EVAN SMITH, CHAIR
LAWRENCE WRIGHT, NAOMI SHIHAB NYE, RICHARD LINKLATER
Mr. Smith: I am a member of the Texas Philosophical Society, I am also the CEO and editor in chief of the Texas Tribune, the former editor of Texas Monthly, the host of Texas Monthly Talks on PBS stations, and a couple of other things I don’t need to bore you with. But for purposes of today, I am here as an advocate for and as a practitioner, occasionally, of the art of expression. Mike Gillette was kind to ask me, along with other members of the committee, to think about programs that would be appropriate to your visit to our fair city today.
Those of you who are not from Austin, we certainly welcome you and invite you to take advantage of all the opportunities to see the many creative things that go on here. One of the things that I consider to be most important about Austin’s self-identity, its self-definition, is the number of people who express themselves through writing. We’re blessed to have a city that reads and writes, consumes content in all forms. On stage with me today we have three people who are extraordinary in presenting content in a variety of forms, and I think do justice to Austin and Texas, two at least who do justice to Austin as residents, and one who, in her frequent visits here, we claim her as our own even if she’s not, in fact, an Austinite.
As I said, the theme of the program you’re about to hear is the art of expression, which takes many forms. We’re going to focus for the next hour-and-a-half specifically on written expression, but even written expression itself takes many forms: poetry, fiction and nonfiction, song writing—a big feature of what life in Austin is like, not represented on this stage—screen writing, blogging, tweeting, which is probably a practice less of this audience than some others in Austin.
Today, in any case, we’re honored to be joined by three of my favorite and our favorite practitioners of the art of expression, three who have succeeded in honing their great skills at the highest levels of their particular expertise. We’re going to visit with them individually a bit up here on stage and then engage all three in a conversation about both art and craft, and then we’ll use the balance of our time to take questions from all of you. I know all of you will have great questions about this topic.
To my immediate left is Lawrence Wright, also a member of the Texas Philosophical Society in good standing. Larry, as so many of you know, has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. It’s hard to think that it has been that long, but it has. He is a screenwriter and a playwright and the author of seven books, most recently The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which was nominated for the National Book Award and won the Lionel Gilbert Award for Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Award for history, the J. Anthony Lucas Book Prize, the New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and then saving the best for last, the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.
Born in Dallas, Larry is a graduate of Tulane University and the American University in Cairo. Although he spent this fall in New York as a fellow at NYU, at NYU Law School specifically, I gathered from the dinner table chatter last night that he is about to head off to another adventure overseas. He is allegedly, with his wife, Roberta, a resident of Austin, although we see him so rarely these days that I could challenge that on factual basis.
To Larry’s left is Naomi Shihab Nye, a St. Louis native and proud San Antonian, who is an extraordinarily accomplished poet. Her first collection of poems, Different Ways to Pray, was published nearly 30 years ago. Her other books include the poetry collections 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, Field Trip and Fuel, the collection of essays Never in a Hurry, and the semi-autobiographical young adult novel Habibi. She has also edited several anthologies of poems, most recently Is This Forever, or What?: Poems and Paintings from Texas.
A graduate of Trinity University, Naomi has won four Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, and the Paterson Poetry Prize, among too many other accolades to list.
To Naomi’s left is Richard Linklater, the Academy Award nominated screenwriter and director and the person most single-handedly responsible for Austin’s status as a white-hot center of film-making these last twenty years. He would decline that accolade; he’s very modest, but I’ll say it if he won’t, that he is largely responsible for the independent film scene in Austin and in Texas as much as anybody else.
From his debut film Slacker in 1991, up through a string of memorable releases that constitute, taken together, a short course in the modern history of independent film, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Rick has consistently produced work that is distinct, robust, and innovative, that nods respectfully to both the traditions of film-making and the cutting edge of storytelling. His most recent film, Me and Orson Welles, opened in New York and Los Angeles the day before Thanksgiving and will soon be in theaters in Texas. Having now seen it twice, I can tell you it is absolutely magnificent.
Born in Houston, Rick attended Sam Houston State University, and as the legend goes, saved the money he earned working on an offshore oilrig to buy his first Super 8 camera and film equipment.
Please join me in welcoming Larry and Naomi and Rick. So now as I sit with these three, I’m going to ask in each case for our panelists to talk about their inspiration because expression takes many forms, and of course, it begins with inspiration. Let me begin with my old friend, Larry, with whom I did not, sadly, overlap at Texas Monthly. I think we went through the revolving door at exactly the same moment, but in opposite directions.
You have been at the The New Yorker, as I said, since 1992. You’ve done seven books now in total. Is there a difference for you, as a writer, between setting out to do a long magazine story and doing a book of the sort that you’ve now come to be known for?
Mr. Wright: In many ways it’s a very similar process for me, but I guess the most mysterious thing about the writing, the artistic process for me, is knowing what to write. The process is something you can learn, you can train yourself, but inspiration is the hardest part—why something resonates inside your mind and demands that you devote yourself to it. That is, to me, the big, the dark energy—to use a phrase we heard earlier—the mysterious unknown proton, or whatever it is, that’s floating out in the universe.
My process, when I start anything, whether it’s a screenplay or a play, is that I start taking notes on note cards, just like a 1960s graduate student. In the process of writing my last book, The Looming Tower, I compiled 17 boxes of these note cards. If I put it on a note card, that means I’m a little bit interested in it. I intuitively begin to outline the project. And if I’m writing a screenplay, I write down ideas for scenes or character things and it just builds up in a pile, and then one day I close the door to my office and turn off the phones and just start laying them out into three acts and finding where the story moves. I often do that with articles as well.
Mr. Smith: So almost in film-making terms, you’re story-boarding the work that you’re doing.
Mr. Wright: I started out as a journalist and the information I got from journalism naturally carries over into the other things. When I started writing movies and learning the importance of character and scenes, that really helped my journalism because they both work together; it’s all storytelling. And if you can find a great character, no matter through what means you’re trying to tell it, that character becomes like a donkey on which you can load all this other information that otherwise might be just didactic. But if you have a great character that the reader is in love with and therefore wants to know what’s going to happen to him, you can make that character your beast of burden for all the information.
And then if you put him in a scene where the tension of what’s going to happen is highly present, you can pause at that moment. This is what a friend of mine called the rubber band theory of narration; if you pose a problem, don’t solve it immediately. Just pull it out as long as you can, and you can fill that space with all the information that the reader needs to fully appreciate the consequences of this character entering the scene, and the tension builds and that’s what causes the pages to turn. And so that’s a skill that I learned mainly, I think, from writing movies and plays, but it’s been very fortunate for me to be able to put them into journalism.
Mr. Smith: Before you can get to character and before you can get to plot line, you have to get to story; you have to decide that a story or even a subject above story is worth exploring. So in the case of The Looming Tower, that was obviously the narrative of our lifetimes, or certainly one of the narratives of our lifetimes, but I am curious about some of the things you’ve written about that are less tied to the news. When you have to develop something over time, you might have to put it away or think about it as an evergreen and eventually come back to it, something that’s much less present than a subject like 9/11 or the war on terrorism.
Mr. Wright: Well, one example of that for me was twins. I was always fascinated by identical twins. I’m not one, although I might have been one and not known it, but the fact that sometimes twins disappear is really mysterious because there are many more twin conceptions than there are twin births. So once again, what happens? And sometimes one twin absorbs the other and there are all sorts of fascinating and ghoulish things that go on inside the womb, and I was always really intrigued by that.
But there was no occasion to write about it and when Tina Brown came to The New Yorker and asked what do you want to write next, I said, “Well, twins.” The macabre always appeals to her and I told her some of these stories of one twin absorbing the other and there are even instances where an individual can have two blood types; that is an example of a fraternal twin absorbing the other one, “Oh, that’s hot, hot!” So I went off and wrote this article about twins of 8,000 words, and she said, “You know, I love it, I want you to expand it to 20,000 words and I want it to be in two parts, one part about identical and one part about fraternal twins.” Okay, and I did that. And then she read it and she said, “You know, on balance, I think I want to make it a talk, 800 words.” And there was this whiplash.
Mr. Smith: Expression takes many forms, There’s the long form and there’s the short form.
Mr. Wright: She did finally run it at, I think, 12,000 words, but in the journalism business it’s always good to have a news peg, as you know, and it makes it a lot more likely that you’ll get the whole article published and that it will be published.
Mr. Smith: Indeed. Well, speaking of short form, Naomi, we go from the length of a book like the ones that Larry writes to the work that you do, and I want to ask about your particular—the same question of you that I asked of Larry—your inspiration, When you’re sitting down to write the great poems that you do, where does that come from?
Ms. Nye: Well, thanks, Evan. You’re very generous, very kind. I have to say I was fascinated by Larry’s piece on twins. It answered secret curiosities I had on the subject. As a poet who started writing as a little child, for me the inspiration and the interest always came from voices around me. And living in Texas, inspiration continues to come from the voices around me in communities, the voices of children I’ve worked with for 35 years as a visiting writer in schools, reading, and listening to conversations, all of the accents, all the ways people tell stories around dinner tables, and the stories that seem to get cut off midstream. I’m also a big fan of Rick’s movies and I feel a similar generous igniting impulse in his movies as well. We’re drawn into so many things around us; we barely have the chance to explore a tiny percentage of them.
And so as a poet, I guess I’m the person sometimes satisfied with the note card itself. The note card is such a precious item—we just keep working on new note cards. But I certainly have worked, as Larry has, with writing down little notes everywhere I went, some of them actually growing into poems with revision, shaping, and reading out loud to myself. A lot of my energy in recent years has been spent helping people around me in schools and other places discover their own material, whatever it is, and of course, that becomes inspiring to me as well. If you’re trying to inspire others, you get inspired along the way. There’s never been any dearth of that active energy flow.
I do feel this is the perfect audience for an anthology I made that still seems one of my most undercover, undiscovered books: Is This Forever or What? Poems and Paintings from Texas. I wish I had brought every one of you one as a present because you’re the people who appreciate the voices of our wonderful state and the visual artists as well. I had that gathering impulse from childhood, to collect other people’s voices and put them in anthologies to be shared. That’s been something that’s been with me, thanks to one great teacher, since 2nd grade.
Mr. Smith: On the subject of anthologizing other people’s work; when you encounter other people’s work, what about it appeals to you? When do you look at something and think to yourself, this is something I think I want to share with other people?
Ms. Nye: It’s just a subjective electric charge. That great feeling when something has just caused you to pause, to spend a little moment of deeper thinking with a poem or piece of art. It’s visceral and profoundly human. This poem speaks to me, calls something forth. Then I start asking, well, analytically, what is it exactly that I like about this piece? And so forth. speaks to you and makes you think “This is something worthy of my own creative work”?
Ms. Nye: Voices and the myriad stories of mixed cultures, as Henry so beautifully described, the blended cultures of all of our places, and the little frictions that inevitably come up. Many of the pieces that Larry has worked on in recent years have affected me deeply. Having had an Arab father, I’m always looking at how other people view cultures or regions…putting bits and pieces together all the time.
I’ve always thought that Texas is lucky to have bigger margins on our cities and spaces—horizons, vast skies and the whole sense of movement. Just driving in from Dallas at sunset last night, feeling the highway whoosh, cars in motion in such big space—it’s never been a surprise to me that so much wonderful art would spring forth from Texas because we have so much space in which to look at things and think about things.
Mr. Smith: Now, Rick, let me move this over to you. You’re in an odd place between these two in that you sometimes traffic in fiction and sometimes in nonfiction. Your current film is about a real figure in our modern cultural history, but many of your films are obviously things that are made-up whole-cloth. When you are setting out to work on a film, either you’re writing a script or co-writing a script, or just simply directing the work of somebody else, what specifically inspires you or speaks to you that says this is a story worth bringing to the public?
Mr. Linklater: Well, first, I just want to thank Larry Wright. His twin studies became a book, Twins, and when I had identical twin daughters five years ago, he gave me a copy of it. Thus inspired by his book and the eternal nature/nurture mystery, I currently have one kid having a normal upbringing and another that we slide food under her closet door every day. When they turn 18, I’m going to invite Larry to come over and possibly do an addendum to his book.
Once I discovered film was the prism through which I filtered the world, my art form, I never looked back. When I was in 5th grade through high school, I wanted to be a novelist. By college I wanted to be a playwright, but once I really started seeing movies in my early 20s, that’s when I discovered it—sometimes it takes you a while, I think, to find your channel, but I think I always had that need to express myself somehow and was ultimately more in the observational/contemplative mode than extrovert mode.
I might actually have been more fulfilled in other art forms because a lot of the things I’m trying to express are really hard to express in cinema, so I feel that I’m always looking for a way to tell a story, sometimes to push the narrative boundaries of storytelling and what you can maybe express in a medium, but it’s all over the map. Every movie you do you feel like you’re kind of getting your master’s in that subject. Just recently, I did a master’s thesis on the Mercury Theater, Orson Welles’ theater of the ’30s, via this new movie. It’s all the research, all the re-imagining and recreation—all the fun without being judged really, academically speaking.
I find myself just going through the world in a very similar way to what Larry described. I take a lot of notes. I have massive files on different subjects, many of which I’ll never get around to finding a narrative story that will ever fully take off. A lot of these subjects would naturally lend themselves to documentaries, but I don’t really have the patience to do documentaries, even though I’ve done a few—they take years and years and I like working with actors.
So a story gets its hooks into you, or maybe just a subject, and I’ve had these lengthy gestation times thinking about a story that still hasn’t quite worked in my mind. You know, I’m always making the film in my head and if I can complete it in my head and it’s done and it’s not that interesting, I kind of move on. But it’s the ones that are always in process that are still kind of interesting to me. I’m still reading books about that subject or cutting out articles; that subject matter compels you to keep going. That’s the true litmus test of what’s worthy of exploration. Because it’s so much effort, so many years of your life—it better be a really deep well that keeps you forever mystified and constantly discovering. It’s got to be something that compels you. That’s how I think I find the subject.
Mr. Smith: And in the last 20 years, you’ve done, including Me and Orson Welles, 15 or 16 films?
Mr. Linklater: I think 15 feature length films.
Mr. Smith: Fifteenth feature length films, and of those, just knowing your work as I do, I’m going to guess about half are stories and about half are ones that you originated.
Mr. Linklater: Yes, I would say about half are original screenplays and those tend to be, for me, somewhat autobiographical. I don’t think I’m that imaginative. I’m taking elements of my own life, my own personal experience or thought process and making a story out of that somehow or another. The other ones can originate in any number of areas. This new movie is based on a novel, a historical fiction. Robert Kaplow, the author, often writes for young adults and it was just a very charming novel. The adaptation was done by colleagues of mine here in Austin: Holly and Vince Palmo.
So sometimes you’re collaborating with a screenwriter, or you’re cowriting a screenplay, Fast Food Nation was a nonfiction book that we made a fictional movie out of. I’ve done a couple of plays adapted into movies, but I don’t really differentiate. It’s the same process; once the subject matter gets to you, you kind of bring the same process to it.
Mr. Smith: Naomi, I’m interested to hear Rick talk about the autobiographical nature of some of his films because I’m sure his fans would not necessarily see him personally in his films, but in your case, you have done some writing that has been intensely personal.
Ms. Nye: Well, it might seem intensely personal, but I always imagine that I am writing about someone else even when it seems intensely personal. I was thinking about something you just said; that you didn’t see yourself as being highly imaginative but you had developed this strategy of putting things together, letting curiosities accumulate. I was thinking this morning how the kind of conjunction that might lead to a piece of writing a year from now would be the fact that last night, over here at the AT&T Hotel I stayed, in possibly the most high-tech room ever. The phone greeted me by name on its little screen—I’ve never had that happen in any hotel in the world, but the coasters on the desk quoted Henry David Thoreau, my favorite philosopher. I kept thinking, what would he think about all of the capabilities of this room? That’s the kind of quirk I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
Mr. Smith: Naomi, I want to push you back on this question; you dismissed a little bit the idea of writing autobiographically. You say that you imagine other people when you write, but so much of your life experience does become reflected in your work.
Ms. Nye: Well, it does, but it also suggests that you see your own life as being more interesting than other people’s lives, which I do not.
Mr. Smith: A rare quality for some writers.
Ms. Nye: I’ve written about my own life because it was the life I knew. I wrote about a Palestinian father because I didn’t have a Chinese father. One thing I’ve tried hard to convey to students is, whatever material we have around us, whatever story we’re born into is just as rich as someone else’s. It depends on the way we’re look at it, the curious perspective we approach it from. How do we notice little unobtrusive details that one week from now we might have forgotten?
I think that’s something all three of us probably do in our own ways—collecting little tidbits and glimmers, a single line that shines out of a whole hour’s talk. We’re always taking notes; we’re always sticking them in our pockets, piecing stories together. So to have faith in the very acts of gathering and writing is something that I think becomes our most crucial autobiography.
Mr. Smith: Larry, let me ask you to pick up on what Naomi just said about that. The fact is, we laugh, but there are a lot of writers who make their money profiting from telling their own story over and over and over in different ways, trying to disguise the fact that they’re telling their own story over and over and over. In your case, because you’re doing nonfiction journalism, either magazine form or book form, you’re often telling somebody else’s story by definition. You’ve not done very much personal work that I’m aware of, and I wonder to what degree you feel an obligation to make that kind of personal connection. Even if it’s not about you, how much does it have to impact you personally before it becomes something you want to write about?
Mr. Wright: Well, I did write a memoir about growing up in Dallas, so I am guilty.
Mr. Smith: It’s the exception, though, of the work you’ve done.
Mr. Wright: That’s right, When I started out writing, I started as the race relations reporter; we were forbidden to use the first person pronoun, and so there developed a sort of electrical charge around it, On the other hand, when I started The Looming Tower, the question was how do you take this massive human tragedy of 9/11 and make it understandable and emotionally relatable to the reader. I thought you would have to tell individual stories; you have to find the characters whose lives would embody in some way the story, the narrative that I wanted to tell.
And so that was the only thing I started with. If you remember, I was here in Austin and I couldn’t get to New York because the planes were all grounded, so how do I get into the story and where do I start? I started looking at obituaries that were streaming online, and on the Washington Post site I found the obituary of this guy named John O’Neill who had been the head of counter-terrorism for the FBI in New York. He had been dismissed for taking classified information out of the office in a briefcase and had gotten a new job as the head of security at the World Trade Center and had died that day. I thought he was the guy in charge of getting bin Laden, and instead, bin Laden got him.
The obituary made him sound like a disgrace. I didn’t know if he was a hero or not, but he certainly was that burro I was talking about, the donkey who you can put all the information on his back and he can take you through the world of counter-terrorism and why we failed. And I knew bin Laden would be a character, but the Saudis wouldn’t let me in for nearly a year-and-a-half, so I had to go to Egypt instead. I discovered Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number-two guy in al Qaeda who turns out to be the brains behind the organization. Had the Saudis let me in, I probably wouldn’t have discovered him, but it helped me understand al Qaeda in a whole different way. And then when I finally got to Saudi Arabia, I realized that all my Arabs were villains, so that was problematic.
But I ran into Prince Turki al Faisal who was the head of intelligence, the Saudi intelligence, prior to 9/11 and had worked closely with bin Laden in Afghanistan, and of course, was a member of the Saudi royal family; he was another great donkey because the whole Saudi apparatus, the royal family, the conspiracy to work with these terrorists in Afghanistan, all of that was in his story. So if you put these four characters together and blend their lives together, you get one version of what happened on 9/11.
Mr. Smith: I love the answer because of the detail you went into. I want to come back to this question, though, of you and of your own place in the story, because I’m thinking as an American who, along with all other Americans, suffered so greatly on that day, to then put some distance between your emotion, your personal feelings, and this story had to be have been quite a challenge. You had to dispassionately gather and then present to all of us the facts of this thing that impacted all of us in ways large and small. So from your perspective, how did you manage that balance?
Mr. Wright: Honestly, Evan, it wasn’t always so dispassionate, I was traveling a lot in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and Afghanistan right after 9/11. There were practically no other Americans or even Westerners visible anywhere, and so a lot of people were very angry at America, and I was pissed off myself, so I wasn’t always the impartial reporter that I had always imagined myself to be. Sometimes when those fingers would wag under my nose, I thought “I’m going to snap that off.” There were moments such as the last day I was in Cairo in 2002, the head of the Muslim Brothers had just gotten out of prison and he was in a bad mood and I was in a bad mood and we just had the worst argument of my professional career; it was very ugly. So sometimes I wasn’t that person that you imagine that I was.
But then you come upon a character in whom you can recognize some of yourself, like John O’Neill, who was both a disgrace and a hero; I loved that about him. Beyond the fact that he had taken this classified information out, I found early on in my research that there were three women who thought that they were engaged to him, and he was married and had two children, and they all met at his funeral—the catastrophe that he was trying to forestall. And as a man I just thought that must be the worst thing that could ever happen to you.
Mr. Smith: But as a journalist you say, thank you, God. Right? You just think to yourself it’s never going to get any better than this.
Mr. Wright: I did have that feeling.
Mr. Smith: Rick, let me ask you about technology since Thoreau was invoked and the high-tech nature of this hotel was invoked. You have been making films now for 25 years, more or less, and obviously in our lifetimes and in that 25 years we’ve had change and then more change and then more change to the point now that rather than running technology, technology runs many of us. Many of our professional lives are so much determined by technology. How has your life and your ability to express your creative impulses changed by technology, for good and for ill?
Mr. Linklater: Well, I think it’s overall positive, I mean film is, by definition, a technological medium, It came into existence in 1895; it’s a part of the Industrial Age, so technology defines this medium more than other art forms. For all its current digital bells and whistles, it’s still fundamentally a 19th century medium, with film going through a camera, or a projector. That’s slowly changing in distribution with digital projection, but technology has defined post-production for generations. I see technology as a tool to assist us in our communication. If what we’re trying to do here is communicate, then it’s simply another tool to help improve our storytelling and help us share our passions. I think that’s the upside of technology.
On this recent film I was able to recreate 1937 New York, mostly in London and the Isle of Man, via green screens and architectural CGI work, so I see that as a positive thing that’s there to assist me in trying to tell a story. And it’s democratized the medium itself in that a filmmaker starting out has a much easier time of it. It used to be a very expensive, prohibitive medium. When I was starting out it was just a dream that everyone should be able to make a film like everyone should be able to write a novel or write a play or paint a painting, but there was this prohibition just from a sheer resource perspective. You needed a lot of money, and because of the technology that number has dropped significantly. Almost anyone can make a movie now in that there’s so much less preventing you. I’m not saying everyone should make a movie.
Mr. Smith: Well, I wonder about that. Is the democratizing of film-making a consequence of technology necessarily all good? Probably not.
Mr. Linklater: Well, I think if you’re running a film festival and you used to get 200 submissions and now you get 8,000, that’s probably not good; it’s a lot more work. But I think it’s good for us as a community, as people trying to communicate, as potential artists; it’s just good to find out, I think, if film is your medium. In other generations it was sort of an upper class thing; most movies were made by people who had some kind of advantage, so I’m glad that’s gone away. I think people can now discover if it’s their medium more quickly. As an industry, I don’t know. It’s hard to get any of that work seen or to share that work with a larger audience.
Mr. Smith: In fact, on this new film, there’s a little back story. This was a film that after the number of films you’ve made and the celebrity you’ve enjoyed, you essentially had to self-finance the creation of this film because the economics of the film business have really turned on their head.
Mr. Linklater: Yes, but I think that’s more financial and not technological in nature. Our particular industry was going through kind of an upheaval, particularly the middle ground that I usually occupy, the indie world, the specialized releases, but I think it’s the bigger economy as well as our own specific film economy. I don’t think that technology has much to do with the fact that the big studios’ films have gotten so expensive and technologically advanced, so roller-coaster-ride, these 150-plus million dollar films are the norm now. I remember when my first movie, Slacker, came out, it shared the opening weekend with the first $100 million film, Terminator II.
Mr. Smith: Slacker cost by comparison?
Mr. Linklater: It was about $23,000. That was sort of the story on July 4 weekend ’91; you could make 4,000 movies for that. I was like, “Who would want 4,000 of these movies?” I liked Terminator II. They cost the same at the box office.
Mr. Smith: Pay eight bucks to see yours; pay eight bucks to see theirs.
Mr. Linklater: Exactly. If you think about that, that’s pretty remarkable. But that same filmmaker has a film coming out next week that cost $350 million.
Mr. Smith: And Me and Orson Welles cost?
Mr. Linklater: Fifteen, sixteen, which was a lot.
Mr. Smith: The rates have gone up, but still proportionately.
Mr. Linklater: And you know what? The thing is if you were investing in the film industry, the $350 million film is a much more sure investment than my $15 million film because that has all the marketing behind it and it’s a much easier film to sell. It feels like we’re in the golden age of studio marketing. They’ve figured it out, and those films are getting bigger and bigger, and the audience, the mentality, is getting younger and younger. There are full-blown kid’s films, and then there are the more mature films, which used to be adult, but are now pitched to about a 13-year-old mentality.
Mr. Smith: It’s who the audience is.
Mr. Linklater: And Hollywood will deliver the product until it is compelled by the numbers not to.
Mr. Smith: Naomi, I wanted to ask you about technology and also the economics and marketing of poetry, which I suspect is a different question than film-making.
Ms. Nye: Technologically, I think it’s incredible that a high school student in Arlington, Texas, can post a poem one night on a website of teen poetry and the next morning come to class and say she had 53 responses and take that for granted. Many published writers have never had 53 responses to an entire book! Or that a student in a small town could read a lot of Iranian poetry in translation overnight and come in comparing the American and British poetry they’ve been reading to Iranian poetry that connects to up-to-the-minute current events study. That’s an incredible gift that technology has given the world of poetry.
This morning I was at the Badgerdog event here in Austin—Youth Voices in Ink of Fall 2009. There were 339 Austin students participating in this. I’ve seen their anthologies over the years. Thanks to technology they’re getting more beautiful, more cleanly presented, and it’s easier to make more copies for more students. That’s all very positive. At the same time, in so many classrooms I visit, I’d like to encourage an ongoing relationship with hand tools—pencils and pens. Students do seem interested when I tell them that every day I still write by hand. Why is it important? We need hand skills. Penmanship. We need a certain slowness of physical relationship to the page.
So both things are good. Technology helps us all with everything and certainly helps young people with writing and revision. At the same time, we shouldn’t give up physical relationships with the tools that got us all started.
Mr. Smith: Larry, you want to say something on this question of technology?
Mr. Wright: At the same time that technology is so wonderful, it’s also destroying a lot of the income for artists everywhere. Everything that’s digitalized is being completely undermined, and the movie business, the music business…
Mr. Smith: I’m going to decline to say anything about the negative aspects of digital journalism.
Mr. Wright: Evan is going to create the new model for us. I always felt that I was secure because I was diversified. I write movies; I write plays; I write books; I write magazine articles. They all crashed at the same moment, but the whole reason for the crash, except in theater—which is the one place where you can only get the authentic experience right there at that moment—the digitalization of all those forms of art. We just haven’t figured out how artists can recoup, and I think it’s a great challenge. I love what you can do with technology, but the question remains, how can you make a living?
Mr. Smith: Rick, in the case of pirating of films, how can you stop others from profiting off of your work?
Mr. Linklater: Yes, that’s true, I just found out a film that I did a few years ago, A Scanner Darkly, a science fiction story by Philip K. Dick, has been downloaded over a million times free on Bit Torrent.
Mr. Smith: And you’re enjoying no proceeds from any of that activity and interest in your film.
Mr. Linklater: Oh, of course not. Part of me goes, “Well, that’s cool, there’s a million geeks out there watching this,” but then on the other hand, “Well, my producers still don’t consider that movie profitable I believe.” So Larry’s right; everything is kind of free, I think music is certainly that. If there was a musician up here, they would be more vocal than we are.
Mr. Smith: Well, they’d be complaining about the exact problem you’re describing: the appropriation of their work for free.
Mr. Linklater: Right. And then you have an audience that just thinks all music should be free. If all movies are free, and poetry is free, everything is free, that sounds great but it undercuts pretty directly the structure that could possibly produce it in the first place.
Mr. Smith: Larry, let me ask you this question which is to Rick’s point earlier about the democratization of the art form in which you work. We hear a lot about citizen journalism these days. I personally think about that as walking into a restaurant and having somebody off the street cook my dinner; I want an expert, not an amateur. I wonder whether there has been too much democratization of the art of expression as a result of technology and the opportunity to get anybody who wants to get in the game, in the game. Do you see that as a threat to your own art?
Mr. Wright: I don’t see it as a threat. I like the idea of the blogosphere and I like the fact that anybody can add their thoughts. I like the fact that an event happens in Lithuania and suddenly—let’s say in Chechnya, even, a very controlled environment—people report, “I saw this and I’ve got pictures on my phone!” Suddenly the world is much more transparent thanks to that.
Mr. Smith: The Iranian election, for instance. The reporting on it was, of course, transformed by social media.
Mr. Wright: A perfect example. So I’m in favor of that. I think it adds to the conversation. But the problem is you don’t know where this information is coming from. It hasn’t been vetted, there’s no editor, and also, for the most part, the blogosphere is opinion. Having lived a lot in the Arab world, when I finally got to Saudi Arabia, they wouldn’t let me in as a journalist so I had to take a job. I got a job mentoring these young reporters in bin Laden’s hometown in Jeddah so I got to be very familiar with the Arab press. You can say whatever you want as long as you don’t talk about the royal family, but facts are a different matter; facts are carefully controlled. And that’s very much like the blogosphere. The blogosphere and the Arab press have a lot in common and I don’t think it’s anything to emulate.
You need to still have the vigorous press where the reporters are being paid; they go out; they go to the school boards. And nobody is paying bloggers to go sit; Time Warner is not. When Google takes over—and I love Google—they’re not going to have people reporting on the city council. It’s going to be reporters who are paid to do that and then editors who are helping to guide them and get their facts straight and make sure they talk to everybody, and somebody who is responsible at the end of the line for what they say. That’s what the press is; that’s not the blogosphere.
Mr. Smith: Naomi, you came today prepared to talk about, and I’m eager for you to talk about, your work with kids. In fact, each of you has, in the course of your work, mentored the next generation of practitioners of your particular form. So Naomi, let me ask you to talk about the work you’re doing with students a little bit. Rick, I’m going to ask you to talk about the Film Society and the work you do and then Larry, the work you’ve done with young reporters. And then we’re going to have one little special treat before we open it up for questions.
Ms. Nye: Thank you, Evan. You’re a wonderful moderator, by the way. You’re excellent. Well, I wanted to say that I’ve never been any place in all these years where poetry didn’t live, and that’s been a beautiful surprise to me. The most remote communities, places where other people might say, “Oh, I don’t think you’re going to find any poets there”—I’ve never found that place. There have been poets popping up literally out of the woodwork every place I have been privileged to work. In my early years working in Texas through the Texas Commission on the Arts, in many rural communities, I used to stay with families, often on ranches, which would add to the amount of material I was able to discover by being with them. In fact, I was once given a horse to ride to school. I said, “But I don’t ride horses and I don’t know where the school is.” And the family said, “The horse knows.” That was a poem.
I so much appreciated what Gigi was saying in the last session about thinking: the importance of arts education, how desperately we need it in schools. I think there’s even more urgency now among students to discover and share their own voices than there was 35 years ago when I started working with them. They have seen spent so much time preparing for these standardized tests. By the way, I’ve never yet met one kid or teacher who likes standardized tests in any state or who thinks they’re really helping anything.
Anyway, as an arts educator, a challenge is, how can I keep encouraging students to discover their voices no matter what the official measurable curriculum is at that moment in their class? I’ve gotten fond of the phrase “sneak it in.” You don’t have to have hours to work on your creative writing, even seven minutes a day could help you have a deeper relationship to your own writing and thinking. In the fast-paced world we live in, that goes for a lot of adults as well. Sneak it into your days no matter how much else is going on.
I was hiking with my husband and son some years ago. We were down at the Pecos River on Highway 90 between San Antonio and Big Bend where the eagles nest by the water. We’d been out of our car maybe 20 minutes watching some eagles. By the time we got back to our car up on the road, a border drug agent was standing there with his weapon drawn and a dog. He shouted at us, “Put your hands up!” I said, “Are you joking? Look at us; we’re a family.” And he said, “No, put your hands up! Get over here and take every single thing out of this car.” We were stunned. Because we were going camping in Big Bend, the car was very full, not a car you really want to unpack before you have to. But we started slowly unpacking it and I noticed he was staring at me with a strange expression. All of a sudden he said, “Is there any chance you ever came to the Comstock High School Library to talk about poetry, like around 24 years ago?” And I said, “Yes, there is.” He said, “You liked my poems!” And I said, “No, I loved your poems.” And he said, “You can put everything back in your car.”
Mr. Smith: That’s great. Difficult to follow that, but, Rick, one thing we did not mention in the intro I offered for you is that you founded and continue to serve as artistic director of the Austin Film Society. You founded it in 1986, I believe.
Mr. Linklater: 1985.
Mr. Smith: This organization’s purpose has been to support film and film-making. As we like to say on the board of the Film Society, we are viewing and doing: we have the opportunity to watch great films and to help emerging film-makers perfect and get out into the world their own art. Talk a little bit about the work you’ve done with emerging filmmakers because, indeed, as we look to the next generation of people who practice your art and craft, it’s important to understand how they’re getting their work out in the world.
Mr. Linklater: In addition to, I think, helping film-makers and young film-makers, I think what I’m most proud of in the Film Society is the culture we’ve cultivated: that we see film as art; it’s worthwhile, and you’re supposed to watch movies in theaters as a communal experience. We’ve been talking a lot about the blogosphere and technology and all that, and I think that’s kind of a problem, really, in relation to a public art form like cinema. If you’re watching feature-length films exclusively on your computer or your iPhone, it’s a vote against community. We all, of course, watch films at home, but what can’t be lost is the notion that the ideal environment is on a large screen with other people around. As open and democratic as it is, the computer is also alienating against community when it comes to many traditional art forms.
And it’s like Naomi was saying about writing. I think anything that promotes keeping it very physical, very present, is a good thing. Since Thoreau is with us today, I think a lot about him and am compelled to turn it all off and become unwired and offline. Where do your good ideas come from? It usually comes from out of a vacuum, not over-stimulation. I get mine from an empty kind of clarity that isn’t over-stimulated; it’s under-stimulated. It’s searching and trying to be aware; it can differentiate a good idea from a bad one.
But the Film Society is really a cultural organization first. And you have to just appreciate art—that’s the first thing, accept it as an art form, as a means of communication, as the wonderful medium that it is. It’s the same with every art form, and it’s not the means to an end, I tell most people you probably won’t make much of a living at this—the odds are not great. The Film Society was started just to see movies; it was just a part of me as an aspiring writer-director. My roommates at the time really just loved movies and wanted to see more of them. We felt Austin was a town that kind of shared that passion. Just at the moment film societies around the country and university film societies were dying, we somehow took off.
Mr. Smith: To this point, how much money has the Film Society given to emerging film-makers to support their own art of expression?
Mr. Linklater: When the NEA—-the program that had given me a grant back in 1989—closed down its regional grant program about 15 years ago, we started our own grant program to fill that void. Last year we gave out our one millionth dollar to Texas film-makers.
Mr. Smith: Isn’t that great?
Mr. Linklater: I second your funding for the arts. I have friends who are schoolteachers; I have a lot of kids in my world, and yes, testing, you can’t really test for the arts. It’s not so quantifiable, so we all have strong opinions about that. So does that mean it’s not meaningful? If you can’t test for it, it’s not as important, and my fear, my paranoia, is we’re turning out generations of technologically proficient workers who don’t really see the arts as important in their lives. It’s like there’s something out there trying to kill that spirit, so it’d be great if that emphasis could shift.
Mr. Smith: Well, that’s a great answer, actually. Speaking of not making very much money, what do you tell young aspiring journalists these days for which the prospect of leaving school and entering the workforce is dim indeed, Larry?
Mr. Wright: Well, first of all, I want to say something about Rick’s enterprise, and to some extent yours. I was thinking while we were talking, why am I here; why are you here; why is Steve Harrigan here? Well, we all came because of Texas Monthly. It was a magazine that became a cultural node, and so many writers came not just from Texas, but from outside of the state and they still live here and they still enrich the state because of this one little institution that has paid all these amazing cultural dividends since then. And then you think about Austin being the Live Music Capital and all that sort of thing; it all goes back to Clifford Antone coming to town and starting a nightclub and letting blues musicians spend the night and it became a place to come. And other people started opening up clubs and musicians started going and out of that you had a cultural node that a whole culture came out of.
And I think what Rick is doing with the Film Society now, you can look at how potent the Austin film-making community has become in the last decade. It’s really wonderful to see all the film and how much artistic creation is coming out of that. I’m hopeful that the Texas Tribune will become that similar kind of node where you’ll figure out a way of creating a nexus for other writers and for Texans to start understanding their political culture better, but it takes that singular individual, I think, who wants to follow a passion and other people come.
In many ways, those few cultural nodes have come to define our city, and I think it’s also responsible for the venture capital and everything that comes streaming into the city. People recognize it as an artistic city, but if you abstract it back to its origins, it’s just a few people with singular visions who have been able to steer the culture in their direction.
As for journalists, it’s really difficult when I talk to young journalists now because they’re entering a profession where many more people are leaving it than are entering it and swimming upstream; the tide is coming against them. Oddly enough, a lot of journalism schools are getting more applicants than they did in the past. I think to some extent that might be explained by reporters who have lost their jobs and are going back to graduate schools and so on. But for the most part, it’s very difficult for me to encourage young reporters at a time when the major metropolitan dailies are dying or becoming, like we were saying about the Dallas Morning News where they’ve turned over some of their departments to the ad department to run, corrupted in spirit because they’re so broken that they don’t know anymore how to make a way in the world.
And I worry about that a lot because these are the roots of journalism. People often say they get their news on the internet, but they don’t give much thought to where that news originates, and most of the real news comes from newspapers or wire services and those are the roots that are being pulled up. What you’ll get on the internet is more blog, more opinion. The real news will disappear and I’m very concerned about it.
Mr. Smith: Well, it’s a sad note to end our portion of the conversation on. We’re going to open it up for questions in just a second, but we have a treat. As I said, Rick’s magnificent new film is open in New York and Los Angeles, but will not yet be open in Texas for a little while. We’ll let you see about five or six minutes of this wonderful film, Me and Orson Welles, that Rick has loosed onto the world, and then we’ll come back and we’ll open the program up for questions from the audience. [Whereupon, the film clip was shown.]
One of the great quirks of this film that you’ll discover, if you see the full film, is the actor who plays Orson Welles, named Christian McKay, has not done a film before. Rick, is that true?
Mr. Linklater: Yes, it’s his first film.
Mr. Smith: His first film. One of the great things about the art of expression is that it gives rise to the art of discovery, and in the case of this actor, he’s quite remarkable. Let’s open up. Mike informs me that we have ten minutes for questions with the audience, and so we have mikes going around, and let’s go there and then let’s go over here. Is that Chase? How are you, Chase?
Audience: Good to see you, Evan. A question for the two panelists who are film-makers or have done film: with the exception of specialty films like we’ve just seen, it’s my impression that Hollywood, for the most part, is creative only in technology; that the plots and characters are very formulaic, very predictable. I wonder to the degree this is true and to the degree that the creative impulse is deadened by the force of studios or expectations in Hollywood that stories have to be told a particular way.
Mr. Linklater: I don’t know, I mean, it’s always felt that way on the ground. If you read reviews from the late ‘60s or ‘70s, these periods that seem like golden ages in retrospect, at the time it’s always been how the commerciality has won; that there’s nothing but crap being made; the bean-counters are running the studio system. But I never really rag on Hollywood too much just because at the end of each year, somehow or other, there’s 20 or so films that you really like, that were totally worth it, that were made somewhere near that system.
But yes, there’s bigger, better technology, and this collision of art and money kind of makes it a fascinating industry, I think. People are interested in it because it’s such a big clash.
Do you have anything to add to that, Larry? I don’t know if I’m answering your question. It’s always a struggle, but I’m just saying it’s definitely worse now but it’s always been bad.
Mr. Wright: I’m doing a lot more theater because it’s easier to tell some stories in that way than in movies, but the only script I’m working on now is for Ridley Scott and it’s exactly one of those kinds of movies, so I’m very hopeful.
Audience: My name is Dr. Shine and I would like to thank you very much for a terrific panel. In your various genres and as you do your work, to what extent is either meaning or message part of your thought process in terms of the creative act?
Ms. Nye: I would say meaning and message are always present, an awareness of them, a consideration of them. Maybe in the initial writing, a less conscious thought process about them, but the minute you step back and start revising your work or become editor for your own work, you think—how clear is the meaning; is it muddled? I would say I think more about meaning than message, but I am curious how something might move someone, how rhythm might invite them in, and all the places they might go. Of course, the message is always open to interpretation, and as poets, we’re hopeful there might sometimes be more than one, a variety of interpretations.
Mr. Wright: When you asked that question, I was thinking about when I was working on my Looming Tower book and it took nearly five years and I was away from home a lot of that time and I missed a lot of my family and birthdays and stuff like that. While I was in Pakistan, a friend of mine died and I couldn’t go to his funeral. I was feeling really lonely and sad. There was a hotel that had a nice swimming pool and one night I went out and got into the pool. I started thinking maybe I should try religion again. I was thinking what do I do in a moment like this? I was in that dark water in that lonely spot, I had this kind of mantra burst in my mind that says your job is not to find meaning; it’s to create it. And I kind of think that’s what art is. You don’t know what it means but it means something if it holds together and it tells a story that people relate to.
Mr. Linklater: Yes, meaning and message… I’m trying to communicate in whatever way possible, in as clear a way as possible, the same mystery or intrigue that I feel. I think we would all share this. What compels us toward a subject is usually what you’re trying to convey specifically to your audience and all that entails, whatever complexity or depth or humor. Whatever that is, I think you’re trying to do it in a direct way.
Audience: My name is Michael White. I’m a member of the society and I teach here at the University of Texas. I teach ancient literature, and specifically ancient religious literature, and I’ve come to believe very firmly that it’s a lot about storytelling and drama more than anything else, at least that’s the way the message and so on is delivered. And it’s a question largely directed at Rick, but I hope the others can respond as well, and it’s how we see the products that you make; they’re wonderful. We see them as end products and that’s the real art, but I firmly believe that a lot of the creativity and the expression is the behind-the-scenes work of putting it together. And just as an example: I have a suspicion, although you’ll tell me if I’m correct or not, that when to cut away in the taxi scene, was that something you thought about several different times? The reading of the Ambersons passage before you cut it away until you took it up again in the scene? My point is that how and where we edit these works over time and the creative process of editing and re-editing, which is something we can actually think about in literature, is really one of the more interesting creative processes and outcomes. I’d like to hear more about that part of it since we’ve been hearing more about the final product.
Mr. Linklater: To me it’s all process. The final product is what it is, but I’m very process-oriented. You kind of have to be, I think, in most art forms. There’s certainly writing, but film-making for sure, I mean, if your middle name isn’t Delayed Gratification, you shouldn’t be involved because it’s a long slog, but you have to love every bit of it.
So you mentioned that one scene, yes, I shot more in the car of him. He reads the next passage. But then I was in the editing room thinking, “Okay, well, we don’t need to repeat all of it; by this point the audience will know that he’s quoting what he just read, and so when he gets to a passage we didn’t hear in the ambulance, they will know that that’s just the next part of the Magnificent Ambersons quotation.” I didn’t totally know where that point was until editing, but I knew it was going to be in there somewhere. And near the end of the movie we show the play itself, Welles’ famous Julius Caesar from 1937, this anti-fascist interpretation of Caesar. We filmed a lot of the play, but I wasn’t exactly sure how much we would need for the final version. So it’s just following your instincts. I feel very alive in the day-to-day process, I love it all; it’s all equally important too. Where I feel completely disconnected is about this time of the process when it’s being released into the world. If I could just make movies and they never come out, that would be okay with me.
I used to be a baseball player and I loved hitting baseballs. I loved running around the outfield grass, throwing, catching and if I could just practice and do that and never play a game that would probably have been okay, too. I just sort of love the game, but the competition part was more fraught. Unfortunately the arts, which in their creation are about as far from competitive as you can get, often get turned into a horse race if it’s at all humanly possible. At some point in this last generation the media adopted opening weekend box office results, as an official story, a seemingly quantifiable subject that seemed like a competition that was worth making a story out of. Everybody now rallies around the results but that particular playing field is completely uneven of course, with vastly different advertising budgets and number of screens. It would never fly as an agreed upon competition, but there it is, looming in our money-obsessed culture. Even when your film is number one at the box office, which has happened to me once, it feels more like you’ve found yourself in the World Wrestling Federation than the NFL.
Mr. Smith: We are out of time on this program, which I must say, as loosey-goosey as it may have seemed, I thought came together magnificently. I think our panelists were wonderful. Larry Wright, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Rick Linklater, thank you very much.