Richard Linklater letter to cast before shooting “Dazed and Confused”

This floated around online over the weekend, a letter Richard Linklater sent in 1992 to the cast of his upcoming movie Dazed and Confused.

To frame this discussion, a couple of things. Dazed and Confused was the follow-up to Linklater’s very first original feature length movie Slacker which came out in 1992. At the time, Linklater was 32 years old. In other words, he was at the very front end of his movie career, so the level of maturity and insight he has about the process, as demonstrated in this letter, is notable. For example:

  • He knows his characters so well, he has learned what their “favorite albums” are. Moreover he planned to use music as a way to help the actors get in touch with their characters.
  • The subtext of his second paragraph is awesome: He is saying he has put his trust in the actors, which puts them in a position of responsibility to bring their A game to the process, then balances that out with language which conveys what he expects on set to be fun and “inspirational”.
  • The third paragraph is filled with one keen observation after another, hard to know where to begin: Work hard… artistic troupe… BRING SOMETHING. But for those of us who ply our trade as screenwriters, Linklater write this: “…if the final movie is 100% word-for-word what’s in the script, it will be a massive underachievement.” Mind you, he not only directed the movie, he wrote it, so what he is doing by noting his own words-on-the-page are not sacrosanct is invite the creative input of the cast, giving them the freedom to explore their character more deeply, and bring what they discover onto the set to test it out. He embraces going “out on a limb, saying “it’s out there at our most vulnerable and desperate moments, where our breakthroughs will come from.”

This is a young creative talent who trusts the process, believing you can combine hard work in service to the characters and story, yet still have fun along the way.

I think the spirit of what Linklater was going for in this letter is no better summed up than by the very first words actor Matthew McConaughey uttered as his character Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. And here is the backstory to those famous three words as told by McConaughey on his SNL appearance in 2015:

See, right there. A completely unscripted scene. Linklater going with his gut. McConaughey digging into his character. And we end up with this:

So many takeaways from Linklater’s letter, but for writers, let’s focus on this: Know your characters. Know your story universe. “Know this movie,” as Linklater says. If you do, then translate it onto the page, not only the scenes, the dialogue, the action get loaded into the filmmaking process, but also the spirit and essence of your story. The words in your script may change, but if the people working on your story resonate with your vision…

You may end up with a damn fine movie.


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