After numerous mentions of his ongoing highly ambitious project, Boyhood, in previous interviews, Richard Linklater unleashed the 163-minute film to captivated critics, first in Sundance and then in Berlin – and now at the Sydney Film Festival. Incredibly, the way the story unfolds came as a surprise because Linklater didn’t divulge too much along the way.
“I’ve been asked about it for 9 or 10 years, but we were trying to keep it as quiet as possible,” the 53-year-old admits. “Who needs that extra pressure?”
A laid-back filmmaker who does not want to confine himself to conventional filmmaking, even if he’s done very well with School of Rock and Bernie, both starring Jack Black, Linklater wanted to make a film about childhood that would touch on the themes of time, aging, and memory.
Boyhood comes hot on the heels of Before Midnight, the third entry in Linklater’s Before series. The difference is that those films were never planned as a series, and the breaks between them were close to a decade. Boyhood was always going to span 12 years and was ultimately shot over 39 days, usually for about three or four days a year between 2002 and 2013.
“I wanted to make a film about childhood, the imposition of living in your parent's house, the confines of childhood when we’re supposed to be in school from 1st to 12th grade,” Linklater explains. “I had this idea to cover it as much as I could by giving a little bit of information over a long period of time. I’ve always been fascinated by long term studies in science.”
As we might imagine, it had been a no-brainer for Linklater to cast his frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke as the dad Mason Sr., a willing Patricia Arquette as the mother Olivia, while as the elder extroverted daughter Samantha he cast his own daughter Lorelei, who was interested in acting as a child, though now is a visual artist. Still, finding the boy to play Mason in Austin, Texas where Linklater lives and filmed, proved a challenge.
“For Ethan and Patricia it was one conversation, ‘Wow, what a weird idea! But yeah, I’ll do it.’ They were challenged by it. But a kid of six years old has no concept of 12 years! So I was talking to the parents and getting them to think it was a cool idea for their child to go through that. I hoped it would be a fun thing in the boy’s life, add something to it and not become a childhood trauma.”
After meeting numerous young boys, Linklater settled on Ellar Coltrane, whose parents are artists. “He was a thoughtful kid. I just liked talking to him. And he grew up to be this really cool, thoughtful guy.”
Rather than write a conventional screenplay, Linklater started with a structural blueprint and would write and edit (with longtime collaborator Sandra Adair) along the way. The story drew on many of Linklater’s own experiences: his parents separated when he was seven and he spent most of his childhood living with his mother who taught at Sam Houston State University, while his stepfather was a prison guard. He also incorporated real events from Ellar’s life like his keen interest in photography.
Linklater admits he’s a big fan of naturalistic cinema and his seminal films Slacker (1991) and Dazed & Confused (1993) are prime examples of the style he has favoured throughout his career.
“It’s the style of acting and the kind of story I’m telling. In my world, actors are going to be encouraged to bring themselves as much as they can. During the rehearsal process there was a lot of rewriting. It’s all those little moments you might remember from childhood that interested me. Take an evening like high school graduation. I didn’t want to show Mason marching across the stage getting his diploma and saying thank you to the principal. That isn’t what I remember as the highlight. I would remember drinking in the car with my buddy and the party afterwards.”
Always astute in his choices, the director had the last shot in mind from the second year of filming. “It was intense filming on that final day as you can imagine. In the end, the film is the best version of what I could have hoped for, especially for the maturation of Ellar and Lorelei. It felt like it unfolded like a dream or a memory.”
Linklater didn’t show the kids any of the footage and doesn’t recall them asking for it.
“We would talk throughout the year,” says Coltrane, “and Richard would prepare me for what we would be working on. A lot of it was recalling the experiences of what was going on in my life to shape the situations, specifically the dialogue and to monitor how I deal with people in different situations.”
“From the very beginning I told Ellar to put what he wanted to say in his own words and to explain how he felt,” explains Linklater. “In the last five or six years he was a full blown collaborator at script level. Ellar’s relationship with Lorelei was interesting because she doesn’t have a brother. They both had siblings later but not at the beginning.”
“Growing up in an alternate universe is very strange,” Coltrane admits.” There are large parts of the character that are me and are very personal. I have little memory of the first couple of years but watching it for the first time was surreal. Very few people get to witness themselves aging and I’m still trying to figure out how I really feel about it.”
Interestingly, the Before films and Boyhood fed on each other.
“We started this in 2002 and it powered Ethan and I to jump back into Jesse and Celine,” says Linklater. “Just the idea that we were going to be doing this for 12 years made revisiting them a little more reasonable. The Ethan from Before Sunset is the first Mason Sr. we see in Boyhood, as we filmed that around the same time.”
After filming for eight or nine years, Linklater showed Hawke what he had shot. “Ethan was just, ‘Wow! They grew up and we aged.’ I wondered where is that point where they grow up and you start aging? Nobody ever tells you.”
Arquette was in for a shock too. “Ethan and I just got old,” she laughs. “We were young, we got old. They were young, they got to grow up. But I think it was part of what we all recognised as exciting. And Rick was very clear. ‘You can’t get any facial reconstruction and anything like that, right?’ But it’s very strange. Life goes fast. I think that’s part of what the movie makes you feel, how fast life goes.”
Linklater knew that Arquette had been a mother from an early age. “Patricia was the only one I ever thought of for the role, and I called her up and said, ‘What are you going to be doing 12 years from now?’ And here we are. She is very brave and kind of fearless that way. That was the quality I was looking for.”
“It was exciting,” Arquette enthuses. “I looked forward to it every year. It felt like a top secret, true artistic project that I got to work on with people I loved. I enjoyed my time, and missed my time, and was excited to see them. Really, the hardest part for me, it was last year when it was winding down and I said, ‘I don’t want to give this movie to the world. I already love this movie, I love these people and these kids, and I don’t want to hear anyone else’s opinion if they think is good, or boring, or stupid. I don’t care what their opinion is’.”
Ultimately, the film is as much about a single mother struggling to raise her kids with a second uncaring husband and another partner who came and went. Meanwhile, the unconventional father shows he truly loves his kids in a way that his ex-wife has failed to see.
“I think in a lot of our lives, we do have these blinders on,” says Arquette. “This mother was really impacted by Mason Sr. leaving, and feeling like she was left with the responsibility and she really resented him. So much so that she never got to see what a great dad he was or all the other things he brought, because she put him in a box. And he put her in a box. One of the things that really resonated with me after seeing the movie was how much I do that myself. How much we all do that. How limited we are in our own perspective of each other and our past experience, and how it really was.”
Boyhood is in competition at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival and is scheduled for release nationwide sometime in 2014. Watch our interview with actor Ellar Coltrane and producer Cathleen Sutherland below, as well as the film's trailer.