On May 28, 1976 – the last day of the semester at “Lee High School” somewhere in Texas – quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) faces an existential crisis over whether to sign a pledge promising not to take drugs or engage in summer activities which might jeopardize the “goal of a championship season in ‘76.” His teammates (Sasha Jenson, Cole Hauser, Jason O. Smith, Ben Affleck) spend the last day of school sanding down paddles and chasing 8th grade boys home for their freshman initiation. This includes Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), whose sis Jodi (Michelle Burke) seals his doom by asking her classmates to “take it easy” on her kid brother.
The senior girls (Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams) organize the 8th grade girls and spill condiments on them in the parking lot for their initiation. One of the pledges (Christin Hinojosa) catches the eye of a journalism geek (Anthony Rapp). His friends (Adam Goldberg, Marissa Ribisi) plan to attend a big keg party, but when it’s busted, end up cruising around with all the other kids. Mitch eludes his tormentors long enough to befriend Randall, who welcomes the self-respecting freshman into his circle. Hanging around this scene is Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), a grown adolescent who spreads word that the kegger will convene under the Moon Tower.
Richard Linklater was a Sam Houston State dropout who left college to find work on an oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico. He saved enough money to buy a Super 8 camera and by 1985 had settled in Austin, where he began to make short films and founded the Austin Film Society with cinematographer Lee Daniel. A feature that Linklater shot for $23,000 – a free form examination of Austin’s subculture titled Slacker – became a sensation in arthouses and film festivals in the summer of 1991. During the press tour, Linklater mentioned an idea he had for his next project, a teen movie.
Linklater recalls, “But at that time, teen movies were John Hughes movies. There was so much drama. Maybe I’m an undramatic guy, but I remember a complete lack of anything big going on in high school. The essence of being a teen to me was a whole lot of energy and music but nothing much technically happening. On any given night there wasn’t a car wreck. There was no one impregnated, no huge love story from the wrong side of the tracks.” Producer James Jacks was a fan of Slacker and when he read the idea, flew Linklater to Los Angeles. This resulted in a script Linklater wrote called Dazed and Confused.
To assemble a cast, Jacks and his partner Sean Daniel hired Don Phillips. As he’d done for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Phillips met every up and coming actor and actress for parts. Vince Vaughn was passed over for the roles Cole Hauser and Ben Affleck were given. Claire Danes was found to be too East Coast to play a Texas teen. Ashley Judd didn’t even get a callback. One person who did stand out was Renée Zellweger. Though all the roles had been cast by the time she came to Linklater’s attention in Austin, Zellweger was awarded a walk-on part. Wiley Wiggins was walking out of Quackenbush’s when producer Anne Walker-McBay discovered him.
Phillips was at the bar in the Hyatt he’d been booked into in Austin. Matthew McConaughey was there with his girlfriend and when the bartender mentioned that Phillips was producing a movie, he went over to introduce himself. McConaughey had appeared in a beer commercial and a music video, but had never acted in a movie. He ended up drinking and talking with Phillips for hours. Linklater recalls, “Matthew looked like he’d do fine with college girls, but I needed Wooderson to be a little creepier. But Matthew just sunk into character. His eyes shut to little quarter slots, and he said, ‘Hey, man, you got a joint?’ He just became that guy.”
With a $6.9 million budget from Universal, Dazed and Confused began filming July 1992 in Austin. Linklater wanted a movie that felt like it had been shot in 1976. “I didn’t use a Steadicam, for instance. Had I been able to get film stocks from that era, I would’ve. I just wanted it to look like a ‘70s movie, in a way. Blown out windows, just a certain style. I was very much playing off that. The way music was used in movies pre-MTV, for instance. Sort of a storytelling narrative element to music, more along the lines of Easy Rider, Mean Streets, Graffiti, even, you go back to Scorpio Rising, films like that, but pre-MTV influence, so, I was very consciously looking at that era stylistically.”
One of Linklater’s first disputes with Universal concerned the film’s language. “They were in some delusion about this could be a PG-13 movie if we had less cussing. ‘I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? Teenagers drinking, driving, smoking pot, this is an R rated movie.’ But they: ‘Well, less. Maybe there could be less.’ They were afraid they were gonna offend people.” The studio had so little faith that a soundtrack comprised of forgotten ‘70s artists would sell that they pressured Linklater to abandon his meticulously selected music cues and replace them with current bands singing cover versions. To keep the songs he wanted, Linklater gave up his profit points in the soundtrack.
When Dazed and Confused was put before test audiences in L.A., its box office fate was sealed. Linklater recalls, “You’d watch the movie with a test audience – this is the down side of making a studio film – you’d watch the film with an audience, and they’d laugh and applaud and have a great time and then the cards would come back ‘Poor.’ You know, we tested poorly. So those audiences at those testings more or less killed this film for being a wide release and we just got marginalized. It was kind of a studio production with an independent release, sort of the worst of both worlds.”
Released in September 1993, Dazed and Confused was praised by critics. Rolling Stone labeled it, “The ultimate party movie, socially irresponsible and totally irresistible.” Entertainment Weekly called it, “The most slyly funny and dead-on portrait of American teenage life ever made.” Audiences missed the film in theaters, but over time, video cassette and DVD sales topped $30 million as its reputation among college students grew. Two volumes of the soundtrack have sold more than two million copies. Don Phillips adds, “To this day you can’t go to a video store on a Friday night and get Dazed and Confused, because the kids still have Dazed parties, and everybody knows every line in the movie.”
Perhaps more than any other movie in recent history, to watch Dazed and Confused is to step into the Way Back Machine and spend a couple of hours in another place and time. Not only did Linklater dial the clothes, the cars, the tunes and the film’s sensibility back to 1976, but the filmmaker’s laid back take on his teenage years refuses to lay any moralizing or tired plot devices on the audience. Instead of feeling phony, the film empowers us to become active observers in the rituals and celebrations of another decade’s youth.
Spanning less than eighteen hours, Linklater’s script digs no more than skin deep into these characters, but when it comes to casting, the film is in select class. Matthew McConaughey was the discovery of the picture, while Linklater gets terrific performances from the pros (Milla Jovovich, Rory Cochrane, Nicky Katt) and the Austin area novices in his ensemble. The lengths Linklater went to accurately depicting his youth – in all its petty cruelties and substance use – gives the film a real edge, softened at the right moments by the presence of Wiley Wiggins as the empathetic freshman navigating his way through this wild and crazy world.
The Vocabularist at Movie Cynics writes, “I want to say that this movie is great, but the only reason I would be doing that is because of some sick sense of nostalgia that I have from my high school days of getting wasted. I relate to the film, but in the end the movie is about nothing. It’s just serves as a reminder of how stupid we all were when were in high school, how idealistic and self-serving we were in the name of a good time. Dazed and Confused is a movie about the past, so if you like living in it, you’ll probably like the film.”
“Much more than the superficial teen romps that passed for generational insight during the 1980s, Richard Linklater has crafted the definitive adolescent allegory. Illustrating how music makes our experiences more ethereal and touching on almost every issue inherent in the high school of eras past (and present), this drunken, drugged out comedy is a benchmark in the way young adulthood is illustrated and explained in the modern motion picture. Without gimmicks, it achieves a greatness that few films can ever hope to emulate … Without a doubt, Dazed and Confused is a great film,” writes Bill Gibron at DVD Talk.
Brendan Babish at DVD Verdict writes, “Dazed and Confused gets nearly everything right … After a Little League baseball game the teams are forced to line up, slap the other team’s hands, and mutter, ‘Good game’ (remember that?); on the way to the parking lot everyone yells ‘Shotgun!’ at the same time; at night everyone drives around town looking for fun, and nothing much happens … Linklater said with Dazed and Confused he was looking to make the American Graffiti of the ’70s. I think in about ten years another young director making a period teen comedy is going to say he wants to make the Dazed and Confused for the ’90s.”
Visit Jeremy Richey’s week long tribute to the images and music of Dazed and Confused at Harry Moseby Confidential.