Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Richard Linklater, and the Importance of Obsession

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On the way over to Beijing I passed the time watching a movie on the in-flight entertainment system. I had heard about this movie called “Boyhood” that had been garnering praise; from actors, directors and my peers. I recalled a quote from a Hollywood star: “[…] and of course Boyhood, which blew me away”; one of those half-remembered quotations that lodge in your mind, relentlessly persuading. The movie is directed by Richard Linklater, a director who makes fervent, lucid films about grown-up things, or more specifically the moments that come to inform your grown-up self. Films like Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset (my personal favourite) and Before Midnight – a trilogy that feature the same two actors (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) in nine-year installments following the same couple as they go from chance encounter to rekindled romance to settled couple. Boyhood has a similar conceit but takes it further. It follows the life of a boy, from age six to his early adolescence, aged 18. The film was shot over 12 years, using the same actors. It’s a wonderful movie, full of details and recognizable moments. It’s realistic and documentary-like, showing a passage of time that moves from Nintendo hand-held consoles, to Facebook and smartphones and the maturation of everyone involved. It has a magic because the essence of the characters remain but you see these people also change so irrevocably: a subtle adaptation that is touching because you literally see the main actor grow: “The light in his face is gone. Twelve years later, it’s moved to his soul“. Upon seeing the movie, and after landing in Beijing, I had a look at reviews of the movie, and interviews with the cast and crew. I then stumbled upon a profile of Richard Linklater, the director, in the New Yorker, written by Nathan Heller. Heller writes an insightful profile, taking us through the director’s development. I’m fascinated by the development of artists, whether musical, literary, directorial, or journalistic. In the profile I was astounded by the paragraphs revealing the key to Linklater’s development and a certain aspect of his character:

Instead, for the next two and a half years, whenever he came back to the mainland, in Houston, he would watch movies: first two a day, then three, then four. By his early twenties, he was seeing six hundred films a year. “I just felt I’d discovered something, like this whole world had opened up”, he says. “I was greedy for it”.   Often he would write, shoot, edit, and watch film eighteen hours a day, to the exclusion of most other things.   He had noticed that most good directors made their first feature around the age of thirty, so that became his goal. He was obsessed with Tolstoy, and read extensively in his diaries. He dreamed of making an enormous biographical film that addressed the crucial moments of Tolstoy’s life. In the meantime, he made shorts, each conceived as a technical study: this one was about lighting; that one, camerawork. It was like training for the big season.

These paragraphs show the depth of devotion, from adolescence, of Linklater, to his new-found obsession. That was to be a filmmaker. This would be his discipline, his art and craft. And he worked obsessively at it. Refining first his mind, training it to see in images (the part about watching 600 movies a year), and then the physical aspects of technique and knowing the tools so that he could achieve the effects he was after. This is not to dismiss that Linklater had some natural inclination, as this quote testifies: “He was still writing short stories [when he was still a student], and as an exercise, tried adapting one into a screenplay. “I could see the whole movie in my head — all the shots and angles. I thought, Oh, I’ve got this visual thing””. But the important thing is that he did not stop there. He completed his projects. He completed his practices. And he took risks and the patient road towards achieving that what he hoped to achieve. His obsession helped drive that. He just made sure to steer it along the path that seemed most right at the time.

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