Melissa Maerz Q&A

March 7, 2022
Melissa Maerz cuts through the fog of "Dazed and Confused."

“I love what Linklater doesn’t do as a filmmaker. He doesn’t force plot. He doesn’t condescend to young people. He doesn’t feel the need to overdramatize a moment that’s already quietly dramatic in its own way. His naturalism might be his greatest strength. People sometimes underestimate how much scripting and structuring and framing it takes to make a film feel just as unscripted and unstructured and unframed as real life.”

When did you decide you would spend years of your life thinking about the film? 

I’d been thinking about the idea off and on for about five years, but I can remember the moment I realized, oh wow, I might actually get to write this thing. I had emailed Richard Linklater to tell him I wanted to write an oral history of Dazed, and I woke up a few days later to find, to my surprise, that he’d actually written me back. He said he was kind of sick of talking about the movie. At first, I thought, well, this project is dead. But then he continued to say that he had a “weakness/sympathy for writers/artists trying to do anything in this world they’re passionate about.” And by the end of the email, he was kind of pointing me toward different materials — an Austin Chronicle story here, a documentary there — that might help me with the book, and he agreed to be interviewed. To this day, I’m very aware that not all directors respond to cold emails like that. I was lucky that way.

Did you always imagine the book as an oral history?

Yes, I always wanted it to be an oral history. The rhythms of an oral history — the way people contradict one another, and call one another out on their bullshit — feels very similar to the conversational rhythms in Dazed. Also, I thought it was a fitting structure for a book that’s really about nostalgia. Linklater says he actually wanted to make an anti-nostalgia film, one that reminded people that the 1970s actually kind of sucked, so I wanted to find ways to undercut the nostalgia that a book like this — one that commemorates an old favorite movie — will inevitably elicit. And one way to do that was to present everyone’s conflicting memories, to show how a time that makes one person incredibly wistful for the past might just constitute a bad memory for somebody else.

I just love oral histories, generally. I love that they cut through this “great man” narrative that so many books about the arts promote. And I love that they remind us that even when there’s a visionary director at the center of a project, great films are often the product of larger communities of people: the actors, the crew, etc. I love that the form allows everyone to have their say, from the director to the extras.

Here are some of the oral histories that inspired me:

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks

Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City by Lizzy Goodman

Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge by Mark Yarm

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire by Jonathan Abrams

I’m also very excited to read Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road by Kyle Buchanan

You gave such smart analysis about the movie’s nostalgia appeal, and how Linklater resisted it – he actually thought was making an anti-nostalgia film – and how Jason Lee says the film makes him nostalgia, but not for the 70s, the 90s. Did their comments surprise you?

I think I knew, on some level, that some of the cast members were going to be nostalgic about the summer of ’92, when they shot the movie. In some ways, how could they not be? They were all so young, and this was the first major movie for most of them. The studio put them up at a hotel in Austin, where they were all partying and hooking up. And the director really encouraged them to contribute creatively to the film, which is something that, for some of them, never happened again. Plus, all of this happened during a golden age of ‘90s film, this brief moment in time when a studio was willing to take a chance on a 6-million-dollar movie with no plot. So I understand why Jason Lee feels that way.

What surprised me was the level of nostalgia that people have for this movie. One of the actors said the summer she spent shooting Dazed was the best summer of her life. Ben Affleck called it one of the most profound creative experiences of his entire career. Part of that is obviously specific to Dazed, but I think that’s also just the very natural feeling of being nostalgic for your 20s. Think about what you were doing in your 20s. If someone wrote an oral history about that, I’d imagine you might be a little nostalgic, too.

By the way, Dazed was released in 1993 and took place in 1976. If you made a period piece with the same time difference today, it would take place in 2005. That blows my mind.

What do you think Linklater’s greatest strength is as a filmmaker?

So many things. The way he makes on-screen dialogue feel as casual as a real-life conversation. The way he’s able to capture the feeling of time elapsing, and make you more aware of your own life passing by. The deeply philosophical, walk-and-talk vibe of his films, which is somehow both profound and unpretentious – a hard combination to pull off.

I also love what he doesn’t do as a filmmaker. He doesn’t force plot. He doesn’t condescend to young people. He doesn’t feel the need to overdramatize a moment that’s already quietly dramatic in its own way. His naturalism might be his greatest strength. People sometimes underestimate how much scripting and structuring and framing it takes to make a film feel just as unscripted and unstructured and unframed as real life.

You ended up doing more than 150 interviews. Were most people quick to respond? 

Most people were very quick to respond, and pretty excited to participate. The only interview I was worried about was Ben Affleck. He told me very early on that he would participate, but then it took him almost a year to actually pick up the phone when I called – and I was so glad when he finally did, because he gave me such a great interview. Renee Zellweger also came in at the very end. It’s probably preferable to interview people like them at the very end of the process, because you’re only going to get one chance to talk to them. But it’s also incredibly stressful, because the deadline is looming. I definitely had a few sleepless nights, wondering if I’d get them at all.

Coming out of the film I would have thought Jason London would have had a huge career. But it didn’t quite happen for him and he seems fragile in your book. How did you make subjects comfortable?

I was lucky that I got to spend some time in person with Jason. I flew to Mississippi to hang out with him, and he had a box full of old photos from the Dazed set, and we looked through them together. I did that with a few other people, too. It’s nice to have old photos as prompts, because it brings up memories that people might not have remembered otherwise. Sometimes it brings up surprising emotions, too. Many people I interviewed cried at some point.

That said, I think people’s reactions to my questions had more to do with their feelings about Dazed than their feelings about me. Their feelings about me were harder to predict. The first time I interviewed Linklater, he said, half-jokingly, and I’m paraphrasing here: Wiley Wiggins told me you were really nice. He wasn’t sure if that was a reason to distrust you. That made me laugh, because I had such a genuinely easy time talking to Wiley, I didn’t realize he was trying to get a read on me.

I love how much Austin is a character in the book. How much do you feel that film could have only taken place in that city?

Linklater can probably speak to this better than I can, but I actually think Austin is more central to Slacker than Dazed. The Slacker crew often talks about how Austin in the late ‘80s was the perfect place and time for filming a D.I.Y. movie. Texas was in a financial slump, and downtown was filled with boarded-up buildings, so there was very little supervision. No one was going to object if you set up a dolly track in front of their business. There were no cops around to check your permits. If anyone asked the Slacker crew what they were doing, they’d lie and say they were shooting a mayonnaise commercial.

To me, Dazed actually feels more like it’s set in Huntsville, Texas – Linklater’s hometown – than Austin, even though it was filmed in Austin. But I think Austin is a perfect city for this book, symbolically, because there’s so much nostalgia around Austin. People joke that whenever you moved there, you got there too late. I think I cut a lot of this from the book, but the first draft had a whole section where people were like, “You think Austin’s good now? It was so much better in the ’90s!” “You think it was great in the ’90s? It was so much better in the ’80s!” And on and on back to the’ 60s. Again, it’s probably less about the greatness of any particular era than it is about people remembering their own youth.

I always assumed that Linklater, like most artists, wasn’t the popular quarterback type. But he totally was. If you had to choose a character you most identify with from the film, who would it be? 

Linklater still maintains that playing sports in high school was one of the biggest influences on his directing style. Actors often say he’s like a coach — he’s this inspirational figure who makes everyone feel like they’re equal participants, even though the larger vision for the team really does belong to him.

When I was in high school, I definitely identified most with Tony. He strikes me as a future journalist, just the way he’s always questioning his friends. They even call him and Mike “Woodward and Bernstein” in the movie. Also, the types of cringey, pseudo-intellectual high school conversations he has with Mike and Cynthia while they’re driving around feel really familiar to me. I love the scene where Wooderson flirts with Cynthia, and Tony is just totally grossed out by the whole thing. It always makes me laugh, because I feel like that was often me in high school with my girlfriends, being like, No! Don’t go for that guy! Gross! You’re way too good for him!

What is next for you?

I’m working on a novel. It’s probably too early to talk about it yet, but I’m excited.

Photo by Keith Bormuth