Film Review: ‘Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny’

A documentary portrait of the director of 'Boyhood' and 'Dazed and Confused' is full of revealing offscreen footage as well as a pinpoint feeling for the filmmaker's visionary humanism.

Richard Linklater dream is destiny Sundance
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny” is a fun, wily, and infectious portrait-of-the-artist documentary, filled with things we haven’t seen before (there’s a ton of footage of Linklater on the set), crafted with a deep curiosity about the mysterious, ever-changing nature of how movies actually get made. The film starts by going back to the halcyon indie days of 1991 and replaying the opening minutes of “Slacker” — a sequence that features the director himself, though no one knew it at the time. He’s a talky young guy in a loose-fitting green T-shirt, with dreamy eyes and a quasi-’70s bowl cut, who climbs into a taxi cab and starts waxing poetic to the driver (who greets his words with stone-cold indifference) about how if he had decided to walk or hitch a ride instead, he might have been inside a different reality. In that one, he could have met a beautiful woman who offered him a lift, and maybe the two played pinball and went back to her place, and then — his face lights up — “I moved in with her!” At that moment (it’s right there in the syntax), his dream of reality becomes nearly as real as the one he’s living.

Seen now, the sequence reverberates in ways it didn’t back then. It’s the seed of the Linklater vision: life as a series of moments and choices, which lead to other moments and choices, which are all part of the beauty of a destiny that’s more random than we like to think it is. But the other reason the sequence resonates is that, in hindsight, it’s Richard Linklater revealing the obsession that drove him to become an artist. All those untraveled roads, those choices not made? He wants — needs — to follow them and, on some vicarious level, live them. Every moment of his filmmaking is an adventure in alternative reality.

“Dream Is Destiny” is a pleasurably crafted career snapshot that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It brims with revealing anecdotes, and it holds every dimension of Linklater’s career up to the light (including the films of his that didn’t quite work). Linklater himself is a lot like his movies: a clear-eyed curveball storyteller, incisive one moment and seductive the next. There’s a richness to how “Dream Is Destiny” captures his formative era, when he was on the path to figuring out that he wanted to become a filmmaker. He was just eight years old when his parents split up, and he moved with his mother and two older sisters to Huntsville, Texas: population 15,000, one stoplight, one movie theater. Austin, a place that’s now branded with Linklater’s name, was the big city he arrived in later on, but one can still feel, in his meditative style and rejection of the fantasy-blockbuster aesthetic (his whole refusal of noise), the echo of that small-town DNA.

In his student-movie days, he was a one-man band of a filmmaker, recording audio tracks on his Sony Walkman. Once he got serious, though, what made Linklater special is that he became a shaggy, hang-loose communal artist with a vision that was rigorously orchestrated (that’s the Linklater touch). He made “Slacker” with a local cinematic collective, and part of how they worked together was that they were all contributing, but really, every shot and idea was Linklater’s. He was the artist, and they were part of a group-art community who’d become (without quite knowing it) his crew.

A friend of his recalls that when the “Slacker” team was looking for a place where they could shoot without permits, lay dolly tracks, be left alone, etc., the answer turned out to be downtown Austin. The key words in that story are dolly tracks. If anyone else was making a movie about a bunch of underemployed, overeducated wastrel fringe-dwellers babbling on about the cracked/inspired theories in their heads, it probably would have been all talking heads, shot with a handheld camera. But Linklater gave the quirky, insular, monologue-driven “Slacker” a picturesque sprawl. He gave it a gliding spaciousness it didn’t need. “Slacker” emerged as an essential Gen-X text, and part of the reason is that Linklater was saying: Here they are now, entertaining us, but there’s a larger world at play, one these people fit into without knowing it, where every reality criss-crosses another.

Linklater is interviewed throughout “Dream Is Destiny” by the film’s co-producer-director, Louis Black (a co-founder of the Austin Chronicle and SXSW), and at one point Linklater thumbs through a folder of clippings about “Slacker” — all the old media that helped to put him on the map — and he says, ruefully, “I don’t think you’d get this kind of support now.” “Dream Is Destiny” taps a bittersweet nostalgia for the dawn of the indie-film era of the ’90s. It’s not so much that the odds were different as that the playing field was simpler. It gives you a shiver to hear Linklater recall what it felt like, on “Dazed and Confused,” to suddenly be shooting a studio film. He was like a poet who’d been put in charge of a small factory. And there’s a niftiness to his observation that what made “Dazed” unique is that it wasn’t nostalgic. It saw the ’70s with open eyes.

“Dream is Destiny” weaves in and out of Linklater’s ambivalence toward the studio system. His decision to remain in Austin was radical, if only from a career-politics point of view; it kept him a step away from where the action was. He claims to have never made a movie he didn’t believe in, and even if you winced through his version of “The Bad News Bears,” you can believe it. The film features terrifically eloquent testimony to the freedom of his way of working (and to his making-the-impossible-look-easy quality) from the likes of Jack Black, Kevin Smith, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, and Matthew McConaughey.

Yet the key to being a successful filmmaker is raising the money to get movies off the ground, and aspiring auteurs may be daunted by the degree to which Linklater’s self-selected outsider status has made his career a perpetual uphill chug. A genre flop like “The Newton Boys” soured a lot of the suits on him. And while the “Before Sunrise” films are now thought of as an iconic series, when Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy decided to team up again on “Before Sunset,” it seemed crazily counterintuitive: a sequel to a movie that even indie audiences barely turned out for. Much about the “Before” films evolved with circumstance (“Before Sunrise” started out as a train-to-San-Antonio movie; it was the indie lawyer John Sloss’s idea to set it in Europe because of the subsidies there). Linklater recalls “Before Midnight” as the most difficult film he ever shot, and one can see why: He usually finds joy even in the darkness, and making a relationship drama as unrelenting as “Scenes From a Marriage” wrenched him.

The flip side of that arrives in the story of how producer Scott Rudin pursued Linklater to direct “School of Rock.” Linklater turned him down, but Rudin wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was right, of course — it’s one of Linklater’s most sublime achievements. He grounded the comedy, making every moment percolate with humanity and drawing out Jack Black’s bedroom-mirror rock & roll mugging to a fever pitch of jubilance. Talk about alternate reality! “School of Rock” remains a rare object lesson in what it might look like if high-concept Hollywood movies were made by artists.

“Dream Is Destiny” culminates in the creation of “Boyhood,” and Linklater gives us a fascinatingly honest account of how, in shooting his movie (originally called “Growing Up”) over 12 years, he genuinely didn’t know what he had. He had a great gimmick and an outline, but he wrote the script year by year, and at moments he worried that the accretion of small incidents would turn out to be a mistake, that there would be no there there. That’s not how it worked out, of course. The coalescing of “Boyhood” — a movie at once calculated and miraculous, controlled and free-flowing — turns out to be a perfect metaphor for the magical sly art of Richard Linklater: a series of moments that add up to something greater, but only because they’re allowed to be just what they are.

Film Review: ‘Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny’

Reviewed on-line, New York, August 2, 2016. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: <strong>90 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: A Sundance Selects release of a Black/Bernstein Productions and Arts + Labor production, in association with Picturebox. Produced by Louis Black, Karen Bernstein. Executive producers, Alan Berg, Abe Zimmerman, John McCall, Amy McCall, Anne Akiko Meyers. Co-producer, Dawn Johnson.
  • Crew: Directed by Louis Black, Karen Bernstein. Camera, David Layton. Editor, Nevie Owens.
  • With: Richard Linklater, John Pierson, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, John Sloss.