In ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’ filmmaker Richard Linklater revisits 1980

Blake Jenner and Dora Madison dance disco, 1980-style, in ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’
Blake Jenner and Dora Madison dance disco, 1980-style, in ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’ PARAMOUNT PICTURES

There’s a scene in Everybody Wants Some!! — the two exclamation marks come from the eponymous Van Halen song — in which a guy teaches his friends a simple trick to beat the arcade game Space Invaders, which gobbled up more than $2 billion worth of quarters from 1980-1982 in the U.S. alone.

Richard Linklater, who wrote and directed the movie, swears the tactic works.

“I had a friend who showed me how you could just wait for them to come all the way down to the front row and just shoot them,” he says via telephone from San Francisco. “Once you discover that, it really changes the game. So I perversely decided to teach people 35 years later how to actually beat Space Invaders! Everyone will go play it again with renewed zeal!”

Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Will Brittain and Miami native Blake Jenner talk about starring in Richard Linklater's new comedy.

A lot of Everybody Wants Some!!, which opens Friday, is based on actual events from Linklater’s life. Set in 1980, the movie is set over the course of the weekend before classes start at a fictional Texas college. The film follows the freshman baseball player Jake (played by Miami native Blake Jenner) as he arrives on campus, moves in with his standoffish teammates and revels in the freedom of being away from home, still able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, before the drudgery of studying and the regiment of classes have begun. For a couple of exhilarating days, no one — parents, teachers, bosses — is regulating his behavior.

The movie is being billed by distributor Paramount Pictures as a spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s 1993 comedy that followed the hijinks of a group of teenagers after the last day of school in 1976. The films are conceptually linked: Both are plotless ensemble pieces, steeped in the popular culture of their respective eras (Dazed opened with a shot of a car blasting Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion from the radio; the new movie uses The Knack’s My Sharona), soaked in beer and clouded in marijuana smoke.

Guys competed

Writer-director Richard Linklater

But unlike Dazed and Confused, which tracked the intersecting stories of more than a dozen characters, Everybody Wants Some!! focuses exclusively on Jake and his athletic bros as they meet girls at discos, country and western bars, punk rock night clubs and campus parties. The thematic focus is male bravado: Jake and his gang are cocksure and confident, with a noticeable swagger in their step. Because they’re athletes, they’re also ruthlessly competitive about everything, not just on the baseball field but also supposedly friendly games of ping-pong or eight-ball pool. Even a bong session becomes a contest of who can take the biggest hit without coughing.

Linklater, who played outfield as a freshman when he attended Sam Houston State University on a baseball scholarship in the 1980s, says he grew up knowing that sort of win-at-all costs mentality very well.

“Guys competed all the time,” he says, laughing. “Your entire notion of masculinity could be held up at any moment: If you were playing pool, and you tried to use a bridge stick to take a shot, you were emasculated for that. My dad used to call it the ‘Old Lady’s Crutch.’ Real men don’t use a bridge stick! Everything was a competition, a test of skill, an opportunity for one-upsmanship. If you got a 98 on a biology test, nobody cared, because that didn’t mean anything on your masculinity scale.

“There were all these stupid, meaningless games going on all the time. I lived amongst that. Still, to this day, whenever I play ping pong I get that ‘I-must-win!’ feeling. I hate that about myself, but it’s very deeply ingrained. Looking back over those years. I was kind of glad when that part of my life went away, and I started hanging out with people who didn’t care about such things. But there’s something very funny about it.”

As Jake gradually asserts himself among his new, show-me-what-you’ve-got friends, Everybody Wants Some!! reveals he’s much more than an arrogant jock: His budding romance with a female student (Zoey Deutch), which becomes the focus of the film’s unexpectedly tender third act, suggests he’s much more thoughtful and intelligent than he lets on. But Linklater loves all his characters equally, regardless of their flaws or limitations. The movie celebrates the chutzpah and lack of self-awareness of these scamps, whether they’re driving around singing along to the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight or picking a hilariously pointless fight with a standoffish bartender, who stares at one of them a little too harshly.

Empathy is the most recurring theme in Linklater’s uncommonly diverse body of work. You could see it in 1991’s Slacker, his first film, in which he introduced us to a series of misfits and weirdos roaming the streets of Austin. In 1996’s SubUrbia, Linklater’s movie adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play, the plight of bored, restless suburban teenagers was given gravity and weight. In 2011’s Bernie, the mortician played by Jack Black was so sweet and likable that you were willing to forgive him anything — even murder.

There’s a scene in 2001’s Waking Life — an animated philosophical reverie in which a multitude of characters explored the meaning of the universe — that contains the key to Linklater’s entire canon.

“So much of our experience is intangible,” a woman tells the film’s protagonist, played by Wiley Wiggins. “So much of what we perceive cannot be expressed; it’s unspeakable. And yet, when we communicate with one another, and we feel that we have connected and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. That feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.”

Linklater also uses his movies to make us understand other people, no matter what their particular foibles or problems happen to be. He defends the protagonists of Everybody Wants Some!! by saying that their self-serving behavior is simply a reflection of who they are, an intrinsic element of the psyches of athletes.

“It’s funny because they’re all a little crazy,” he says. “But in the world of sports, that kind of 24/7 competitiveness never goes away. When you read about Michael Jordan or any other great, world-class athlete — anybody who makes the major leagues or the NBA or NFL — they’re kind of fanatics. They have to be. There are other guys who have the same skills and abilities they do who didn’t make the team. These guys just wanted it more. They cared more, they tried harder. You can’t ever discount that element. We can critique it or laugh at it, but these guys also have the makings of a championship team. They’re aware of what they do and who they are, but they want to win.”

Like he did with Dazed and Confused, Linklater cast Everybody Wants Some!! with unknowns. Will Brittain, who plays Autrey, the only member of the team in a committed relationship (his girlfriend lives in another town), says that during the initial steps of the casting process, Linklater simply wanted to get a feel for each actor’s personality, not his athletic skills, before matching them up with a specific role.

“I hadn’t played baseball since I was 14,” Brittain says. “Rick had us sit down and interview with the casting director and basically talk about college stories. That was the litmus test: Is this guy a good guy who has funny stories and can relax and have a good time? He discovered which part each actor was best for through that process.”

In a film with 13 major protagonists, assembling the right combination of performers who could play off each other much like a real sports team was critical.

”That’s the big challenge for an ensemble,” Linklater says. “I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at it over the years. Not just in terms of finding talented beginners but also figuring out the dynamics of what they’ll feel like working together. There’s a lot of talent out there. I picked a group that would work as an ensemble. I turned down a lot of talented people who weren’t believable as athletes or were too similar to someone else I had already cast. There’s a lot of reasons to get the right mix of people. But the main thing was getting the team vibe right. Is this actor going to be a good teammate or are they going to try to make it about themselves?”

Once he had finalized his cast, Linklater invited the actors to stay at his 39-acre ranch outside Austin for three weeks to workshop, rehearse and figure out who would play which part.

“Rick is such a collaborative director that it’s funny that even in the casting process, he’s collaborating and giving you the choice of ‘Who do you identify with?’ ” says Tyler Hoechlin, who plays the alpha-male McReynolds, a guy so competitive he uses an axe as a bat to slice balls in half with his swing. “During the rehearsal process on the ranch, the actors would develop different relationships with each other, and [Linklater] would see how those friendships worked out and incorporated them into the script.”

Like he did in several of his previous films (including Boyhood and the Before Sunset trilogy), Linklater included the actors in the writing process, using the ideas they came up with while bouncing lines off each other and putting them into the finished film.

”Rick told us a story from Before Sunrise and explained how they would drill it in rehearsals, they would throw stuff at the wall to see what sticks, and they’d get their greatest hits and that would be what’s in the movie,” says Jenner. “It would be so natural to them, and they’d know it by the back of their hand so much, when you saw the movie it felt like it had been improvised. That was our approach when we were working, just drilling it with each other and seeing what would be birthed.”

The result is a movie that is radically different from the Animal House-style comedy the trailers promise. Everybody Wants Some!! is funny, but it isn’t raucous. The humor comes from a sense of understanding its characters and a keen observation of their behavior instead of traditional scripted jokes and gags.

And like he did in Dazed and Confused, Linklater uses Everybody Wants Some!! to recreate the spirit of a period from his youth that is so different from the present-day, the movie could be taking place on a different planet.

”Today, when you go to clubs and they’re playing techno, everyone sort of dances alone,” Linklater says. “Back then, you had to ask a girl to dance — it was a big question — and then you danced together! That was the whole point of it. It was funny making the movie with these guys, because they all felt like that was such a thing of the past. I tried to remind them that this dancing was all potential foreplay. There was so much fun back then that is missing from the current culture. I started this project with mixed feelings, because I didn’t know how I felt about those years. But early on I realized that was a good time to be young. It was pre-Reagan era just-say-no, pre-the outlawing of fun. Abstinence-only sex education. That permeated the culture later, and it really got ridiculous. This movie is pre-all that. I got lucky.”

Rene Rodriguez: 305-376-3611, @ReneMiamiHerald