Richard Linklater picture

Filmmaker Richard Linklater

“Do you ever have those dreams that are completely real? I mean they’re so vivid it’s just like completely real. And there’s always something bizarre going on in those. I have one like once every two years or something, I always remember them really good. One time I had lunch with Tolstoy, the other time I was a roadie for Frank Zappa. Anyway, so this dream I just had was just like that except instead of anything bizarre going on, I mean there was nothing going on at all.”

—Richard Linklater, Slacker (1991)

This excerpt, from Richard Linklater’s 1991 breakthrough film Slacker is as good a description of his filmmaking philosophy as anything. Linklater himself has said, in his films, “Nothing much happens anyway” (Miller, 2015, p. 1). They in many ways defy the typical narrative structure of fictional films, and in doing so raise a question. In the 25 years since his directorial debut, Richard Linklater’s films have been termed, “humanist,” “personal,” and “distinctive,” but what about documentary? It’s not a term that would seem applicable in the traditional sense – Linklater’s films are scripted, featuring actors, constructed sets, and many other hallmarks of narrative filmmaking. But the edges of the documentary genre are “fuzzy” as Dirk Eitzen (1995) puts it, and getting increasingly fuzzier (p. 82). In the last year alone, documentaries such as Pieter-Jan De Pue’s The Land of the Enlightened, and Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine have featured actors and scripting. Before that, Joshua Oppenheim’s The Act of Killing, which included reconstructions and acted portions garnered countless awards and even an Academy Award nomination. In the context of these and other documentaries that seemingly toe the line of what is and isn’t a documentary, it’s worth re-examining how Linklater’s films have a documentary quality to them. Linklater’s method already toes the line, relying often on improvisation that is then scripted. His films find documentary quality in the way they eschew traditional narrative to create a sense of place, explore subject matter where traditional documentary would struggle, and to situate themselves historically.

Defining documentary

From documentary’s inception, the question of what constitutes a documentary has dogged the genre. John Grierson, the man who coined the term, attempted to answer that question with his essay “First Principles of Documentary” (1947). Grierson laid out three main principles: documentary is drawn from real life, real life provides a “greater fund of material” than studio films could ever fathom, and this material is more powerful than anything a studio could ever create. Grierson emphasized authenticity, being true to life to serve a social purpose. In the Soviet school, documentarian Dziga Vertov similarly emphasized the power of documentary, even deriding fictional film as, “a plaything” (Vertov, 1924, p. 115) It’s somewhat ironic, then, that in his seminal essay Grierson praised the work of Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North (1922), a film that featured a number of staged elements. Other films at the time understood to be documentaries might not be considered so simply today, and Flaherty’s work is a perfect example. His 1948 film A Louisiana Story was scripted, but like Nanook it had some documentary quality. The landscape was real, and the people in the film really lived there, but the story was entirely constructed.

The Griersonian school was just one way of thinking about documentary and its intention, and there were several early documentaries that fell outside of its definition. Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) was an experimental documentary, creatively editing together film of the city of Berlin in a study of motion and urban life. It was a film without a narrative per se, one that more than anything conveyed a sense of the city. Berlin and films like it would set the precedent for future documentaries such as Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992), which use documentary film to explore certain themes. With such an emphasis on the creative and expressive use of documentary, pushing the limits of the genre’s conceptualization, it follows that defining documentary continues to be a contentious topic in the world of academia and film criticism. It is there that Dirk Eitzen’s 1995 essay “When is a documentary: Documentary as a mode of reception” comes into play. In the essay, Eitzen reviews the many, often contradictory attempts to define the genre and questions the importance of defining it at all. Ultimately Eitzen argues that because all representations of reality are artificial constructs, what separates documentary from fiction is the question of, “Might it be lying?” (p. 81) Eitzen’s argument is based on the assumption he believes most people make in watching a documentary, that it is telling the truth. This argument presents documentary as more of a frame than a definition, with films able to inhabit the quantum space where they can at once be and not be documentaries. Eitzen gives the example of Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze to make this point, writing, “despite all of the things that ordinarily mark School Daze as a fiction film, it is quite easy for anyone who is interested in, say, Larry Fishburne’s development as an actor to regard it as a ‘document’” (p. 95).

Slacker and a sense of place

It is through this lens then, of films that are and aren’t documentaries, that Linklater’s work can take on a documentary quality. His 1991 film Slacker seems like an obvious starting point for this analysis. The film follows a wide cast of characters around the city of Austin over the course of a day. There is no central protagonist or narrative arc, instead it is presented more as a series of vignettes, each following a different character often linked by that character’s interaction with the next. The characters more or less share a lifestyle, eponymous slackers who live outside the mainstream, but aside from that there isn’t a readily apparent theme or argument. Instead, the film produces an overwhelming sense of place, a snapshot of a subculture at one point in history. It’s in the production of this effect that the more concrete documentary qualities of Linklater’s filmmaking reside. In a 1989 journal entry he included in his 1992 book to accompany the film, Linklater wrote, “We’re now determined more than ever to avoid these industry types who have no passion for cinema. We’ll find ALL [sic] our people elsewhere and do the film a full 100% against the industry way” (p. 4). What that meant was rejecting a casting agency to favor of choosing people whose aesthetic Linklater thought would suit the film. He instructed, “We are striving for a TRUTHFUL [sic] state of mind/being that cannot be feigned … the truth of THAT moment’s state of mind” (p. 12). Linklater puts the same emphasis on truth that many documentary filmmakers like Werner Herzog have focused on as well, the latter unafraid to make alterations or defy documentary conventions to get after it. While the characters were constructed, a lot of them were played by friends and acquaintances, and Linklater shot the film in his neighborhood, at places they would hang out in real life. He wanted the film, “locked in with the moment and place of its making” (1992, p. 12). All of these factors help the documentary quality of the film come across. In watching Slacker, the viewer might be seeing characters, but they are characters based firmly in the reality of the subculture that birthed them, acting in the environments in which the actors who portray them live their lives. Instead of injecting a narration to construct the reality of the film, like Herzog so often does, Linklater has the characters articulate this narration, and in doing so surrenders some control in service of the truth he hopes to convey. For Linklater, this is the truth of the moment, capturing a snapshot of “slacker” life in Austin at the death of the decade. In this sense, Slacker is almost more closely aligned with the documentary ideal Grierson laid out more than 50 years earlier, an artful interpretation of Linklater’s reality.

Dream exploring in Waking Life

A decade later, in 2001, Linklater directed Waking Life, Slacker’s spiritual successor. Waking Life is in rotoscope, meaning animators traced the original film to animate it. Unlike Slacker, Waking Life has one main protagonist, played by Wiley Wiggins, linking several of the different vignettes. In Waking Life the rotoscope serves to create the atmosphere of the dream in which Wiggins’ character seems to be trapped. Animation has been extensively used in documentaries such as Ari Folman’s 2008 Waltz with Bashir and Michel Gondry’s 2013 Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, so the device in and of itself doesn’t preclude documentary quality.  But importantly, like in Slacker, a lot of the characters in the film aren’t played by full time actors. The film, largely shot in Austin again, includes academics and musicians, and a lot of the dialogue in the film was the product of conversations which were in turn rehearsed before shooting. Instead of focusing on the moment, with Waking Life, Linklater is taking on dreaming, and that raises the question, how does one make a documentary about dreams? Documentaries about the science of dreaming are more the purview of the Discovery channel or National Geographic, and Amy Hardie’s 2009 The Edge of Dreaming also explores dreaming, and the meaning of dreams. But Waking Life is about the dreams themselves, and the rotoscope serves to viscerally put the viewer in the extended dream Linklater has constructed. Linklater explained it, “I think the animation puts you at a heightened level of consciousness … It’s because it’s seemingly real, but not real, so both sides of your brain are working overtime to process this thing” (Kehr, 2001). Factual information from the conversations within the film, including conversations about neuroscience, existential philosophy and lucid dreaming, provides added documentary quality. “A realistic film about an unreality,” is how Linklater himself described it (Silverman, 2001).

Boyhood and historicity

The fact that Linklater’s 2014 epic Boyhood took 12 years to make has been well publicized. But this method also serves to situate the film in a documentary way. The characters all age over the course of the film and they interact with a contemporary environment that becomes historical in the final product. The kids play Halo, and Ethan Hawke’s character rants about George W. Bush, in a way that might seem reductive or inauthentic done as a period piece, take on a documentary quality knowing they were filmed in real time. Beyond that, the fact that Linklater conspicuously avoids obviously dramatic moments for much of the film adds to the realism of the film. It was enough to win Boyhood Cinema Eye Honors’ Heterodox Award for films that blur the line between documentary and fiction. On receiving the award, Linklater said, “[Boyhood] is not a documentary but it’s certainly a document. It’s not fiction really, because it all happened, believe it or not” (Macaulay, 2015). He further explained, “I was collaborating with these actors over such a long period of time, and they were collaborating with me so openly, that, in a way, I am sort of documenting time as their lives changed and incorporating that. So to me it was a very blurry area and kind of a wonderful one.” In this sense, Linklater is able to document something in the way a traditional documentary couldn’t. Where Slacker captured a moment in history, Boyhood captures a much longer moment, through a typical story of parenthood. Typical perhaps of everyday life, but not of a stereotypical film about parenthood.


Richard Linklater’s style is singular: it’s hard to think of any directors who make films like the ones he makes. The specific, unremarkable nature of the subject matter, the improvisational writing style, his neglect of filmic narrative all serve to separate his body of work. But, given the shifting, elastic nature of the documentary genre, they also have a documentary quality in a way that’s more visceral and immersive than some documentaries that explore similar themes. Even films like Dazed and Confused, a period piece, serves a documentary purpose. Instead of using his memories or nostalgia to create a story with a beginning, middle and end, Linklater directly explores his experience as a teenager in the mid 1970s. Reviewing his work, it’s unsurprising that Linklater doesn’t see a line between documentary and fiction, seeing his capacity to mix elements of both. But, given that it’s a line the documentary genre itself is increasingly doing away with, Linklater’s films can serve as inspiration for documentary filmmakers, as much as narrative ones.


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