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They Were Marketing It For Dumb Teenagers

April 20th, 2009 · 6 Comments

Dazed and Confused (1993)
Written by Richard Linklater
Directed by Richard Linklater
Produced by Detour Filmproduction/ Alphaville Films
Running time: 103 minutes

Dazed and Confused, 1993, poster Dazed and Confused, Criterion DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?

On May 28, 1976 – the last day of the school year 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 initiations. This includes Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), whose older sis Jodi (Michelle Burke) seals his doom by asking her classmates to “take it easy” on her 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 8th grade 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 looking for something else to do with all the other kids. This includes Slater (Rory Cochrane), a stoner whose access to party favors makes him a VIP presence at whatever party is in the offing, and the beatnik Michelle (Milla Jovovich) who steals two bronze statues to paint them in the likeness of Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of KISS. Mitch eludes his tormentors long enough to befriend Randall, who welcomes the self-respecting freshman into his social circle. Hanging around this scene is Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), a grown adolescent who spreads word that the kegger will convene under the Moon Tower.

Dazed and Confused, 1993, Jason London, Michelle Burke, Wiley Wiggins, Christin Hinojosa

Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Born in Houston and raised in the town of Huntsville, Richard Linklater would drop out of local Sam Houston State University and take work on an oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico instead of finishing college. He saved enough money to buy a Super 8 camera and by 1985 had settled in Austin, where he began making short films and founded the Austin Film Society with cinematographer Lee Daniel. A feature film that Linklater shot in the summer of 1989 for $23,000 – a free form examination of Austin’s subculture titled Slacker – became a sensation in arthouses and film festivals two years later. This got the attention of producer Jim Jacks, who – with partner Sean Daniel – had a development deal with Universal Pictures. Linklater recalled, “I told him I had this teenage rock and roll film that I felt was my next movie.”

Richard Linklater added, “I’d always had this idea for a strange high school film. I remember being a high school freshman in Huntsville and driving around all night with three or four guys in a Le Mans, listening to an eight-track tape of ZZ Top’s ‘Fandango’. Eight-tracks never ended; a song would get quiet, you would hear a click, and then it would pick back up. So I wanted the film to start with a close-up shot of ‘Fandango’ sliding into the eight-track player and then have a whole movie in this car, meeting people who drove up next to you, going through the drive-through, getting out and getting beer – basically always in and around the car. 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.”

Dazed and Confused, 1993, Rory Cochrane, Milla Jovovich

To assemble a cast, Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel brought in Don Phillips. As he’d done for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Phillips met virtually every up and coming actor and actress during the auditions in Los Angeles. Phillips recalled, “Vince Vaughn was there, but he was competing with Cole and Ben, and he didn’t get it. Neither did Claire Danes, whom Rick Linklater and I loved but was more of an Eastern-school type. And poor Ashley Judd – she never even got to meet Rick. Then I get to Austin, and that’s when I met Renée Zellweger. I went, ‘Isn’t this girl interesting?’ When Rick and I saw her together, we read her and thought, ‘Ahh, man! Too bad that everybody’s set, because she would have been perfect.’ So we gave her that teeny part in the parking lot.” Wiley Wiggins was walking out of Quackenbush’s when producer Anne Walker-McBay convinced him to audition for a part; the 15-year-old ended up cast as Mitch.

Due to graduation ceremonies at the University of Texas, Don Phillips was making due with a room at the Hyatt and hanging out in the bar. A part-time waiter named Matthew McConaughey strolled in with his girlfriend. When the bartender mentioned that Phillips was in town to produce a movie, McConaughey went over to introduce himself. He’d appeared in a music video and a beer commercial, but had never acted in a movie. After drinking and talking golf with Phillips for hours, the casting director proposed McConaughey come in and read for the role of Wooderson. Linklater recalled, “I thought he was too good-looking. 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. I thought, ‘Okay, don’t cut your hair. Can you grow a beard and a mustache?’

Dazed and Confused, 1993, Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, Wiley Wiggins

After Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel had convinced Universal that Richard Linklater might be another George Lucas and Dazed and Confused could be the next American Graffiti, shooting commenced July 1992 in Austin on a budget of $6.9 million. In terms of style, Linklater wanted to make a movie that felt like it had actually been shot in 1976. He recalled, “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.”

With a 38 day shooting schedule, cast and crew worked on the fly. Linklater recalled, “I wanted a montage sequence at the beer bust to give the essence of the party. But it’s hard to script the essence of a party, and if you don’t have it in the script, you don’t have it on the shooting schedule. So we had about thirty minutes and a couple of cameras to get it. We cranked up the music, asked people to move, and followed them around. I’d run up to Rory Cochrane and whisper, ‘Okay, you’re trying to score some weed off somebody,’ and he’d go with it and we’d film.” When a scripted crush between Tony and Cynthia failed to spark much chemistry between Anthony Rapp and Marissa Ribisi, the director suggested maybe her character should go for Wooderson instead. Ribisi recalled, “I thought, ‘Oh, this is genius.’ He’s everything she’s against. She’s this girl with a future, kind of preachy, and suddenly she’s into this guy who only likes high school chicks. She’s so smitten she can’t speak.”

Dazed and Confused, 1993, Marissa Ribisi

One of Richard 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 real battle came over the soundtrack. In need of a $300,000 advance to begin obtaining the clearances for the songs he’d selected, the studio suggested that Linklater instead consider using contemporary bands singing cover versions. This was seen as a way to get the movie exposure on MTV. Linklater recalled, “At that moment we didn’t have any money, and I still needed it to finish the film. There was a threat that I’d have to start cutting songs. Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ alone cost $80,000. Finally the studio said, ‘Okay, we’ll come up with the money, but only if you give up all your royalties from the soundtrack.’ I said, ‘Fine. Just don’t screw with my movie. You can rob me, take everything I have. Just don’t kill my family.’”

When released September 1993 in the U.S., critics were unequivocal in their praise. Marjorie Baumgarten, the Austin Chronicle:Dazed and Confused is one of the most exciting movies of this, or any other, year. It’s smart, funny, and wonderfully crafted and performed. The movie is structured as a period ensemble piece about a specific group of teenagers on the last day of high school in 1976. But it also functions as a timeless social study of high school character types and a disclosure of commonplace abuses of power in this social system.” Peter Ranier, the Los Angeles Times: “It’s a highly enjoyable spree that doesn’t add up to a whole lot by the end. But you don’t necessarily want it to add up to anything – that’s part of its charm.” Janet Maslin, the New York Times: “No film whose plot involves the quest for Aerosmith tickets can take itself too seriously. So Dazed and Confused has an enjoyably playful spirit, one that amply compensates for its lack of structure.”

Dazed and Confused, 1993, Milla Jovovich, Rory Cochrane, Jason London

Unfortunately, Dazed and Confused had its box office fate sealed months earlier, when it went before test audiences in Los Angeles. Linklater recalled, “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.” Never expanding beyond 214 theaters in the U.S., Dazed and Confused scored only $7.9 million at the box office. Over time though – as the film’s reputation among college students blossomed – sales of VHS tapes and DVDs would ultimately top $30 million. Two volumes of the soundtrack – Dazed and Confused and Even More Dazed and Confused – have sold more than two million copies.

Looking back on Dazed and Confused ten years later, Richard Linklater contrasted the experience to the one he had working independently on Slacker. “It was probably the biggest leap I’ve ever made. Like doing a film where someone else paid for it. It was technically my third film, I had done one film completely alone, then I did one film with a crew of about six or seven and that’s a big leap there, to communicate with a crew and throw your ideas out there. This was a bigger leap even still, like how you make it within the system with a really tight schedule with all the previews and all that stuff. A lot of people fall apart at that level. I think the studio was sick of me and didn’t like me by the end, but I was pretty happy to get out alive with the film that I wanted to make. If I had listened to them and done everything that they wanted, we wouldn’t be talking today, I’ll put it that way.”

Dazed and Confused, 1993, Jason O. Smith, Cole Hauser, Jason London, Sasha Jenson

Should I Care?
Gramercy Pictures – the short lived distributor launched in 1993 as a venture between Universal Pictures and PolyGram – had apparently exhausted their marketing ideas by the time they arrived on the High Times approach, issuing posters with taglines like “See It with a Bud”. The MPAA objected to the drug references and ordered Gramercy make alterations. Richard Linklater – who had no input into the campaign – lamented, ”They were marketing it for dumb teenagers, but what are you gonna do?” Ultimately, this is a movie that stoners just don’t deserve. Half Baked, they deserve. Dazed and Confused on the other hand is a film whose token toker ends up with maybe three lines of dialogue, tops. Instead of jokes, what Linklater seems to be going for is a brutally honest reevaluation of 18 hours of his childhood. Banned substances play a role, but so do music, clothes, healthy doses cynicism and the relationships recalled by someone who remembers being there.

While the script digs no more than skin deep into its characters, when it comes to casting, Dazed and Confused is a master class. Matthew McConaughey was the discovery of the picture, but Linklater gets terrific performances from both the pros (Adam Goldberg, Marissa Ribisi, Parker Posey, Cole Hauser) 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 madness. Linklater’s take on his teenage years refuses to lay any moralizing or tired plot devices on the audience. Instead of feeling phony, the experience is alive and fun, enabling us to become active observers in the rituals and celebrations of another decade’s youth. Dazed and Confused feels like one of the most truthful expositions on high school ever made. This is Linklater’s best film.

© Joe Valdez

Dazed and Confused, 1993, Wiley Wiggins

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“Smoke Got In Their Eyes” By Jessica Shaw. Entertainment Weekly, 8 October 1993

“The Spirit of ‘76” By John Spong. Texas Monthly, October 2003

“Making Dazed – Catch You Later Dude, Ten Years Later”
By Emily Christianson. Film Radar, 14 September 2005

Dazed and Confused
. Criterion Collection (2006).

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Brother/sister relationship · Coming of age · Cult favorite · Drunk scene · Famous line · High school · Mother/son relationship · Music · Shot In Texas

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Flickhead // Apr 20, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Thank you for examining this one! It’s an excellent write-up.

    I was a graduate of the Class of ’76, so the picture holds added relevance for me.

    The casting is brilliant: every face, every style of person, I remember from high school is in there. Who was I? A mixture of three or four of them.

    Can you imagine a soundtrack of cover bands?!? Yik!

  • 2 J.D. // Apr 21, 2009 at 6:48 am

    Nice write-up on a great film! DAZED AND CONFUSED has to have one of the greatest soundtracks, one fantastic tune after another and they all fit so well with the imagery. Also, they help take you back to that time.

    What is also refreshing is that, while, obviously Linklater is looking back at the time fondly, he is not completely blinded by nostalgia and doesn’t sugar-coat things.

    I’m so glad that the folks at Criterion got their hands on this film and gave it the deluxe treatment is so richly deserved.

    As you point out, this film had a killer cast. How many of these actors broke out after this film? And it still has Ben Affleck’s best performance to date (ok, maybe CHASING AMY).

  • 3 Moviezzz // Apr 21, 2009 at 7:38 am

    Great piece.

    I always loved this film.

    I first drove two hours out to Boston to see it, I was such a Linklater fan.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Apr 21, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Ray: While I was only 3 years old in the summer of ’76, I remember almost all of these characters – save Wooderson – from my high school 15 years later. I have a feeling that if you found reason to go back to a high school today, you would locate the Slaters, the Darlas, the O’Bannions and the Cynthias, albeit with worse fashion sense. Thanks for commenting!

    J.D.: It’s interesting to watch Dazed and Confused today not only to see the actors who broke out, but the ones who didn’t. I can’t recall seeing Sasha Jenson or Deena Martin do anything after this movie. Michelle Burke’s part was considered the female lead at one point, but Parker Posey and Milla Jovovich blow her off the screen. I would have liked to have seen Christin Hinojosa again, but it seems as if she struggled a bit getting her dialogue out.

    Jim: Thanks for commenting. I saw Dazed and Confused at an AMC multiplex off I-45 in northwest Houston, which is anything but a hip area. They didn’t have cappuccino yet when I left in 1997, but art movies regularly got play. Maybe the East Coast gets the short end of the stick, with Hollywood wanting to extend prints and advertising east by popular demand only.

  • 5 John Cole // Dec 20, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    I think Dazed and Confused is the best movie ever made!!! It is a movie representing one of the best days u could have on the last day of school. By the way, what is the round thing in Pickford’s room beside the egg chair?

  • 6 George Justin Walker // Jun 6, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    I love this movie. I have watched it 50 times, no kidding.

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