An interview with BOYHOOD writer/director, Richard Linklater.
Richard Linklater has been making films for about 24 years now and half of that time was spent on just one movie, his latest movie, BOYHOOD. Incidentally, this may also be the crowning achievement of his illustrious career. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Linklater about this triumph of a film and it was all I could do not to stand up and applaud him before the conversation began. That’s how inspiring BOYHOOD truly is. It just makes you want to stand up and cheer.
Linklater began working on BOYHOOD in 2002, around the same time that he made his most successful film, SCHOOL OF ROCK. Over the course of 12 years, Linklater made a series of short films with the same cast of actors that would ultimately become the finished film that is BOYHOOD, a coming of age film unlike any other you will ever see. In this film, the boy in question literally comes of age before your eyes, as we watch him, and everyone in his life, grow both physically and emotionally. The experience is just incredible.
“The story came first,” Linklater informs me, asserting that he always knew the story he wanted to tell, and that the story was always the priority. “The whole process came out of a way to tell this particular story. The only way to do it was to shoot it over this amount of time so that just became the way to do it.”
If you’re anything like me, you might think that Richard Linklater is a crazy person. Who would embark on this kind of project? Who would actually think they could pull it off? But pull it off is exactly what he did, and then some, so what do I know?
“Even though this move was epic in its ambition, it was really a humble, little film, this collection of intimate moments,” he explains. “Like anything, it is just one little step at a time.”
One of the first steps, after fleshing out the story of one boy’s life from the age of 5 to 18, was to find actors who could not only commit to the demands of this film, but who also had the talent and ability to carry their characters through a 12-year arc. First, Ethan Hawke, a Linklater mainstay after working with the director on all three of the “Before” films (Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight for those unfamiliar with the series), and Patricia Arquette, were cast as the boy’s parents. That was the easy part though. Then Linklater had to find the boy himself.
“That was THE decision,” Linklater tells me, referring to the casting of BOYHOOD central character, Mason. “I talked to Ethan and Patricia first and they were in but they’re adults; they grasp what 12 years is. Now a kid, that’s a whole other area.”
So how do you do it? What do you look for? How do you look at a 6-year-old and just know that he has what it takes to not only commit to this lengthy project but also to do it justice? How do you know he won’t get bored and want to drop out? Enter Ellar Coltrane in what is perhaps the most risky casting decision since the young Daniel Radcliffe was cast as Harry Potter.
“I met a lot of kids. He was kinda the most interesting, the most ethereal, the most serious. I liked the way his mind worked,” Linklater explains. “A lot of kid actors in particular, they’re kinda people pleasing. They know how to be cute for adults, put their best foot forward. Ellar didn’t really care what you thought of him and he had this curiosity about him that I liked. I knew I wasn’t casting the class president or the athlete; he was going to be the artist, the dreamy kid. That’s what I felt and in fact, that is what he ended up being.”
In BOYHOOD (which was originally entitled The 12 Year Project but was changed after 12 YEARS A SLAVE came along), Coltrane’s Mason lives with his mother (Arquette) and older sister, Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelai, above, who Linklater thinks is “excellent” in the film, not that he’s biased or anything). Over the years, they move around a lot and new people come in and out of their lives, leaving their mark along the way. Hawke plays their absent father who is trying to become a good father. With so much ground to cover, Linklater wanted to be certain that the passage of time was subtle and unforced, and with good reason.
“I didn’t want the film to look different at different times. I wanted it to feel like one movie,” Linklater divulges. “It’s kinda like how you remember your own life. Yeah, people change, everyone ages but the world feels kinda similar even though things are changing. You just don’t really perceive it; it’s so imperceptible, gradual. I didn’t want anything from the movie itself to demarcate the passage of time. I just wanted it to feel organic, kind of the way the memory of a lifetime would work.”
When you’re making a movie over such a vast stretch of time though, there is one more character that you inevitably have to work with – the unknown. So many things can happen in 12 years that can throw you off your original goal and Linklater had to learn to embrace this beast in order to succeed.
“Whatever is around you, you’re bending to your story telling will; that’s what most filmmaking is,” says the man who rose to fame with the indie classic, DAZED AND CONFUSED. “With this, I had to give up that absolute control and just admit I’d be dealing with elements in the future that I couldn’t totally predict. You can have your hunches; you can have your intentions, but the reality will be something else. I found that very exciting.”
I’m glad to hear that, as I find the entire concept frighteningly infuriating. He continues, “This was the best of both worlds – highly structured, very specific story and yet, completely open for last minute inspiration and new ideas, all the way through it. I kind of always work that way; this was just an extreme example.”
Richard Linklater, always understated.