An Oral History of “Dazed and Confused”

“We get older, they stay the same age.”

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Dazed and Confused

Twenty years ago the young Texan writer-director Richard Linklater, his loyal crew, and a dozen future stars pulled off a truly rare feat: They made a film about the American ‘70s experience, complete with shag wigs and arena rock (but not the Zeppelin tune of the title), that somehow delighted and spoke to a generation of ‘90s kids and still finds new fans each year. A box office bust in its day, Dazed and Confused is now a Criterion-approved modern classic that rewards watching again and again. It’s also one of the most quoted films ever. What was the secret? Wit? Sure. Will? Given indie Linklater’s struggle with the perplexed major studio, absolutely. Weed? Yes. Mostly the weed. You may not want to go with us now to the fall of 1993 (or, if you prefer, the spring of 1976) for the ballad of Pink, Jodi, Mitch, Slater, and Wooderson, as told exclusively to Maxim… but it’d be a lot cooler if you did.

Following the critical success of Slacker, the surprise hit of the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, major Hollywood studios began to take notice of 30-year-old Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater.

Richard Linklater(writer, director, co-producer): I was doing interviews about Slacker, and the last question was always, “What do you want to do next?” And in one interview, I said, “I want to make this teenage rock’n’roll spree.” I knew I wanted the story to take place on one day in the spring of 1976, but at one point it was much more experimental. The whole movie took place in a car with the characters driving around listening to ZZ Top.

Lee Daniel (director of photography): It would have been two shots—one of a guy putting in an eight-track of ZZ Top’s Fandango! and one of two guys driving around talking. The film would be the length of the actual album, and you’d hear each track in the background as a source.

Sean Daniel(co-producer): I was the executive in charge of Animal House,Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and TheBreakfast Club. And American Graffiti—what can I say? It’s a movie that inspired me to get into this.

Legendary casting director Don Phillips, who had discovered Sean Penn in 1982 while casting Fast Times at Ridgemont High, was brought on to repeat the feat.

Don Phillips (casting director): Every actor in town wanted to be in it. We wanted Claire Danes for the girl, but she was too young. She couldn’t leave school.  

Joey Lauren Adams(cast member, Simone Kerr): There was good buzz around it—everyone knew Rick and that it was his first studio film. Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau were there. They knew it was going to be a breakout and that they’d better do something on their own, which was part of their inspiration to do Swingers.

Don Phillips: Ashley Judd never got up to bat. That might have been a mistake. Vince Vaughn [who read for the part that went to Ben Affleck] came up to me a couple of years ago and said, “Hey, Don, that was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I wasn’t ready.” It was between Ben and Vince. 

The Los Angeles–based actors were spontaneously informed of their casting during an extended “pizza party.” Some were happy; others were out of luck.

Marissa Ribisi(cast member, Cynthia Dunn): The pizza party was this big day. All the other Cynthias [who didn’t get the part] were tall and had dark hair. And there was me with red curly hair, and I was thinking, Oh, I’m not getting this.

Joey Lauren Adams: You’d have to make small talk with your competition. The last thing you want is to pretend to have fun at a pizza party.

With New York City actors like Parker Posey cast, Phillips and Linklater combed Austin, where they found the youngest stars, Christin Hinojosa and Wiley Wiggins, as well as a future Oscar winner.

Don Phillips: We met Renée Zell­weger, and we said, “Wow, what a talent. Too bad we’ve already cast the film.” She wanted to be in it so badly. You hardly notice her in the movie.

Marissa Ribisi: I was really young, too. My boyfriend at the time—Jason Lee—was my legal guardian. He wasn’t an actor yet. He was a pro skateboarder.

Adam Goldberg(cast member, Mike Newhouse): Jason was there the whole time. A bunch of us tried to convince him he should act, which I would later regret, because he’d get roles I was up for.

Frank Kozik(artist, promotional poster): These people [in the film] look a lot better than people did back in the ’70s. They weren’t quite that pretty.

The various actors convened via an almost doomed, lightning-plagued flight that might have been seen as a bad omen.

Michelle Burke(cast member, Jodi Kramer): Seriously, we all almost died.

Adam Goldberg: The cast was holding one another’s hands. There was so much lightning that, by the time we landed, we all felt very close already.

Rory Cochrane(cast member, Ron Slater): Once we got to Austin, people started getting cliquey.

Sasha Jenson(cast member, Don Dawson): It definitely got a little tribal.

Jason London(cast member, Randall “Pink” Floyd): The guys all got along, but with the girls there was some infighting.

Sasha Jenson: But once we all found our places, there wasn’t any stepping on toes. There was a lot more improv. Rick said, “Just be teenagers. Be what you are.”

Joey Lauren Adams: He said, “If you don’t like your character, change it. Just know it when you get to Austin.”

Jim Jacks(co-producer): Rick believes in a lot of improvisation. He would drive me crazy—we wouldn’t have a shot because he was doing nothing but rehearsing. Rick and I had arguments.

Richard Linklater: I gave each character mixes. Music. I’d say, “You’d like Joni Mitchell. You’d like Black Sabbath.”

Jason London: He said, “Don’t listen to anything but this music.” We had to morph into living as if we were in ’76.

Adam Goldberg: My mix tapes? I always took umbrage with them. I was a gigantic Neil Young fan at the time, and I was getting ELO and Foghat?

Wiley Wiggins(cast member, Mitch Kramer): Honestly, Austin was still fairly stuck in 1976 in the early ’90s.

The entire cast moved into the local Radisson and promptly turned it into a “pad.”

Sasha Jenson: Jason’s room—I’m not gonna call it a drug den, but it was a “’70s den” already. Rory was in there with his hat on, already in character. The Who was blasting out of his sound system.

Michelle Burke: We all decorated our rooms and moved our beds around, hung tapestries, and burned incense.

Rory Cochrane: We were like kids in a candy store. Actors were hooking up with each other and dating.

Joey Lauren Adams: They hated us at that hotel.

As far as actual pot smoking went, however, Linklater laid down the law.

Richard Linklater: People are surprised how militant I am about that kind of work ethic. I set a tone: “There’s going to be no alcohol or drugs. This is set in the ’70s, but it ain’t gonna be a ’70s movie where they’re flying in the cocaine.”

Wiley Wiggins: Rick seemed really concerned about messing up the younger kids’ lives by putting us in the movie.

One night while sitting in the hotel bar, Phillips was approached by a 23-year-old University of Texas film student. Hollywood history was about to be made.

Matthew McConaughey (cast member, David Wooderson): Had I not gone out that night and met Don? Not sure what I’d be doing today, but I’d still be in the storytelling business at some level.

Don Phillips: I come home to the hotel one night and go to the bar, and this handsome dude comes in with a beautiful blonde. The bartender says to him, “See that guy down there? That’s Don Phillips. He cast Sean Penn in Fast Times.” And Matthew goes, “I’m gonna go down and talk to this guy.” Matthew comes and has a vodka with me. We get louder as the night goes on, and midway through the evening he says to his girlfriend, “Look, I’m gonna stay here and talk to Don. Here’s some money for a taxi.”

Like Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider before or Jack Black in High Fidelity after, McConaughey’s drawling, horny David Wooderson—with his mustache and Ted Nugent T-shirt—steals the film with, seemingly, a minimum of effort (all right, all right, all right).

Don Phillips: Rick didn’t like him at first, because he was too handsome.

Richard Linklater: Matthew said, “I ain’t this guy, but I know this guy.”

Jim Jacks: It was clear in the shooting that there was something very likable about him on-screen.

Jason London: He came in so locked and loaded. You met this guy who seemed kind of normal, and we started to rehearse and his demeanor slumps, his eyes droop—he got that stoned smile on his face and delivered that “heyyyy” voice. We were just in heaven.

Frank Kozik: The Wooderson guy? I knew those dudes. They were the weird local-yokel hero dudes. My friend Buddy spent two years still hanging out at his high school after he graduated.

Matthew McConaughey: Society says, “You’re too old, Wooderson. You’re a has-been; you gotta get on with your life.” But Wooderson knows who he is, what he wants, and is a very simple and content man. I always saw him as right on time, in his glory days—in his mind, and that’s all that matters.

Linklater, writing, improvising, and adapting on the spot, gave Wooderson more and more to do as the shoot went on.

Richard Linklater: There was another actor [Shawn Andrews] who was kind of the oppo­site [of McConaughey]. He wasn’t really getting along with everybody. I could tell the actors weren’t responding to him.

Don Phillips: He was an asshole. What happened was, Matthew was in the ensemble, so he was around, and Rick just started giving him more lines.

Jason London: Shawn just didn’t want to interact with really anyone except Milla Jovovich.

Joey Lauren Adams: Shawn and Milla had started dating, and I think they were just shy. But they didn’t seem to want to hang out with us.

Jason London: He really hurt himself, and it translated into losing a good amount of screen time and allowing McConaughey to come in and become a star.

Richard Linklater: I’m just loose enough to say, “Maybe it’s Wooderson who gets to go to the party at the Moon Tower.”

Sandra Adair(editor): We minimized some of the characters, and some of the other characters expanded because they were so compelling. Matthew—the first time we saw dailies with him, everybody was like, “Oh, my God, who is that?”

He also utters the single most quotable line in a film full of quotable lines.

Matthew McConaughey: I always saw Wooderson as an American classic. Soon as I read his response, “That’s what I love about high school girls: I get older, they stay the same age,” I flew with him. I said to myself, Anyone who believes in that has massaged a massive perception into a personal truth, without attitude or a need to defend. That is a classic character.

The shoot was grueling, which had an effect on the young cast and crew.

Adam Goldberg: We’d stay up all night drinking, and then at 9 a.m. we’d go to the shooting range. The whole thing was a complete madhouse.

Marissa Ribisi: Or we’d come home at 6 a.m., have dinner, go to the bar, because it opened at 7 a.m., go to bed at noon, then wake up at 8 p.m., as the sun was setting.

Sasha Jenson: Sometimes after we’d shoot all night, Matthew would take us inner-tubing on the river. Everyone would go to the hotel, take a shower, and shoot all night again.

If there’s a recurring theme or story line in Dazed and Confused beyond “hanging out,” it’s the time-honored ritual of high school hazing.

Joey Lauren Adams: I went to the Uni­versity of Arkansas for a semester, and I remember walking by some sorority sister who was saying [to a pledge], “Fry like bacon, you freshman piggie!”

Richard Linklater: At my school the guys got paddled and the girls were treated like hot dogs and had stuff dumped on them. It’s one of those things that you live through, and then later you go, “What the fuck was that?”

Wiley Wiggins: The movie’s institutionalized bullying seems so strange now.

Two future stars, Ben Affleck and Parker Posey, were given the task of embodying the most brutal bullies in town.

Ben Affleck(cast member, Fred O’Bannion): I was definitely the most unappealing character in a movie full of appealing people.*

Christin Hinojosa: Ben and Parker were among the nicest people on the set.

Richard Linklater: That’s why you cast likable actors. Ben was smart and full of life. You don’t cast the unappealing person; you cast the appealing person.

All the while Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, and Ribisi comment on the absurdity of these institutions and on the ’70s themselves.

Richard Linklater: I remember in the ’70s I couldn’t wait for the ’80s. But every generation sucks in a different way when you’re a kid. Dazed takes place literally weeks before punk happens. I was going to put a Ramones song over the closing credits—like, “Oh, that’s the future.”

Adam Goldberg: [Our characters] would definitely be into Elvis Costello and the Jam in a few months.

Others are clearly not giving up their “classic” rock trappings anytime soon.

Jason London: The last scene we shot is the last scene in the movie. We were on a pull trailer beyond the cameras, and I’ll be damned if Rory Cochrane didn’t pull out a real fatty and say, “Fuck it, man, it’s the last scene of the movie!”

Now in the realm of the studio system, postproduction was something of an ordeal for the young director.

Richard Linklater: I sat through screenings and thought, This audience loves this movie. Then the test numbers would come in pretty low. “How did you like the ending?” “What ending? There ain’t no ending.”

Sean Daniel: I will not forget that night. I can remember when the audience saw Animal House, and everyone went crazy. Dazed is different; it ends on this beautiful, enigmatic note. It doesn’t end with some happy big laugh. It didn’t make for a great preview.

Richard Linklater: I’d hear from the studio, “We don’t want this to be an ‘art film.’ ” I said, “Hey, it ain’t no art film. This is kids partying. And there’s a pretty good history of these films making money.” It was a struggle.

The film was released on September 24, 1993, without much fanfare. The soundtrack proved the bigger smash, selling two million copies. There were, however, pockets of the country where the film slowly built a following. 

Sean Daniel: Critics knew it was special. We knew it was special. The audiences we could get knew it was special.

Richard Linklater: It played for more than a year in numerous towns that had midnight screenings. People would sneak joints into the theater and toke up. I’ve never seen the film high, so I don’t know if it’s different.

Meanwhile McConaughey uprooted and moved out to Los Angeles. 

Adam Goldberg: When I first saw him [on set], I was like, “Who is this guy? Where is this guy coming from?” But within a few months we were all hanging out at his pad in Malibu, and I was like, “OK, I get it now. He’s a movie star.”

Don Phillips: Matthew moved in with me. I told him, “Look, when you finish school, come out to Malibu and we’ll get you situated, because this is a tough town.”

Christin Hinojosa: Don threw all the right parties, and Matthew was there every step of the way. That was very smart.

Affleck, like McConaughey, went on to Hollywood stardom. And a decade later Linklater would get his studio block­buster with The School of Rock. But even the biggest among the ensemble keep a special place for Dazed.

Joey Lauren Adams: It was such a different time in Hollywood. First off, Universal would never do that movie today, and if they did, they would not cast all unknowns. It would be CW actors.

Adam Goldberg: Now there’s literally a generation of people discovering it the way we discovered Animal House.

Jason London: To this very day, I bet there’s not a college dorm in this country that doesn’t have a copy of the movie.

Matthew McConaughey: I’ll be somewhere in public and somebody in passing will casually throw out something like, “Say, man, got a joint?” and I’ll just keep walking and throw back over my shoulder, “Be a lot cooler if you did.” And the two of us will chuckle about our way.

Rory Cochrane: A lot of people want to smoke pot with me, but it’s too strong these days. It freaks me out.

Ben Affleck: It was the thing that enabled me to take the risks I later took. I wasn’t mature enough at the time to appreciate the simple value of the exper­ience. And now, in retrospect, it’s certainly one of the most important experiences of my professional life, if not the most important in a lot of ways.*

In 2003, on the 10th anniversary of the release, much of the cast convened in Austin for a reunion. This year they did the same, with screenings at the Austin Film Society and the New York Film Festival.

Michelle Burke: At the 10-year reunion, I got completely blitzed. I’m not a big drinker, but I was doing shots and I said to Jason, “I’m curious, are you still as good a kisser as you used to be? Why don’t you show me?” Which didn’t go over very well with his wife.

Adam Goldberg: Personally I was dreading the 20th anniversary. I’ve never been a big fan of years passing and mortality, so this is just another signifier as far as I’m concerned.

Jim Jacks: We’re talking about doing a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused now with Rick. It would be the early ’80s and instead of the last day of high school it would be the first weekend of college. Obviously the actors are way too old. They could be the parents of the children now!

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Dazed and Confused

Photos by John Ueland | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013