Richard Linklater on his “crazy undertaking,” the ambitious Boyhood

Richard Linklater on his “crazy undertaking,” the ambitious Boyhood

Richard Linklater speaks with a gentle Texas drawl that makes him sound a bit like Owen Wilson. He is laid-back but thoughtful, easing into the kind of lightly philosophical musings sometimes expressed in his movies. Get the filmmaker talking, and it’s easy to hear hints of the personalities he’s put on screen—the teenage jokesters of Dazed And Confused, the deep thinkers of Waking Life, the loquacious lovers of his celebrated Before trilogy.

Certainly, Linklater has a lot to talk about these days: Just a few short months ago, he put the finishing touches on a project 12 years in the making. Boyhood, the most acclaimed movie of 2014, is a narrative experiment with little precedent. Two of its stars, Ellar Coltrane and the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater, were young children when production began in 2002. Each year for the next dozen years, the two reconvened with Linklater and the rest of the cast—including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, playing their on-screen parents—to shoot a few more scenes. The finished film is a true marvel, the rare coming-of-age movie that really depicts its characters (and the actors playing them) coming of age. The A.V. Club sat down with Linklater to discuss this adventurous endeavor, the challenges of directing family, and the possibility of another rendezvous with Jesse and Celine.

The A.V. Club: Going into this massively ambitious project, did you have a blueprint or a road map? Had you plotted the film out?

Richard Linklater: Yeah. I had a pretty big outline of the whole thing. I could tell you what happens to the characters, particularly to the adults—when there’d be moves and job changes and divorces. The 12 years came from first to 12th grade—all that was set. I had it worked out.

AVC: But was there a full screenplay?

RL: No. That was never part of the methodology. It was kind of a year-to-year thing. That would have been a waste of time. I wouldn’t have been taking advantage of the one luxury that I had, which was the ability to think about the next year. Film doesn’t usually afford you this ability to think during the production. That’s all I had: lots of time. So it was kind of 12 different scripts.

AVC: One of the most interesting things about Boyhood is the lack of major youth milestones that are depicted. We don’t see Mason graduate from high school. We don’t see him lose his virginity. We don’t see him drink his first beer.

RL: You don’t see the first kiss either. In that year of thinking, I got to work through all the obvious bad ideas and clichés and things that you would think on a first glance, “Oh, let’s show that, and let’s do all that.” And I was like, “No, let’s not do all that,” because it’s not that interesting. It’s not that personal. I wanted the whole film to feel like a memory—how you might feel as you looked back on your life.

AVC: Were there life moments that you originally intended to highlight but scrapped as the film progressed?

RL: It evolved so incrementally and gradually that there was nothing set in stone, outside of the bigger things, like, “They move this year”—and I even think I moved that around. Patricia [Arquette] reminded me that there was one year the real-estate people wouldn’t let us back in our apartment. Okay, so we just moved. It was always just adapting to the unseen, unknown future. Not only with the cast and culture, but with the reality in front of me. [The film] was designed to incorporate incremental change. I was confident every year that I could deal with the reality of what was happening.

AVC: How important was it for you capture something culturally specific about each subsequent year? Or was that just something you assumed would come naturally?

RL: It would come naturally, in little ways you couldn’t predict. Film is a powerful recorder of a specific moment in time, so it was weird to be doing a period film but in the present tense—to be shooting a scene and saying, “No one’s going to see this for 11 years. What’s this going to look like in 11 years?” You couldn’t predict exactly. But you know that this computer is going to be a distant memory, and the phones are going to look different, and the games they’re playing, too. I was sure it would document a certain moment.

AVC: Did you ever have any moments of doubts while filming—any time you feared that it might not come together?

RL: You don’t let your mind drift there. The first day it was just, “Let’s do this. This is what we’re shooting.” Every film, no matter how grandiose, is just one shot at a time. So, yeah, we never had that moment when we were in trouble or anybody wanted to leave. There were little irritations along the way, but nothing existentially challenging. And I think I was so grateful that I had the opportunity to make this movie that I would have been a jerk to go, “Oh, I’m tired of it.” It just wasn’t an option. Every time we got back together, the crew had invested another year and another and another, so you have this accumulation—kind of like how the movie works. It builds its own momentum. And it felt that way to work on. The crew, the cast—we were in deeper every year, and it built in a really fun, incredible way. By the second half of the movie, every year we thought it was our best year. What it was was the kids growing up—Ellar [Coltrane] becoming the person that he was. The emergence of self, which is what the movie is really about. That was happening before our eyes. And it just felt right. He matured.

AVC: Did you ever experience any pushback from Ellar, any teenage rebellion?

RL: Never. Never for a second was Ellar a problem. He says now that he didn’t have a lot of structure in his life. He didn’t have things to rebel against. Like, if you’re in school, you’re made to do a lot of stuff you rebel against. He wasn’t really made to do that much. He was homeschooled. He could kind of follow his own muse. So he actively looked forward to this every year, as something to return to. He got more invested than anyone! He really cared about his character. And we would talk throughout the year about what was going on and what was next. So no, he never wavered. He was the most constant element.

AVC: Is that true also of your daughter, Lorelei, who plays Ellar’s on-screen sister? Is it difficult to direct family?

RL: No, it wasn’t difficult. She was easy to work with—it was very natural for us. She didn’t have the same orientation toward the film. She didn’t have to audition. It came easy to her, you know? It’s her family, she grew up on movie sets. She’s known Ethan Hawke since she was 9 months old. So she never really rebelled. One year, she didn’t want to do it, because I couldn’t understand emotion. There was a costume she didn’t want to wear—the Harry Potter stuff that year. She didn’t want to do it that year. But she came back on board. That’s probably more daughter-father than actor-director.

AVC: I’m curious about the logistics.

RL: Now that’s crazy. Now that makes no sense. That’s the single reason no one has done this shit.

AVC: How do you fund a project like this?

RL: I got lucky. IFC believed in it enough to give me a little money every year—to shoot on film, pay everybody, get the film processed, a little bit of editing time. It’s super low-budget. Nobody was getting paid. You know, that kind of film. But the numbers were insane. If you add it all up, we spent about two years in pre-production. ’Cause every year, you’re making a movie. We made 12 films! You have to location scout, tech scout, get the crew together, rent equipment, get the trucks. Every year, for a three-day shoot, you had to do all that. So that was pretty tough. We also spent two years in post. A low-budget film generally doesn’t afford you that kind of time. That was just what was necessary for this. It’s kind of a crazy undertaking, by definition. It doesn’t make any sense on paper.

AVC: What about contracts?

RL: No such thing. I didn’t know that heading in, but you can’t contract for more than seven years—which is a good thing, especially when working with children. This was all a wing and a prayer. It was a life project that everyone committed to. Certainly, a few people shifted around. But we all make our life commitments—whether it’s to a family or a partner or a career. We’re used to this long-term commitment in our lives—it’s just rare in an artistic undertaking. But I always wanted cinema to feel like a part of life. It’s an extension of how I view film in my life: It’s just going to be there and it will be okay.

AVC: How much of this movie is a reflection of your life? Are there elements of your childhood? Your experiences as a father?

RL: On one hand, very much so. My childhood and my parenthood. Is it spot-on autobiographical? It’s personal, not necessarily autobiographical. An idea could come from anywhere. Like I said, I had the luxury of just thinking for a year every year. And I’d think, “Okay, fourth grade. What were the dynamics, what did it feel like, where was I at developmentally?” That was my basis. But by the time you set it in a contemporary setting and filter it through the actors, it just becomes something else. But I don’t think there’s anything in it that didn’t have some basis in someone’s reality.

AVC: It’s a very perceptive film about divorce.

RL: Yeah, and from the point of view of the kid. Life is shifting around and you don’t know much. I wanted that to be the point of view of the movie—you don’t have the whole story. You get what the parents tell you or you feel the effects, for sure. But you’re just kind of being dragged around. You have no agency.

AVC: Is there anything major that you filmed that isn’t in the movie?

RL: Hardly anything. That’s a good question. People will ask, “Is there a five-hour director’s cut?” No. We had so little time to shoot. It was very well rehearsed and workshopped for what we shot. There are a few scenes that I think I cut entirely—not many—particularly early. The first stuff ran a little long; some of the pacing was off. But for the most part, there’s just not a lot of the floor. There’s no other version. There will never be another version. This is just what it wanted to be.

AVC: Was it bittersweet to finish Boyhood? Did you suffer your own version of empty nest syndrome?

RL: [Laughs.] A little bit! It’s like the kid going off to college, just going off into the world. But I’ve been slow to acknowledge it. I’m still processing. Everything about this movie has been different, every feeling about it. It’s uncharted waters. Often, you can kind of predict sort of how you’re going to feel, because there’s some precedent for it. This, there really isn’t. The intensity of the accumulation… you know the martini shot, the last shot of the shoot? Here, you multiply that by 12. The idea of the movie being over, it’s hard to describe. I know I’ll never feel that again.

AVC: What is the martini shot in Boyhood?

RL: It’s the last shot. It’s them up on the mountain. And it was real. It was real for Ellar, it was real for me, it was real for the crew.

AVC: It must have been very strange for Ellar. Most of the time, an actor shoots for a few weeks and then several months later, the fruit of his labor is out there.

RL: Ethan Hawke pointed that out to him along the way. He said, “You’re getting the best of this. You’re getting the artistic experience, you’re getting the collaboration, you’re getting all the good stuff without the bad stuff.” Which is coming out into the world, and having to deal with expectations and disappointments and jealousies and all that shit that might invade a young actor’s psyche or life. And I knew this would be a powerful representation of both Ellar’s and Lorelei’s life. But I thought at least by the time they watch it—or anyone watches it—they’ll be young adults. And they’ll maybe have the capacity to have an artistic perspective on it. And they do. They did halfway through the process. It’s still a crazy thing for them to watch, as you can imagine. Not many actors have been in that position, to have their whole maturation process documented in a non-documentary.

AVC: It’s like having a moving photo album of your childhood.

RL: Yeah. Ellar’s very thoughtful and philosophical about it. He’s like, “Well, it kind of proves I exist in a strange way. It’s a gift. I had this childhood on film. It was fictional, but it was my childhood. I did go to a baseball game and had a sister who scolded me and we fought.” It’s a fascinating life experience for all of us, but for the kids especially. It’s been a crazy journey.

AVC: Last question. Will there be another Before film in seven-and-a-half years?

RL: Seven and a half? You’ve done the math. Ask back again in about four years. I’ll know better then. Right now, if I had to push a “yes” or “no” button, I’d push “no.” It’s too fresh and those are just too hard to do. 

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