distributors, Fox Searchlight for "Waking Life" and Lion's Gate for "Tape," preferred to target the autumn art-house market.
During an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, Mr. Linklater describes how his sixth and seventh pictures "came to the finish line more or less together."
"I've been building up to the idea of 'Tape' for a long time," he says. "Ethan found a script that crystalized things. In a way, it's a time-warp project, but it takes place in real time: The characters go at each other in this confined setting for an hour and a half. The performances are great. It was a godsend, because we could shoot it so quickly … after a lot of rehearsal, of course."
Although never exactly idled while animation supervisor Bob Sabiston and about two dozen associates gave "Waking Life" its illustrative camouflage, Mr. Linklater was grateful to have an additional movie in the works. "The animation artists had a lot of free rein," he says. "While they were busy with their stuff, my hands-on involvement was limited to the music and dialogue tracks. Then the schedules fell into place in such a fortunate way that I got to do the final sound mixes on both films a week apart.
"It's just a coincidence that they were shot on digital video, by the way. I think 'Tape' illustrates the advantages of the format. I don't really think of 'Waking Life' as a digital film, and I don't think the system is quite there yet as a standard theatrical format."
Mr. Linklater resists much speculation about the likelihood the national mood has shifted in a contemplative, stock-taking way that might enhance receptivity to "Waking Life." Perched cross-legged on a sofa at the Four Seasons Hotel, he reverses legs while formulating a diplomatic response. "I feel weird thinking about it," he says. "I don't want to find myself thinking, 'Oh, God, the country has been forced by this great calamity into being in a friendly frame of mind for my new film.' "
Mr. Linklater acknowledges that "the film very consciously brings up fundamental questions about reality, unreality, existence, free will all the stuff that you realize will elude simple answers but you still need to ask, since the questions are always worth thinking about."
Returning to the topic of the movies in one's mind, he says: "There's a developmental process everyone goes through. Some ideas stay in development … forever. That's where this idea ('Waking Life') stayed for about 18 years or so. It's only when I saw the computer-animated shorts that Bob Sabiston and a friend of mine, Tommy Pallotta, who was in 'Slacker,' had been doing that I thought maybe there is a way of replicating what's in my head.
"What I needed was a way of depicting unreality in a realistic fashion. Bob has developed this really wonderful software. Even four or five years ago, it was too limited. It's a computer refinement of the tracing technique that animators used for the human figures in cartoon environments. Even five years ago, it could only render white backgrounds with black line drawings. Now it's fluid and colorful."
The idea of a live-action "Waking Life" never seemed practical to Mr. Linklater. "I thought a lot about the look that would harmonize with this idea," he says. "It needs to be something contradictory between image and soundtrack… . One source of fascination was to see how the artists interpreted the people in the taped episodes. We looked at the live-action footage a lot and cast animators from it, almost like you'd cast the actors themselves. But I never thought of the live-action material as a presentable finished film. Some of it was pretty bad-looking video."
Mr. Linklater estimates that about one-third of the finished material was scripted. He credits participants with another third of the material, reiterations of points they had made to him. The final third fell into the "more or less spontaneous and unrehearsed" zone.
"My original credit," Mr. Linklater says, "was going to read, screenplay by me, with additional dialogue by numerous cast members. That would have been the accurate thing. The Writers Guild wouldn't permit it. They don't like credits that acknowledge more than three or four writers… . There's no doubt in this case that the actors helped develop and articulate their characters. In many cases, they simply were the characters."


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