As Melissa Maerz notes in the introduction to Alright, Alright, Alright, her oral history of 1993’s Dazed and Confused, “Everyone who sees the film thinks it’s about them” because “the movie is a period piece, but the period isn’t the ’70s—it’s the period in everyone’s life from age 14 to 17.” Set during the last day of the year at a Texas high school in 1976 (when seniors haze freshmen, the star quarterback grapples with a coach’s clean-living pledge, and everyone gathers for a beer bash in the woods), Dazed was Academy Award-nominated director Richard Linklater’s first studio film after his indie classic, 1991’s Slacker. Dazed was also the breakout for a host of future stars, including Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, and Parker Posey. In this excerpt, Linklater reflects on coaxing executives at Universal Pictures, which had previously botched the release of Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, to green-light a shambling, character-driven reflection on high school stoner culture. The movie’s actors, meanwhile, recall the brutal casting sessions (imagine an alternative cast with Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, and Claire Danes), off-screen debauchery—and the improvised final scene that made late-to-the-cast addition McConaughey a star.
Indie Star to Studio Director
Richard Linklater’s 1991 breakthrough film, Slacker—a shaggy-dog story about young misfits killing time in Austin, much as Linklater had in his twenties—established him as a major talent and a generational voice, but it also left him deeply in debt. It debuted at Sundance just as the film festival was emerging as a launching pad for a new style of American movie. Jim Jacks, a vice president of production and acquisitions at Universal, was hardly a hipster, and he later admitted he didn’t totally get Slacker, but something about the film stuck with him and he approached Linklater about doing his next film at the studio.
Richard Linklater: I never wanted to work on the fringes of the industry. I thought, heaven forbid I become a good editor or something—I’d never get my own films made! By the time I was doing it, the path was much more open to make your own weird indie film and then go make a low-budget studio film after that. I was born at the right time.
John Pierson (filmmaker): Jim Jacks had a long trail of those 6-million-dollar-type second features that marked the true beginning of some really impressive, sustained careers.
Richard Linklater: I wrote about our first meeting in my diary: “Of course it’s Hollywood—they’re expecting me to hop up on the desk, squint my eyes, and peer through the rectangular movie-screen ratio I’ve formed when I put my thumbs to my index fingers, and then declare, ‘I see . . .’ I can talk forever about this film, I just can’t act like some goofy salesman or cheerleader. We’re joined by producer Sean Daniel, who used to be head of production at Universal for many years (The Player position). We talk about teen movies we’ve liked—I soon have to drop Over the Edge, River’s Edge, and certainly Los Olvidados from my list. Rule No. 1: Never like or discuss in positive terms a movie that didn’t make lots of money. And never mention that you might like foreign films—you’re an immediate suspect. So for now it’s the obligatory American Graffiti/Fast Times at Ridgemont High/The Breakfast Club references.”
We had just had lunch when Jim introduced me to Tom Pollock, the head of Universal. We walked over to his table, and he was like, “Oh, yeah, Slacker. That made some money, right?” I don’t think he’d seen it, but he recognized the title from Variety.
Sean Daniel (Producer): All of us were inspired by American Graffiti. Tom Pollock had been George Lucas’s lawyer and was instrumental in getting the financing for American Graffiti.
Richard Linklater: Tom thought that’s the best movie ever made. So we were like, “Great! We will be the American Graffiti of the ’70s.”
Robert Brakey (Apprentice Editor): If they wanted a 1970s American Graffiti, I don’t understand why the guy who did Slacker would be the candidate. Slacker was this nontraditional film that drifted from character to character. The whole point was that it doesn’t have to have a point.
Richard Linklater: Unfortunately, Tom Pollock saw Slacker, and he was like, “What the fuck?” Jim [Jacks] told Tom, “How do you know Slacker isn’t Rick’s THX 1138?” That was George Lucas’s weird art film that didn’t make any money. Then he made American Graffiti.
Sean Daniel: Because I was the executive on Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club, Tom said to me, “Come on, get it to be like that!” And it was like, “No!”
Brian Raftery (Journalist): All those ’80s teen movies were frankly about rich kids’ problems. The John Hughes movies were all about idolizing rich kids. When you watch Risky Business now, it’s shocking how much that movie is about going to an Ivy League school and becoming rich. It’s that whole Alex P. Keaton era. I think what made Dazed so appealing was that it didn’t have that weird ’80s ambition hanging over everything.
Jim Jacks (Producer): When we finally had a script that we liked, the studio was still like, “Eh, I don’t know.” There was another studio, Paramount, that was interested in doing Dazed. Universal had to either make it or send it back to us.
Sean Daniel: No studio wants to see a movie they developed go to another studio and then get made. Studios live in fear of that moment.
Jim Jacks: Universal decided at the last second they’d make the movie. But they weren’t jumping up and down about it.
No one was making high school movies in the early ’90s. When Linklater began casting Dazed in the spring of 1992, he called an agent in New York to ask if there were any good teenage actors left. She told him there wasn’t a single one. He enlisted Dazed coproducer Anne Walker-McBay, who had helped cast Slacker, and hired Don Phillips, a loud-talking, vodka-swilling casting director who’d worked on Animal House, Serpico, and Melvin and Howard and was known for being especially passionate about finding the next generation of stars.
Joey Lauren Adams (Simone): For a lot of us, getting cast in Dazed and Confused is our origin story.
Wiley Wiggins (Mitch): I was in front of Quackenbush’s—that’s the coffee shop that’s in Slacker—and Anne had been handing out little cards saying, “We’re making an independent feature film. Give us a call if you want to audition.”
Richard Linklater: Catherine Morris, who ended up playing Julie, Mitch’s girlfriend, in the film, she was helping us. She was handing out cards at her school. Everybody came in for an audition. Everybody. I think we floated it to Brendan Fraser because he was in Encino Man. That was kind of a studio thing. I suspected he wouldn’t want to do it because he was a little older, and sure enough he liked the script but did not want to play another high school kid. So I could be like, “Well, I tried!”
Lisa Bruna (Casting Assistant): I pulled out all the casting sign-in. I’d forgotten some of them: Mark Ruffalo. Hilary Swank. Wil Wheaton. Mackenzie Astin.
Richard Linklater: Claire Danes came in. She was in sixth or seventh grade. It was like, “You’re one of the best actors I’ve met! But you’re just too young.”
Don Phillips: Reese Witherspoon came in. She’d done Man in the Moon. I really dug her. But I asked Jason [London] about Reese, and he said not to do it.
Jason London (pink): When I did Man in the Moon with Reese, she was a baby! I probably just thought she was too young.
Richard Linklater: Jennifer Love Hewitt came in. And Mira Sorvino. Ron Livingston.
Lisa Bruna: Denise Richards was also up for Shavonne. Alicia Silverstone auditioned for Sabrina. I have a very early headshot of Kirsten Dunst in the folder.
Parker Posey (Darla): I really liked the character Cynthia, who hangs out with the guys, because I have a twin brother and I hung around his friends. So that was the first part I felt really right for. But then there was Darla, the bad girl.
Richard Linklater: Darla was originally a little more tough-girl character. We’re talking tough, mean-girl types. But then Parker came in, and I was like, Oh no, this is much better!
Don Stroud (Stand-in): Renée [Zellweger] was just a girl from some small town in Texas. She was living in Austin and had connections to the Slacker folks because of her boyfriend [Sims Ellison], who played in an Austin band called Pariah.
Richard Linklater: Renée probably would’ve gotten a bigger part, but we had her as kind of a Darla, and Parker had that role.
Renée Zellweger (Extra): Somebody I worked with told me not to do it. It was like, “You’re not going to learn a lot. And after taxes and agency fees, you’re going to be pretty poor.” But I’m so glad that I did do it.
Ben Affleck (O’Bannion): I read for the role of Pink, and right away they were like, “Why don’t you read for something else?” I was a little bit oversized and still had a lot of baby fat, and the roles that I was playing were bullies. Throwing people against lockers was my specialty, if a 20-year-old kid can be said to have a specialty. So I read for the O’Bannion part.
Don Phillips: It was between Vince Vaughn, Cole Hauser, and Ben for that part. Vince Vaughn, we didn’t think he was enough of an asshole.
Richard Linklater: Vince Vaughn gave a great audition! But I had Ben. I offered Vince Vaughn stuff later, and it was just like, “Pass, pass, pass, pass.” It was like, “Does he hate me?”
Jason London: I originally auditioned for the part of Tony. I don’t know at what point I became Pink. I was such a little goody-goody in high school. Me starting to smoke weed ended up being the best thing for that character and for my career.
Joey Lauren Adams: Don told me I didn’t have the tits to be Shavonne. There’s a demeaning of women that goes on that’s just normal. It’s like the sky’s blue, and men are going to say shit like that. You knew you didn’t get certain parts because your tits weren’t big enough, but they don’t say that. They say, “Yeah, she just wasn’t right for the role.” So in a weird way, I think there was probably some relief of Don just saying, “You just didn’t have the tits for Shavonne, Joey, but I love you! And I’m going to get you in this movie.”
Don Phillips: Bullshit! I never said that. Well, I might’ve said it after Dazed and Confused, when everyone would come out to my house in Malibu. I gotta tell you I was drunk most of the time back then, so I don’t remember. But I wouldn’t have said that during the audition. I was sober when I was working.
The Van Pattons
Dazed and Confused was definitely not Universal’s highest priority. When Linklater started principal photography, the studio was also working on Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, but that didn’t prevent it from micromanaging Linklater’s decisions. “Experienced directors with track records would tell them to get fucked, so it’s easier for them to focus on Dazed and the new kid,” he wrote in his diary. Tensions emerged between those who understood Linklater’s process and those who seemed to be working against it. “By the time we’re in production,” Linklater wrote, “we’re at war.”
Ben Affleck: The image of Hollywood as “the suits versus the creatives” was still very present in the early ’90s. In the ’80s, blockbusters and cocaine had kind of ruined the movie business, and I thought people like Rick were getting it back to where it needed to be.
Jason Davids Scott (unit publicist): The joke was, when Rick and Lee [Daniel, director of photography] were talking about anyone close to the studio, they’d refer to them as “the Van Pattons of the Van Patton family.”
Bill Wise: When Jim Jacks or Sean Daniel or anyone from Universal would come through, the word would go out that the Van Pattons are on set, and that meant you had to put your weed away.
Jason Davids Scott: The opposing baseball team in the movie is sponsored by Van Patton Plumbing.
Bill Wise: John Cameron was the first AD [assistant director]. He was from the studio system. He was from the Van Pattons.
Richard Linklater: At that time, I was thinking, Universal is going to assign some AD who’s going to want to make Dazed look like we’re making a fucking TV commercial. I mean, we hired John Cameron, but he ultimately felt like more of a studio guy. We weren’t on the same wavelength.
John Cameron: I can see from Rick’s perspective that, “Oh, this guy’s here to control me.” As an AD, you’re the one in the director’s face, saying, “We can’t start the day until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow because of the actors’ turnaround.” Rick doesn’t want to hear that. There was an instance where he kicked a bucket at me.
Ben Affleck: Rick would say, “I don’t know exactly what we’re going to shoot today.” To the small mind, that sounds like ineptitude or inexperience or both. But to the open mind, it was easy to see that, actually, what he was doing was creating a creative environment.
Jason London: The AD, we had a real problem. Because in his mind, he’s like, “Fuck, I’ve gotta wrangle 20 fucking kids.” From the minute we got to the hotel from the airport, that dude started talking down to us like we were six-year-olds, and we had to put that motherfucker in his place real quick.
John Cameron: Rick would tell the actors, “Hey, it’s us against them.” And that’s the movie, right? The kids against the establishment? So creatively that made a lot of sense.
Richard Linklater: It was like, I am Mitch. I’m the new kid. And they’re hazing me. I’ve just got to make it through this gauntlet of abuse and disrespect.
About 30 minutes into Dazed and Confused, the film switches from daytime to nighttime. There’s a marked departure from the breezy, “school’s out for summer” mood of the film’s beginning. And that was reflected off-screen as well for a young cast with time on its hands in Austin, Texas, in the summer of 1992.
Sasha Jenson (don): When we transitioned from day shoots into night shoots, that’s when it shifted gears for us, too. We all got a little darker during that period because we turned into vampires.
Cole Hauser (Benny): As you get older, you can’t get smashed on a Sunday from 1:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m., fall asleep, and wake up at 6:30 p.m. and feel good. But at 17 years old, you’re like, “Give me a bottle of water! I’m ready to go.”
Adam Goldberg (mike): I got so high one time in Jason’s room, I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.
Ben Affleck: I had a bad experience with marijuana at 15. I had a dissociative panic attack. So I only smoked weed if everyone else was smoking, and I had to sort of “Bill Clinton” it and fake it. I also wasn’t a very heavy drinker then. I became an alcoholic much, much later.
Joey Lauren Adams: I was high for the scene on the football field. A lot of us were.
Jason Davids Scott: Ben Affleck got a baby Siberian husky, but he had to keep it in the hotel room and not let them know.
So he just didn’t have them clean his room, and it smelled.
Ben Affleck: Only when you’re 20 do you think, “I’m broke, I have nothing, maybe I can be responsible for an animal?”
Joey Lauren Adams: Matthew wasn’t staying at the hotel. The whole cast was there for two months and got really close, like family. And Matthew didn’t feel like a part of that to me.
Cole Hauser: Matthew was like, “C’mon guys, get out of your hotel room. Let me take you down to the river.” You’d have these tubes, and you’d just throw a big cooler of beer in the middle and just float.
Adam Goldberg: Floating down the river? I never did that shit.
Nicky Katt (Clint): Cole and Rory [Cochrane] and Ben and me, we were all blowing our per diem at Red’s Indoor Range. That was probably me trying to show off. You know, “I’ll show you what real men do.”
Cole Hauser: We’d shoot all kinds of guns: .44s, .57s, shotguns. Man, they would give you anything. If they’d had a bazooka in there, we would’ve shot it.
rory cochrane (slater): We went shooting on magic mushrooms. Which was not a great idea.
Cole Hauser: I wasn’t on mushrooms. Rory might’ve been.
Rory Cochrane: Nobody got hurt, thankfully.
Ben Affleck: Texas had extremely lax gun laws, and most of us came from states where it was next to impossible to buy guns. So part of the newfound freedom of being down there was that a bunch of us bought guns and went shooting at ranges on weekends, which seemed fun and innocent at the time, but given the subsequent tragedies with young people and guns, it now makes me uncomfortable to remember.
One of Dazed and Confused’s most notorious scenes is the hazing ritual where the seniors paddle the freshmen. It was also one the trickiest to film because the young actors playing the freshmen thought Ben Affleck and Cole Hauser attacked the scene with a little too much verisimilitude.
Wiley Wiggins (mitch): Those guys were terrifying. They were like werewolf men. I still have nightmares about Ben Affleck running toward me in slow motion, like, drooling.
Ben Affleck: Cole was definitely more scary than I was. He has a certain menace I’m not sure he’s aware of. He was quite big and strong and very “method” at the time. And he took that to mean he should be terrorizing those kids.
Wiley Wiggins: It was this fucking method-actor bullshit that those L.A. guys were into. They all thought they were gonna be the next James Dean.
Cole Hauser: I never thought of myself as a method actor, but who isn’t into James Dean?
Nicky Katt (clint): You can spot everybody’s influences pretty clearly if you watch Dazed with your eyes closed. I’m doing Mickey Rourke. Cole’s doing Christopher Walken. You really notice it with Cole. You’re like, “Wait a minute—why would a football player talk like Christopher Walken?”
Cole Hauser: The stunt guy put a piece of fiberglass on Wiley’s ass with a pad, and he said, “You can hit him as hard as you want.” And I was like, “Really?” I hit Wiley and he turned around like he’d basically been shot up the ass with a shotgun. He started crying.
Mark Vandermeulen (Tommy): Wiley got paddled for real.
Wiley Wiggins: Nope, I was safe. I barely felt a thing. For that scene, they blew menthol in my eyes to make me cry. But I was terrified by how animalistic their performances were getting.
Richard Linklater: You’d tell them, “Hey, back off a little bit!” But those guys don’t know what it means to “back off a little bit.” That was definitely a low point.
Ben Affleck: All I can say is, I am not the kind of person who would hit somebody with a paddle. I wouldn’t think that was fun or funny or cool. If I hit a little hard, it was an accident.
Catherine Avril Morris (Julie): After that, we shot the scene where Ben Affleck gets the paint spilled on his head.
Robert Janecka (Property Master): We were running out of time at the end of a 20-hour day, everybody was tired and cranky, and wardrobe only had one change of clothes left, so we had to nail it in one take. It looks like we poured a gallon of paint on him, but it was five gallons of papier-mâché material. Ben was totally pissed off. That was real.
Deb Pastor (set decorator): I was standing there during the scene when the kid got swatted, so when we dropped paint on Ben’s head, it was really a highlight for everybody.
Ben Affleck: Everybody sort of inhabited their characters, and mine was just this incredibly douchey, fratty, redneck bully. People will send me replicas of the paddles we use in the movie and tell me they really loved my character. And I always think, “That’s the way I know you and I are not going to get along.”
“Just Keep Livin’”
On the final night of shooting, Linklater still wasn’t sure how to end the movie. He knew he had to wrap up the film’s central problem—whether or not Pink would sign a clean-living pledge given to him by his coach—but beyond that he wasn’t exactly sure what Pink and his friends would say to one another. The problem was solved by Matthew McConaughey, who delivered a star-making, improvised monologue about life inspired by the death of his father just a few weeks earlier.
Richard Linklater: I wanted to have a scene where they hang out on the football field. There’s a certain rebellion in that. It seems conformist to go back to that location—we hate school, why would we go back there? Well, because it’s different now. We own that football field. No one’s telling us what to do.
John Cameron: I remember that scene as a bittersweet thing in the film. Filming it felt bittersweet as well.
Jason London: Sasha and I were supposed to pretend to be the coaches. My real high school football coach was a cool Vietnam vet who would tell us stories that always ended with “OTSS! Only The Strong Survive!” I asked Rick, “Can I say that here?” And he was like, “You just gave me gold. Yes, please.”
Richard Linklater: We were working on the final scene, just trying to get what Wooderson would say to Pink at that point. And I’ll never forget Matthew looking over at me and saying, “It’s about livin’, ain’t it?” It was just obvious that it was about his dad.
Matthew McConaughey: I remember when I first got back after the funeral, I took a good long walk with Rick, who’s a wonderful listener. We were talking about what’s the best way to get through it. That was the night that “Just keep livin’” came out of my mouth. A light went off for me about how to navigate losing my father, just keeping his spirit alive.
Jason London: You know when McConaughey goes into these inspirational speeches? He’s always been that way. Even before he was famous.
Jason Davids Scott: He had “J.K. Livin’” on his answering machine message after that.
Richard Linklater: The last week of production on Dazed, we were sitting at dinner, and Matthew was like, “You know, I think I’m going to move to L.A.
From the book ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT, ALRIGHT by Melissa Maerz. Copyright © 2020 by Melissa Maerz. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.