Richard Linklater: Life, death, love, whatever

It's technically brilliant, but what, exactly, is the animated feature Waking Life about? Its creator, the ageing slacker Richard Linklater, explains all to Geoffrey Macnab
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A chin-scratching, chuckling, affable 41-year-old Texan, Richard Linklater still looks and behaves like the young slackers whose stories he has been telling on screen for so long. Nothing fazes him. If, for instance, he was hurt by the box-office failure of his big-budget 1998 feature, the Bonnie and Clyde-style, 1920s-set gangster pic The Newton Boys, he certainly doesn't show it.

In the wake of that film, Linklater's career temporarily stalled. "A year after it came out, I noticed that I had these projects that I kept trying to get money for and everyone would meet with me, but no-one would fund the movies. It took me a while to realise, 'Oh-oh, I'm dead'." He couldn't understand why he was regarded as such a profligate director. The Newton Boys had cost $27m (less than the average Woody Allen picture), he had brought it in on schedule and under budget, "and yet I was treated as if I had made some huge Hollywood want-to-be blockbuster".

The studio (Fox) didn't exactly try hard to sell the film. In most major territories outside the US, it wasn't even released. Other film-makers might have been destroyed by seeing their long-cherished opus disappear into oblivion. Linklater took it in his stride. "It sucked," he concedes. "Once films are out of your control, it's surprising and sometimes heart-breaking what happens to them. But," he pauses, "being in film is like being in organised crime. Every now and again, you have to take a beating and keep your mouth shut. Then you get to do it again. You get to live."

Linklater's new feature, Waking Life , was made with backing from the Independent Film Channel. Perhaps ironically, given what happened to The Newton Boys, it is being distributed by Fox. ("I don't burn bridges.") It's a return to his slacker roots, but with some key differences – it's animated and entirely set within a dream. He describes it as two movies in one. The first – live-action – he made quickly on video. Once the video was edited, he let his animator friend, Bob Sabiston, and a team of 31 artists, loose on the material. Each frame of the movie was transformed into computer graphics. (A minute of footage took anything up to 250 hours to animate.)

The result is unique but perverse. Think of Chuck Jones or the Fleischer Brothers, Bugs Bunny or Popeye or even Mickey Mouse, and the images that come to mind are of crashes and explosions: of wild, kinetic visual comedy. The animation in Waking Life is very different. As we follow Wiley Wiggins (last seen in Linklater's Dazed and Confused) on an oneiric odyssey through some unspecified city, we're treated to long, philosophical discussions on life, love and death. We see Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (the couple from Linklater's Before Sunrise) lying in bed together, quoting Timothy Leary and contemplating the afterlife. There are encounters with college professors, film-makers (Steven Soderbergh pops up briefly) and addled, Lorca-quoting visionaries. Everybody Wiley meets has some sort of homespun philosophy to impart. There's no obvious pattern to Wiley's wanderings. He skips from subject to subject, from location to location.

"I don't consider the film experimental," Linklater says. "I'm just trying to replicate the mind, the way you go through a day, the way your mindset unfolds and your mind wanders... we've sold out to these tightly constructed fictions, but in actuality, this is much closer to the story of all of our lives. It's closer to the way our brains work, closer to the way time and thoughts unfold and interact and contradict – the way you accept information."

In the US, where it opened in early autumn, Waking Life has received some rapturous reviews. The influential Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert declared it the perfect film for its times. "Opening in these sad and fearful days after 11 September, it celebrates a series of articulate, intelligent characters who seek out the meaning of their existence and do not have the answers," Ebert wrote. "The movie is like a cold shower of bracing, clarifying ideas." Elsewhere, the response was more muted. In Venice, where it received its European premiere, many journalists claimed to find it self-conscious and pretentious. Typically, Linklater isn't much bothered by either response. "I don't mind if people dislike it," he blithely remarks, adding that anyone put off by the weighty dialogue should just concentrate on the imagery instead. "If you don't like what the characters are saying, it's still a fascinating visual experience."

As he holds forth, his director of animation, Bob Sabiston, sits meekly beside him. The two met just over four years ago. "We were just two guys in Austin doing our own thing in our own fields, but similar in a lot of ways. Bob could have sold out and made a lot of money with his animation skills, but what he was doing meant something to him. I think I'm similar. As a film-maker, I could have directed Hollywood films, but I'm looking to do my own thing."

There is something paradoxical about Linklater. On the one hand, he is the slacker auteur, happy to amble round Austin making movies with and about his friends. On the other, he is a hard-working, obsessive cinephile who currently has six different projects on the go. He's more clean-living than you might expect. Despite having spoken at length with Timothy Leary before he died, and read Aldous Huxley, he says he would never experiment with peyote. ("I'm not a drug person at all, but I am naturally hallucinogenic.")

All his films have dealt with "young-ish" characters, but he is now on the cusp of middle age. "I'm interested in identity and people who're still figuring out who they are. I still feel that myself, even if I've got 20 years' distance on what I'm depicting. I don't think I've got that figured out and that will always slant me toward younger people."

Post-The Newton Boys, Linklater is obliged to "think small". His movies won't get financed unless they're made on modest budgets. He is scathing about the star system, but is friends with many well-known actors. The idea for another new film, Tape (a three-hander to be released in the UK later in the year) came from Ethan Hawke, who sent him the original play on which it is based. Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard all agreed to appear in it for a fraction of their normal salaries.

Nothing is likely to dislodge Linklater from Austin. "If you have to be in Texas, it's the one acceptable city. It's a place where people drift to if they're in to something different. It's a tolerant atmosphere." He's still artistic director of the Austin Film Society, but doesn't see as many movies as he used to. These days, he spends as much time as he can reading (he's just ploughed through everything by Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman). "I used to think that film was my lifeblood. I could easily see three or four films every day, but now I feed less on movies. I love movies, I still go to plenty and I feel very engaged in the film world, but I'm less obsessive about the watching."

Is the slacker-king slacking? In the past, when he was making a movie, nothing else would get in the way. "I felt that if I let off the gas pedal at all, my vision would be compromised. It's a youthful passion – or at least you mistake it for passion. It's an intensity, but a lot of it is based on insecurity. You eat, drink and sleep it," he reflects. "That's good, but I have an eight-year-old-daughter now. There's no way you can be a parent and do that other thing I've just described. Filmmaking is what I do and what I'll do until the day I die, but there is this other thing called life going on, and it's OK to be engaged in that, too."