Richard Linklater says making “Boyhood” was “unlike any film ever,” and it’s hard to disagree with him. Plenty of movies have spent more than a decade stuck in turnaround, but there’s nothing in the history of fiction film to match the unique process of “Boyhood,” shooting several days each year for 12 years and then turning the results into a poetic and deeply moving look at how time changes us in ways we both do and don’t see (If the title weren’t already taken, “Boyhood” could easily have been called “Life Itself.”) Since its late-breaking debut at Sundance, Linklater’s sprawling but intimate story has been met with near-universal praise, and continued a winning streak that, after “Bernie” and “Before Midnight,” is rivaled only by the early threepeat of “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Before Sunrise.”
The title “Boyhood” implies a certain perspective, but one of the great things about the movie is how much we see all four of the central characters grow. Ellar Coltrane’s character may not notice his parents aging, but we do, and we see how much the changes in his life affect them as well. Parents say their kids grow up so fast; this is like that process compressed into under three hours.
It’s called “Boyhood,” but it could be called “Parenthood.” It does kind of mirror the kid’s perspective, but anyone who’s been anywhere near parenting, it is about that too, so much so.
People ask “Where’d you get the idea?” I started thinking about it in ’99. I’d been a parent six-plus years, and thinking about childhood and seeing that maturation process in front of me, I thought, “I need to make a movie about childhood to some degree.” I was trying to find the story within that, not being able to find the one moment within that genre, facing the limitations due to actors’ physicality and so on: Just seeing my ideas dispersed over all of it, the big idea came as a way to solve a problem. The big canvas presented itself through this incremental, longitudinal approach to telling a story
“Longitudinal” is a word you don’t often hear from fiction filmmakers, but documentarians use it all the time. Did you take some of your inspirations from documentaries like the “Up” series?
There’s a precedent for it, both in the sciences, and in documentary—the “Up” series and a lot of Steve James‘ movies. I don’t think there’s precedent for it in fictional storytelling. It hits the wall because it’s such a crazy and impractical way to go about it.
The way you move through the years is very elliptical at times. There’s no “Year One” caption.
I wanted to unfold and not pay a lot of attention to itself. I wanted to unfold, kind of like a memory you’d look back to of your childhood. It just sort of flows. You don’t always remember the date. It’s a feeling or an impression. I was really trying to capture—it sounds kind of grandiose or something—just the way time unfolds in our lives, or the way we go through maturing. Something as simple as that.
It’s almost anti-grandiose, in the sense that you deliberately skip over a lot of the moments that would make up a more conventional drama. You start the movie with Mason’s parents already divorced, rather than taking us through their breakup. It’s like the way the moments that get fixed in our minds are not always what would seem like the important ones.
They hardly ever are. Memory is unique to every person, but it often it is these small, inexplicable intimate things: Why is that stuck in my memory? I wanted to work through all those more obvious ideas and get to the essence. I had that year between shoots to do it, too. But I was very much aware of that. What not to do. I knew that the film would define itself more by what it’s not than what it is.
There’s also the idea that what’s important to one character may be totally incidental to another. Mason is heartbroken that his father sold the car he promised to give him when he turned 16, but his dad doesn’t even remember the conversation. It was huge for a young boy to hear that promise, but it wasn’t a big deal for his father.
Likewise, the guy who worked on the septic line who shows up four years later. That was not a big moment for Patricia to give off that piece of advice, the way that stuck and influenced that guy’s life. You really do have to be on your game in your dealings with people, because they do remember, they do hold on. We don’t know how we affect each other, which is such a frightening thought as a parent. You have a bad day or you’re not thinking thoroughly and they ask an important question to them: Well, you just missed an opportunity. It’s such a crap shoot.
As a child, those moments can get stuck in your head without your parents even realizing it: The time your mom forgot to pick you up at school can become a metaphor for a lifetime of neglect, even if there might have been a perfectly good reason that day.
I wanted it to capture all the self-absorption of that age. It’s not really negative—it’s just how a young psyche perceives the world. People say, “Those stepfathers are so awful, those men in [Olivia’s] life.” I say, “Don’t forget that’s the kid’s perspective of them, though.” They must have had something going on to be marriage-partner material at some point. But as a kid at that age, you really resent the person in your life. Whether it’s a stepmother or stepfather, that’s a really tough role to fill, to be given that sort of authority over someone you really don’t know in such an intimate space. It can be pretty fraught. The marriage, too, the first marriage—you don’t really know why your parents broke up. Maybe you overheard a little conflict or a fight, but it’ll be a mystery to you your whole life. You won’t ever fully know. So I didn’t want to give the audience any more specifics than the kid would have.
Perhaps it’s just the way “Boyhood’s” leisurely attitude to plot leaves room for incidental details, but there’s a way in which this is one of your most Texas-centric movies. There are all these great little moments, like when the grade-school kids pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag and the Texas flag, or the way a shotgun is passed down as a treasured family heirloom, that you very rarely see in other films.
For me, it’s both. It’s very specific to a place, and yet completely universal. This movie could be in any country, from any angle. but I kind of believe in that, that within that specificity there would be that kind of universal story. We’re so much more the same than we are different, overwhelmingly so. We have similar experiences maturing—siblings, schooling, blah blah blah; that’s so universal that I liked balancing it with the specificity of whatever’s odd about Texas. I wanted to capture that, too.
How much did the early scenes change over the 12-year editing process? It’s not often you’re dealing with footage that was shot so far apart.
We would edit every year, attach it to whatever had gone before and then edit the whole thing again if we had the extra time. Then I could kind of hang out with that for a year, watch it, think about it, how to incorporate my incrementally aging cast, work that into my ideas and—it was just a fine life project. But that gestation time was incredible. Most movies, if you think about it, you put all your thoughts up front, and then you’re shooting, you’re on your toes, you’re making adjustments and dealing with reality, but you’re rendering what you conceived and then you’re editing that. This was in a much different order. I could edit, then think, then I’m writing and shooting and editing again. So it was unlike any film ever.
Were there scenes that were in and out as you recut the film over the years?
Not really. Toward the end I cut some stuff and put some little moments back. It was a good litmus test: If ten years later, I’m thinking, “Well, there was this one little bit that I think we should add back to that scene.” I think it’s kind of funny, I want to see it with an audience, I know we cut it for time or pacing, but I think the film can actually hold it. To be able to consider it so many years later, it was pretty unbelievable.
There must have been a point where it was clear that “Boyhood” was going to be well over two hours, and making minor trims for pacing wasn’t going to make a huge difference.
I’ve never worked a film where it was just going to be its own thing to this degree. It wasn’t, “Oh it’ll be this length.” It was, “Here’s what it needed to work every year.” At some point, I thought, well, you’re in for the whole thing or you’re not, ether you like this movie or you don’t, and me adding back 20 seconds to this scene that I kind of miss all these years later that adds to the whole in a good way—I’m gonna put that back in. The bike scene, when the girl’s on the bike and he’s walking, there was a moment where I cut out earlier from that, but I always liked that boy-girl stuff about the party, so-and-so has a crush on you. Yeah, I could cut out of that, and I have a scene to go to and you’d never miss it. But I thought, I like the contrast to the innocence of the way she’s describing that junior-high party and shortly thereafter when he’s at the party with the senior boys and the way they’re talking about girls. What a huge contrast that is, coming at you from a young person’s perspective.
“Boyhood” is now playing in limited release.