Indiewire's Chief Film Critic Eric Kohn sat down with director Richard Linklater and actor Ellar Coltrane to discuss this year's most highly anticipated event in indie film: "Boyhood." Twelve years in the making, this unprecedented coming-of-age story casts aside the shackles of time that typically restrict cinema and endeavors to witness the maturation process as it unfolds in its protagonist (Coltrane). Linklater: "We started this film 4,207 days ago. We think that's the longest production in history. Someone's checking into it with Guinness. But it was only 39 official days of shooting over that twelve-year period, usually about three days a year with a few extra days here and there."
1. If you have a big idea, find someone important to back it.
"The fun part was the idea," Linklater said. "Hey, we can make a movie that we film a little bit every year. It's a broad canvas, a new way to tell the story. But how to finance such a thing?" After speaking to a few producers and receiving glazed-eyed rejections, Linklater found a kindred spirit in IFC's president Jonathan Sehring, who took a leap of faith and signed on the project for its twelve-year duration. Linklater: "Corporate America isn't really geared to think long-term. Jonathan said that every year he had to jump through hoops. 'What the hell is this $20,000/year we're spending, we're not going to get it back for a decade!' But Jonathan would just say, 'Well, I think it's going to be worth more in the end than we're spending on it now.'"
2. Pick themes that move you deeply, then complicate them by trying something new.
Linklater is clearly an auteur interested in the manipulation of time, consciousness, and memory. "Waking Life" was a philosophical inquiry into dreaming that asked big questions about our perception of reality. The "Before Sunrise" trilogy, each film of which transpires in real-time, explores the evolution of a romantic relationship across three distinct stages: infatuation, honeymoon, and marriage. The films are separated by nearly a decade, affording Linklater the ability to chronicle vast personal changes in the characters and their lives.
"Time… I always thought about it in terms of cinema," Linklater said. "When I think about storytelling, it always comes back to time. If cinema was a painting, time would be the paint itself. That's what we're manipulating, recording, capturing. How we're perceiving it. Everyone's sculpting time in different ways. I was the kind of guy who was always asking myself, 'Has anyone ever done a film like this? Could you make a film where you filmed a little bit every year, where incrementally everyone would grow up and age?' I was trying to tell a story over all of childhood, not just one moment…. I wanted it to unfold as life. You come aboard with these people, and I wanted the events not to be foretold, just to kind of hit you. Not [to be] filling in plot points or anything. Just to feel like time passing. Conversely, as I was making it, I was thinking about it as a memory, too. How you would remember a childhood." For Coltrane, the experience of recording his maturation process was "entirely mind-blowing. Everybody kind of wonders, how do you change over time? You can look at pictures and pictures of yourself and look in the mirror every day but still it's really hard to witness yourself changing over time. So to see all of these different versions of myself just catalogued together… it's incredible. Very surreal."
3. If you’re striving for authenticity, steal from life.
Linklater and Coltrane revealed that the process of making "Boyhood" was an amalgamation of their relationships and experiences. In many quite literal ways, the film is a mosaic of real memories. For example, "There’s a moment in the film where [Ellar’s] destroyed a pencil sharpener," Linklater said. "[His mom] gets a call from the teacher and she's kind of gently telling him, 'Here’s the problem.' Then she finds out he was just trying to sharpen rocks. If you can sharpen pencils, you can sharpen rocks. I liked that. That's how kids try to make sense of the world. 'If that works there, I'll try it here.' With the human mind, we fill in things we don't know — we make these kind of crazy logic pattern jumps. So much of the movie is tethered to something that happened to all of us." In another case, when Linklater was working on the scene in which the main character goes off to college, he began asking friends, "'What happened when you went off to college?' Kathleen, my co-producer, had just dropped her kid off at college. She called, crying, and said, 'This is the worst day of my life.' That made it into the movie."
4. Cast dedicated actors. Period.
"If there was one constant in the movie, it was Ellar," Linklater said. "There was never a year where he was just like, 'Eh, I'm not really into it.' He never wavered. Because that's one of the fears of a twelve-year thing. What if your cast just decided, 'No, we don't want to do it this year?'" For his own part, Ellar was "intrigued by the bizarreness of the project." Ethan Hawke was also a crucial collaborator. Linklater: "Ethan's the kind of guy who will call you up in the middle of the night and say, 'You know, that scene we’re doing next year… I had an idea!'"
5. Create your own opportunities.
Because he didn't live in New York or L.A. and lacked the financial ability to make a move, Linklater created opportunities for himself in the nearest city, Austin, Texas. As such, he was one of the pioneers of its bourgeoning filmmaking community at the time. "I was always of the notion that you could create your own world wherever you were," Linklater said.