'Cinema Was the Thing That Saved Me' : Lessons from Self-Taught Filmmaker Richard Linklater

Unlike a lot of other professions, filmmakers aren't required to go to film school and graduate with a degree in filmmaking in order to find work in their field. In fact, many of the greatest filmmakers either dropped out or never attended college/film school, like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, and Stanley Kubrick. Self-taught filmmaker Richard Linklater, in less an interview than a private soliloquy, expresses some very inspirational thoughts not only on filmmaking, but on life as a creative person, being a lifelong learner, and living day-to-day as a person who is obsessed with cinema.

Like an existential youth laying on the hood of his car looking up into a starry night, Linklater touches on different aspects of his filmmaking career -- aspects with which I'm sure we can all relate to, namely, being self-taught.

Being a fellow autodidact, I really respect what Linklater says about his acquisition of knowledge. Technically a college dropout, he became obsessed with cinema, and began watching as many movies and reading as many books as he possibly could in order to learn.

If you're ever really going to write and direct movies and get your own movies made you have to be, you know, a hustler. You got to be, kind of, obsessively motivated. School's not going to teach you that or  give you those skills. You just kind of have to do it.

Check out the interview below:

A point Linklater makes that I found important was that if you want to become a filmmaker, you're just going to have to roll up your sleeves and work really, really, really hard. He says, "The biggest misconception is people see someone's first film and they think that's what they did on their first day as a filmmaker."

He says that there are no overnight successes. There are no idiot savants. Successful filmmakers obsess over cinema, stuff their brains full of information about it, and then live a life making films (and repeating those steps over and over again.)

No one wants to think how they would have to alter their life. By the time, say, Slacker came out, I could honestly say I've put in more time in the last 9 years, or whatever, into cinema than anyone could. 20 hours -- 18 hours a day -- my whole life every day for all those years was 100% devoted to cinema.

When I was 22, on a whim I wrote my first screenplay. I barricaded myself inside my office for 2 1/2 sweltering summer months, watched every movie I got my hands on, camped out in bookstores to read book after book on how to make films, and fell desperately in love with cinema. Shortly thereafter I enrolled in film school.

Cinema lit a fire under my ass to excel creatively, to push myself further to achieve what I wanted, to be okay with not having it all figured out -- quite a different personal modus operandi from a couple of months prior, when I felt as though I had gone everywhere I wanted to go, met all of the people I wanted to meet, learned everything I wanted to know, and reached the place where I wanted to be. Essentially, I was done growing. Like Linklater, cinema saved me.

So, whether you're self-taught or formally-taught, I think one important thing to take away from Linklater's interview is that choosing a life of filmmaking isn't as glamorous as it might seem. It's years of studying hundreds of books and thousands of movies. It's years of making dreck before you make dregs (Okay, that's an exaggeration, but it does take most of us a long time to make anything good.) Filmmaking is never going to be easy, and in the end, we may not end up with the careers we dreamed about having, but like Linklater, we may not even care -- because we love it.

What do you think about Richard Linklater's thoughts? If you're a self-taught filmmaker, what films/books/websites/etc. helped you learn about cinema?

Link: Richard Linklater on being a self-taught filmmaker -- filmschoolthrucommentaries

[via Filmmaker IQ]

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July 27, 2013 at 6:45AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM



July 31, 2013 at 2:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


"Essentially I was some growing“

Lil Renee, I love you to death in an online way not creepy way.I even told koo that your work ethic is dope cos u r out blogging every one on this website. But I gotta caution u on that statement. As artists u never stop growing.u continually evolve. There is no end to learning.that's what they do in the normal world but over here, the day u stop growing is the day u die as an artist

July 27, 2013 at 7:08AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

thadon calico

Thadon, thanks for the constant support. buddo! It really does mean a lot. As far as what I said about being done growing, at that point in my life I was stuck in a comfy rut...no input/output of creativity. I wasn't growing, because I wasn't even planting seeds.
I had a huge existential crisis, wrote a screenplay, and found my purpose and passion. In fact, sometimes I laugh, because my life 4 years ago looks absolutely nothing like what it does now. THAT is the impact cinema has on its junkies, yeah?

July 27, 2013 at 11:33AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

V Renée
Managing Editor

Totally understand renee! U go girl! Cheering for ya

July 27, 2013 at 2:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

thadon calico

analyze a ton of films. watch scenes, and entire films without sound - watch silent films.

read Pudovkin' "Film Technique" and Bela Balazs "Theory of the Film" among many others. And go out and film shit.

That's how you learn and get better.

July 27, 2013 at 8:47AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


That's good advice to some extent, but only if you only want to direct silent movies. Learning and understanding how to direct actors is crucial if your going to make a film with sound. Also, you need to know more then simply go by a camera an shoot. Unless you have a crew of technicians ready to jump at your every command, you need to know a good technical amount of knowledge otherwise it's going to cost you time and money. That's why guys like Kubrick, Polanski and Scott first honing their craft in stills photography were able to jump into filmmaking with greater ease.

Regarding books, if I had to pick two it would be these: " Film Production Techniques" by Bruce Manner and " Directing Actors" by Judith Weston. Mammer's book is the closeting thing to a film-school-in-a-book I've ever found and clearly written to make you understand the nuts and bolts of filmmaking-- his chapters on cinematography and lighting are some of the best I've ever read.

The Weston book gives very clear advice on working and talking with actors. Even the best directors have a hard time communication with their actors and Weston really helps bridge the gap.

July 27, 2013 at 5:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


you missed the point of what I said - I didn't say ALL you should do is watch films without sound. To study films, that's what you inherently should do. Scorsese amongst many other filmmakers approached it the same way. Conscious analysis of films is what gets your brain working, with or without sound.

As far as technical knowledge - that is common sense. If you don't have the common sense to know that, then you're already thinking wrong.

As for directing actors, the best book on the subject is "Stanislavsky Directs"

July 28, 2013 at 1:46AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


food for thought - this is how obsessive you have to be if you are seriously considering being a filmmaker

"I went about it like it was reverse engineering. I knew that I had to go and learn what a movie was, not just my experience of going and watching a movie. So I went and sat in Truffaut’s Day for Night, watched it for three days straight, eight hours at a time and memorized it shot-for-shot. I got past the story, all the original and secondary experience, so I could study what it was that I was really watching. Film is really sort of a chain that’s really linear. Yet when it’s all strung together, it just sort of feels like an experience. It takes quite a while to be able to deconstruct that experience to figure out what you really saw." - John McTiernan

and another one

“What he used to make me memorize was the shots. He’d say, “Ok, learn that movie!” – by learn that movie he meant; you sit down with a bunch of pile of paper and pencils and write – shot for shot – the movie from memory. I learned a bunch of movies that way. I learned 8 1/2 that way which is a very complex film. I learned Clockwork Orange…His notion was that if you really wanna become a filmmaker, you have to get that conversant. You have to be able to carry that much in your mind. If you want to be a world class musician, instrumentalist player of something; piano, or violin or something. You’d have dozens maybe hundreds of scores, you’d have hours of music in your mind! You’d never need to look at the piece of paper, all those hours would be in your mind! And you couldn’t possibly be good enough unless you had done enough work to put all that music in your mind. So that you would just be able to sit down and call up note for note some piece of Mozart or one of the classics of your profession. And his notion with me – because the way he put it he just said “You have eyes, so you better learn to use them”. Instead of thinking of movies as print – which is the way they’re always approached; a pile of paper. It’s always the events and the words that will be spoken. Instead of thinking of movies that way, he made me learn to think of movies as a chain of images where you would fashion the entire chain of images. Just like a music student could hold a concerto in his mind, you should hold the movie in your mind; the images – nevermind the words, the images – “Where is the camera for that shot. What kind of lens was it? What was the camera doing?” – on every shot, on every one of – well most movies have about a thousand shots.” – John McTiernan

July 28, 2013 at 2:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


@filmshoolthrucommentaries: Really interested in the John McTiernan quotes. Could you say where they're from and who the "he" who asked him to memorize the films was? It'd be great to be able to follow up on those.

I've read the Gorchakov book on Stanislavsky (and Gorchakov's shorter one on Vakhtangov) and found them extraordinarily useful.

August 2, 2013 at 9:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Tim Roessler

Well, I have seen time and time again how many people trying to make films don't have any common knowledge that you say they should. As most directors if they can change a magazine or pull focus and they'll have no clue how to do either or even know how to property use a light meter. If you haeethe luxury of people doing that you don't have too much to worry about, but if your on your own the way Linkletter and Kubrick were early in your careers, your going to have gigantic problems if you don't

Watching a film without sound can teach you composition and principles of edition, but it's far more important to understand how to get good performances out if your actors. Even a lousy shot film with shoddy editing wil still shine through with good actors.

Pudovkin's book is extremely out dated to were it's almost alien. So's Stanlawski's, which was written for theater back in the 20's. Neither one really address or any clue of contemporary cinema even 40 years ago.

July 28, 2013 at 9:12AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


actually you're wrong - Pudovkin's and Stanislavsky's books are as relevant as they were back when they were first written. The fact that Stanislavsky's book is written for theater is irrelevant. You should know he is revered throughout the acting profession even to this very day. The book itself is titled "DIRECTS" - so by the fact that the book is "outdated" you're going to disregard a master of his profession? What about Mozart or Beethoven? do you disregard them too because they wrote music a few centuries ago?

Not to mention Kubrick learned how to direct his actors by reading that very book.

"Kubrick also found the ideas of Constantin Stanislavski to be essential to his understanding the basics of directing, and gave himself a crash course to learn his methods. He explained their significance:
'The equivalent to Pudovkin's book on film editing is a book oddly enough about Stanislavsky, not by him: Stanislavsky Directs, by Nikolai M. Gorchakov. It provides a very detailed and practical description of Stanislavsky at work on different productions. I would regard it as an essential book for any intending film director.' "

July 28, 2013 at 10:05AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM



July 27, 2013 at 9:55AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Micah Van Hove

wow. amazing tips

July 27, 2013 at 2:30PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Great stuff. When Spike Lee launched his Kickstarter the other day my first thoughts were of Linklater and his ability to continuously produce & distribute successful features under $9 mil. I think a lot of people, both in & out of Hollywood, can learn a lot from this man.

July 27, 2013 at 3:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Lately, I find uncoupling my insatiable desire to "make it" from my passion for filmmaking has helped me pursue my creative urges without justifying or rationalizing what I'm doing.

Process, not result.

July 27, 2013 at 3:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


All the above is true, but we must not forget to live a little and ensure to have something to say

July 28, 2013 at 7:08PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I've been wanting to listen to this for a few days - and I just did. Linklater's thoughts are the first real slap in the face I've had in a long time. I'm not enjoying my professional life. I've been investing my savings in DSLR gear for the past year without have shot anything [significant]. I have to wake up and just shoot stuff. Experiment.
Thanks, NFS, for posting this.

July 31, 2013 at 2:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


The new documentary by Gabe Klinger on Richard Linklater and James Benning will premiere at Venice!

August 1, 2013 at 2:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Fabian Euresti

This guy is talking my language. I feel exactly the way he does. I was told today to get a hobby and "don't let it consume" me. I think that has to be the worst advice I have ever gotten! I will make films, good or bad, and I will (eventually) get paid to do it.. ;-)

August 14, 2013 at 9:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


The internet is my filmmaking partner and is consulted on everything.

October 17, 2015 at 10:18AM


Great story...

I've been working on a film for many years and have come to far to quit...

My would be film is called... Open nick

It's based on the struggles of the London working class and a character called nick.

All to be filmed inside London's infamous CCTV camera coated road to hell.... The M25 Motorway.

Need I say more !!!

April 10, 2016 at 11:54PM, Edited April 10, 11:54PM

All in filmmaker.