The stuff movies are made of

Director Richard Linklater talks about dreams, Philip K. Dick and his magical, revolutionary "Waking Life," a thinking person's cartoon about the meaning of life.

Published November 20, 2001 8:04PM (EST)

Half of Richard Linklater's new film, "Waking Life," is hogwash, but that just may be the point. The respected director of "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused" and "Before Sunrise" takes an unexpected turn with his new film, which is an animated feature that follows a single, oddly passive character through a series of encounters with amateur philosophers, college professors, barroom sages and dreamed-out hipsters. Each of the characters engages with the protagonist in some way, generally by delivering a monologue on the character of our existence, the meaning of life or the nature of dreams. The speakers discuss existentialism, evolution, the problem of language, lucid dreaming and a dozen other subjects from the metaphysical to the mundane, as our hero listens to them intently.

It could be heady, or boring at worst, but the vividness of the performances and the alluring, almost hallucinogenic nature of the animation makes it an unforgettable cinematic experience. The great equalizer -- what keeps the bad ideas just as fun to watch as the good ones -- is that "Waking Life" as a film is beautiful and inventive and unusual. The film uses an animation technique called rotoscoping. The actual action was shot in video, then edited, then turned over to a phalanx of individual artists who each "painted" a scene with the help of a computer. While the technique each animator used is different, the rotoscoping gives the film its dominant texture -- it's a bright, saturated but nearly lifelike world that nevertheless vibrates like a dream.

Our hero -- played with a deadpan innocence by Wiley Wiggins, the amusing stoner from "Dazed and Confused" -- arrives back home in Austin, Texas, and soon finds himself in an oddly rarefied environment in which everyone has something interesting to say and planes of perspective behind him shimmer and float. The rotoscoping has the uncanny ability to give each character a marvelous physical distinctiveness with just a few puddles of color. Light plays on characters' faces as shifting fields of different hues; strands of hair blow in the air, curve, become geometric and disappear; and subtle jokes and split-second visual puns abound.

Some of the characters we hear seem to be a bit out of it. One guy explains that time stopped in 50 A.D.; another spouts one cliché after another while driving a boat with wheels from a train station to a residential neighborhood; another is a homicidal killer. For Linklater, that's part of the point. "Waking Life," for all of its smarts, isn't a critical film. As in dreams -- and life -- ideas come and go. It's up to the individual, the viewer, the dreamer, to sort it all out.

And, trickily, besides the theories spouted by the characters, two of the movie's intellectual puzzles are hidden. One is figuring out the structure of the film, which appears plotless -- like Linklater's episodic, low-budget quasi-classic "Slacker" -- but isn't, and the other is the numerous ways the film is self-conscious, giving viewers cinematic joke after cinematic joke.

Salon talked with Linklater by phone from a New York hotel suite. He was in town to promote "Waking Life" and his next film, "Tape."

I read a lot of reviews of your film, because the film is opening piece-by-piece, and I had the luxury to read them as they came out. And I noticed that a lot of them use language like "college dorm-room talk" and "undergraduate stoners."

Oh, isn't that aggravating?

I was wondering how you felt about it, because it seems so limiting: The implication is that philosophy is all fine and good while you're a college student, but after that you don't have any need for it.

It's very weird, and it says a lot about people when they say it's like being a freshman in college. That's how the public deals with anything that deals with thought or philosophy. It's an affront to them in the current sensibility, to be looking for meaning, when obviously they have it all figured out. So they have to put it in a box.

Are you surprised by that reaction?

Nah, not at all. You see it all the time. And that's just a few people, and usually the ones who have to write about it in a serious way and that's just their way of trying to sum it up. Or whatever. But people who have seen the film, who don't have to account for it, say, "It reminds me ... like I wish I had more time in my life to read." There was a time in everyone's life when they had more time to put toward such issues. And they kind of miss that.

Do you spend a lot of time on that stuff?

Well, I think I'm in a privileged position, living in a world of ideas, and, you know, art. And I don't have a day job. I probably have more time for it than most. And I've always, you know, had my interests that I could follow.

I don't want to make this whole interview about responding to reviews, but I do have one more question. You mentioned people that have to write seriously, but one of the things that I noticed in all of the reviews is that very few people are trying to make sense of the film, or trying to respond to it on the level that it talks to the viewer. Does it bother you that no one seems to be talking about the film at that level?

Well, they say things like it's non-narrative.

And you've pointed out that it is a narrative.

Yeah. But to tell you the truth, I haven't read many things. And some of them seem pretty thoughtful. It's pretty tough work to see something once and then have to write about it in a consumerist way, which is what reviews are. You have to give the consumers something to go by ...

That's a pretty limited view of film criticism.

Yeah, in a way. But I think there's another way where people can see the film a few times and have some room and space to write more of a think piece. There's an awful lot of smart people out there who can put things together in a smart way. I don't know -- I haven't really read that much about it. I'm at that phase where I'm sort of detached from it.

OK. But if I was to go through and sort of respond to some of the points that the characters make, and some of the philosophy, I get the sense that there are some of them that you take very seriously, and some of them that you find humorous, and some of them that you find just out there in the marketplace of ideas. But there's a blur among them. Are you consciously trying to keep the viewer from knowing exactly where you stand on each point?

I think they're all out there in an equal way, although I do think that they'll resonate for different people in different ways. But it's not like the whole movie is wall-to-wall thoughts and philosophy. Maybe half of it. There are a lot of dramatic situations, or characters. It runs the gamut. I generally see the movie as about ideas more than anything. And just because I put them in a film doesn't mean that I stand behind them, or even that I can talk at any length about any one of them. The terms of the movie are not pass/fail, or agree/disagree.

I don't go through life thinking a lot of things are true. I take them on the aesthetic level. Take religion, or anything. I'm kind of all over the place.

So there're these ideas out there of equal merit. Does that have a relationship to dreaming for you?

Like there's an uncritical part of you in dreams, maybe?

Right. I mean, if the idea is that you're not lucid as you dream, then you don't get to choose what's in your dreams, at least not on a conscious level.

Well, even lucid dreaming can take you to a place that you didn't intend to go. You can try, but you end up in pretty strange places.

Do you lucid dream?

Um, yeah. Pretty much. It's difficult at times.

Philosophically, in regard to the film, do you see systems of thought in the world in the way that they come out in the film? Specifically, do you think we live in a world where we live with all these competing ideas, but we don't have to take each one seriously? Or do you more closely align yourself with one of those ideas, and just recognize that the other ideas are out there as well?

I like embodying a lot of contradictions. You can believe strongly in one thing, and then believe another thing and they contradict one another. I don't know. Most films can't contain a lot of contradictions. They have to move along this narrow path. But I think we all contain a lot of contradictions in life. We all know that there are very rational people who go through life in a very rational way and then believe in ... aliens.

Like the one wild card.

Yeah, there're a lot of wild cards. So we're all this hodgepodge of instinct, belief and impulses. What's more telling is why.

But the film doesn't really get into why a lot of those characters have those thoughts.

Yeah, it's not a critical-thinking film. That part of your brain is not working in the dream state. But I stand behind all the ideas as something interesting, something to ponder. I can say that while technically I don't believe that we're all in 50 A.D., it's a fun, provocative thought. But you hear that and think, What is time? Is it a construct? You have to think.

I hate to ask such a dumb question, particularly when I'm trying to give you the sense that I'm one of the smart people and that I really understand what you were trying to do, but I don't exactly understand the narrative of the film. You've said that hopefully the audience realizes the narrative of the film when the main character does. The stupid part of this question is, Is it the moment when the main character has a conversation with the girl about dreaming?

Yeah, I think that's kind of a fulcrum moment. The moment where he is fully lucid is the moment where we are all suddenly with him and everything sort of makes sense. And then we're with him completely at that point.

When you sit down to write something like this, do you just have a big notepad and keep accumulating ideas that you have been interested in over the last, say, 10 years?

Yeah, I keep notebooks and write down stuff, ideas, a paragraph here and there, a quote.

What about your part in the film, where you go into the Philip K. Dick monologue. How long have you been carrying that around, or wanting to find a place for that? That feels like it belongs there, but it also feels like something that you might have wanted to use for a while.

No, not really. In fact, that kind of spun out of an improv with another actor. Although I've been a Philip K. Dick fan. A third of the movie is stuff that comes from the actors, a third of the movie is stuff that I wrote and they rewrote and a third is prepared texts. And I really hope that you can't tell the difference.

To change the subject, I'm curious about the visual jokes. For example, in one scene the men turn into clouds and float away, or in a scene about evolution you see a fish in the tank behind the guy talking sprout a leg ...

You really watched closely. That kind of stuff is generally seen on the second or third viewing.

Well, I'm sure I missed about a hundred more of them. But I'm curious, is that your direction, or is that the animators having fun?

That's usually the animators being interpretive, reinterpreting the imagery. And the stuff that is there is there because we allowed it -- a lot of stuff was cut out. Some of it was so witty and dead on. But some of the other stuff was too far out.

What sort of latitude did you give them up front?

It's sort of their own artistic work. They were given a lot of latitude. My main concern was just that they capture what I thought were the characters, that their design matched the character. Then they were free. I think all the animation feels pretty hands-off.

The film took a year to animate after you finished filming and editing. Was it difficult for you to finish it, hand it over and then take so long?

No, not really. Everything that we did up to the animation was just a stepping stone to the animation. It was part of the deal from the beginning.

Now, when you were filming, did you realize what the animation would do to the images? One of the extraordinary things about the animation is that it makes you look at all of these incredibly routine things in an all new way. For example, early on when the tango group is rehearsing, one of the violin players lights a cigarette, and the way it glows is arresting.

I think the animation emphasizes the way your memory works: You'll remember somebody, but you'll only remember one characteristic about them. So it's like you're watching a memory basically. Like, say, you would remember that poetic moment of a drag on a cigarette when it lit up the embery end. Of all the information you're taking in all the time you would remember that little bit. So the movie emphasizes that in a way that you couldn't with photo-realism. It's really closer to how your brain remembers images. It's more attuned.

By Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

MORE FROM Jeff Stark

Related Topics ------------------------------------------