Twelve years really isn’t a long time. It’s the kind of time frame that makes one incredulously question aloud where all the time went. It sounds miniscule, almost puzzlingly small when you’re an adult. Twelve years is also only a few years more than it takes for a child to become an adult. It’s also an incredibly long time to spend making a single film. American filmmaker Richard Linklater can thoughtfully attest to these indisputable facts of life.
Starting in 2002 – amid a career that would see him making eight other studio based and independent features and other various shorts and TV shows between then and now – Linklater began making Boyhood (opening Friday in Toronto and expanding throughout Canada over the next several weeks). The idea was simple, but incredibly complex and time consuming. Tracing the life of a young boy named Mason at every stage of his life from six until he hits college – played over the years by actor Ellar Coltrane, literally aging before our eyes – Linklater designed a film that could be filmed for a few days every year over the course of twelve years. He convinced actors and former collaborators Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke to portray Mason’s parents in what he best describes as a “life project.” He also got his own daughter Lorelei to portray Mason’s older sister.
Touching on themes of divorce, remarriage, sibling rivalry, substance abuse, first love, the difficulties of parenting, first jobs, and anything else that could happen in ones formative years, it’s a powerful , ambitious, and comprehensive experience like anything that has ever been attempted before and one that’s framed in the same way human memories are formed. Some moments are huge and life changing – sometimes frightening, heartbreaking, and joyous – and others are brief moments that stick with us despite having little bearing on the rest of a day or life.
We talked to Linklater about his already heavily acclaimed film about his process, framing his epic story, the casting of Ellar Coltrane, the evolution of technology, parenting, and people’s reactions to the film.
How worried were you that the process of making this film over the course of twelve years would overshadow the actual story you had planned out?
Richard Linklater: The story always came first, you know? The methodology kind of came out of a way of telling this particular story. It was really always a way for me to express my feelings about growing up and parenting. Everything this movie has to do can only really be done by shooting over this amount of time. It just became the way to do it.
I’m already pretty process oriented, anyway, so even though this movie was kind of epic in its ambition over time, it’s still a humble, little film. It’s a collection of little intimate moments, and like anything it just becomes taking one little step at a time.
It afforded us the great luxury of time to have that every year, but it never threatened to overwhelm. It was actually really comprehensible to everyone. “Okay, we’ll shoot a few days this year and then the next we’ll shoot a few more.” It never felt overwhelming at all. If anything it allowed us a lot of leeway.
And the story was consistent pretty much throughout. When you take on something like this you have to admit that you’re taking co-collaborators who all have unknown futures. Most film people are control freaks. You’re bending the reality around whatever’s around you. You’re bending everything to your storytelling will. I mean, that’s what filmmaking is. You have to be able to give up that sense of control and just admit that you’ll be dealing with elements in the future that you can’t totally predict. You can have your hunches, and you can have your intentions, but the reality of it will be something else.
But I found that very exciting. There were notes that I knew I wanted to hit later in the film that I knew I can’t pull off right now, but I would hope that I could eight to ten years in the future. And sure enough, when we get there we have the chance to revisit it and we’ve had the time to think about how we were going to do it.
For instance, and without spoiling anything, the last shot of the movie: I knew that maybe ten years before we shot it. I always had that shot in mind, but I didn’t have the exact dialogue until maybe ten hours before we shot it. This was the best of both worlds: highly structured, very specific story, and yet completely open for last minute inspiration and last second ideas all the way through it. I kind of always work that way, but this just happens to be the most extreme example.
Considering the amount of downtime that you had between filming and the amount of other films you made over the past decade, were you ever afraid that you might put the film down and then not be able to come back to it in enough time to capture the proper progression of these characters?
RL: (laughs) It was always a kind of technical challenge; an organizational challenge. Like all movies, you know? But we were always in this position where we were technically always everyone’s side project. As much as everyone came to the project committed and knowing it was going to be a big part of our lives, it still was for the actors just a few days a year. They had a lot of things they were doing. I had a lot of things that I was doing. Every year after we would finish shooting we would immediately start looking at the calendar and saying “Okay, next year’s episode, we’ll be doing this,” and it would usually be in the summer or the fall. “What are you going to be doing at the end of the summer?” We would start there, so it was always more of a practical challenge. Bottom line: it was like making twelve movies. (laughs) There were always changes happening.
And over those twelve years you still only shot for a total of just over 40 days, and some movies that you might have worked on in that time could have shot for more than 40 days out of the year.
RL: Not many. I’m not blessed very often with big budgets and long schedules like some people. (laughs) I think that over the years we shot this, one, maybe two of the films I did shot over 40 days. Mine are usually pretty short.
But still, the numbers on Boyhood are crazy to think about. We spent a year in preproduction, two years in postproduction, and yeah, only 40-ish days of shooting, but the numbers are still kinda out of whack for a low budget indie film where you’re not afforded that kind of time. We think we’re the longest scheduled film production in history at just over 4,000 days. (laughs)
What was the casting process like when you decided upon Ellar Coletrane as your lead? What did you see in him at the age of seven when you cast him that made you think he could eventually mature into someone who could pull this material off and stick with it?
RL: That was THE decision, you know? I talked to Ethan and Patricia first, so they were in from the very beginning, but they’re adults. They can grasp what twelve years is in terms of time.
Now a kid, that’s a whole ‘nother area. He was six when I met him, and seven when we started shooting. I remember meeting with a lot of kids. They were all kid actors. I knew I wanted someone who had a headshot, resume, agent, something that could show that they had some sort of family support for this undertaking. That would be crucial to weather all these years. The problem would be around year two, four, or five when a parent might come in and say, “You know, this might not be in our kid’s best interest. I don’t think this is healthy for us, and we’re quitting.” If that happens, there’s nothing you can do! You can’t really contract anyone for that long a period of time, so the trick was finding someone who had a family who thought this might be a cool thing to do and would be supportive of having this artistic element in their lives that was working as a life project for the rest of us.
Ellar’s parents were that, but he was also just the most interesting, most ethereal, most mysterious kid I met with. I liked the way his mind worked. We could sit down and have real conversations, and I think most of all he wasn’t people pleasing. I think a lot of times with kid actors they can try too hard to be people pleasing, and they want to be cute or whatever they think adults want from a role. Ellar didn’t really care what anyone thought of him. He really didn’t. He would just say, “I’m into this band” or “I’m watching this movie” and “Here’s what I’m excited about.” He had this curiosity about him.
It was just a choice I made. I knew I wasn’t expressly casting someone that was going to be, you know, a “type.” I wasn’t setting out to cast the class president or an athlete. I always felt he was going to be this artistic, dreamy kid. That was my hunch, and in fact, that is what he ended up being.
You’re capturing also what might be the first generation that has really grown up entirely around digital culture. Was that something that you intended to talk about in the film directly or did that just come out of circumstance?
RL: I think the technological elements are just natural. That’s just the outlook. If you’re that age, that’s been your whole life. I think by the late 90s the internet was totally there from the time you’re even conscious of its existence. There’s just that sense of interconnectedness and an understanding of a wired, online life. By the end, I was kind of questioning that in the scene where he’s going on that road trip, and Mason is kind of questioning that aspect of his life in the conversation he’s having with his girlfriend. Whether that changes or not, I like that this character is casting a somewhat skeptical look at what the effect of that is. It’s just the life now.
And frankly, that’s what really demarcates the film to a large degree. I know if I had constructed this film and I had thought about my own life while growing up it would have focused a lot more on the cars, or the hairstyles, or the clothes, but here in this case it really was the technological gains, the computers, the games, and the phones, that really show the passing of time best in some ways. It’s no longer so much about the hair, clothes, and cars.
Even the music that we use. These songs are from specific points in time, but they aren’t really new styles as far as I can tell. Even the new music that sounds different today is still technologically based. There weren’t too many landmark cultural changes throughout the making of the film. It kind of looks the same from beginning to end. I was surprised by that.
My take on this is that change is coming so rapidly in the technological world that we don’t need as much change in the outer world because so much of that is already happening in our computers. That’s my little twelve year observation. (laughs)
I mean, we shot on 35mm negative, and I never wanted the film to seem like one section of it had more sheen to it than another. Those decisions were much more organic. I wanted it to feel like one movie, and aside from the technology that I couldn’t control, all I wanted to change were the people in it. People change, people age, but the world feels kind of similar. Time is so imperceptible and gradual, so that really worked in terms of how I perceived the movie. I never wanted the beginning of the film to feel archaic and very much of the past. I never wanted to put up signs directly that say “Oh, it’s 2006” or “Oh, it’s fifth grade” outside of a few cultural references. I wanted it to be kind of like how a memory of a lifetime would work.
So did you wait until the very end to cut the whole film together?
RL: No, no, no. If you added it up I was in post every year on the movie for several weeks at a time as we went. I was editing every year, and they we would just attach what we shot to everything that came before. Then we would watch it all back again and edit the whole film as a whole again. It was all an ongoing project.
So if the earlier years were what you watched the most, was that the section of the film you ended up cutting the most from, or did you always know exactly how you wanted it to come together, and was there anything you noticed that you would have done differently over time?
RL: Well, in terms of how I shot it, there was nothing I could change, and I was happy with that. There’s nothing in here that I was “meh” about or that I would have taken back. I always had the story in mind. There was always one tone, one visual palate, and there was always a way I wanted it to feel.
In postproduction, eleven years later and I’m still feeling this project through as one film. I cut the major transition between years one and two. It was something that I liked how it turned out, but I wasn’t happy with how it was fitting into the film. I thought it was too much and a little too obvious. I was just making my way through it and I was still making cuts to year one in year eleven. But yeah, those years obviously get more attention because they were always there.
But in a way, those were the years that NEEDED the most attention because those took the most work to conceptualize. I never did the math, but I think the first year was running long and I think I ended up cutting more out of that year than the others. But that start was where the whole project took hold, and just as it is in life, those early years needed the most attention. I was glad I was able to naturally give the film that life over the years.
There’s a line in the film that really stuck with me. It’s when Patricia’s mother character breaks down towards the end and says “I thought there would be more.”
RL: Oh, gosh. (laughs)
I was just wondering considering how you guys structured this film as kind of a “life event” as you were saying what that meant for the film.
RL: Yeah, that line is pretty devastating, but it’s something that she has earned. Moms give so much, and at that moment you can’t give much back as a kid. You’re moving on, you’re growing up, this is a good day in your life, but for the parent it’s not. I think parents are kind of allowed that, and given what her character has gone through with her son, she has more than earned that moment. It’s huge, but devastating, but that’s also very real. Considering that the film is told from a child’s perspective, it’s not an emotion that you can really understand at that age. That’s a nice contrast.
With regard to the relationship that Mason has with his father, it give the film kind of an elliptical feel. There’s a lot that people talk about in terms of kids turning out like their parents, but it seems interesting that in this story the son and the father are maturing at the same rate. One is learning how to be an adult, but the father is also learning the kind of heart and responsibility that he didn’t really have when Mason was born. It’s almost like when the film ends and you put Mason’s life on pause, the father’s story could take over from there.
RL: Yeah, totally, and that was something I did want to bring out. They’re starting out from different levels of maturity, but I think you’re right. From the beginning, I was thinking about parents that were younger parents. That’s something that’s expressed directly by Ethan’s character. They weren’t set.
You have to remember that when you’re a little kid you think, “Okay, twelve years of school and then college, and then I’ll be who I’m meant to be” and you see that as sort of a fixed thing. Once you’re older you realize, “Well, that’s crazy. I’m still changing so much.” You’re always growing and maturing, and parenting will always throw you for a loop. This was a man who wasn’t ready to be a good parent early on, but off screen before this movie even starts we realize that he’s made this decision to finally try to be a good dad to these two kids. That’s admirable, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to do it just yet. Still, I really wanted to see him consciously try. And Patricia’s character is doing that, too, in her own way. I think that’s kind of heroic to do that. Flaws and all, they’re trying, and with parenting that’s half the battle. You just have to put forth the effort. You’re just going to get it wrong anyway, but to just try to do something is the best you can ever do.
What was it like as a parent watching your own daughter grow up on screen while you make the film and to trace her own trajectory while you were making this?
RL: It was great because while she was getting older, I was still getting to just hang out with her nine year old self and eleven year old self in the editing room, and I would go home for dinner at the end of the day and she’s sitting there as an eighteen year old. It was fun! It was very much a life project for all of us, and she had grown up around movies. She really wanted to play that part, too, so it wasn’t a big deal in our lives. It was just something we did every year; this film and this part. It was a natural thing in our world. It was a very different thing for Ellar, though, because this wasn’t his normal life.
I’m really proud of Lorelei. She worked hard, and I think she’s excellent in the movie. I think that might be because she’s so easy to work with. I’m so familiar with her that I could just say something like, “Hey, do that annoying little popping thing with your mouth. It would be funny to have in the movie!” And she would just be, like, “Okay, whatever.” (laughs) I was aware of what she was going through so I didn’t really have to fake much of that development at all.
Now that the film is coming out into the world, I can assume that most of the people who see the film will see aspects of their own lives in what happens on screen. I know the section of the film that deals with the alcoholism of Ellar’s stepfather really hits home with me. Is there anything that has surprised you about how people react to the film and how does that make you feel as a filmmaker when people come up to you to talk about the film afterward?
RL: People really come up and talk about all sorts of different things. It’s the kind of film that really necessitates you to observe your own life and your own trajectory wherever you are, whether you’re a parent, a child, or just an adult. You could be 19 for the first time watching this and it could be your life, or if you watch it when you’re older it could be your life at different times in ways that you might have remembered it. You have to relate it to your own circumstances so there can be a certain commonality there.
But to answer your question more directly, it all means different things to different people. It runs the gamut as to what the most specific element that people can pull from. I’ve been deeply and incredibly touched by the fact that it’s not just one thing.
I mean, you mention the alcoholism, and yeah, that’s a huge thing for some people growing up. That was very real to me. As a kid I always wondered, “Jeez, why are these adults acting so strange.” And as I got older it just dawned on me, “Oh wait, they had a drinking problem.” But since it’s a film coming from the viewpoint of a kid, that’s not usually when you can fully understand that or grasp it.
But what triggers an emotional recall for anyone is different for everyone, and it’s humbling that people can have so many different reactions and be moved by the film in different ways.