Many of his films are noted for their loosely structured narrative; two of his projects – the Before... films and Boyhood – feature the same actors filmed over an extended period of years. He is also known for loyalty to his actors, having worked with Ethan Hawke and Matthew McConaughey in many of his films.
Linklater was born in Houston, Texas, the son of Diane Margaret (née Krieger), who taught at Sam Houston State University, and Charles W. Linklater, III. He attended Huntsville High School in Huntsville, Texas, during grades 9–11, and finished at Bellaire High School in Bellaire, Texas for his senior year. As a teen, Linklater also won a Scholastic Art and Writing Award. Linklater studied at Sam Houston State University (where he also played baseball), until dropping out to work on an off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. He frequently read novels on the rig and, upon returning to land, developed a love of film through repeated visits to a repertory theater in Houston. At this point, Linklater realized he wanted to be a filmmaker. He used his savings to buy a Super-8 camera, a projector, and editing equipment, and moved to Austin, Texas. He was influenced by Martin Scorsese, Robert Bresson, Yasujirō Ozu, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Josef Von Sternberg, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. He enrolled in Austin Community College in the fall of 1984 to study film. Since his early 20s, Linklater has been a vegetarian. In 2015, he explained the dietary lifestyle in a Boyhood-style documentary for PETA.
Linklater founded the Austin Film Society in 1985 together with his frequent collaborator Lee Daniel. One of the mentors for the Film Society was former New York City critic for the Soho Weekly News George Morris who had relocated to Austin and taught film there. Morris had previously written articles on Leo McCarey, Vincente Minnelli, George Sidney, and Douglas Sirk.
For several years, Linklater made many short films that were exercises and experiments in film techniques. He finally completed his first feature, the rarely seen It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (which is now available in The Criterion Collection edition of his second feature, Slacker), a Super-8 feature that took a year to shoot and another year to edit. The film is significant in the sense that it establishes most of Linklater's preoccupations. The film has his trademark style of minimal camera movements and lack of narrative, while it examines the theme of traveling with no real particular direction in mind. These idiosyncrasies would be explored in greater detail in future projects. To this end Linklater created Detour Filmproduction (an homage to the 1945 low budget film noir by Edgar G. Ulmer), and subsequently made Slacker for only $23,000. It went on to gross more than $1.25 million. The film is an aimless day in the life of the city of Austin, Texas showcasing its more eccentric characters.
Inspiration for Linklater's work was largely based on his experience viewing the film Raging Bull, Linklater told Robert K. Elder in an interview for The Film That Changed My Life.
It made me see movies as a potential outlet for what I was thinking about and hoping to express. At that point I was an unformed artist. At that moment, something was simmering in me, but Raging Bull brought it to a boil.
While gaining a cult following in the independent film world, he made his third film, Dazed and Confused, based on his years at Huntsville High School and the people he encountered there. The film garnered critical praise and grossed $8 million in the United States while becoming a hit on VHS. This film was also responsible for the breakout of fellow Texas native Matthew McConaughey. In 1995, Linklater won the Silver Bear for Best Director for the film Before Sunrise at the 45th Berlin International Film Festival. His next feature, subUrbia, had mixed reviews critically, and did very poorly at the box office. In 1996, Linklater lent his voice to the critically acclaimed animated feature Beavis and Butt-Head Do America. In 1998, he took on his first Hollywood feature, The Newton Boys, which received mixed reviews while tanking at the box office.
With the rotoscope films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, and his mainstream comedies, School of Rock and the remake of Bad News Bears, he gained wider recognition. In 2003, he wrote and directed a pilot for HBO with Rodney Rothman called $5.15/hr, about several minimum wage restaurant workers. The pilot deals with themes later examined in Fast Food Nation. In 2004, the British television network Channel 4 produced a major documentary about Linklater, in which the filmmaker frankly discussed the personal and philosophical ideas behind his films. St Richard of Austin was presented by Ben Lewis and directed by Irshad Ashraf and broadcast on Channel 4 in December 2004 in the UK. In 2005, Linklater was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for his film Before Sunset, and was nominated for the same award with its sequel Before Midnight in 2014.
Many of Linklater's films take place in one day, a narrative approach that has gained popularity in recent years. Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Tape, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight are examples of this method. Two of his films, (A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life), used rotoscoping animation techniques. Working with Bob Sabiston and Sabiston's program Rotoshop to create this effect, Linklater shot and edited both movies completely as live action features, then employed a team of artists to "trace over" individual frames. The result is a distinctive "semi-real" quality, praised by such critics as Roger Ebert (in the case of Waking Life) as being original and well-suited to the aims of the film.
Fast Food Nation (2006) is an adaptation of the best selling book that examines the local and global influence of the United States fast food industry. The film was entered into the 2006 Cannes Film Festival before being released in North America on November 17, 2006 and in Europe on March 23, 2007. After releasing Fast Food Nation to mixed reviews, Linklater returned to form as a critical darling with A Scanner Darkly (released in the same year), 2009's Me and Orson Welles garnering an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and 2012's Bernie receiving a 91% rating.
In 2014 he released a film in the making for 12 years titled Boyhood, which received overwhelming critical acclaim. It is the only film released in the 21st century to have received a perfect 100 score from review-aggregator Metacritic. His daughter Lorelei Linklater co-stars in the film as the sister of the central character. For a while Linklater was attached to direct a remake of The Incredible Mr. Limpet for Warner Brothers. In 2014, however, he dropped the project in favor of working on a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused, titled Everybody Wants Some!!, with backing from Annapurna Pictures and Paramount distributing the film in North America. The film was released in March 2016 and was well received by critics, but it failed to recoup its budget of 10 million dollars, grossing only 4.6 million.
In August 2016, it was announced that he will write and direct Last Flag Flying, starring Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell. The film is a sequel to Hal Ashby's 1973 film The Last Detail. Filming began in November 2016 and the film is expected to be released on November 3, 2017.
Linklater was attached to direct an adaptation of Graeme Simsion's novel The Rosie Project that would have starred Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role, but Linklater dropped out of directing when Lawrence dropped out of the project. Linklater is attached to direct an adaptation of Maria Semple's novel Where'd You Go, Bernadette, produced by Annapurna Pictures.
Despite the popularity of many of his films and having directed multiple high-paying Hollywood productions, Linklater remains in Austin, Texas and refuses to live or work in Hollywood for any extended period of time. Linklater is known for using the same actors in many of his films including Ethan Hawke, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Julie Delpy and Patricia Arquette.
In the early 1990s, Slacker was widely considered an accurate depiction of Generation X because the film's young adult characters are more interested in quasi-intellectual pastimes and socializing than career advancement. However, Linklater has long since eschewed the role of generational spokesperson and is ironically a "Baby Boomer" himself. Moreover, the movie actually includes various generations, and many of its themes are universal rather than generation-specific.Slacker (1991) was nominated for Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Before Sunrise (1995) won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Waking Life (2001) was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Before Sunset (2004) was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Best Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.
A Scanner Darkly (2006) – Named Best Austin Film by the Austin Film Critics Association.
Me and Orson Welles (2008) – Named Best Austin Film by the Austin Film Critics Association.
Bernie (2011) – Named Best Austin Film by the Austin Film Critics Association.
Before Midnight (2013) was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Best Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Boyhood (2014) was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and won Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette. It also won Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama, as well as the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. Received Best Film and Best Director honors from Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Boston Society of Film C,ritics, New York Film Critics Circle, Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Online.