Richard Linklater is a lot like a Richard Linklater movie. There’s a looseness, and an approachability that is engaging (and made for an enjoyably chatty Berlin Film Festival interview), but it’s also somewhat deceptive of the deeper currents of thoughtfulness and a kind of philosophical curiosity, that run beneath the laid-back, genial exterior. And both these sides of his personality are on full display in the wonderful “Boyhood” (our Sundance review is here) his twelve-years-in-the-making study of a young boy from ages six through eighteen, when he finally leaves home for college. It is both a simple, unpretentious portrait of a certain child coming of age, and a sprawling, ambitious, encompassing exploration of grand universal themes. It’s hard to think of another example where the operatic has been so unassumingly presented.
Of course, much has been made of the unprecedented nature of the shooting schedule: Linklater and his actors—Ellar Salmon, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and his daughter Lorelei Linklater play the central family—shot scenes once a year, for twelve years. And certainly, marshalling that sort of a production, and getting that sort of commitment from cast and crew is a fantastic technical achievement, aside from anything else. But what might have been slightly obscured in all that is that the film in its finished form is far more than an exercise in a kind of “Can I pull this off?” gimmick; it is a thought-provoking and intelligent attempt to evoke the actual sensation of time passing, lives being lived, and identities being constructed.
It seems clear that these concerns pre-existed the idea for the drawn-out shooting process. Indeed, Linklater’s other magnum opus, the ‘Before’ trilogy (the second of which he conceived the year after the “Boyhood” project began filming), can also be seen to have many of the same preoccupations with transience, albeit in a more conventional form. A few days before Linklater would be up on stage accepting his Silver Bear for Best Director, we had the pleasure of talking to him about how he approached “Boyhood,” time, memory, the universal, the specific and Sheryl Crow. Here’s our interview in full.
I hear you got a kind of awkwardly long ovation at the public screening last night?
Ha, yeah, you never know quite how to deal with that. Usually in the U.S. they stop when I say “Thank you!” but here they kept going and going. It’s a weird position to be in, but who could complain?
You did spend 12 years making this film so maybe they felt the least they could do was spend five minutes applauding.
Well, that’s the cool thing when the audience responds in the spirit of what you put forth. It’s like, okay, a lot of effort went into this and they’re feeling that the film reflects that and they appreciate that it’s unique and something they hadn’t seen.
And it must be heartening to see the film travel so well outside of the States?
Well that’s always a question, how will it travel? And what cultural things, like what will get a bigger laugh? The NSA line got a bigger laugh in Berlin than in the U.S.—Germans take that stuff very seriously and so it was funny to them, you know. We’re the ones tapping [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s phone! So certain things resonate more, and then other things less.
But I wasn’t totally surprised because even though it’s specific to the U.S. there’s something about the film that taps the commonality of the human maturation process. And parenting. too. It’s one of those films where you see the universal in the specific. I’d a guy from Africa tell me that “Oh, it kind of explains my dad to me” because he found something in it. And that’s what we do when we observe art, we take it in and adjust it to our own lives.
I really wanted to ask you about the universal and the specific in the film. Because to me it starts universal as in, the story of a boy, and becomes specific, as in the story of this boy.
I think that mirrors how we go through our lives, like at first you don’t even know your boundaries. I’m just alive. I’m a kid, I’m getting my impressions. But as my world gets bigger and I grasp more of it I feel like more of an individual. Some species you’re just a tribal member, there’s no notion of self. But for me, it’s the growing conscious awareness of yourself in relation to parents, siblings, culture, school. It hopefully mirrors that awareness spectrum that I was thinking about a lot.
And as a kid things are happening to you, and you’re reacting. But then he becomes a little more conscious, he defines himself, becomes more vocal, he has tastes. And that’s how I felt in my own life. Also, we define ourselves a lot by what we’re not. There’s a universality to being born, but from that point on all the things you’re not is the sculpture of what you are.
And that’s not to mention just the sheer accumulation of time. I bet the whole farm on that property of storytelling, that you would become invested and this would be a building up of time unfolding.
Is it the film you’d envisioned twelve years ago?
Actually, yes. It’s the best version. I’m not kidding.
How did the scripting process work? What did you start out with back then?
Certainly not the dialogue. I knew the structure. Like, I knew the last shot of the movie eleven years ago, let’s say. But I was playing off everything that was happening in front of me, collaborating with Ethan [Hawke] with Patricia [Arquette] and the kids, who, as they matured, they become even more collaborative. It was always this open process and anybody could contribute. Because it was such an interesting thing to contemplate — childhood and parenting, we’re surrounded by it. Our own kids, our own selves as parents, ideas of our own parents; it was this ongoing thing.
And it was great to have the luxury of time. You know, every year I had a year to think up the next part, based on everything that had gone before. So by year four, I’ve got three years that I can look at, that are edited, that we’ve been working on, and I can feel where it’s going and where it wants to go. I was stuck with this kind of architecture but yet within that the décor, the details were always being reworked, being found. That’s kind of how I work on any movie, there’s always a strong outline, a structure and then within that structure, a certain looseness to work with the actors. It makes you keep working — the night before, I want to have the great idea that keeps the scene interesting, I want to leave myself open to that.
So it’s about keeping the process creative and not just fulfilling a blueprint?
Absolutely. I’m not interested in just rendering something I thought up a long time ago. I want it to be very much a living, breathing object based on the creativity of the people involved. [The trick is] to max that out right at the point of shooting. So you’re like, right we’ve thought about this as much as we can, and this is now game time… and then it’s over. I never do the next day thing of “Oh, I wish I’d…” I never allow myself to do that. It’s always, “No we did our best.” Because we did.
Another characterizing element of it for me was the interplay between the present-tense feel and the sense of it all as remembered.
It should be those two things. I kind of saw it as a memory film. I mean, it’s very contemporary to the moment but I wanted at the end of the day for it to feel like a childhood memory of what life was like. Which is hard to do, when you’re always in the present moment, especially when you’re shooting this way. By definition it’s very linear, very present.
But it’s also shaped by the moments you choose to include, which are so rarely the big dramatic events themselves and are much more often the small moments before or after.
That was a choice for sure. I guess when I thought of each next year, I thought, “Well this is about the time he’d have a first girlfriend, ok, well that just happened, offscreen” and I’d just pick it up there. It’s just a choice, maybe someone else would have hit all those points, and that’d be okay, that’d be a certain type of movie. But I guess I was allergic to things I have seen depicted in fiction enough times that I don’t know if there’s anything fresh to do there. And graduation to me wasn’t walking across the stage and getting my diploma, it was in the car with my buddy after. You know what goes on around the stuff. So much of this movie happens offscreen. I mean the very beginning, the pivotal point happens before the movie even starts — the breakup of the parents.
A great deal of the film’s relationship to its time periods are communicated through the soundtrack. At Sundance, you mentioned that you weren’t sure all the tracks were 100% cleared yet.
I’m more sure now, not absolute, but more sure. And yeah, the music works in this thing on a couple of levels, I mean there’s a chronological element — you know, the music is from a certain moment—but then a lot of it is about the point of view of the characters: who’s listening to it, whose taste is it? Is it what’s on the radio or is it what Olivia’s listening to, or the Dad’s a musician, so what would he listen to?
And then as the film goes on I think the music reflects more of Mason’s own taste. I mean, when you’re young that’s how you define yourself and your taste, by “I’m going to go buy this album, or download these songs.” Culture is coming at you, it’s being force fed to you so I think you define yourself by what you’re choosing to consume.
It’s interesting also how you managed to choose songs that didn’t have particular meaning for me, but that I totally understood and reacted to emotionally in this context. I mean, it’s the only film to have given me a pang at a Sheryl Crow song. How did you select the tracks?
That’s a good question, some I remember just being big in the culture. But unlike say “Dazed and Confused” where I could go like ”Yeah, I was making out in a car to that so,” here I was 40 when I thought of this movie. I can’t tell you what an eleven year-old or a seven year-old [at the time] would have been hearing.
We did research in fact, with kids who were somewhat the age—this is a few years in. I made a list, I gave them hundreds of songs and they checked through and sometimes they gave me back songs, but they had to write a little narrative about what they were doing and what that song meant to them. So it wasn’t necessarily what it meant to me because I wasn’t the age, but it meant something to them. So I was like, ok, that’s a good litmus for me.
And a lot of the feedback was stuff like, “I kinda hated this song, but my older sister was listening to it all the time.” So then it was me, going through a lot of music. Some I wasn’t that familiar with, and was like, oh right, now I see what everyone’s talking about! My older self, I wanna listen to what I wanna listen to, but this was good, it opened me up to a lot of new stuff that wasn’t in my present world.
It seems all part and parcel of the mosaic feel, the small moments that of themselves aren’t maybe that important, but that build to a very massive, and quite universal picture.
Yeah, I hope so. I always kind of fall into that idea of you know, not the big man’s version of history but the small… Tolstoy writes not about [sweeping gesture] the Napoleonic Wars but what’s going on around it, the individual and how it affects one person, around the great events. And that’s how we all kind of live our lives. The big events happen, but we’re just kind of aware or observing of them — so few people are the ones actually making things move like that.
And our faculties never seem to be at their apex at when those huge moments arrrive.
Never! No one has that! At those moments there’s never the proper people in place. When they are it’s pretty heroic, but it very rarely happens. At the heroic moment we’re just off, we’ve got the wrong president or something’s wrong. And it’s “Ah, shoot! History could have been different!” And that’s how I see history, not as some inevitable procession of great people, more like eh, people kind of bumbling through and doing the best they can. [Which means] even now, [History can change] with a few Supreme Court decisions, things like that.
So there’s no excuse to stop trying?
Exactly. It’s the difference between optimistic and fatalistic. The kind of more conservative viewpoint is “ahh, we’re fucked, there’s a lot of tragedy in life and there’s not a lot you can do.” Where an optimist would think actually we can put our brains together and do our best and prevent things and make things better for more people.
That’s maybe an optimism which is reflected in the ending of “Boyhood,” which I loved. It is immensely hopeful.
I hope so. It should be—that feeling that the future’s ahead of you and you are so happy to be there. There. At that moment.
And with these people…
Yes! Those friends, they were the best version of your friends. They weren’t the people who got assigned to sit next to you in class. You had the opportunity as an adult to have the world be of your choosing—you choose a profession, you choose your new family i.e. your friends. You’re responsible [for your life] in a way that children are not.
You mentioned that you conceived that last shot early on, and it did occur to me that if you had embarked on this without knowing your ending, it could easily have become some sort of “Synecdoche, NY” meta, all-encompassing, insanity-inducing project…
Heh, yeah, I’ve been sitting next to Ellar [Salmon, who plays central character Mason] most of the day and someone asked him if there was going to be a next one and he even said “Yes, I’m going to be on a train in Europe and meet a girl…” And I was like “Yeah, and I’ll remake everything I’ve ever made and it’ll be some big Charlie Kaufman-type thing…”
But this was always stuck on the grid of first-through-twelfth grade of the American public education system. When I contemplated childhood, I couldn’t pick the exact period but once I had that aha! moment, that was when I had a structure. Then I remembered that feeling like that was the cell you’d been put inside: you’re gonna live in your parents’ house and you’re gonna go to school—that’s the given. In fourth grade you know where you’re gonna be in twelfth grade; in your adult life you don’t know where the hell you’re going to be eight years from now, anything could happen. But as a kid it’s a certain…compartment. So I knew it would end with him flying from that cage, breaking out of that, but in the more or less typical way, that he’s going to college.
And that is certainly an intoxicating moment. In fact, I believe the “Dazed and Confused” spiritual sequel you were working on, “That’s What I’m Talking About” is going to take place over a first weekend in college?
[sheepishly laughing] Yep…it picks up right where this thing ends! I seem to have overlapped a little bit.
Have you just been making the one movie your whole life?
Yeah, and at the end I can just piece it all together! Truly, though that one begins with a guy driving off to college. I even told Jessi [Mechler], the young woman [at the end] and Ellar, “You know, this is kind of my next movie I’m making. This is a complete overlap with the movie I hope to make one day.”
You hope to? So I guess there’s still no start date for that?
No, I’ve had trouble getting it financed. But maybe. It’s that dilemma, of not having a lot of name actors and it’s a period recreation so it’s kind of expensive. Not like super-expensive, but I can’t make it for $2.4 million dollars.
So does it look like “The Incredible Mr Limpet” might be next instead?
Well, that’s no more going ahead than in the last one—I’ve been kind of developing that with Galifianakis for a while, but no start date.
Right, so nothing’s firmed up right now as your next project?
I’m not even sure, nothing set. I certainly hope to be in production by summer on something… I’ll be getting antsy by then. But I’ve a number of scripts and projects, I’d say there’s three or four right there. It always just depends on someone going [clicks fingers] “GO! Here’s a blinking green light!” It might be ‘Limpet,’ and that might be fun.
But surely it’s hard to let “Boyhood” go.
God, yeah, it’s weird. I feel like I haven’t quite left it, not yet. And Ellar and Patricia and everyone…I think we’re all still processing it.
IFC Films will release “Boyhood” later this year.