Richard Linklater was already a successful filmmaker in 2002, when he decided to make “Boyhood,” but that didn’t make the challenge any easier. Shot over the course of 12 years and chronicling the experiences of a child named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as grows into young adulthood, “Boyhood” marks an unprecedented achievement in narrative cinema. The movie, which also stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy’s parents as well as Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as Mason’s sister, astounded audiences at its premiere screening this January at Sundance and has continued to gather acclaim at several other festivals ahead of its release this Friday.
Indiewire sat down with Linklater during the SXSW Film Festival and again this past week in New York to discuss the specific challenges and intentions behind the project. In the second half of our interview, running tomorrow, the director touches on the unique environment for making movies outside of the studio system today and why it’s harder now than ever.
After spending so long working on this project and keeping it under wraps, at what point did you come to terms with the challenge of sharing it with strangers?
Everything on this movie has been times twelve. Everything has been almost counterintuitive. Everything has been just so different. Just when you think you have a rhythm and you know what you’re doing and you’re so experienced and confident — all bets were off. Everything about this movie was so oddly proportioned. Probably around year nine or 10, I was getting cabin fever. I really wanted the film to be done. I felt good about it. We were editing it every year. I was just ready for it to be done for my own psyche — to have sat on something for so long.
But you were always on the path you laid out from the beginning.
Yeah, the 12-year grid was always there. It was the first through 12th grade. The little sentence we’re given as a children: I remember thinking as a little kid, “After 12th grade, I’m out of high school, then life begins.” You’ll be an adult, your life will be your own. You know, you’re stuck in your parents’ house, this public school system, whatever. There’s this thing hovering. So that’s why I grabbed this 12-year structure to begin with. It wasn’t random by any means. I had a highly structured thing. By the second year, I knew the last shot of the movie. Everything about it was such an odd, ongoing project. It didn’t necessarily get easier. It got tougher every year.
Even if you knew the last shot, it was reliant on how your star grew up. How much room was there to take into account his real life changes?
Well, I just knew it would end up with him going to college. I knew that would be the final little bit. I didn’t know all the specifics around it. I did rehearsals each summer, which is really just rewriting the script around it.
How tightly scripted was it?
Pretty tightly scripted. It was like anything else I do. I had like a year to think about each three-day shoot. Then we would edit the previous year. I was luxuriating in the time. Even when you don’t have a lot of money — I did have time. Time to think. That’s a blessing in film. Usually, you’re in a rush. Films are often sprints at a really low budget. It was kind of great to have that gestation time.
Many people have compared this project to Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series simply because it chronicles a series of characters as they age. How do you feel about that comparison?
The “Up” series isn’t apt at all if you think about it. It has this seven-year gaps, which means that it’s closer to my “Before” series. It’s a documentary, so all bets are off. If people say that — and it’s usually before they see the movie — it’s because it tracks how you feel about things over periods of time. The “Up” series is obviously very effective at doing that, seeing people change over the years. This is a different narrative storytelling thing altogether.
But did it feel like you were doing something unprecedented?
It definitely was uncharted waters. There was nothing to refer to. When I had the idea, clearly it felt original. “Hmm, could a film work that way?” I had nowhere to look and ask, “How did they do it?” That wasn’t a possibility, so clearly I was in some unique territory, but I was really confident in my approach. Strangely, even when people said, “It wasn’t what you set out to do,” it kind of did. Hundreds of years ago, when you set out in your ship following the north star, and you think there’s land over there — they often hit it. I had a plan. In a way, it’s such an impractical idea. It’s so ridiculous on a practical level. But on the other hand, it’s really very simple. The requirement of it is in a different area, but as storytelling, I kept it in really simple terms. The lead character was time and it could just unfold. When people would ask what happens in it, I’d just, “Oh, not much.” I’m not showing the big moments of childhood. This is the “lesser scene” metric.
So you tried to downplay expectations?
Just the dramatic expectations. I wanted the film to feel like a memory more than an experience. How you look back. You know, because I’m dealing with my own memories of growing, but also collaborating with people in the moment — not just growing up but parenting. There are titles to this: “Motherhood.” “Parenthood.” “Sisterhood.” “Familyhood.” But “Boyhood” was the perspective. That’s where we arrived. But there were so many angles to it. You define a lot of it by what it’s not. I had very clear feelings about it wouldn’t be, and just letting it become what it should be. But that gestation time — I got to spend a year going, “OK, second grade, second grade, what went on?”
How did your own parenting experience with your daughter Lorelei, who plays Mason’s sister, inform the narrative?
When I originated this, I had just turned 40. I’d been a parent for seven or eight years. I think having a kid forces you through your own childhood. So artistically, I felt like I had something to express about childhood. I felt like, “Well, I want to do something about being a kid.” That’s where the idea came from.
But a lot of your movies deal with the travails of burgeoning adulthood.
Yeah, but not that young. Not seven or eight. This ends where others begin. I knew there’d be some overlap in some areas. I wasn’t that conscious of it, though I knew it probably hit some territories that other films have touched on. But it’s a different life and a different thing altogether.
Since you worked on the “Before” series while you were shooting “Boyhood,” did one inform the other?
Yeah. I think the commitment to this emboldened the “Before” series. We started this in 2002, before “Before Sunset,” but I think Ethan [Hawke] and I, the idea that we committed to a 12-year thing emboldened us in some way to say, “We can revisit Celine and Jesse.” It was like, OK, time — it was just in the air at the moment: “Let’s do it.” I think it helped us in some way. It gave us a little more courage to go back into Jesse and Celine.
You conceived of “Boyhood” about a decade after “Slacker.” In what sense were you looking for a new career challenge?
I don’t know. I never think of it in those terms. To me, it was a narrative challenge — like, how to tell a story in a way I hadn’t seen before. Could it work? I think my mind naturally goes there. There are a ton of stories I want to tell. But the breakthroughs to me are how to tell them. Even “Bernie” or something like that. What’s the best storytelling methodology? I spend most of my time in that realm. So when you get an original idea like this — it sounds pretentious, but I make physics analogies. When you go to bed, you have these kind of “aha” moments. Why wouldn’t that work? How about this one? Sometimes they’re really simple ideas, but you realize, “Oh, I had to do all this just to have that really simple idea. I had think about this for 20 years to have this obvious idea.” You don’t want to sound too highfalutin. It’s just getting in touch with the way your mind works, what you’re interested in as a storyteller. The big challenge here is that it’s just such an optimistic leap of faith into the future.
You credit Jonathan Sehring at IFC Films for agreeing to finance the project each summer from the outset. How did that work out?
Everyone agreed it was a good idea. They were like, “Wow, that’s a good idea.” Then here came reality rushing back in for most people. I talked to some other people about it, too, and they were like, “I just don’t know how we can do that.” But Jonathan — I did “Waking Life” and “Tape” with him. We were fresh off those two. He liked them. For that moment, it fit into what they were doing as a company, producing films. I said, “Well, at the end of the day, we’ll still have a low budget feature.” So he was able to sneak it in.
Not knowing, of course, what sort of marketplace you’d be facing at the finish line.
That’s the tough thing, you can’t really predict the market. Sure enough, it changed during those years. But I was incredibly lucky that not only was IFC still there, Jonathan was still there.
After spending so much time on this project, did you learn anything new about it once it started to show at festivals?
I’m still processing that it’s coming out at all, but I don’t know if I learned much. It kind of deepens your own impulses when you have to confront the why of everything, so I take this as an opportunity to just use a different part of your brain that’s just analyzing why you did something, versus just doing it. I appreciate that — it feels almost therapeutic. I’ve had to think so much about storytelling. It’s like, “Well, it’s such a crazy idea.” Yeah, it seemed very natural to me, but why did I have that idea? Well, I had that idea because I spent a lot of time thinking about this kind of shit — storytelling, time — so it must be just the way I think.
So why did you keep it a secret for so long?
Well, the secrecy is kind of practical. Anyone could steal the idea and make an eight year film. It’s not a perfect analogy, but Darwin had his evolution idea 20 years before he published it, and he only published it when someone else was about to publish a very similar thing. It was on the tip of every biologist in the world when he was like, “Oh fuck! I was right there. Of course. It’s so simple, so obvious.” So I thought, “This is such a simple idea, such an obvious idea. But I don’t think it’s been done. I’ve got 12 years, so if I go public with the idea, someone could make a 10 year version.” You can always check the start date, but I was nervous about it. I didn’t want to explain it all because it was a thing I was still feeling my way through. It was a deep feeling.
I heard that you copyrighted the story during the first year of production.
It was a legal thing to do. But it did leak. The first year, there was a little article about it, and I was like, “Grr.” Then IMDb posted something about it. But it was just insiders doing a little research. I was asked about it plenty over the years.
But could that have worked into your favor? It created this aura of mystique around the project.
I could feel the crescendo. There was a wave building, and last fall, Ethan was doing press for another movie and he’d just wrapped this movie. And it was a movie where he’d rather talk about something else. So he just spilled his guts, and suddenly we were public. It was like, “Oh, we wrapped?” Again, it was just insiders. That probably influenced us to say, “Yeah, let’s show at Sundance. It won’t be totally finished, but it will be mostly finished.”
A decade ago, you and Wes Anderson were among the better known American independent filmmakers. At this year’s Berlin film festival, you both won top prizes for your new movies. So you guys are still at the top of your game. But why haven’t we seen the same emergence of American filmmaking talent over the past 10 years?
I think it’s more difficult now. The breakouts at Sundance used to be — it’s sad to me — the challenge to get your indie film shown at all, that made it a big hit. People still do that. But what you do next matters. Now it seems like the goal is to get hired to do some huge movie. “Oh, they broke out!” No, the goal was to break out and then get your next film made. There used to be an outlet for that. It was the $6 million movie, like when I went from “Slacker” to “Dazed,” it was a real move up to bigger situation with a bigger budget, but it wasn’t a $100 million behemoth. It was my next film with a little support, which was much needed. I don’t know if that next step exists anymore. You either use the same budget you just struggled with for three years or raise another $280,000 and make that. There’s less of a spectrum. So I think that’s a huge impediment. I want to challenge younger directors to see that spectrum and challenge it however they can. Raise the money, get your next film made, and maybe don’t worry about how much it will make. It’s too bad. Studios used to actually take bets on indie talent.
Stay tuned for more insight from Richard Linklater about the broader state of independent filmmaking in America in the second half of our interview, running tomorrow.