Slacker Geography, 25 Years Later
Filmed for a reputed $23,000 in summer 1989, Slacker is a film that had the odds stacked against it. Writer-director Richard Linklater had exhausted family members from which to borrow money, maxed out his credit cards, and at one point didn’t even have enough funds to pay the COD charges on a shipment of prints. Slacker’s quirky non sequiturs and large cast of weird characters didn’t initially connect with studios or distributors. As Linklater wrote early in the process, “We’re now more determined than ever to avoid these industry types who have no passion for cinema. We’ll find ALL of our people elsewhere and do the film a full 100% against the industry way.” Completed in February 1990, Slacker was repeatedly rejected from film festivals that year. Undeterred, Linklater and friends put up Slacker stickers, fliers, and murals around Austin and the film opened to record box office sales at the Dobie Theater in July 1990, selling out the first 22 showings. Word spread, and the film was accepted to Sundance, picked up for distribution by Orion Classics shortly thereafter, and officially opened in theaters on July 5, 1991.
Slacker’s amateur actors were selected from an invite-only casting call. Their inexperience is sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating; their existential boredom and characteristic weirdness provide a glimpse of an Austin that may or may not be apocryphal. As Chris Walters’ 1990 piece in the Austin Chronicle explains, the actors represent the result of “the all-but-total decay of public life that has atomized [them] into subcultures of which they are the only member, free radicals randomly seeking an absent center as the clock beats out its senseless song.” On a grant application, Linklater himself wrote, “Slacker is primarily about people on the fringes of any meaningful participation in society. For the most part, the film focuses on the inner evolution and self-analysis of people in their 20’s; forever posing problems and growing more and more aware of their limitations and potentials.” The characters are never named, only referred to in the credits as things like Sadistic Comb Game Player, Video Backpacker, and Grocery Grabber of Death’s Bounty. Austin was a much less expensive city in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which certainly helped make it possible for part-time workers (and full-time dropouts) to pursue esoteric aims like memorize the minutiae of the JFK assassination, dispose of symbolic typewriters, and document every possible moment on videotape.
Despite its limited theatrical release, something about Slacker resonated with audiences and signaled a growing interest in an intentionally downwardly-mobile class of young adults seemingly without aim or ambition. And the timing couldn’t have been better. 1991 also saw the debut of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, Lollapalooza (where organizer Perry Farrell would coin the term “Alternative Nation”), and Nirvana’s Nevermind, all of which helped establish the commercial viability of an “alternative” culture that would be thoroughly colonized by corporate America and made mainstream within a few years.
Slacker is a landmark in independent filmmaking, and one of only a handful of films to be shot in Austin up to that time. The city would soon provide the backdrop to more Linklater titles, Office Space, a couple Tarantino films, and most of Robert Rodriguez’s work. So, twenty five years after Richard Linklater, cinematographer Lee Daniel, and a cadre of anonymous weirdos set about Austin to make their vision a reality, I drove around town in an attempt to see what had changed and what, if anything, was the same.
Much like the anonymous characters, the locations are given generic titles in the script: coffee shop, street, co-op, soda shop, on bridge, in bookstore, etc. While the viewer is led to believe in spatial continuity, the geography isn’t entirely accurate. For example, after the failed robbery at the Old Anarchist’s house (apparently near MLK/University, though not actually a residential area), the Burglar leaves on foot to join a waiting car of accomplices under a bridge, actually at 35th/Mopac, a distance of about 3 miles.
What follows is not an exhaustive list of locations that appear in Slacker. I stuck to outdoor scenes, which explains why the Continental Club doesn’t appear on the list. Some I could not positively identify and others didn’t make for a good photo. See this Google Map for most of the approximate filming locations.
All film stills copyright 1990 Detour Productions, Inc.
1) (4:43) A taxi drops off Linklater (“Should Have Stayed at the Bus Station”) on 24th between San Antonio & Nueces. The Castilian still stands, an early example of what is now a large number of high-rise student apartment buildings in West Campus.
2) (6:47) 2405 Nueces, Linklater’s residence and address for his production company. Nicknamed the “Finger Hut,” the address can be seen on an Independent Production Fund grant application in the 1992 book but is blacked out on the Criterion Collection DVD booklet. The location is now the back of Fricano’s Deli and the pointing finger is gone.
3) (11:41) A guy is playing a guitar on the steps of the church on Guadalupe just south of 22nd St. The green-awning Bagel Manufactory is now part of the Scientology Center.
4) (13:52) Looking south along the Drag, this was once Quackenbush’s Intergalactic Dessert Co & Espresso Café (2120 Guadalupe), now an urgent care clinic. The upstairs portion formerly housed the Austin Film Society. A mural by Faile currently occupies the upper portion of the wall.
5) (14:50) Seen in the background of the extended conversation about the moon landing and conspiracy theories, this is along the south side of 22nd St between Guadalupe and San Antonio. The mural is still there but the door is slightly different.
6) The end of the moon landing conversation, 704 W 22nd is on a street where a number of co-ops are located. The house looks pretty much the same as it did 25 years ago (18:30), as does the adjacent apartment building (seen in 18:12).
7) (25:47) Possibly Slacker’s best-known vignette is the conversation about Madonna’s pap smear, which takes place on the sidewalk of 2nd St just west of Guadalupe. The film still shows a street sign for the 400 block of 2nd St, which would be impossible based on the lane direction sign on the opposite side of the street. After some sleuthing, it appears the street sign was turned around when the scene was filmed. Regardless, almost nothing remains the same at this location between 1989 and today.
8) (29:41) I could not positively identify the exact location, but it’s probably near the Madonna pap smear scene on the north side of 2nd Street. The 709 is probably not an accurate address, the number being a common feature in Lee Daniel’s films. This is right before we see the guy selling Nelson Mandela T-shirts in front of a green rollup door.
9) (32:07) After his death is predicted by the Sidewalk Psychic, the Happy-Go-Lucky Guy walks by an abandoned building before crossing a one-way street (and almost getting hit by a red pickup truck). I’ve been told this scene was filmed near the Liberty Lunch, formerly at 405 W 2nd, but almost everything in this part of downtown has changed over the past 25 years.
10) (32:33) Formerly the GM Steakhouse, location of the “You should quite traumatizing women with sexual intercourse” patron, 626 N Lamar is currently the Counter Café. The George Coffey auto dealership across the street is now the site of Book People and REI. The payphone is gone, along with most payphones.
11) (41:14) This view looks east along MLK Blvd just east of the railroad tracks. The open field with the two billboards is now a preschool. In this scene, two guys encourage another to throw a typewriter off the bridge into Boggy Creek. The bridge is apparently still a popular place to dump refuse, as there was a car battery in the creek the day I took the photo. This is the only location the crew paid to film – the man who owned the adjacent store demanded payment for parking in his lot, so they gave him $20.
12) (42:23) After giving a Diet Coke to a panhandler (“Nutri-Sweet, my favorite”), this couple walks by the site of Austin’s well-known “Hi how are you” mural. It was then Sound Exchange Records, now it’s a Thai restaurant.
13) (43:35) The bookstore (then a Half Price Books) is at 3110 Guadalupe. The camera is looking north. The Texaco station in the background is now a car wash, and the front door opens to a yoga studio.
14) (51:23) The JFK conspiracy enthusiast walks up to a guy working on an engine (“It’s practically a big block now”) before hopping into an old Pontiac. The location is 20th St just east of Salina St and the home on the corner is no longer there.
15) (54:43) Fresh from the junkyard, the carload of guys drops off the hitchhiker downtown. The spot is Trinity Street just north of 5th St, looking north. The buildings on the right are now Old School, Chupacabra, and Chicago House.
16) (55:00) The hitchhiker provides some choice quotes for the camera crew, among them “all it does is fill the bellies of the pigs who exploit us.” Another scene filmed on 24th St, the building in the background is The Castilian. The Subway is still a Subway, but Les Amis, where the customers are seated, is (predictably) a Starbucks.
17) (58:28) The shoplifting scene was filmed outside of Foodland, 1120 S Lamar. Not long ago, the entire shopping center (which had since become dominated by Alamo Drafthouse and the Highball) was razed with a new one soon to open in its place. Because of construction, I couldn’t access the exact spot where the post-shoplifter apprehension conversation takes place. The second photo is taken from the end of the street, facing toward where the couple is walking in the film. This is the very end of Dexter Street behind the shopping center.
18) (1:02:17 and 1:02:57) The Old Anarchist and the would-be Burglar have a conversation about the Capitol (“blow the damn thing sky high”) and the Charles Whitman shooting. Part of this scene looks north along University Ave toward the iconic UT tower. The AT&T Center now stands on the corner of University and MLK. Looking south across the parking lot, the trees have grown high enough so that the Capitol Building is no longer visible.
19) (1:05:33) This is a parking lot underneath 35th St on the east side of Mopac. It’s still a parking lot. For whatever reason, nearly all trains running on these tracks (except the Amtrak) are northbound.
20) (1:14:14) East side of I-35 just south of 13th St. The Sheraton visible toward the left is the same but clearly there are several new buildings in the Austin skyline.
21) (1:22:54) Steve (that’s S-T-E-V-E) can’t get into the club at 2008 S Congress.
22) (1:30:36) The young woman is standing in an archway. She gets in a car and they drive off down the street (1:31:30). The location is the west side of Congress Ave just north of 4th St. The illuminated sign across the intersection now says Fedex Kinko’s, and the three-tiered building across Congress is located where the Frost Tower now stands. Almost miraculously, the archway is still there.
23) (1:32:58) UPDATE: location identified! The Old Man Recording Thoughts crosses an alley and walks down the sidewalk next to a vacant lot. The camera pans most of the way around when the loudspeaker car approaches. Two old concrete walls are visible, one in the direction the old man is walking, the other across the street to his left. A Moon Tower, visible in the background to his right, no longer exists since the intersection of 2nd/Neches is now part of the Convention Center. The man is walking south along the west side of Red River south of 3rd Street (2nd no longer intersects with Red River).
24) (1:34:27 and 1:34:29) This is where the loudspeaker guy (“Post-Modern Paul Revere”) crosses paths with the carload of camera-wielding passengers. A street sign is briefly visible, indicating the 1700 block of Bouldin St at the intersection with Annie St. The house on the corner looks pretty much the same, as do the buildings across the intersection on the south side of Annie.
25) (1:36:43) This is the very end of the film right before “Tosses Camera Off Cliff” does what his character name indicates. The structure at the top of Mt Bonnell did not exist then, and the marker stone is now protected from vandalism by a large metal cage. As the script says, “The movie ends at the top of the hill, the city of Austin on the horizon in a dance of image, music, and release.”
Slacker doesn’t capture the fullness of Austin, nor does it pretend to. It provides a limited glimpse into the daily life of certain parts of Austin without revealing everything. And in that sense Slacker is less about a place and more about some of the people that make up (and are very much made by) the place they live. A January 26, 2001 Austin Chronicle article about Slacker’s filming locations suggests, “Richard Linklater’s film should be required viewing for the hordes of new arrivals that began inundating Austin some four years ago. Of course, the film’s popularity – and the cultural popularity of the ‘slacker lifestyle’ that it engendered – almost certainly sounded the death knell of the very community it was celebrating” – a criticism repeatedly echoed from this self-aware city so concerned with preserving its parochial coolness: Keep Austin Weird! Welcome to Austin, don’t move here! And above all, Don’t Dallas my Austin!
To an outsider like myself, too young and born elsewhere, Slacker is an important film more than it is a good film. To the underachieving twenty-somethings living in Austin in the late 1980s and early 1990s, almost like an inside joke, you had to be there to fully understand.
Brendan Gaughen is working his way toward a Ph.D. in American Studies. His research interests focus on the connections between material culture, collecting, mobility, and the human relationship to place. When not doing academic-related things, he enjoys playing vintage video games, wandering America’s backroads, and a GPS-based hobby called geocaching.