The secret of Linklater’s success is his willingness to fail. He left some audiences behind with his earnest attempt to fictionalize Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction food expose "Fast Food Nation," which played Cannes. But Linklater hit "Boyhood," his experiment with cinematic time, out of the park. IFC chief Jonathan Sehring deserves credit for backing this innovative venture with an uncertain outcome: he put $200,000 a year into a week of filming for twelve years. That’s far more than IFC usually plunks down on its various festival pickups. IFC opted to release the film itself, although Sony Pictures Classics, which handled the most recent "Before" film, chased it at Sundance.
This unique film continues to draw curious moviegoers from all over the world to check out this universal story of an ordinary family coping with the vicissitudes of life and the pursuit of happiness. The film keeps winning audience awards at festivals and is now an Oscar frontrunner and multiple Indie Spirit nominee. Academy members are sure to embrace this film, which boasts a scale and scope never seen before in cinema.
When I saw the film at its world premiere at Sundance I was stunned by its emotional impact. While documentarian Michael Apted tracked a group of friends from "Seven" through seven films to "Fifty-six," each film caught up with where they were. In this case Linklater cast a six-year-old boy and had to convinced his parents to let him shoot him every summer for 12 years until he went to college. He picked Ellar Coltrane, the son of artists. Each section is pretty short, and we are moving swiftly through this young man’s life as he grows and adapts and changes. There’s no predictable trajectory. At the start, Mason (Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are dealing with their struggling single mom (Patricia Arquette), who decides to move home to her mother’s so that she can go back to school. Mason’s footloose father (Hawke) moves in and out of his life in his sporty vintage GTO convertible (which still sits in Linklater’s garage). The film draws us into caring deeply for Mason and his evolving, expanding and contracting family.
On second viewing, I was impressed with how fluidly, efficiently and organically Linklater moved through two hours. His actors take on these characters like breathing. The ending of the film carries a huge punch because we don’t want to leave this lovely boy, about to embark on becoming a man.
When I went to interview Linklater, Coltrane, Arquette and Hawke (video below) I was struck by how much making the film meant to them. For 12 years they were able to keep these summer sojourns to themselves. Finally when they shot that last day, everyone had to say good-bye and admit that it was finally coming to an end. Even the professional actors had never been through something like this before. Coltrane, especially, was unprepared for the process of sharing the movie with the world at Sundance and other festivals, of having audiences watch it–and him. When I this handsome young man I felt like I knew him. How strange that must be for him, dealing with the press. "Boyhood" is a true hybrid, neither documentary or entirely fiction.
I talked to Linklater on the phone, below.
Anne Thompson: Did you worry about what the impact of the film might be on this kid?
Richard Linklater: I was so conscious of that all the time. I didn’t have to think about it during the first half. Later I thought, "this has impacted this human being. I hope he’s up for that." My goal was for it to be a positive thing in his life, an artistic undertaking, a fun thing outside the world of commerce. Artistically, he grew into it, and became more of a collaborator. The film went in the direction he went. In the end that’s Ellar sitting up on the mountain with the girl, that’s him, who he had become. Was that innately who he was going to be? Did we push him in that direction? I can’t answer that question. It was a collaboration, as the film was trying to go where he went. I beckoned him to come, there was a push-pull there. I hope it was a good positive on both sides.
How did you cast him?
It was the hugest choice imaginable picking him. I met a lot of kids, good young actors, smart and attentive, good citizens with a good straight-up quality. Ellar was his own guy with interesting thoughts, even at age six, he had an ethereal mysterious quality. I remember thinking I would go with the artist here, his parents were artists. I thought, "he will become an arty kid who’s interesting. He’s not a budding lacrosse player." I had a choice to go down that path rather than the other. I felt the step I was taking by going with him. There was so much going on. He had cool parents with Austin roots. They were not going to move, they were based there, would help the collaboration. He was a good-looking kid. Who knows? He ends up rock star handsome. He does have a real presence, brooding eyes. He was a unique guy at six and is at 19.
Were you worried the kids would want to drop out? I heard Lorelei wanted to at one point.
It went so well. I feel lucky, everything went our way, the kids were great. In the script Lorelei has to bowl a strike. She does. At the baseball game, you’re filming the field amid hopes that someone hits the ball. You pan around and you respond as the guy hits a home run where the lens is pointed. The Astros were a crummy hitting team that year. I felt the film gods were on our side. Even the year that Lorelei didn’t want to dress up–I only found out last week when we were in England and went to Harry Potter World. She’s first-generation "Harry Potter." We were reading the books, me and her mom would take turns, she was reading herself "Harry Potter." That imaginative world in her head was so powerful, she thought maybe she’d get a letter from Hogwarts and date Harry Potter. In the real world, to have me making a film and making them dress up was making light of it. I thought it was a nice homage, a neat cultural thing remembered, the midnight book opening. But that was so real, invading her little–she wouldn’t admit it at the time, but that’s why she didn’t want to film that year. She was back always ready to go.
What were you trying to accomplish?
You can’t help but be yourself. On one level it came from the fulfillment of my whole adult cinematic life, thinking about narrative and original storytelling. It popped out of my own thinking: "why couldn’t you, with your interest in narrative boundaries, tell a story that went over time, as everyone got older?" I was trying to repeat life, something so mundane as what it was like to grow up, no big stories, to insist on the bigger story of that. There are a lot of great stories in the world. This was about life and time. The whole thing had a cumulative effect, knowing how cinema works on the viewer, how people invest. You don’t need all this stuff, if you create it and bond with the audience, they’ll go with you where you want to go. I took them on a journey through other people’s lives. What happens over 12 years? Not much happens…it’s an exaggeration, by film standards.
It builds. How a kid sees it, being the new kid in class is pretty damn traumatic. It’s not a car wreck, not a physical thing in the world. It’s a real thing, an out-of-the-ordinary experience that leaves its mark on you. A lifetime full of these moments can create how we see the world and what we’re responding to, how a person is constructed through a series of moments.
At the end Patricia Arquette got me with "I thought there’d be more."
In the film, when he was going off to college, it was bittersweet for sure. The last shot in the movie was the last shot we filmed, perfectly. Ellar and I looked at each other: "What the fuck! What did we do? This intense crazy thing." It was satisfying, there is a landing here to be stuck after 12 years.
Three weeks ago we were finally done, clearances, music, etc. But even a great film doesn’t afford you the luxury to film and edit and think and film and edit and think some more, keep thinking. That one year gap gave us the unique opportunity and we wanted to take full advantage of it, to edit the whole thing again, watch it alone here and there and think about the next year. What’s working? Where are the characters going? What does it need? The writing process, the whole process was wonderfully drawn out, it was a side project from the other films.
Ethan and Patricia had their lives. You do end up spending a lot of time. When we added it up, we spent two years in preproduction, two years in post production. That was an opportunity to really plan and put together things. Where time and energy went was these two or three day shoots. Every so often it was five, but our average was always three days. That’s what we could afford. Sometimes there was a shelf day with a reduced cast or crew. Patricia and Ethan came back to do a pickup with Ellar. Other stuff. Add it all and it was 40-something days, with half days. We rehearsed and had gestation time of a full year. "The next year we’re doing this," I’d say at wrap–the camping trip. Ethan calls me up talking about it months in advance. It was an ongoing thing to be thinking about. I’d give Ellar assignments: "When you’re flirting with her and getting to know her, write down the actual stuff you’re saying, give me real dialogue. Imagine it." The vibe of it includes him, I’d pull things out of him, when we were rehearsing, including the other actors in things. The scene itself is Ellar’s gist of where he is at certain moment, in high school.
There’s a contract over 130 years with cinema. But that’s how life goes. The true moments 0 to 18. There’s high points, fine or physical, great or trauma of some kind, all that, but, most of that isn’t the stuff of life. On the 6 o’clock news that out-of-the-ordinary violence gets every one’s attention, so that makes total sense. Most film is all about that, gets attention, buy a ticket to theater. We pay to see things that are out of the ordinary. The challenge is to make a film that is very ordinary. It could be called "Ordinary People." They’re not extraordinary in the statistical norms. Let’s say you DON’T get your hand accidentally amputated in the 8th grade campus. You feel it, but it was never a thought in my head, that someone would be seriously injured. We risked our lives constantly as kids, in the positions we find ourselves in, acting out. It never crossed my mind–here’s a little kid who falls against the blade. It could happen, but it usually doesn’t.
Did you preview the movie with audiences?
IFC put in $200,000 a year. There wasn’t ever enough to take it away. They felt it was IFC’s, we weren’t really for sale at Sundance. They might have let it go. That was weird, IFC financed it and became the distributor. It was not in the contract. But I could tell Jonathan loved the movie and wanted to distribute it. It was heading in that direction. it would have had to take huge gesture from someone to pry it away.