Richard Linklater, Poet of the Hang-Out Movie, Talks About 'Hit Man,' Netflix, His Epic 20-Year Paul Mescal Project 'Merrily We Roll Along,' and Time's Inexorable Passage

In the 35 years of his directing career, Richard Linklater has carved out a niche as the éminence grise of just hanging out and talking. You can divide his movies into two categories: movies with a plot (School of Rock, Bernie) and, more often, movies without one (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, The Before Trilogy, Everybody Wants Some!!).

His latest, Hit Man, is very much in the former category. Based on a Texas Monthly story and co-written with its star, Glen Powell, Hit Man follows an exceedingly mild-mannered guy named Gary Johnson (Powell) who moonlights as a wire-wearing fake hitman for his local police department. People looking to hire a contract killer get unknowingly connected with Gary, who sells them on his services while gathering proof of their guilt so the cops can arrest them. All’s well and good until he meets Maddy (Adria Arjona), who wants to finish off her abusive husband, and the two of them fall for each other. What follows is a rousing noir-screwball mashup with off-the-charts chemistry that solidifies Powell’s movie star bonafides. Simply put: it’s exactly the sort of movie you want to see in a packed theater at the height of summer.

But, aside from a limited theatrical release, Hit Man is going straight to Netflix. GQ talked to Linklater about his feelings about how that went down, the so-called “death of hanging out,” the Merrily We Roll Along adaptation he’s filming with Paul Mescal on a 20-year timeline, and his thoughts on building career longevity in a fickle industry. When we spoke, he was in Paris, finishing shooting his forthcoming movie New Wave, which is entirely in French.

GQ: Do you speak French?

Richard Linklater: No, not really.

So how’s it going over there?

Oh, it’s fine. My whole crew speaks English to me, as the boss. I use the same methodologies and everything. It’s been fascinating. On one hand, as far as non-French speaking audiences go, I’m making what New Wave films looked like—a subtitled movie. But I care deeply about the French aspect of it. I want it to be perfect. And we rehearsed forever. We rehearsed once in English, then French. I know exactly what they’re saying, but I have two people near me saying, “Oh, they got that one little thing wrong.” I’m like, “Okay, we’ll go again.” The French speakers, and everyone I’m working with, my French editor, everyone is liking it.

The movie’s about the French art-film movement that emerged at the turn of the ‘60s. Who’s your Godard?

This guy named Guillaume Marbeck, and, man, is he good. If you don’t get a good Godard, you don’t have anything. I’m having a good time. It’s a film I’ve been working on for about 10 years. It’s always a little bit of a miracle when it all comes together and you get to make the films you’ve been dreaming of for a long time.

Well, congratulations on Hit Man too. How did co-writing it with Glen Powell work?

It was in many phases. I get a call from my friend, Glen Powell, who I’ve worked with on numerous other occasions, and we’re talking. He talks about an article he’s read, which I, of course, had read years before from Texas Monthly and my friend, Skip Hollandsworth. It was a story I had flipped around for a long time, and it never quite worked. But Glen, to have an actor interested who had ideas, that’s what started that collaboration. The whole way, we’re both just working our asses off, trying to make the story work, and having a good time doing it.

Did you two have a chance to meet the real Gary Johnson before he passed?

I did. I knew Gary a little bit. Glen never met him. Unfortunately, he died two weeks [before] shooting. We were that close to shooting, and I hadn’t heard from him. I had been trying to get in touch with him for a number of weeks, and we got in touch with his … oh, let’s say, widow, even though they weren’t married anymore. He had passed away, this pulmonary thrombosis, something. So it was really sad that he went quickly, and he didn’t live to see the film. But I paid tribute to him at the very end because he really was chill.

Some people, you’re making a film with their name, and they’re like, “Tell me more. Who’s playing? Can I read…” He was like, “Sounds good, man.” He didn’t care. He was so just beautifully detached. He was a true Zen master. He was a Buddhist.

Oh yeah?

He had a Buddhist funeral. So as crazy as our story gets, you can’t ever say it’s not based in a real guy. There was this guy. He was a Jungian scholar, he loved the mind, he taught, and then he also was an undercover guy. That is a strange combo bedrock of a fascinating character. So we definitely take it.

The article that Skip wrote pretty much ends where Gary lets off the young woman who wants to kill her husband. Our thing turns when she gets back in touch with him. That was the idea. It’s like, “Well, what if she got back in touch with him and thanked him? Just thanked him for righting her ship. What if they start hanging out?”

Rewatching some of your old films all in a row, I found myself thinking that there’s something McConaughey-esque about Glen Powell. Did you see that too?

I know he shares the Texas thing, but Glen, his mind’s wired very differently than Matthew. That’s all I can say. I mean, they’re good-looking, hunky guys, for sure, but I don’t really think about that too much.

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