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Richard Linklater: Grilled

”I’m destined for the street-level struggle — that’s just gonna be my whole life, and I accept that.“

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A maverick of American cinema, Richard Linklater has been making movies for 25 years. Not bad for a guy who introduced the word “slacker” into the English language. Linklater, whose films include “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock” and the remake of “The Bad News Bears,” has worked on studio and independent movies, documentaries and animated features without ever compromising his personal vision. His latest, “Me and Orson Welles,” is about a young actor (played by Zac Efron) who talks his way into a role in the Mercury Theater’s 1937 production of “Caesar.” As opening night draws near, he finds himself a romantic rival of the legendary Welles (newcomer Christian McKay).

Richard Linklater talks to TheWrap about why it took two years to find a distributor for the movie, the sinking fortunes of independent film, the studios’ declining interest in Oscars and lobbying for arts funding in public schools.

I know Christian McKay was doing a one-man show on Welles Off Broadway. That must have been an easy casting?
We did like an old-fashioned screen test. I just wanted to work with him for a weekend, talk to him, because I knew this would be such a marriage. I didn’t have financing for the film or anything at that point — I just had the book. So I felt really lucky it all came together with him in the lead.
There were some producers involved early who didn’t want him because no one knew who he was: “Oh, we need a bigger name.” I’m like, "No, no, you don’t get it. The point is we found Welles."
And he had to play Orson as he’s becoming Orson.
Yeah, it was a little bit going backward in time. Christian had to lose a little bit of weight. But Welles was never young. In the next May of ’38 — six, seven months after this — he was on the cover of Time magazine, he looked 70 years old. He was in “Heartbreak House” and he looks like this old, weathered guy, the character he’s playing. 
He liked to portray himself as older, smoke a pipe, facial hair, whatever he could do to seem older. Christian looked about like he looked in that period, so it worked out.
With Zac Efron in the cast and Claire Danes, I’m shocked it took you two years to find a distributor.
The facts are we could’ve signed with any number of distributors — it’s just the deals were not appealing to my European producers. We’re living in an era now where people are paying $20,000 for million-dollar films. We’re a market that is subject to fluctuations, like we’re commodities or pork bellies or something.
But I’m lucky. I got these really gutsy U.K. producers who really believe in this movie, and they didn’t want to just hand it off to someone who had no true commitment to it.
So we ended up with sort of a hybrid. Like the movie itself is sort of a hybrid between an American indie and a European film, the distribution is kind of a hybrid between studio and specialty, because we got deals at Warners — they made deals for DVD and all those kind of things, pay TV and all that — and then theatrically there’s a couple of companies involved that merged to come together.
It’s fun for me because I’m down in the middle of it. I’m a little more creatively involved in the way this film is being distributed, which I find really satisfying.
Welles is such a mythic character, whether it’s the Panic Broadcast of ’38, or employing an ambulance to cut through midtown traffic. Did he really do that — use an ambulance with the siren wailing to get to his radio broadcast on time?
He was his own mythmaker, the most unreliable narrator of his own life. But I think there’s some truth to it. This is the kind of movie where we honor the myth.
As the climate for your type of movie becomes more and more discouraging, you still thrive. Is it a big effort? Is it luck?
All of the above. I’m lucky I got in there when they were still making films like this, and I got established to whatever degree. I mean, it’s still a struggle getting financing. For every film I get made, there’s usually a film I don’t get made. I had a script I was very passionate about and I just couldn’t get it financed. It’s not like I’m a made man who gets everything he wants.
I have friends like that that I’m a little jealous of. They just go from one project to the next, and they’re very successful. I’m destined more for the street-level struggle — that’s just gonna be my whole life, and I accept that and kind of like that.
Whose fault is this? The studios?
Studios are run by shareholders and profits and losses. The only time you see studios pouring money into an adult-oriented, Oscar-worthy film is when they have someone strong, like a Brian Grazer or Ron Howard, who makes them spend the money. They’ve abdicated this kind of film. They say, “You guys can have those. We’re in the business of making big movies that make a lot of money.” And they’re doing a great job of it. They really know how to market those films.
But hasn’t there been a gradual dumbing-down of the audience?
I think it’s movies that are doing their part to dumb down everything. When you take what used to be B movies or exploitation films and then spend $200 million on them, they’re the high-range movies now — and they’re really for 12-year-old boys. Unfortunately, it kind of works both ways. Hollywood doesn’t make movies for adults because adults don’t go to movies. Every now and then a film breaks through. Like “Julie and Julia,” I think the strength of Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep got that film made at a pretty big level and it was successful.
So where is this heading? Will smaller and midrange movies eventually be shunted to internet distribution, and only tentpoles and event pictures make it to the big screen?
If you were to observe our industry from afar, that would definitely be the way you’d think it’s going. But I honestly believe — and maybe I’m just optimistic or romantic — I truly believe that people want to have a wide variety of filmgoing experiences in the theater. It’s up to adults to actually support those movies.
Can you talk about going to the White House to lobby on behalf of arts funding for public schools?
We had a screening, kind of a benefit for Americans for the Arts, an old arts organization that lobbies Washington for arts funding. It was kind of bizarre that Zac, Claire and myself ended up on the Hill and at the White House, talking about our own experiences in public schools. It’s really sad — arts is always the first to be cut. I run a nonprofit in Austin where we give out grants. It used to be given out by the NEA, but they cut out this kind of funding.
When you think about the city of Vienna spending more money on public arts than the entire United States, this should be a shameful fact.  But there’s a hardcore streak in the U.S., you know … “Why should we fund that with tax dollars?” This is such a small percentage of money we spend.
I think every school should offer arts education, because it’s not just about breeding a bunch of artists — it’s about bringing creativity to every endeavor you’re doing. It should define a well-rounded individual.
I think the more sinister side of cutting arts is what we are saying to young people: We don’t care about your soul. We don’t care about your self-expression. We really are interested in you as a worker, as a technician. Don’t get too creative on us, you can cause problems.
Where are we going to get that spark?