Richard Linklater talks Boyhood

Movies Features Richard Linklater
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In Boyhood, Richard Linklater may just have created the anti-summer movie. There are no CGI robots, no superheroes, no large-scale action sequences. In fact, the only common ground it shares with the seasonal blockbusters is that is epic—but with a very intimate, indie film mentality. For 164 minutes, we see the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) for 12 years. And of course the film features an unequalled feat of filmmaking: Linklater filmed the same cast for 12 years. So we get to see Coltrane as well as costars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater (yup, that’s his daughter) age over 12 years. It’s pretty remarkable. We had the chance to chat with Linklater about his film that not only redefines the coming-of-age genre, but is a significant benchmark in filmmaking itself.

Paste: What made you want to make such an ambitious film like this?
Richard Linklater: I know. It’s almost like not even an idea. It’s like a compulsion or something. It goes beyond the usual desires. I think it was just storytelling. I had a story I was trying to tell, and it ended up the only way to tell it. There’s no other way to put it than that.

Paste: When did you start filming? What year?
Linklater: In ’02—it needed 12 years to find itself, to articulate the whole, the stages of growing up and to feel that change—to feel that emergence of self through those years. Most movies with kids, they’re pretty specific because you got the limitation of the age of the actor. You can’t just ask an 8-year-old, “Oh, now you’re 12 in this scene.” You can’t do that.

Paste: Did you just film it in chunks?
Linklater: Yeah, I wanted it to feel seamless, like it’s one movie. That was the feel, but in reality we shot 12 different occasions and we shot 12 different scripts. It was this long project.

Paste: It must have taken a lot of patience.
Linklater: It kind of redefines patience in relation to film, but I’m of two minds. If you think of life, we all make these life commitments, whether it’s to a career or what you’re passionate about or relationship or family. We’re kind of in it. We’re in our own lives for the long haul. We all have our short-term stuff, but we have our long term. Cinema was kind of my life. I’ve spent my whole adult life in film, and it was natural to me. It’s a film life project. It wasn’t that far from me. On the other hand, it’s certainly—as far as one project goes—it pushes the boundaries of what would be possible.

Paste: When you first had this inkling to make Boyhood and you were telling your friends, family and your peers, how did they react?
Linklater: It says a lot about somebody. I think artists get it. Actors are like, “Cool, that’s a way you could tell a story. What an interesting character trajectory.” Actors have, “Oh, I got 12 years to develop my character.” That’s a pretty cool canvas, but I think business people, practical people, non-artists are like, “Okay, that’s crazy because so many bad things could happen and here’s all the reasons why.”

Paste: They focus on the negative.
Linklater: Yeah, I think businesses have to think of that. It’s a part of our brains. That’s just preventative I guess. We had to shut down that part of our brains and just focus on the cool thing, which was like, “Hey, well be collaborating with an unknown future.” That can be fun or scary. It’s how do you view the future of your own life? I want to look at it as fun and potentially very interesting, rather than, “Oooh, something bad is going to happen.”

Paste: That’s not a good way to think of it.
Linklater: No, not a good way to go through life.

Paste: Exactly, and what was the process in picking the perfect Mason?
Linklater: I auditioned a ton of kids—a ton of six-, seven-year-old kids, and I just met so many. [Ellar] was kind of the guy who just seemed a little different. A lot of kids can be kind of cute and adult-pleasing. He kind of didn’t care much what you thought about him. He was just his own guy. He talked about music and movies. I could tell he was excited, but you’re really kind of casting the parents. His parents are artists. I thought it’s a family decision that this would be a good thing in his life hopefully. He just seemed like the more arty, interesting kid, but it’s still a huge leap of faith. He could have grown up to be anything. Who knows? I got very lucky. He’s the same kind of sensitive, thoughtful young man that he was as a kid.

Paste: Did you write in the script about how his look would evolve?
Linklater: Not so much the look, we play off it a little bit.

Paste: Would he come in with his head shaved, and would you play off that?
Linklater: There was always the new hair—it kind of demarcated the time.

Paste: Yeah. The hair served as a really good benchmark, watching it.
Linklater: Yeah, it’s like his hair is different. He’s a little pudgier. He’s grown up or whatever is going on with him—you just saw it change year to year. It was pretty much him. We didn’t put too much regulation on his life of what he could and couldn’t do. I tried to play off just wherever he was at, but he was cool. He would call me up [and say], “Hey Rick, I’m thinking about getting an earring. Do you think that’s okay for my character in the movie?” I’m like, “Yeah, if everybody is doing that, that’s fine.”

Paste: How was it like watching the movie as a finished product for the first time with an audience for you?
Linklater: I don’t get the “one big moment” because I actually watched it before. We premiered at Sundance to 1,200 people, and that was a big deal, but I had already watched it with about 30 people. I felt it was working the way I wanted it to work. That was satisfying, but it was special about watching it with a large audience. You could feel the connection and the humor. That was its own cool thing, but directors, you don’t really get that one final moment because you’re still—you’re working. Actors, they shoot and then they’re done and then they see the movie.

Paste: What made you choose Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the mom and dad? Their roles as parents are just as important as the character of Mason.
Linklater: They had to be parents. Ethan had had two kids by the time he was in his 20s. Patricia had become a mom early in her life. I thought that was important. I just thought they were good actors I could collaborate with. They had a certain gung-ho attitude toward the whole project. It’s about as far from Hollywood as you can get—what the film’s asking them to do. There’s a certain lack of vanity to both of their performances. I never really went to anybody else. Those were my first two people I talked to about it.

Paste: With a movie like this, did you have a lot of extra footage? Are you going to have a special extended, six-hour cut?
Linklater: No, no. (laughs)

Paste: Speaking of, how do you know when to stop editing yourself—especially with a movie with this scope and scale?
Linklater: It’s not a documentary where there’s a lot of footage. It’s all scripted and done, so there’s not much on the editing room floor actually. I’d probably say a less ratio than most films. It was pretty specific, and we didn’t have a lot of time or schedule, so everything we did we really workshopped and made work best we could. It’s kind of how it unfolded. There will never be another version. There’s a few scenes that aren’t in the movie. Everything got trimmed a little bit, its pacing. I got to say, it’s such a luxury to have 11 solid years to be editing. I was cutting things between years 11 and 12 from the first year. We were always working on the whole movie.

Paste: Did you inject any specific scenes from your childhood into the movie?
Linklater: Yeah, almost all of it is based on either a memory I or one of my collaborators had. It’s all pretty personal, if not specifically autobiographical. I’ll put it like this: everything in the movie has some connection to some reality I would say—every element.

Paste: There was this interesting quality about the movie. It was kind of like we weren’t supposed to be watching him grow up.
Linklater: Yeah, I wanted it to be very intimate. I wanted that feeling to be like you’re let in on these people’s lives. It’s these intimate moments that usually you don’t see in movies. They don’t fit into anybody’s narrative. This kind of material, it’s so small time, but I really bet the whole farm on the momentum would build. The more you believed in him, the more you would invest in them and hopefully care about them and see yourselves in them in however way. Someone said if it were unknowns in the whole cast, they would swear it was a documentary.

Paste: Definitely.
Linklater: It’s not, but I wanted it to feel real.

See Tim Grierson’s Paste review of Boyhoodhere, and Brent Simon’s Paste conversations about Boyhood with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.