A boy's life: Richard Linklater's 12-year project is an epic coming-of-age film
Shot incrementally over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a deceptively simple portrait of childhood, one that may rank among the more understated “epics” ever filmed. It follows protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a moony first-grader, the kind who completes but neglects to turn in his homework, to an artistic college freshman, of the sort who receives photography scholarships. From 2002 to 2013, cast and crew assembled once a year to film the movie that takes for its plot, purpose and narrative propulsion the passage of time. With his feature’s emphasis on everyday occurrences over archetypal milestones—we are not privy to Mason’s first hangover or sexual encounter, for instance—Linklater is apt to repeatedly call Boyhood a depiction of “life itself.”
“I’ve spent my whole adult life in the realm of cinematic storytelling, in and around the boundaries of that. It does have these limitations that’re sometimes frustrating. I wanted to say something about childhood, but I was very much limited to the physicality of the young actor. You can’t ask a little kid to suddenly be a teenager. The canvas I was trying to explore was pretty vast. So I had a problem. And I got to think about that for a couple of years. And then the idea just hit me: Oh, well, why couldn’t you just film a bit every year? If you filmed and let time go by, that could create my own canvas to express what I was trying to express here. Which was, the whole maturation process,” explains Linklater. “Not just of the kid, but parenting, too. You know, it encompassed the whole family,” inclusive of Mason’s divorced parents Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), as well as his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). “[Mason’s] viewpoint was enforced in the movie, but it would be a depiction of everything. Life itself, I guess.”
Such an ambitious undertaking would seem to necessitate considerable prep work before shooting could begin. This was and wasn’t the case, says Linklater, who both planned prior to and tinkered his way through the dozen-year process.
“I had a rough outline. I had a grid, a lot of structure. First through 12th grade, that’s a structure. I knew it would be until he went to college. I knew the last shot of the movie pretty early on. I knew all the character trajectories, had really put a lot of thought into that. But then it was just so great, every year, to be able to just think, you know?... Film, edit, and think. Edit the whole thing, and just feel your way through it, like a novel or something. Set aside, re-read, think, and imagine.”
The film’s treatment of time, condensing a large swath within a framework, achieving a kind of bounded expansiveness, is likewise novelistic. Its approach is reminiscent of the famous bildungsroman, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. James Joyce’s debut novel opens with a collection of nursery-rhyme phrases illustrative of the narrator’s developmental state: He’s a small child. His fragmented understanding of the world is indicative of an unformed and forming mind. Where Joyce uses language, Linklater uses imagery to depict inchoateness: Child Mason stares at and registers a collection of images—a dead bird, scenes from a videogame, his mother flirting. Just as the language in Portrait grows increasingly fluid and sophisticated as the novel progresses, so do the observations in Boyhood become less impressionistic and Mason’s engagement, like that of the actor who portrays him, more articulate as time passes.
“I would say fully halfway through the movie it’s really starting to incorporate some of his own opinions,” Linklater says of Coltrane. “But, you know, it’s the emergence of self, that’s what the film is about. Like, the kid is really powerless. You go with your parents. Older siblings kind of dominate your life. And then suddenly, he has more attitude, little more opinions. That, to me, kind of mirrors gaining our own agency as a human being.”
Linklater grew paternalistic toward and a little protective of Coltrane, a Texan like his director. “I was always taking his temperature, developmentally where he was. I didn’t want the film to impose much on him.” This may have been a natural extension of his fatherly feelings, as Coltrane’s sister in the film is played by Linklater’s daughter. The director says working with Lorelei was “easy, obviously… I was so familiar with her. I could just ask her to, ‘Oh, that little thing you do with your mouth? That’s annoying, but it’ll be funny. Do that.’ That’s why I think you see husband-and-wife teams as a natural fit. You know, you get these long collaborations. Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, or Woody and Mia. There’s something natural about that. I’ve never experienced that in my own life, but with my daughter it’s a similar thing, being so familiar with someone.”
Though he has yet to collaborate with his wife, the filmmaker is nonetheless already half of a renowned artistic pair. Ethan Hawke has been a Linklater regular since 1995’s Before Sunrise, the first film in the acclaimed Before series, which includes 2004’s Before Sunset and last year’s Before Midnight. Nine years separate each movie in the trilogy, which, like Boyhood, follows the same characters over a prolonged period of time. The director and his leading man’s “life commitment” has resulted in a free exchange of ideas. “There’s an advantage to that. Ethan and I push each other in that way. He can call me up [and say], ‘Hey, I’m thinking, next year, what if my character…? You can learn so much, creatively.”
Hawke brought quite a bit of himself to his role in Boyhood. Like Mason, he is a child of divorce, and like his character, Mason Sr., he would become a divorcé (from actress Uma Thurman) over the course of filming. Like Linklater, he is the son of a man who worked in insurance, a detail that informs his character arc. Says Linklater, “There’s a lot from Ethan’s own life that can be adapted into this, because he’s a parent. Just like Patricia. Ethan was relatively young when he had kids. It was a portrait of all of us kind of bumbling through parenthood.”
Mason Sr.’s awareness of his parental fumbling is made apparent in a tune he sings to his children during one of their weekend visits. That song and one other were written by author and country-music fan Hawke, who, in addition to having published several novels, penned a profile of Kris Kristofferson for Rolling Stone in 2009. “He had songs in his life, I think, in and around his own family we adapted to the movie,” says Linklater of Hawke.
For a film that is “a collaboration with the culture,” music plays an important role. The director chose his period-specific songs, from bands like Coldplay, Cobra Starship and Arcade Fire, “more in hindsight,” although the popularity of certain hits “was noted” through the years. “My nephew was listening to that Soulja Boy song [“Tell ’Em—Crank That”]. I was like, OK, that’s a big song.” Cultural touchstones such as the Harry Potter book phenomenon, the first Obama election, even Will Ferrell’s viral Pearl the Landlord video, make cameos in the film, illustrating Linklater’s belief that nothing “can ever be too of the moment.”
He continues, “I wanted the film to feel like a memory. A very specific memory, a look back, which is ironic, because you’re filming it in the present tense, but it’s a period film. When do you ever get that chance? I’m filming, and going, well, this won’t be perceived for another 11 years.” The experience heightened the director’s perception of the culture, leading him to make certain observations on the decade-plus span that encompassed Boyhood’s production.
“Turns out most of the changes you could point to really happened in the technological realm. iPhones, computers. There’s less change in the culture. The culture looks the same. That’s my assessment. From my 12 years of really thinking about this as a non-anthropological professional. I always say, if you went back from ’69 to ’81 [which is, likely not incidentally, the period that encompasses the 53-year-old director’s own boyhood] to pick those 12 years, cars were different. Hair was different. Entire music genres have been created. But what happened between ’02 and now? Almost every hairstyle, clothes [are the same]. I mean, if you’re young enough, you can break it down and it would feel different to a younger person. I think the human need for change is happening in technology. I guess that’s what I’m saying. That that satisfies us… Everything that is now, was then. Unless I’m missing something. I think I am.”
Perhaps Linklater, the man behind cult films Slacker (his 1991 debut), Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, is overlooking his own role in the evolving culture. Most directors, for instance, don’t own their movies; they’re awarded a percentage of their films’ profits, but have little to no say in the pattern of release. The deal Linklater brokered with distributor IFC Films, however, grants him part ownership of Boyhood. He can influence where and in what manner the film is released, how it’s marketed and, if he chooses, he can sell his share to a library for considerably higher gain than the royalties most directors receive on home-video sales. It is an unprecedented move that may augur advancements in distributor-director relations to come. But then, given Boyhood’s shoot, such felicitousness feels apt. “You can tell when the film gods are with you,” says Linklater. “The forces weren’t against us.”
The positive nature of the experience does not necessarily mean Boyhood’s newly adult star will pursue others like it, however. “No, he doesn’t really have plans in that way,” Linklater says of Coltrane’s acting ambitions. “I think he’s just an artist. He talks about that. If acting is his thing, if that feels artistically fulfilling, he’ll do it… But I don’t know if he has the drive or personality to.” Linklater acknowledges the need for performers to “have nothing else” if they want to succeed in their profession. And Coltrane, “to his credit, I think he has a lot else. Which is, I think, good in life."