PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 23: (L–R) Alex Gibney and Richard Linklater attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “God Save Texas: ‘Hometown Prison’” premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 23, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)
By Lucy Spicer
“I’m not really a documentary guy,” says director Richard Linklater at a Q&A following the premiere of God Save Texas: “Hometown Prison” at Prospector Square Theatre on January 23.
It’s true. The filmmaker’s name undoubtedly conjures myriad cinematic memories for the Sundance crowd — including iconic Sundance Film Festival premieres like Slacker, Before Sunrise, and Boyhood among others — but not so much nonfiction.
And yet, here he is, discussing the first episode of God Save Texas, a three-part nonsequential anthology series screening in the Episodic section of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Episodes two and three — Alex Stapleton’s “The Price of Oil” and Iliana Sosa’s “La Frontera” — are screening together at the Festival and focus on the cities of Houston and El Paso respectively. The series is inspired by Lawrence Wright’s 2018 book God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State, and the author is on hand to voice what everyone is thinking — that a screen adaptation was practically meant for Linklater.
“When I had written God Save Texas and HBO expressed an interest, I talked to Alex [Gibney] about it, and who would be the director who would typify Texas more than Rick Linklater?” says Wright at the Q&A. “There has been a film culture in Texas before Rick, but there’s a much more productive and interesting one since Rick. And so we turned to him immediately, and that’s how he came into it.”
Linklater’s episode sees the director return to Huntsville, Texas, where he spent a portion of his childhood. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice is the largest employer in the city, and the Huntsville Unit prison has grown exponentially since the director grew up here. Several interviewees in the episode admit that the prison is part of the fabric of the city and that they don’t give it much thought on a daily basis, and Linklater recognizes this feeling. To those who aren’t from Huntsville, statements like this one might seem jarring considering the fact that the prison is home to the most active execution chamber in the United States.
Linklater talks to old friends and new acquaintances alike in “Hometown Prison.” Many work in the prison system. Some used to, but can no longer justify doing so. Most aren’t in favor of the death penalty.
“It’s not, like, objective. I have a story I’m telling,” admits Linklater at the Q&A. “I didn’t interview all my friends who I’m sure are super pro–death penalty, you know? I’m making my own points.” His points reflect what’s at the heart of Wright’s book — that the people of Texas are diverse and nuanced, proud of certain parts of their identity and ashamed of others.
When asked what he discovered that he didn’t expect upon his return, Linklater answers, “Just how little anything had changed. That dynamic. The corrections officers, the inmates, … It wasn’t very uplifting to just feel that it’s only gotten bigger, you know? It’s 10 times bigger than when I lived there, despite the drop in violent crime.
“It’s money. It’s an industry,” he continues. “Our country does this just so wrong. And Texas is just one of the bigger examples of that.”
If there’s hope, it’s in the testimonies of those who work tirelessly to stop executions, as well as those who made the decision to walk away from their jobs that contribute to the machine.
“If there’s any good news, there’s a lot less executions,” remarks Linklater. “I mean, any is too many, but there used to be 50+ a year, now it’s seven to 10.”
To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.