Richard Linklater Explains His Secret Movie Boyhood, Which He Shot Over 12 Years

“It's the secret films you have to watch out for,” jokes Richard Linklater of his new movie Boyhood, a furtive experiment that he kept quiet for more than a decade. In 2002, he chose a first-grader named Ellar Coltrane, the 6-year-old son of two Texas artists; cast Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his divorced mom and dad; Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei, as his older sister; and committed to shooting 10 minutes of footage about this faux family every year until Coltrane graduated high school. The name frames the film as the boy's story, though in execution, every character owns a piece. “To me, Boyhood was a limited title,” admits Linklater, who had wanted to call it 12 Years, until that other film won three Oscars. “It's very much his point of view, but it could be Girlhood or Motherhood or Familyhood.”

How do you script a 12-year movie? With a broad brush and a prayer. From the beginning, Linklater could sketch the film's arc: the boy, Mason, would become a proto-man, his too-young single parents would brick by brick build a stable home. (“That's kind of the deal society still holds out: If you get a college degree, plus work hard, you can kind of have a middle-class living—for a little while longer, at least.”) There would be few big moments. Instead, Linklater sought out the small truths of youth: friends lost forever after a move, adult choices children can't understand, dull shifts at minimum-wage summer jobs. Passivity—not drama—dominates Mason's days, so that when the film ends with him going off to college, we, too, feel a flush of excitement that finally his life will begin.

Linklater admits he's “at war” with traditional narrative. He has shunned the obvious plot points: first kisses, emotional reunions, and any devices that felt fake, like foreshadowing or tidy themes. “I wanted it to be kind of messy like life is,” he says. Instead, it's the actors' own physical changes that pull you from scene to scene, like the gasp between eighth and ninth grade, when Coltrane suddenly sheds his puppy fat and shoots up a foot. Linklater laughs, “I remember one year, my makeup lady, she says, ‘Ellar's got some pimples on his forehead—you want those covered up?” I said, ‘Hell no! We've waited years for those pimples!' “

“It was always a mystery what anyone would look like,” Linklater admits. Every year, he and Arquette would confer about how much money her character had to spend on her home and her hair. “Like, ‘You're not up to Pottery Barn standards yet!'”

But Coltrane was the biggest risk. He started as an almost too-perfect, full-lipped angel, unformed and adaptable, but as he grew into himself, the other 51 weeks of the year, he could have become anyone: a jock, a meth dealer, or worst, a meathead who hates independent cinema. Luckily, he emerges as a lanky photographer who could have stepped out of Linklater's Slacker.

Still, as shaggy as Linklater allowed Boyhood to be, it was a gamble. First, one of his leads could have died. “I'm a percentage guy,” he says. “The odds were that we would all still be alive.” Second, that the world around his characters would visually evolve, a bet Linklater lost. The fashions of 2002 blur into 2013, a decade of stylistic tedium unmatched in the last century. “I just happened to pick the 12 years that we have complete stasis,” the director sighs. “Cars, hair, clothes. We get all the change we can handle technologically.” And third, that the cultural references he included would still make sense when the film was released, like the five-years-ago, father-and-son debate about whether there will ever be another Star Wars movie. “At this point, it gets a chuckle. But three years from now, will it just be confusing? You'd have to do the math and go, ‘Oh, that was in the interim between Star Wars movies.'”

“It was funny to see what time did with all the specifics,” Linklater says. In 2008, he took a risk and filmed Ellar and Lorelei campaigning for Obama. “You kind of make a bet with the future and say, ‘Whatever it is, it'll be an interesting footnote, if nothing else.'”

In that same scene, an angry neighbor insists that the law will protect him for shooting the kids if they don't get off his lawn—Stand Your Ground years before it became a national flashpoint. Those accidental wrinkles give dimension to Boyhood: Time didn't just affect the cast; it also affected the director.

“People ask, ‘Did you evolve as a filmmaker?' ” Linklater says. “I didn't want to evolve within the confines of this movie.” But it's hard not to see the eclectic movies he made during the Boyhood epoch—a sci-fi cartoon, an environmental screed, a rock caper, a kiddie remake, a grown-up romance, a theatrical period piece, and a black comedy about a killer—as the work of a restless brain trying to pump blood to his other muscles. It's an interesting contradiction: Despite the fizz and flash, it's this anti-story that held his creative attention.

“Let's face it, most of our lives don't really warrant all the attention and resources that would be required to make a movie about us,” Linklater says. But Boyhood became doubly personal—the same way that we can look at a snapshot and remember our lives at the moment we hit the button, he sees himself in every scene, both where he was when he was Mason's age, and where he was in 2002, 2007 or 2013, when he called action. To Linklater, his own biography is unspooling behind the camera, while we only see the collaborative parts he's willing to show.

Boyhood is reality folding into fiction and then twisting back into truth, starring Linklater's own family and actors who would grow to feel like relatives. Especially Hawke, who after the three-film Before Sunrise series, itself an elongated exercise in storytelling, is practically blood.

“The whole movie feels like a home movie,” Linklater says. “I think it'll be a full year before I process that we're not shooting again.”

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