Over the course of his remarkable career, director Richard Linklater has oscillated between studio and independent fare, and all sorts of different genres. For his 17th feature film, Boyhood, he filmed intermittently over the course of a dozen years, charting the unfolding life of one boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and examining the ups and downs of his various relationships, including with his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and divorced parents, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Recently, Paste had a chance to chat with Hawke one-on-one about the film, life lessons learned, his longstanding relationship with Linklater and more. The conversation is excerpted below:
Paste: You have a personal friendship with Richard, in addition to a working relationship spanning many films and years, and Boyhood unfolds in a unique pop cultural landscape, in that it’s yet to be written. So what were some of the themes and ideas that he maybe talked about when he first mentioned the film to you, and what was your reaction?
Ethan Hawke: Well, he was really asking me to do a period film in the present, and no one’s really asked anyone to do that, in a way, you know? (laughs) But like a lot of good ideas, I also couldn’t believe that no one had done it already. It was like, “We’ve got to do that!” Look, I’ve been privy to the way Rick’s brain works for almost 20 years, and so from when he first approached me with the idea I knew it was really special, and that he had the discipline and the patience to pull it off—that it wouldn’t just be a stunt. There’s something so wonderfully experimental about it, but the downside is that it could just be like making a time capsule or something, a message in a bottle. But I knew that he would pull it off. And the whole movie became, for me, a crucible to put all the things that we were thinking about as parents and all these things about our childhood into. It was a pot that we could kind of put things in and mix [them] around.
Paste: I think I initially heard about Boyhood from you, at a press junket (many years ago).
Hawke: Yeah, I think it might have been my fault that it got out, I don’t know. (laughs) It wasn’t officially a secret, I guess—it just wasn’t that known.
Paste: It struck me that the film could have been a more rigorously plotted thing, and probably less interesting for it, by still following one boy’s adolescence but with even more moments of definitive heartache and trauma. In terms of the script, was there a series of specific things that Richard knew all along were going to be included, or how much of that was hashed out each year?
Hawke: Richard knew the overall arc and feel and tone and mood of the movie. For example, when I saw the finished film, it looked pretty much exactly like the film he first described to me. Now that’s totally surprising considering the amount of work that seemed almost willy-nilly as we went at it. There was so much that seemed arbitrary. There was a few years of talking about whether there should be a more dramatic arc, the idea wasn’t born full-fledged: Maybe a parent should die, for instance. There were certain things you could do to create a strong narrative pull. And then all of a sudden I felt Rick start gravitating away from anything that felt like a first—the first kiss, first sex, first beer—anything that felt like [that]. … Instead, the movie gravitates to the moments that you truly remember. Like, I remember this other girl that I actually fell hard in love with as a kid, and my first thing was whatever it was, you know? But there was never a script to this movie. It wasn’t even an ongoing script. You didn’t get sent pages. It was much more collaborative than that. When we first were talking about it, we knew the overall arc to particularly the lives of Patricia and me. Rick has this theory that we all get dragged through our parents’ lives, and so he needed to map out where the parents were going. I was going to begin in one place as a father and then we knew that at some point in the movie the (Pontiac) GTO was going to get sold—that was going to be a major event in the movie, and it was the kind of movie in which that would be an event. I knew that arc. Rick’s father was in the insurance business and so was my father. Our fathers are both from Texas, we’re both parents, and so we have a lot of ground on which we meet, so we could kind of cook that up as we went.
Paste: As for the actual production segments, then, were you just catching time as catch can, or was it roughly at the same time each year?
Hawke: Rick would probably set up about a week of shooting per year, and sometimes I was involved and sometimes I wasn’t. And sometimes he’d need both Patricia and I, and those were always tougher to schedule. But it was so fun, because you’d usually get five or six days of rehearsal for five or six days of shooting. Six months before said date, Rick would call me up and say, “Hey, you know, I really think that you’re gonna take the kids to a baseball game. But it’s going to be tough to record that, so it can’t all be at the baseball game. I think we need to feel one whole weekend with dad. We’re going to need that in the movie.” And then I’d say, “Well, I’d have a roommate.” “Oh yeah, that’s a good idea. Well, who would his roommate be?” And I’d say, “It’d be one of his musician friends.” And then we’d just riff on that and go, “Wouldn’t it be fun if that guy just reappeared eight years later, representing a road not taken—the life that Mason Sr. moved away from?” We’d get riffing on stuff like that, because in the years after I was first divorced, it was kind of nice to have a roommate. It’s such a lonely period. And the kids would kind of know this person, and it was a fun dynamic. So I’d know that before I arrive, but nothing would be written. He wouldn’t have an apartment that would have big enough bedrooms for them, so one of them would sleep on the couch. A lot of that was from my life, and a lot of it was mined from Rick’s memory, and a lot of it was from talking to Ellar about what was going on [in his life]. Rick always had a clear sense of time, place and mood, but the lyrics are always something that he’s super-collaborative about and wants to ask the actors to contribute to so that their performances have agency and meaning to them.
Paste: Music roots this film in a very different way, too, because it covers so much time.
Hawke: Yeah, you hear that Sheryl Crow song and you remember that year. …I feel like making yourself listen to new music is a way to make yourself not be stale. Most of us could listen to the music we listened to in the 10th grade for the rest of our lives. I mean, I could spend the rest of my life rocking out to Lynyrd Skynyrd, but you have to keep pushing yourself, so it keeps you in [the present]. Music is good that way.
Paste: Your character gives his son a mixture of Beatles tunes and solo tracks that he dubs “The Black Album”—was that Richard’s idea, or yours?
Hawke: That’s something Richard asked me to put in the movie, because it’s something that I gave my daughter for her birthday. I was telling him about it, and he said, “This would go great in the movie because I have this birthday scene coming up and we should include it.” I even felt a little bit of the character that I was creating was a little bit an alternate version of me, in that music has just been a passion of mine all my life. I love thinking about it, talking about it, and I got to put some of that into this character. My father is a closet musician too, and that aspect is a portrait of my dad.
Paste: How did your daughter receive the gift in real life?
Hawke: She loved it, but wishes I didn’t put it in the movie. She’s like, “Is your whole life material?”
Paste: I remember interviewing you for the film adaptation of The Hottest State and chatting about the idea that parents give us vocabulary for love, a map to how we experience it and see it. How do you feel about the language Mason Sr. gives to his son—is it in the end solid advice, in your opinion?
Hawke: Well, one of the things that Rick and I are both pretty into is the idea that everybody you meet is giving you positives and negatives—this idea that negative relationships in your life have a tremendous amount to teach you, and positive relationships sometimes end up hurting. For example, the photography teacher in the movie is in a lot of ways really obnoxious and in a lot of ways he has something really wise to say. The guy who works in the fast food restaurant seems like maybe he’s a twit, and actually he’s a pretty caring person who’s thinking about these young people. It’s our job to discern and take from the people around us what we want. So I didn’t want Mason Sr.’s advice at the end to be some sort of words to live by always—it’s his dad’s experience, passed on. I think he’s saying something beautiful, about being accountable for your own decisions. And, in fact, there are some lines in that that are ripped right out of The Hottest State, and they’re things that I really believe in. Of course, he’s also telling him that women are always trying to trade up. (laughs)
Paste: Those bits feel like the tattered remnants of adolescent aggrievement and hurt that all males pass through.
Hawke: Yeah, but it’s this man’s experience. And what’s beautiful about that scene to me is that the father is taking his son to see someone who followed their dream. This father has made a lot of sacrifices, but here’s his buddy, his old roommate, who’s stayed a musician. There’s an interesting subtext that’s going on underneath that scene [because,] for Mason Sr., to show up as a dad came at a cost. And Mason Jr. is upset at him for selling the car, but it was sold to pay for his life and his child support. I’m sure Mason Sr. would have loved to have kept the GTO.
Paste: It’s funny that you mentioned that photography teacher earlier because he makes the point that it’s good to have talent and interest, but you also need discipline and focus to hone those gifts. Did you have a teacher like that character, Mr. Turlington, in school, or was it a lesson learned later?
Hawke: You know, life will end up doing that to you. In a lot of ways my Mr. Turlington was the release of Explorers (from 1985). It was kind of a punch in the face for me, at 15. I had this blessed experience of working with River (Phoenix) and Joe Dante and making this cool movie, and I had so much fun and then it came out and was this huge failure. We couldn’t buy a good review, and I don’t think it was out the second weekend anywhere in the world. It seemed like it was just cast into the trash bin and that movie had been my life. (long pause) And I came to realize pretty quickly that there are a lot of talented people, and sometimes even hard work and discipline aren’t everything, aren’t enough. We worked hard and were disciplined on that movie, and it didn’t work out. You have to have your own self-esteem about how things are, regardless of how the world thinks about your work or you or anything. I don’t know that I had one person who dictated that to me, although my stepfather was a pretty amazing person in that regard—he was pretty clear that if I wanted to bullshit my way through life it was going to be a disaster.
Paste: What about the contrast then, of something like The Purge, a small budget film without a lot of expectations that became a huge hit. Was that expected, and at this point in your career is that lesson pretty well learned?
Hawke: It’s really easy to say and really hard to feel. We all like the success, you like compliments, it makes me so happy to see some of the notices on Boyhood, and the fact that people get it. But it could have fallen completely on deaf ears. I’ve done things before that I thought were really interesting, and nobody else thought they were interesting at all. And that never stops hurting. The success of the The Purge was kind of a thrill. James DeMonaco is a really serious filmmaker, and it was hard to make that movie—we made that movie for under $3 million. It’s a war to get anything out there, and that movie is kind of a subversive drive-in movie, and I love when something like that works. In the same way, with something like Before Midnight, people could have easily not gotten that movie. But I still get hurt when things don’t work out, and I get happy when they do. I still don’t quite understand. The job I work at is so hard to predict.
NOTE: Boyhood opens in limited release on July 11, and expands nationally July 18. For more information, visit BoyhoodMovie.Tumblr.com.