An Interview with Melissa Maerz: Covering the Engaging History of ‘Dazed and Confused’
March 4, 2021
This is part one of a two part series.
When Melissa Maerz, future writer for Vulture, Rolling Stone and the LA Times, walked into a movie theater as a high school freshman to watch Richard Linklater’s latest film Dazed and Confused, she did not suspect that her life would be changed. The same can be said for many fans of the film, as Linklater’s mid-budget high school comedy has and continues to touch the hearts of countless people over the years. Maerz turned her love of the film into an oral history book, which was released in November 2020, presenting interviews with the cast and crew that worked on the film, strung together with essays and anecdotes, as well as thoughts from other writers and actors.
I watched Dazed and Confused for the first time recently and immediately fell in love. It’s both a critique of nostalgia, a deeply funny movie, an understated drama, and a star-studded affair. One of the aspects that keeps it alive as a modern classic is its cast, given that Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, and Adam Goldberg started their careers from this film. Maerz interviewed all of these actors and many more, as well as director Linklater, for the book. And of course, filming took place right here in Austin, which only added to the film’s cult status. Melissa graciously granted me an opportunity for an interview, where we discussed everything from the film’s most iconic quotes to 1980’s Heaven’s Gate.
Q: First of all, what first led you to Dazed and Confused and what made you want to tell this film’s story as opposed to other films you like?
A: When it came out, it really felt like a movie about my future, [and] about the next four years of my life even though it was set in the ‘70s. I’d never hung out with the older kids, never gone to parties in the woods like that, [and] it all seemed really exciting to me. [In] an interview [I had read] with Richard Linklater, he’d said he wanted the movie to be an anti-nostalgia movie, a movie that showed that the past was not as good as the future, because so many movies about the ’70s are about glamorizing the ’70s.
I thought it was interesting that Dazed and Confused [had] become such a nostalgia movie for so many people. The first question I had was ‘how did this anti-nostalgia movie become the ultimate nostalgia movie?’. One of the answers I found when writing this book was largely because of the cast. The cast was incredibly nostalgic for the time they spent making the movie, and that’s really kind of translated into the mythology surrounding this film.
Q: Do you think this is a nostalgia movie? Do you think this is like American Graffiti? In the book, [Director Richard] Linklater claims that it was an anti-nostalgia movie. Other people like Jason Lee say it’s a failure of an anti-nostalgia movie. In your opinion, who is right? Is it a nostalgic movie?
A: I think they’re both right! From Richard Linklater’s perspective, it’s definitely an anti-nostalgia movie. He literally has a character say ‘the seventies obviously suck’. It’s really hard to claim [that] he’s trying to make a movie that glamorizes the ’70s when he’s having the characters say things like that. Ultimately, the movie isn’t necessarily just what the director wants it to be, [as] the interpretation of the audience becomes just as vital as what the director’s vision for the film [is].
When people saw that, maybe they really recognize[d] a lot of themselves, they recognize[d] their high schools in it, and I think that’s why it’s become such a personal movie to so many people. Linklater says, I think at one point in the book, how it’s impossible to make an anti-war movie because even if you’re making a movie that criticizes war, the process of seeing it up on the big screen with this dramatic music makes it kind of glamorous to some people and I think the same thing is true for high school as well.
Q: In your opinion, [what] sets the film apart from other similar high school movies? What makes the movie so different from say, Mean Girls or Clueless?
A: At the time, going back [to] when I saw it in 1993, it felt really radical because the high school movies I was used to [seeing] were the high school movies of the ’80s That’s really [when] high school movies as a genre kind of came together: [through] these John Hughes movies. So often, they’re really dramatic. It’s like somebody’s always having a massive party at their parents mansion, crashing their dad’s car, or [getting] pregnant.
What felt so revolutionary about Dazed and Confused was that nothing like that was happening. The whole movie is just these high school kids sitting around talking and waiting for something fun to happen. Even when you get to this party, the party itself doesn’t look all that glamorous. They’re having fun but it’s not the greatest night of your life kind-of-fun. I think you see Dazed and Confused and [its] influence [being] in terms of the slowness and the naturalism of it [translating] to a lot of movies after that.
Q: In my opinion, one of the best parts of the book was that a lot of it goes into this stuff that actually happened on set and it seems like it was a crazy time to film this movie. Was that a factor that made you want to write the book?
A: Yes, there was a really good and very short oral history in Texas Monthly by John Spong. I knew from reading [it] that everyone was kind of having fun, but I had no idea how much the lines would blur between the high school experience that was shown on screen and these high school feelings that people had about filming the movie. Dazed and Confused felt like high school, and [it] still seems like that now. Some people felt like they were left out of cliques, and some still feel resentful that other people didn’t want to be friends with them. Some are still mad at actors that they felt were bullies. It’s interesting to me that this is what the film is about, and it’s also reflected in what was happening behind the scenes, as well as it being like a really fun party for a lot of people.
Q: To me it kind of seems like what was going on behind the scenes was actually more dramatic than the film itself, it’s almost like a soap opera. Everybody is dating each other and cheating on one another!
A: I think you’re totally right. Sometimes it seems like it’s more dramatic, but I think that’s also because of time. Maybe if I had interviewed people right afterward it wouldn’t have seemed as dramatic, and now thirty years later, I think it seems more dramatic to people. You watch it when you’re in high school, and it seems very real about your teenage years, just kind of hanging out, being bored. Now I look back at it and even something that’s not dramatic was very dramatic to me. I watch it now and I think these kids don’t realize that this is going to be one of the last nights of their lives that they have to just hang out and do nothing.
Q: One thing that’s interesting to me about the movie is that it’s tied it to the ‘70s. It’s a very ‘70s movie, but it still appeals to a younger generation and even people like me who weren’t even alive in the ‘70s or even the ‘90s. How and why do you think it’s stood the test of time?
A: I think some people thought ‘Wow things didn’t change that much from the ’70s to the ’90s!’. A lot of kids in the nineties were still driving around in their cars listening to Aerosmith. Aerosmith was having his big comeback at the time, so seeing that movie start with the car blasting Aerosmith felt like ‘Woah that’s our people!’. That was teenage culture at that time: listening to rock and roll music. For kids of the ’90s, [this was] a kind of nostalgia for something that they [had] never experienced, which was what they saw as this freewheeling culture where adults were never around.
Parenting culture of the ’70s was very different from the culture of the ’90s. Now my theory, although I’d be curious to see what you think, is that people watch it in a different way. It’s not necessarily so much that it’s timeless, [but] it’s this culture [created] by Dazed and Confused [which] is almost unrecognizable to a lot of young people because rock music has kind of disappeared from the culture. Social media has really changed the idea that you’re really not just talking and being bored anymore, [as] you always have something to divert your attention [to]. What about Dazed and Confused still feels relevant to you?
Q: Well honestly I think it’s sort of a mixture. The ’70s feel very different but it’s like so much has changed, and also not much has changed. I watch the movie and I can still really relate to a lot of the characters, mostly Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp’s characters.
A: The characters that you mentioned, Marrisa Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, and Anthony Rapp, feel very ahead of their time. In terms of the conspiracy theorizing and how politically savvy those kids are, you can also see those characters growing up to be some other kind of misfit characters in Slacker, so maybe it’s not ahead of its time, it’s just of its time. Now you see the types of conversations that are going on in social media, and that definitely feels in step with that too. That’s the one thing to me that’s really prototypically Richard Linklater, is that style of conversation, and I think that really reflects the way that kids talk and in some ways have always talked.
Q: Who was the first person you contacted for the book?
A: This is not normally how I would do things, but there was a unit publicist on the movie, a unit publicist [being] someone who collects interviews and pictures with the cast for promotional materials. Originally, I was not necessarily going to interview him, I just reached out to him because I [wanted] to gather as many primary sources as I possibly [could] in terms of materials. It was a guy named Jason David Scott. I found him and wrote to him and said ‘This is weird, I know ages ago you worked on Dazed’ and he wrote me back immediately and he was like ‘Yes, [it was] one of the best experiences of my life, call me’.
You know [when] you talk to people and they have what they think are vivid memories, and you write them down, and then you interview other people about the memories that the first person had, and those people are like ‘No, that didn’t happen at all?’. I [want to] say that everything Jason David Scott said about this thing that happened 30 years ago checked out. Though he was just a unit publicist, he was there at the hotel with the actors [and] was one of the only people who had a car, so he was there driving them around. He was close to them [and is] still in contact with some of them. He put me in touch with Chrissie Harnos, who plays Kaye in that movie.
Q: What was your favorite part about writing the book? What was the most fun for you?
A: Everybody I talk[ed] to, I just loved talking to. I think it was just crazy to me how much nostalgia people had for this movie. I’m somebody who normally has a healthy distrust for nostalgia. I think I’m on Linklater’s side of this, where I feel like nostalgia, politically, is a really dangerous thing. I mean thinking that things were better in the past? Only certain types of people can afford to think that. I kept thinking someone’s gotta say that this was not as good of an experience [as] everybody else says. Not that Rick didn’t create a fantastic experience on set, I just am inherently distrustful of anything that makes the past seem so rosy. I was really surprised and kind of moved by the fact that people still have largely, not everybody, but most people still have such positive experiences.
I thought my book would be about the concept of nostalgia, [but] I didn’t expect that my book would be so filled with [genuine] nostalgia. In some ways, it makes sense. I think for a lot of people, this was their first real official gig, in a Hollywood movie, but not your typical isolated Hollywood experience. Rick really encourages them to participate in writing in some of the scenes, and definitely in creating this chemistry behind the scenes. Then, [when] a lot of them went back to Hollywood, [they] realized things aren’t like that normally in the industry. You don’t get to improvise or suggest a scene for the director or hang out with people behind the scenes in a way that was creating this kind of real chemistry.
Q: [Were] there any big challenges that you faced when conducting the interviews or when writing the introductory segments for each chapter?
A: At first I wanted to just not have any introductions. I really like the idea that because the movie is just basically all dialogue, it’s really conversational and there’s not necessarily a real plot to it. I wanted to have a similar vibe in my book. I let a friend of mine read it, this guy Rob Tennenbaum, who’s also written really great oral histories, and he convinced me to go back and write some introductions. He was telling me [that] people don’t know as much about the context of what was happening in Hollywood at this time as you think they do; you’re kind of giving people too much credit for what they know. I’m so glad that he urged me to go back and give a fuller picture of the context of why this was so special because of what was happening in the ’90s.
Q: A lot of people say that Dazed [and Confused] couldn’t be made today. Do you agree?
A: You know I feel like I am too old to answer that. It couldn’t be made right now on a practical level, and I’ll tell you why. Studios are just not making the six million dollar movies anymore. This is a very specific time in history when a studio like Universal could be making a whole slate of films where they could be making these major multi-million dollar blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List and also be making a relatively small movie like Dazed and Confused. They’re taking these very micro-budget directors, [such] as Richard Linklater when he was making Slacker, and giving them their first shot on kind of a mid-range level. You just don’t get that anymore.
Now you see a lot of what we think of as indie directors vaulting forward to making a Marvel movie. There’s a lot on [the] top end and there’s a lot on the very bottom end, but there’s not a lot [in] the mid-range. I think the directors of both of those movies have mentioned that they were influenced by Richard Linklater and by Dazed and Confused in particular. You have to tell me about if the vibe of Dazed and Confused in terms of high school translates to teenagers now because I just don’t know the answer to that part anymore. I’m too removed from it.
Q: I think honestly if this movie were to be made today it would probably be about the ’90s because I feel like for people my age, there is a lot more nostalgia for the ’90s than there is for the ’70s, and even though people my age weren’t even alive in the nineties, as long as people are like ‘Oh Gee I’m a nineties baby’ and they’re like ‘I only listen to nineties music’ it would probably have to be about the ’80s or the ’90s.
A: Yes absolutely, I think you [have] touched on something really important, which is so often nostalgia for the thing[s] you didn’t experience. That’s what allows it to be as rosy as it is. You probably didn’t live through the bad parts. I think every generation thinks things were cooler before they got there. Nostalgia happens in these 20-25 year cycles because of that. You have to go back to something that you didn’t remember, because it’s a time where you can kind of block out all the bad parts of it, because you didn’t live through them.
Q: What are your thoughts on the ten year anniversary? Everybody came out to the moon tower and a lot of people were there. Some people remember that fondly, and others don’t. They said it was sort of misunderstanding the movie. I’m curious to know, were you actually there and what are your thoughts on the event?
A: I wasn’t there. I wish I had gone because I love hearing stories about it. I looked up all of the writing about it, but that’s all I really have to go on: the written records of what happened and what people remember. I feel like it’s the kind of melancholy feeling that a lot of people have about trying to get together with people you were close to in high school. You have this idea of how things were whether or not that’s actually how they were, and when you go back, you might not be as close anymore, and you can’t really recreate that thing that you had. It’s kind of heartbreaking in a lot of ways.
I don’t necessarily [have] that feeling about my own high school experience, but there are other times in my life where I feel like that about the group of people that I was with. When I was in my 20s, I was writing for our weekly newspaper and had this really tight group of people in the music scene. To me, hear[ing] Jason London say that he went back there [for] it [to not be] about this great thing that they all experienced that made them close, to having it be about other stuff like trying to impress each other or how they appear to the outside world [felt] heartbreaking. He didn’t feel part of that anymore, [and] that feels like a very relatable feeling to have.