Richard Linklater on Hit Man, pacifism and Donald Trump

17 mins read
Hit Man

Wearing a black shirt featuring two embroidered cat heads, green laser beams jetting from their eyes, Richard Linklater arrives for our interview in good spirits. Certainly, there can’t be many film directors as content as he. “I’ve always had good experiences,” he says, when we meet on a hotel terrace on Venice’s glamorous Lido. “I don’t regret any film I ever made. I’ve controlled it enough. I’m just really lucky to get to do it. No matter what the subject matter of your film is… it can be a great experience.”

The Houston-born filmmaker, who burst onto the scene 33 years ago with his shaggy-dog, generation-defining indie Slacker, has been doing it his way ever since. He’s made idiosyncratic animated films such as A Scanner Darkly. He’s made the Before trilogy, which traced the progress of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s prospective lovers from a one-night encounter to full-blown couple. And he made Boyhood, an Oscar-nominated masterpiece that was shot over 12 years – poignantly charting a Texas youngster’s adolescence.

“I don’t regret any film I’ve ever made”

This week, in the UK, sees the 30th anniversary re-release of Dazed And Confused, Linklater’s second movie – the raucous 1970s-set coming-of-age high school yarn. It’s joining his 2003 movie School Of Rock, which is also back in British cinemas to celebrate its 20th birthday. Linklater, however, doesn’t have time for nostalgia. His latest film, the action-comedy Hit Man has just unspooled out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, thunderously received by critics and audiences alike.

In the film, Top Gun: Maverick’s Glen Powell plays Gary Johnson, a college professor who secretly works for the New Orleans police department. His job? Posing as a hitman while the cops listen in, hoping that prospective clients hire him to pull the trigger on someone. Needless to say, these fools are soon in jail. Remarkably, it’s all based on a true story, as chronicled in a Texas Monthly magazine article from 2001, penned by Skip Hollandsworth (who also co-wrote Linklater’s 2011 comedy Bernie, with Jack Black).

Glen Powell plays a pretend assassin in ‘Hit Man’. CREDIT: Detour Film Production

As Gary adopts various guises, the film becomes a perfect analogy for the process of acting. “We have it in the voiceover,” explains Linklater, “where he goes: ‘I was too shy to go out for the school play.’ So he found his audience [by pretending to be a hitman]. A lot of actors are shy and they’re hiding behind characters, and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s an element to Gary [like that]. So he finds that niche, stumbles into something he’s good at. It’s all about roles and acting and what is true. They’re all role playing. They’re all acting. But aren’t we all?”

While Johnson lets off a woman named Madison (Adria Arjona) who tries to have her abusive husband killed – names have been changed, but this happened in reality – Linklater’s film then takes a wild detour, as Gary becomes embroiled romantically with her and the two start bending the law. “Everything’s on the table,” says Linklater. “This century, truth is upended, and everything’s inverted. Moral, immoral. What is that? I want people thinking about that.” So, I joke, this truth-bending is all Donald Trump’s fault? “Everything’s Donald Trump’s fault!”

Hit Man
Adria Arjone and Glen Powell in ‘Hit Man’. CREDIT: Detour Film Production

Although the real story took place in Houston, Linklater relocated it to New Orleans, peppering the soundtrack with local grooves from Dr. John and other city legends. “I broke out the Louisiana music for sure,” he grins. Linklater didn’t just improve his musical knowledge, though. “Every movie you make takes you into some territory that you’re going to learn a lot. So that was my takeaway. I really learned a lot about New Orleans history and culture. I guess I knew it more superficially before, but it was good to do a deeper dive.”

The more he got to know it, the more he felt NOLA was the “perfect metaphor” for the movie. “It’s a wonderful city, the people are great. There’s so much life. But there’s a lawless, uneven aspect.” On one day, there was a murder that took place earlier that afternoon, close to where they were shooting. The film’s cinematographer, Shane F. Kelly, also got carjacked. “And so there’s this kind of volatility all around, but the people are great. And that’s how I felt about the movie. You love the people, but there’s a little fucked-up-ness underneath it.”

Curiously, the film arrived in Venice just as three other hitman films were unveiled – David Fincher’s slick graphic novel adaptation The Killer, Harmony Korine’s experimental, Travis Scott-starring Aggro Dr1ft and Robert Lorenz’s In The Land Of Saints And Sinners, with Liam Neeson in 1970s Ireland. “There’s a lot of hitmen movies in the world,” says Linklater. “I’d like to think mine kind of deconstructs the hitman thing a little bit. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but I’m saying they’re all kind of bullshit!”

“There’s a lot of hitman movies… but mine says they’re bullshit!”

In his eyes, hitmen – outside of Mafia circles – don’t exist, simply because they’d be too easy to catch. Nonetheless, we want to believe in the idea of these lone wolf characters. “It’s about belief. It’s just more fun to go through life thinking that. Maybe it’s empowering. We live in this fantasy world in our heads. ‘Oh, I could do that. I could buy that.’ Or ‘I could have someone killed. But I’m choosing not to. Anyone fucks with me… I could kill them. I don’t want to kill him myself. Because I’m a wimp. But I could have them killed!’”

So has he ever thought about killing anyone? A smile crosses his face. “Me? No, but… well, no, I take that back. I mean, I’m in the film industry… of course I’ve wanted to kill somebody! No, no, I’m a total pacifist. I would never have gone to war. I wouldn’t do that. But, no, I mean, we’re all capable of it. I have kids [he has three, with wife Christina Harrison]. If someone did something… I mean, you don’t know what instincts you might possess. I mean, yeah. I got testosterone, I could probably kill someone.”

Richard Linklater
‘Dazed And Confused’ was Linklater’s breakout movie in 1993. CREDIT: Getty

In truth, Linklater’s interactions with the film industry were first shaped back when he made Dazed And Confused, a film that introduced the likes of Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck to the world. Now a cult classic, it was a flop on release, but an invaluable learning curve. “It was really just a first-time trip into studio-land. I learned on that film how to make a movie. How to deal with financiers, and how to deal with people. It’s gotten easier and easier over the years. A lot of the job is communication, setting the tone and making sure everyone is cool with the movie you’re making.”

When it came to School Of Rock, a decade afterwards, he scored his biggest commercial hit – grossing $130million worldwide – with Jack Black playing a rock-loving teacher, who inspires his class to take part in a Battle Of The Bands competition. “I loved working on that movie and I loved Jack, and the whole process. But I did that for my own very personal reasons. When I went into that project, it didn’t feel like a big hit. It could’ve been a pretty cheesy little movie, the way it might’ve been going!”

“‘School Of Rock’ didn’t feel like a big hit”

More often than not, Linklater has gone against the grain; like his 2006 dramatic take on Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book about the fast food industry. “That was an off-putting one for a lot of people. No one wants to go into an abattoir and see where their meat comes from. But it felt like being a war photographer or something: I discovered a genocide, and I took pictures of it. I had a distance from it, but I was documenting it. That’s what position you’re in sometimes. You’re bearing witness to something you have feelings about, but you’re powerless to stop… all you can do is throw something out there.”

As for the future, Linklater’s working on another long-gestating, incrementally-shot project like Boyhood. Based on the 1981 Stephen Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along, it tells the story about a Broadway composer – played by Paul Mescal – who abandons his friends to become a Hollywood producer. Told in reverse chronological order, it spans 20 years – meaning Linklater, 63, will shoot segments every two years or so until it’s done: “It’s probably the last one for me. Since I’ll be really old when I’m done!”

Needless to say, he’s going to be talking about this film for a long time to come. “It’s funny, on Boyhood it was so private, all those years, but this one, because it’s kind of higher profile… it’s a Stephen Sondheim musical. One of my favourites of his. Takes place from 1957 to ’76. It’s very different than Boyhood. Even though it’s this longitudinal shoot… the music is already written. I have a structure. I’m just trying to make it work the way it might work as a film. So I’m adapting… it’s an adaptation process from stage to screen. So that’s the challenge there. We’ll see. It’s fun so far.”

Richard Linklater
Linklater and Jack Black at a 10 year anniversary screening of ‘School Of Rock’ in 2013. CREDIT: Getty

Linklater’s love of music is no surprise – right back to Dazed And Confused, with its stoner rock soundtrack, featuring The Runaways (‘Cherry Bomb’), Nazareth (‘Love Hurts’), Bob Dylan (‘Hurricane’) and Aerosmith (‘Sweet Emotion’). It’s even what turned him on about Greta Gerwig’s mega-hit Barbie. “I liked the musical numbers,” he says. “I liked the movie a lot. It’s worth seeing a couple times. The best thing that happened to cinema in a while is Oppenheimer and Barbie. Sends a good message. I’m glad those are doing well.”

He may never make films on the scale of Oppenheimer or Barbie, but Linklater doesn’t mind. That’s not why he’s still making movies. “It’s all about the journey, not the destination, as they say. “Why take a trip? Because you want to have an experience. You don’t know what exactly, but you feel compelled to travel. So it’s the same thing [when] you go to make a movie. It’s like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go but I feel compelled to try to have this experience.’”

Richard Linklater’s ‘School of Rock’ is in cinemas now. ‘Dazed and Confused’ is in cinemas from September 15. ‘Hit Man’ screens at the London Film Festival on October 6 and October 11

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