"Slacker": 15 years later

Richard Linklater, the pap-smear girl, the JFK guy and others remember the little indie creation that could, and all that came after.

Published July 5, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

Whenever people ask Richard Linklater what's special about his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, he points out the city's odd triptych of industrial-era landmarks: the State Capitol building, the gargantuan University of Texas campus and a mammoth mental-health facility. "Those three worlds kind of all [mix] up," he says. "You get grad students, politicians and crazy people."

In July of 1991, when "Slacker" was released in theaters across the U.S. and catapulted into the mainstream cultural consciousness, a lot of people wanted to know about Austin, where the film was shot -- and about Linklater, then a cherub-faced 31-year-old, who had written, produced and directed what would prove to be one of the decade's most absorbing movies. Influenced as much by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Luc Godard as he was by the conversations he heard around him, Linklater and his cast (most of whom were non-actors) put together a partially scripted, partially improvised movie that puzzled anyone expecting bare-minimum mechanics such as plot or action. Instead, audiences were treated to an ever-changing stream of culturally curious, slightly paranoid 20-somethings, all with cryptic names like "Hit-and-Run Son" and "Dostoyevsky Wannabe. These were the "slackers" of the title -- members of the bummed-out generation who questioned hippies as much as they did yuppies -- and while they may not have had day jobs, when it came to talking, they worked overtime, discussing everything from politics to sex to the Smurfs. Anyone who asked, "What's it all about?" was missing the point; in the end, the big idea behind "Slacker" is that these ideas existed at all.

Fifteen years after its release, "Slacker" hasn't aged much -- today's Internet-addled, career-minded 20-somethings may be wigged out by idea of living without a steady paycheck, but the movie's characters' social and environmental concerns are as timely as ever. And the film's imprint can be found everywhere, from the pop-theory culture-bots in Kevin Smith's "Clerks" to the "Seinfeld" gang's chatty diner get-togethers. (Linklater, of course, has gone on to become one of the most reliably unpredictable directors of his generation, with the sci-fi thriller "A Scanner Darkly" out this Friday, and the Cannes hit "Fast Food Nation" due in the fall -- click here to hear him discuss the films.) With the same pass-the-baton mentality Linklater perfected on-screen, here's an oral history of the movie that defined indie film during its busiest decade-- and the first Siskel & Ebert-endorsed flick to confuse the hell out of your parents.

Richard Linklater: Austin's always had that laid-back vibe. You'd be sitting at this coffee shop with a guy talking to himself. This schizophrenic would just be going on -- very intelligently -- about this or that. On the street, you'd end up getting confronted by people, but everybody's harmless.

Deborah Pastor (production designer and art-department staffer; also appeared in film): I grew up in Houston, and when I got to Austin, I lost my fucking mind -- there was so much to just chew on and sink into. It was a small town, [and] easy to navigate. You'd go over to someone's house, everybody would grab crayons and make postcards. People didn't judge. There was no fear.

Kalman Spelletich (played the TV-obsessed "Video Backpacker"): I had lived in Iowa City. I talked to a few friends who were like, "Man, Austin's happening. It's cheap, and it's full of kids. It's just rocking." And it was insanely cheap -- you could a rent a big old house for, like, $300.

Michael Laird (played an unsuccessful burglar): There were a lot of people around the area of West Campus who you would see at parties. It was a very loose community. The contrast between those people and, say, the fraternity and sorority people was very striking and obvious: The fraternity people had their frat houses -- these great big temples of prosperity -- and people like us, the slackers, wore secondhand clothes and rode bicycles.

Spelletich: Here's what we'd do: Somebody'd call up and say, "I got some pot, and so-and-so has some acid." They'd ride their bicycles over, we'd do some hits, and we'd ride down Speedway Street, bang on the door [of a friend's house], ride around on our bicycles and hear a band playing. It was so simple and innocent and playful, and there were so many other people doing it.

Lee Daniel (cinematographer; also appeared in film): We built a little cinema above this coffee shop called Captain Quackenbush and showed 16mm films. Rick [Linklater] pretty much spearheaded it, and D [the late local artist Denise Montgomery] helped. It was a combination gallery, performance space and cinema; we held about 100 people.

Spelletich: We'd just come out of eight years of Reagan, and we were really fucking bummed out. People felt disempowered, like they were standing at the edge, screaming, and we don't have a big enough bullhorn because we don't have the money to buy the thing.

Daniel: It was sinking in to a great portion of the population of young people that they were the first generation that were not better off than their parents. These young people didn't have the opportunities their parents did, so they were doubling up and sleeping on couches. Not voluntarily, like with the Beat generation; this was more of a pragmatic thing.

Linklater: The generation ahead of me, the boomers, they've got it locked up to the grave. We'll forever be in their shadow, because there are so fucking many of them. They've geared everything toward their own needs. It's a little disgusting. They're the Worst Generation! [Laughs]

Meg Brennan (script supervisor; also appeared in film): Rick is reserved; he doesn't talk much about himself  he's more of a listener.

Linklater: I was always kind of approaching this like a writer -- jotting things down, cutting out articles. If I'd observe something interesting, I'd try to think of it fitting into a film  "Slacker" was a kitchen-sink film, a good place to put odds and ends, weird little ideas, observations. I had one of those personalities where, for better or worse, whatever was going on around me always seemed bigger -- it was a metaphor for something else. It's a whole bohemian history. If you go back to the 19th century -- from Whitman to the Beats, the French new wave, to an extent -- their own lives were the subjects of what they were doing. And yet it wasn't specifically autobiographical. Nothing in "Slacker" is true; it's all kind of imagined.

The starting point of "Slacker" has an exact address: 2405 Nueces Street, in a 120-year-old house in the West Campus area of Austin. This was "The Fingerhut," a film-geek haven that was home to Linklater, Daniel and cameraman Clark Walker. It's where friends would crash, converse and watch hundreds of movies.

Linklater: That was our production office -- there was no separating your life from work. I lived in a little living room, partitioned off in the corner. I designed the room for Jack Black in "School of Rock" to be like that room.

Scott Conn (key grip): Like most old houses in the West Campus area, it has a long history. Janis Joplin supposedly lived there.

Daniel: Once, we went up there and cleaned up the attic, and found empty bottles of Southern Comfort scattered around -- bottles that looked like they were from the '60s. That's all the proof I needed that Janis lived there.

Clark Walker (assistant cameraman; also appeared in film): It was a cinematic priesthood or a cinematic crack house; I don't know which one. We had lots of fancy equipment, but we didn't have a running sink in the kitchen. We didn't even have a couch. We ate, drank and breathed film -- Welles, Ophuls, Fassbinder. When you're that age, soaking up all that stuff -- who needs a couch?

Linklater: I had shot a Super 8 feature [1988's "It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books"], and I was trying to get another film made, but I never raised any money. So I think "Slacker" grew out of frustration to make a quote-unquote real movie.

Brennan: I received something in the mail, written on yellow paper -- that was the treatment. [I thought] "What? This is the movie?" Because it was just a bunch of ideas strung together.

Daniel: We had a refrigerator in this area of the house we called the kitchen. I came home from work one day, reached in there looking for a cold beer, and it was filled up completely with 50 brand-new rolls of 16mm film. I was like, "Wow, he's serious."

Linklater: I thought, rather than get a bunch of actors to work for a month, I'll get a bunch of actors to work for one day. I was like, "We could probably pull that off."

Jerry Delony (played a talkative conspiracy theorist): They handed out a little sticker to people they thought looked interesting. It said, If you want to be in an interesting movie, show up at this audition. Rick asked me, "Could you just improvise a bit?" I said, "About what?" And he said, "Um, UFOs?" It had been a passion of mine, and I'd had remarkable experiences, and I started rattling it off.

Daniel: There were well over 100 speaking roles, and usually [the actors were] from bands, because musicians were employed one or two nights a week, so we knew we could get them for the rest of the week. And many were just flat-out unemployed. It didn't matter -- at that time in Austin, you could live here without a job.

Teresa Taylor (played the infamous pap-smear-pushing Madonna fan): I played drums for the Butthole Surfers. I had gotten it into my head that I was some huge rock star and so I was like, "Well, I guess I'll be in your little movie."

Linklater: Looking back, there was something beautifully naive about having all these unknown actors in lengthy takes that you shouldn't do with non-professionals. The film was very trusting of them. But I got a lot of rehearsal time.

Spelletich: I shot my scene at my house I was renting. D and I were sneaking back into my room doing bong hits, just baked out of our brains, and I was like, "D, I don't know. Rick's script -- I'm not feeling it here." And we just went out to the front porch and hammered out my lines. Rick, to his credit, was so adaptive.

Linklater: I'd say a third [of the scenes] are as written, more or less; another third rewritten extensively in rehearsals; another third just totally went there with that actor. It became all about something that they brought.

Stephen Jacobson (played the smooth-talking "S-T-E-V-E With a Van"): That was my van, and I was Steve, and I was perpetually on the guest list. I wouldn't say that I was scamming on chicks all the time, but definitely, my costar [Annick Souhami] was very appealing to me. It was not very hard for me to flirt with her at all.

John Slate (played an amateur JFK-assassination scholar): I got interested in the various sites related to the JFK assassination, so in 1988 -- the 25th anniversary -- I figured, "Why don't we do something silly?" So I drove up to Dallas, hung out with friends, and we rented a limo-type car and put together a driving tour. "Conspiracy a-Go-Go" was a little driving-tour booklet. I actually had some of my ["Slacker"] lines in an index card in my hand. I didn't do it off the top of my head -- even though it sounds like inane rambling. I purposely wanted to sound like an annoying nut that people are trying to avoid. And I think that comes off pretty well.

Linklater: A majority of John's ideas are his, bounced off me, rewritten down, and I'm just the editor-slash-director of all these things coming in. Every line you hear, 98 percent was on a page in rehearsal before we shot it. The camera was never wondering what would happen. We didn't really have that much film stock.

Shooting began in July 1989 during one of the hottest summers in decades, with the temperature passing 100 degrees nearly every day.

Linklater: No cast member had any idea what this film was about. It made no sense on paper. You can't explain it to anyone. The crew would be halfway through the shoot and go, "Oh, I get it. It's starting to add up." I got pretty good at talking my way around it.

Daniel: There was no such thing as permits in Austin. I think the total budget was something like $23,000. Rick had a Shell card, so we used it for everything we needed, from Gatorade to gasoline -- including snacks, because we didn't have catering or meals -- and signed it with a forged signature. I was always worried we were going to get busted.

Tommy Pallotta (production assistant; also appeared in film): We had a joke that when people asked us what we were doing, we told them it was a mayonnaise commercial.

Frank Orrall (played the oft-harassed "Happy-Go-Lucky Guy"): All these places around town, like Whole Foods and Texas French Bread, were giving them their stuff that was starting to go bad. At the end of the night, I remember boxes being delivered to the set of random fruits, breads and vegetables. You make do, you know?

Daniel: We sent all the film up to Dallas [to get developed] on a Greyhound bus every night  There were a few scares -- often the film would get mixed up with luggage coming from Mexico.

One of the most important dailies to come back from the lab was of the now-infamous scene in which Teresa Taylor tries to sell what she claims is Madonna's pap smear. Taylor's sunglasses-and-hat-clad likeness eventually became the film's iconographic key art, popping up on posters and T-shirts, and ultimately anchoring the film's trailer.

Taylor: The Butthole Surfers were touring Europe the same time as the Blond Ambition tour, and I had this revelation. Everywhere we went, she was, like, one city ahead of us, so in all different languages, I would hear, "Madonna! Madonna!"

Linklater: I was like, "Madonna will be around. She won't go anywhere. She refuses to." I didn't want to mention some star of a TV show that was going to be canceled the next year. If you mentioned Paris Hilton now, that would be a huge mistake, because what could she possibly do? There's no substance there. I thought Madonna had enough substance.

Taylor: It was a thorn in my side for a while, because I got it in my mind that I made it up, but I have to be truthful and say the actual idea of trying to sell someone a Madonna pap smear was Rick's.

John Pierson (producer's representative; author, "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes"): Rick's lucky that Madonna lasted -- that's the thing that should have dated the movie. Every year, I said, "She's finished." I was wrong.

Taylor: [In that scene] I guess it's obvious that I'm on drugs, right? I'm pretty skinny. I had snorted some speed [the night before]. When I got to the set, I said, "Well, where's the beer? I need a beer." And they were like, "Teresa, it's 9 in the morning. We're here filming a movie. You can't get drunk." And so I was like, "Oh, so this is going to be that kinda deal."

Linklater: Teresa had her lifestyle at the time, and I got used to this -- there were other people in certain scenes drinking. And I said, "Well, if you're an alcoholic, and you feel better drinking, all right."

Taylor: When I finished my scene, about a week later, I had a sort of breakdown where I decided that I had humiliated myself so publicly, I even considered going to their house and getting my reel; [they had] forgotten to get a release [from me]. So I told D, "Maybe I should hold out for money or something and not sign. And D said, "You'll get cut out of the movie!" And I didn't want the movie to come out and me not to have done my bit. So I signed.

Linklater: Did I ever hear from Madonna? No. But there were always great rumors going around. It made Page Six that she and some friends had gone in to see a movie, and the "Slacker" trailer came up. The whole audience was very aware that she was at the movie  she couldn't go unnoticed -- so the entire audience turns to her. They said she left the theater, but I heard she just changed seats.

By the fall of 1989, Linklater had a movie that was too long (two hours and 45 minutes) and a budget that was growing with every small tweak or reshoot. After a successful work-in-progress screening in Manhattan, he sold the German television rights for $35,000, allowing him to pay off some bills and start showing the film around Austin.

Louis Black (co-founder, the Austin Chronicle; also appeared in film): I ran into Rick and he gave me a [video] copy. I watched it twice, and it didn't seem to be about anything. I fast-forwarded through it a couple of times. Then the Chronicle ended up doing a cover story on it, and I thought, "Oh my God, this film's about something?" So I watched it all the way through and was knocked out.

Daniel: I thought, If we can get this thing on video, and sell it in the back of Film Threat magazine for $39.99, we'll eventually make our money back in five or six years.

Pallotta: I worked with the owner of [Austin's] Dobie Theater, and Rick approached us about showing it there. Initially, he scheduled it for just two showings a day, and that first weekend, it sold out every showing. There were gigantic lines out in front. Rick had a really good idea: He marketed it like an underground band, with lots of stickers and posters.

Linklater: It was getting some buzz around here. People were like, "Everyone's so poorly dressed. We have a beautiful city here. Why is it all the ugly shit?" It was not the chamber of commerce piece. And yet, people did recognize it as indicative of a certain mind-set -- a certain tolerant attitude. I got a note from Ann Richards, the governor, saying how much she liked "Slacker." How's that for a stamp of approval?

Daniel: I think the first six months sold out every night. We'd been rejected by Sundance the first time, and after being rejected at just about every major and minor film festival in the U.S. and Europe for a year, it got accepted to the 1990 Seattle Film Festival. It kind of broke there.

Linklater: My parents lived in Portland. We went to the Seattle screening, and there was this line around the block. This was Seattle before it was a scene, or before it was officially called anything. It was like, "Wow, they're all dressed like people in the movie!"

After the success in Seattle, major Hollywood indie Orion Pictures -- which, unbeknownst to Linklater, was about to file for bankruptcy -- picked up the film for distribution.

Linklater: That summer of 1990, there had been a Time article on 20-somethings. I remember saying to Pierson, "Hey, here's our audience -- people who are living at home longer, not committing to work."

Pastor: Other people were doing the same thing in different places, and it resonated: "This is a film about us!" At the time, "us" was the people your parents got upset about, because you're getting too freaky. You were constantly having to explain why you were going outside the fold, and [why] it wasn't a bad place to be -- it was the place to be, because these people were smarter and funnier and thinking farther.

Linklater: It was that next spring of '91 that I got sent Doug Coupland's book -- they wanted us to be on "Sonya Live" to talk about 20-somethings. I thought "Generation X" was so funny and smart and moving. I hung out with Doug in New York; a week later we were on this stupid show. And then Nirvana hit; the whole grunge thing came aboard. So there was this trifecta of movies, music and literature for this one moment. "Slacker" had the smallest impact in its own industry, but culturally it fit in there bigger.

Wammo (played the big-mouthed "Anti-Artist"): I did a poetry reading in San Francisco [with] R. Malice, who plays one of the Smurf guys. This is right when "Slacker" became really popular, and I found out that a lot of people [in San Francisco] were really jealous, because they should have had the idea first. I was reading onstage, and Malice screams, "He was in 'Slacker'!" And they started throwing shit at me. They threw bottles onstage! They weren't having none of that.

Conn: My mom sent me this one article quoting some kid from Portland: "It's a great slacker town! There's plenty of restaurants to eat out of their trash cans!" I was like, "What?" It was fascinating to see how it reflected something going on before it was exploited. There was nothing to exploit.

Linklater: The first round of interviews I did was, "Hey, I saw your movie..." They really appreciated it. And then it quickly shifted from the content to the bigger issues that people could project onto it. That's when the tone got negative -- people were putting all these things on the cast: "Oh, they're lazy." I was like, "How do you know they don't work? You're just judging them. You're only getting to know them for three to five minutes." They were trying to make some generalizations. That's the only way older generations look at younger generations: very cautiously.

"Slacker" ultimately earned a then-impressive $1.3 million at the U.S. box office. But Orion Home Video underestimated the demand for the tape, and for years, it was nearly impossible to find (it is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection).

Linklater: The next summer the [Austin] police were complaining that there were these teens running around. There had been some arrests. And one officer or some chief was quoted as saying, "They all saw that movie 'Slacker,' and think they can come here and not do anything. Well, we're gonna arrest them." Like we were being overrun! I was thinking, Anybody who saw that movie and wanted to move to Austin was probably pretty cool.

Wammo: I don't think I've had many people say, "I moved to Austin because I saw 'Slacker.'" That would be like moving to Seattle because you saw "Singles." That would be really stupid.

Slate: When people approach me about JFK, it gets tiresome. But rather than be annoyed, it's easier to be flattered. I now work with real JFK materials on a day-to-day basis. I'm the archivist for the city of Dallas, so I'm in charge of all the Dallas police department records on Kennedy. I've got to have a little professional distance. I'm interested in the materials, but as far as being a junior detective, I'll leave that to the professionals.

Taylor: I don't get recognized. Nobody recognizes my face, but when I'm in public, and I'm going off on something, people will be, "Are you the chick from 'Slacker'?" But it's always because I'm ranting and raving about something.

Linklater: I like Austin more now. I think the mind-set's still the same. The campus alone takes care of that: We've got 50,000 young people; a certain percentage of them are gonna be cool. As we say, the only thing wrong with Austin is that it's surrounded by Texas.

Black: Not only did Rick make "Slacker," but he stayed. And everything that's happened in Austin film, from then on, is somewhere related to that. He's driven so many things.

Linklater: When I saw "Slacker" again a few years ago, I was going, "OK, whoever made that movie was technically probably crazy -- but in a good way." It was an accurate reflection of a time and a certain psychic space. There are people out there with these antennas, and they're often seen as wackos, but they're on to something. They see things before the official culture sees it. Throughout the '80s, global warming was an underground, conspiracy-theory thing, and it's still treated as a sort of paranoid idea in "Slacker." But paranoia plus a generation equals pretty much the world we're living in today.

By Brian Raftery

Brian Raftery (@brianraftery) is a contributing editor at Wired magazine.

MORE FROM Brian Raftery

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