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Director Richard Linklater talks about his latest, ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’

Richard Linklater says Maria Semple’s novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” “got its hooks in me.”
Richard Linklater says Maria Semple’s novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” “got its hooks in me.”(Chad Batka/The New York Times)

Even in his earliest days of filmmaking — after accepting the fact that he wasn’t going to be a novelist or a professional baseball player — Richard Linklater had already positioned himself as an early entrant on the indie scene. His latest film, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” opens Aug. 16.

Linklater never attended film school, opting instead to learn it all on his own. By the time he gained a bit of renown with “Woodshock” — a short, rowdy documentary about the 1985 Woodshock music festival in Dripping Springs, Texas — he had already made several shorts.

“I have a closet full of shorts I wouldn’t bother anyone with,” says Linklater, 58. “I was teaching myself my own film-school-like exercises. I’d do a whole film just for camera movement or for lighting or for this or that. I also took some acting classes. I was just laying a foundation under myself.”

His plan paid off. The Houston native, who has since made Austin his home, nabbed a couple of Independent Spirit Award nominations (best first feature, best director) for his rambling 1990 “day-in-the-life-of Austin” film, “Slacker.” He became an art house darling with the freewheeling “Dazed and Confused” (1993) and cemented his status as a daring young auteur in 1995 with “Before Sunrise,” the first entry in his trilogy about love in Europe, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy (followed by “Before Sunset,” 2004, and “Before Midnight,” 2013).

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Linklater shifted to more commercial fare with “The Newton Boys” (1998), the surprise hit “School of Rock” (2003), and “Boyhood” (2014), which won Patricia Arquette a best supporting actress Oscar.

With Holly Gent and Vince Palmo, Linklater adapted “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” from Maria Semple’s best-selling 2012 novel. It’s a full-blown commercial venture, with star power (Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup) and a story about a once-successful architect (Blanchett) who abandoned her career two decades ago and now runs away from her family. Linklater spoke about the film and his career by phone from Toronto.

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Q. What prompted your change of mind from playing baseball to writing novels to making films when you were 20?

A. I loved baseball, played various positions, and by college was playing left field. But the major leagues let you know if they want you or not; you can’t just will yourself into that role. When I was a young person, and was in search of a medium, I realized that my writing at that time — plays and short stories — was my outlet. I knew I wasn’t a novelist. But once I discovered movies, I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. It had a novelistic edge to it — it was writing — but I liked the collaboration. Because I was a team-sports guy, I liked the collaborative nature, with cast and crew. It was getting people together to make something happen.

Q. You’d been attached to “Bernadette” since before you made “Everybody Wants Some!!” (2016) and “Last Flag Flying” (2017). How did you initially get involved?

A. I had met [producer] Megan Ellison after I made “Boyhood,” and we were talking about doing “Everybody Wants Some!!” (which she produced). During that process she was talking about a book she was really obsessed with – “Bernadette.” So, I read it, and it got its hooks in me. I read a lot of stuff, and it takes a lot to trigger the little enzyme you would need to make me say, “Right, I want to spend the next years of my life trying to bring this to the screen. So there was some sort of personal connection to me that hit.

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Q. Was there a specific element in the story that affected you?

A. The book’s about many things to me, most importantly about the artist who’s not practicing their art. What a toxic thing that can be! That’s one of the things that really resonated with me.

Q. You have a reputation for scheduling a lot of rehearsal time before filming starts. What went on in the case of “Bernadette”?

A. I like to get at least three weeks of rehearsals just to explore the characters, because I want the actors to feel comfortable. I don’t want to be on the set and still figuring out what the hell we’re doing or why a character would do something. So I want to have fully explored that. I’m an indie guy at heart and don’t want to waste time. So, because we’re prepared, we can shoot and move on.

Q. This is the first film for Emma Nelson, who has the major part of Cate Blanchett’s 15-year-old daughter, Bee. You’ve done lots of work with young actors, from Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood” to most of the cast in “School of Rock.” Do you find yourself switching gears on the set between new actors and established ones?

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A. No, directing is all the same to me, but each actor is different, whether they’re a 30-year veteran or just starting. It’s more their own personality than their experience. People need different things; you’re kind of the head coach, and all the players are a little different. I want to create an environment where they do their best work.

Q. Again with the sports metaphors.

A. Exactly!

Q. So you go in prepared and you make your actors comfortable. But isn’t each film a completely different experience for you? Isn’t it a sort of ongoing on-the-job-training?

A. I think the right term is continuing education [laughs]. The second you think you have it figured out or you believe you know what you’re doing, here comes the project that’s going to challenge your assumptions and push you in some area you haven’t been. That’s been my case all the time. Every film seems almost impossible.

Q. You finished this film a few months before the release date. Did you ever want to go back in and do some more tweaking?

A. No, I’m done with it. I’m happily done. Once I finish a film and I’ve made my peace with it, I don’t look back and think about changing things.