Richard Linklater is no stranger to the workings of time—both as thematic device in his films, and as necessary ingredient to the moviemaking process.
After all, his two previous features had unusually long gestation periods: 2011’s Bernie had been cooking in the director’s head since 1997, while 2013’s Before Midnight comes 18 years after Before Sunrise, the first film in the Jesse-Celine trilogy.
Yet it’s Boyhood, Linklater’s luminous meditation on growing up, that is perhaps his most astounding temporal spectacle to date. Shot over a period of 12 years (from the summer of 2002 to the fall of 2013), Boyhood follows Mason (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane) through his adolescence from elementary school to college. One is quick to think of François Truffaut’s five-part Antoine Doinel Cycle, or Michael Apted’s eight-episode-strong Up Series—the former fictional and the latter documentary. Boyhood, though, is truly unprecedented in that rather than being episodic, it’s one consecutive piece of art.
The film is undeniably an experience to behold. It’s amazing to see so much of Mason’s life, as well as that of sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter), father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), flash before your eyes in a matter of hours. And it’s inexpressibly moving to witness this self-contained time capsule of childhood in the new millennium, complete with all the cultural touchstones of the period. The sheer ordinariness of this family’s year-to-year existence makes Boyhood an oddly familiar venture into the furthest realms of the cinematically possible—part home video, part Old Master canvas, about nothing and everything. Of course, the formalistic audacity of shooting over a span of 12 years begs various practical questions: What if your lead drops out? How do you continue to assemble a crew together? How do you finance a project with such delayed returns?
Therein lies the magic of Linklater’s body of work: his consistent ability to test the medium’s limits within an oeuvre that is marked by its diversity. From indie darlings (Slacker), to big-budget studio hits (School of Rock), to rotoscoped animations (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), to arthouse romances (the Before series), the man is a cinematic maverick of the highest order. I sat down at SXSW to talk with Linklater about the creative and technical innovations that brought his magnum opus to life.
Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): This truly is an unprecedented piece of cinema. Where did the initial idea come from? Were famous cycles, like the Antoine Doinel Cycle, an influence?
Richard Linklater (RL): I’d say Truffaut was closer to my Before movies. I don’t know—I was trying to crack how to tell a story about childhood. I was 40ish, I’d been a dad for seven or eight years, and I knew I wanted to tell a story about being a kid. I just couldn’t land on one moment in time that did it for me, though; I wanted to cover so much.
So finally I think I gave up the idea of a film and said, “I’ll just write. I’ll just write that novel I’ve been threatening to write for a couple of decades.” And I sat down to write at my computer, put my hands on the keys, and the idea hit me. It’s like when I got the idea for Slacker: I’m never thinking about what story to tell, because I have a ton of stories, but how to tell it. So I got the core idea, which was so simple, but also wildly impractical.
MM: And you had the structure mapped out as well?
RL: Oh yeah, I got there pretty quickly. I immediately decided on 12 years: first through 12th grade. When you get out of high school, that feels like the end, because you’re leaving home and leaving the public school system. That’s how I remember feeling—like I was placed on a grid. So I came to that easily, and then the rest was figuring out what cast I would need and what would happen in the story.
MM: Talk about the casting, especially with kids like Ellar Coltrane. You have to put so much trust in someone (and their parents) committing to this for 12 years.
RL: Finding the lead was definitely the hard one. My daughter had been in Waking Life and she wanted to do it. My biggest fear on the practical side was that the lead kid’s parents wouldn’t want to do it. You’re really casting the parents, as well. Ellar’s parents are artists, and they have Austin roots so they probably weren’t gonna move. It would have been really impractical if they went to Maine or something.
MM: Well, what about Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette? They aren’t exactly easy to lock down once a year, either.
RL: That’s why I made them divorce in the beginning, because I knew it’d be so difficult to coordinate schedules with everyone. I tried to make it as simple as possible. Ethan was actually the first guy I talked to about the movie.
MM: How did you deal with change between years? Did you ever worry about cast or crew dropping out or being unavailable, or did you find it creatively exciting to adapt?
RL: You have to work around the reality. I felt really blessed—the film gods were really with us on this one. It was such a down-and-dirty low budget thing and the ambitions of the project were so outside our means. It got a little harder to make every year in terms of organization—but we got better every year.
MM: Would you change the script throughout the years based on Ellar’s own experiences of growing up?
RL: A little. I never wanted to impose anything on him. I’d just sense where he was at, like, “All right, it’s Friday night, you’re in eighth grade with your friends. Would there be beer around?” I didn’t want to make him do things he hadn’t already done, and it was a fun collaboration. People say we got so lucky, and we did! But depending on how he was growing up, it could have gone any way.
MM: How many days would you shoot per year?
RL: We generally shot three days a year since that’s what we could afford. There weren’t any strict rules on what time of year, but we definitely shot more summers. I’d shoot the beginning of one school year and the end of another, and within that structure I knew what milestones I wanted to cover. But you have to grab the moment of what’s going on that year, like the Obama election. I wanted the whole film to feel like a memory; you’re in one moment, but it ties you back to other moments. When I think about growing up, I remember elections and big events, so it seemed like a kid would.
MM: And would you make re-writes based on what you would shot before? For example, the Obama scene was a great callback to when Mason’s dad was talking about the Iraq war and Bush in 2002.
RL: Yeah, to show the way you’d pick up on your parents’ politics. All [the 2002 political debates] were going on the first year we shot, so I wanted to document that moment. There were tons of moments we cut out where certain threads weren’t taking off.
MM: What were some of the challenges of shooting over the years as both shooting and editing formats were changing? Did you stay on one format and editing system, or did you grow with the technology?
RL: We always shot 35mm and we went through three editing systems. 35mm was an aesthetic decision to keep a unified look. I didn’t want anything from the film itself to delineate time; I didn’t want the film to change because the look is different. I wanted it to feel like one experience. I wanted things like Mason having longer hair, or seeing an Obama sign, or hearing a certain song, to show when we’re in a new year.
MM: That’s a great point, because each year is perfectly represented by what the characters are listening to. What were the challenges acquiring such huge songs, and did you write with specific songs in mind for certain scenes?
RL: They weren’t songs I was listening to, and Ellar wasn’t helpful because his music taste was far beyond whatever was popular at the time. So I had some interns and friends’ kids give us lists of what great songs were out. Truffaut worked with co-writers and he insisted on using things that really happened. I didn’t have an emotional connection to songs from this era, but I knew enough to read people’s lists.
MM: Almost like a parallel for the soundtrack to a movie like Dazed & Confused.
RL: I can give you my own narrative for every one of those songs—that was my life. But it was important for the Boyhood characters to have songs from their era and for them to have that same emotional connection to them. It was a cultural thing, but it was a lot of work and time.
MM: I heard that, through the years, you would go back and edit scenes and continue to tweak the entire piece as it grew.
RL: We’d shoot and then edit that year, and for a few weeks a year we’d cut. But usually we went right from production to editing, attached it to what already existed, and then periodically cut the whole thing. We never just edited one year, we’d edit everything as a whole. We had the luxury of time to make little trims and transitions for footage as old as a decade. I even put back things that had been cut years before.
MM: This may be a naïve question, but did you ever consider leaving each piece as-is after you cut it, as if it was a contained episode? Or was the plan always to develop the edit as both the story grew and you grew as a filmmaker?
RL: I always wanted it to feel like one piece. In fact, I was trying to hide the episodic aspect so you’d only notice by invisible transitions, like a character having longer hair.
MM: You are one of the most versatile moviemakers working today. Coming off such a large, high-profile project, what do you want to do next?
RL: I’ve got a couple of things eating at me and a whole slate of scripts I’m developing. I have this one super-ambitious 19th century thing I’ve been working on for 10 years so hopefully I can get that done someday. But, you know…. it’s always the same challenges. MM
This interview first appeared in our Summer issue, on stands now. IFC Films releases Boyhood in theaters July 11, 2014.
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