Richard Linklater works out of an office at the Austin Studios lot in Texas, a vast expanse of concrete and converted airplane hangars that was once, some 25 years back, the main airport in town, where experimental filmmaker James Benning flew at the invitation of Linklater.
Benning stepped off the plane all those years ago with canisters of his films in one hand, his "luggage" in the other: a crumpled brown paper bag containing a toothbrush and some underwear.
"I still travel that way," he wryly informs his old friend in the documentary "Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater," which debuted this week at the Venice Film Festival. It screens locally in a special advance preview Sunday at the Music Box Theatre as the closing night film of the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival.
Linklater is the name most audiences will recognize, with a body of work that includes "Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock" and most recently "Before Midnight," the third in a series of movies he has made with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
Benning, though, who has spent the last decade or two making non-narrative nature films, requires a deeper sort of film knowledge. . "I was never a cinephile," he says, pronouncing it "sinny-file." Soft-spoken and wearing his ever-present faded jean jacket, he is a hipster without the pretense.
"Double Play," which documents the pair's conversational wanderings over a weekend in Austin, is the work of director Gabe Klinger, a freelance writer who taught film at Columbia College Chicago and the University of Illinois Chicago before moving to New York last year to run the Museum of Modern Art's Festival of Film Preservation.
The men seemed like complete opposites, Klinger wrote in a recent essay for Filmmaker magazine, and yet they have an enduring kinship: "The guy who made '10 Skies,' which comprises 10 static shots of clouds as they move across the sky, and the guy who made 'School of Rock' — who knew?" Benning is 70; Linklater 53. Klinger was able to convince them to meet up in April to talk, knock around and maybe play a little baseball. "My biggest nightmare was that the two would flake and I would be left with my crew of 12 shooting tumbleweeds (something Benning would surely appreciate)."
"What sparked the idea?" Klinger said when I tracked him down by email in Venice. "Something about these two filmmakers being different and alike. That they are both former college baseball players also intrigued me. And also that I like them very much both as people and filmmakers. And that their films embody so much of America, its follies and its splendors."
At one point in the film Linklater mentions the standard three-act structure that is all but a requirement in Hollywood films. "A well-told story has its place…" he says. "Over lunch, we can argue about that," says Benning, who has the less outwardly gregarious personality of the two, but also the sharper sense of humor. "Rick was real generous and up for almost anything," said Klinger, "and James was taciturn and a bit resistant." And yet: "Benning suggested shagging fly balls. He wanted that to be the whole movie basically!"
Klinger weaves in clips from both filmmakers, including Benning's contemplative "13 Lakes" from 2004 — the camera focused patiently on the gently undulating gray-green water, an island off in the distance, shrouded in haze. Every so often a bird flies across the frame, skimming the surface of the water. From Linklater there is behind-the-scenes footage from "Dazed and Confused" in which he talks to the cast. "So, do we look, like, stupid or anything?" an actress asks. "No!" says Linklater. "Of course not. Just have fun!"
"The third day of shooting (the documentary) was confined mainly to the Austin Studios lot," Klinger said, "where Linklater's Detour Filmproduction keeps its offices. Linklater agreed to show us scenes from his still-in-production "Boyhood," a film that he's been shooting for nearly 12 years with the same actors. Very little of the film had ever been shown to anyone. We felt lucky. Benning would sit there as interviewer and captive audience as Linklater's longtime editor Sandra Adair sped through various important set pieces from the film."
Klinger said he plans to move back to Logan Square this fall, but first, there is the business of "Double Play's" theatrical release at some point in the future.
"When you get down to it, they're both a couple of weird outsiders who are incredibly lucky to have been able to keep making films exactly in the way that they have always set out to make them," Klinger said. "In the end, these guys aren't so different. They've consistently made personal films that manage to express a particular world view, and that has become very rare in American cinema."
The Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival runs through Sunday. "Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater" is the closing night film and screens 7:30 p.m. at the Music Box. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
A woman spies a man sitting by himself in a Vancouver park one day. He looks to be homeless, so she invites him to stay in her apartment, where he soon becomes her prisoner. "That Cold Day in the Park" (1969) isn't a title that comes immediately to mind when you think of Robert Altman — and tellingly, it doesn't appear to be available for streaming anywhere. It screens at the Siskel Film Center Sunday and Wednesday. Go to siskelfilmcenter.org/that-cold-day.
A new life
Director John D. Hancock ("Bang the Drum Slowly") is at work on a project called "The Town That Made a Movie," a documentary about a 13-year-old singer who moves to LaPorte County, Ind., to live with her grandparents after the death of her mother. For more info, go to filmacres.wordpress.com.
Beating the odds
The stories of underprivileged girls across the globe are the subject of the non-fiction film "Girl Rising," which travels to places such as Egypt, Peru and Ethiopia. Selena Gomez, Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys, Meryl Streep and Kerry Washington narrate. It screens Tuesday at City Winery, followed by a Q&A with director Richard Robbins. Go to citywinery.com/chicago.