As a narrative film, there really is no precedent for Richard Linklater’s time-lapse Boyhood. As a potential Oscar contender, one could look a year back, to 12 Years a Slave, a film that established itself early in the season and then refused to go away—even as higher-budgeted rivals unspooled—and won best picture. Can the same fate await a film best described as “12 Years an Adolescent”?
Boyhood’s critical glow began building way back in January, with a sneak screening at Sundance before officially bowing at the Berlin International Film Festival and then playing South by Southwest. Despite the onslaught of fall trophy pictures, the critics haven’t forgotten this relatively small-budgeted project distributed by IFC Films. How could they?
The backstories are irresistible: Ellar Coltrane and the director’s daughter, Lorelei, began the project as children—Coltrane couldn’t even read—gathering in Austin each year with their onscreen parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, to slowly advance the story.
IFC president Jonathan Sehring shrugged his shoulders at taunts from the company bean counters as he sent yearly six-figure checks to Linklater for more than a decade, hanging around long enough to see the project through and watch a $4 million film become IFC’s most successful homegrown effort, grossing $43 million worldwide and continuing to play in theaters three months after its release. Nobody connected with the project died or otherwise bailed.
“It’s amazing we are still here after all these years with Jonathan,” Linklater says. “Not that we didn’t believe in the guy, but talk about a long-term relationship. What are the odds? This is like five lifetimes in movie industry years.”
All of these variables are part of the film’s narrative, but none is the reason Boyhood has a real shot at an Oscar. There is a naturalism and a universality to the story that makes it relatable to any parent, or any kid for that matter. It’s not surprising the film has hung on, time has always been its ally, a secret weapon that allowed Linklater to depict a coming-of-age story for what it really is: a slow-moving boat that heads up a river, leaving experiences and people in its wake.
“Even the best movies about childhood, like The 400 Blows on down, have to boil it down to one pivotal moment,” Hawke says. “That’s the essential lie of every one of those movies. Our lives aren’t shaped by one moment but a series of them. A relationship between a son and a father isn’t something that happens in one day, and that gestation period is what Rick understood and captured so remarkably. In my last scene with Ellar, he’s got a beard, I offer him a beer, we talk about girls, he’s driving his own car. The first scene I did with him, I was putting Ellar in a car seat. We all grew up during the making of this film. If you’d asked me at 32 to play that last scene, I would have totally screwed it up, probably worn the fat suit, dyed my hair gray and played it with a limp with all these cartoony ideas of what it would be like to be 44. When we shot it, I knew.”
Hawke, Arquette and Sehring all say they are shocked at how closely the finished product resembled the film Linklater pitched them over a decade ago, and how strong a bond they instantly felt because of their own experiences with parenting, marriage and divorce. This was particularly important for Arquette, whose oft-married character was the fulcrum for much of the dramatic conflict.
“I had a son of my own then, he was 12 at the time, and I’d already seen how fast that part of life can fly by,” she says. “Our own experiences informed a lot. How could it not? I was a single mom at 20 years old. All my friends were hanging out, partying and talking about boys. I had to go feed a baby, change diapers and hustle to make money. My son has a gentle, sensitive nature, much like Ellar, so there was a lot of crossover and a lot of moments that reminded me of my mom, or friends of mine.”
Arquette and Hawke, who both are approaching 30-year film careers, say they likely will never have an experience as surreal as this one, and it all goes back to that first conversation, when each committed to Linklater even though there was no script to read. “As an actor, you have to rely on instinct and gut, and my whole body just said, ‘Yes, yes!’” Arquette continues. “I love time-lapse photography—watching a flower bloom, the petals fall and it all starting over. We forget we, too, are organic species, with life cycles. In Hollywood, we are taught to manipulate that life cycle and that we’re not supposed to get old.”
But both Arquette and Hawke admit watching themselves age was more jarring than they anticipated.
“I remember watching Boyhood in Sundance the first time with Patricia,” Hawke says. “I thought, ‘Hey, man, I got a movie coming out and I look damn good.’ Slowly, the truth was revealed, and I leaned over to Patricia and whispered, ‘They grow up. We age.’ I’m proud of that, though; it’s not any work we did, it was just… time. It is so powerfully human.
“The first few years we shot, it really felt like an experiment; nobody had any vocabulary for what we were doing,” Hawke continues. “I’d describe it to friends, come home and say, ‘I just did some of the best scene work I’ve ever done,’ and they’d ask when the movie was coming out, and I’d say, ‘Nine years from now.’ When you start something, and the release is 12 years away, how can you think about it any other way than, ‘Well, that’ll never happen.’ ”
Linklater, who was the glue that kept production together—and the four stars in constant contact—was not going to let the film go so easily. “The tough part wasn’t shooting three days each year,” the director says. “You pre-produce for that like you were doing a whole movie. You had to get permits, you had to cast, get a crew, edit. It was as involved as making a movie every year. It was wildly out of proportion to what you would do on a low-budget film, which doesn’t spend a year in preproduction or two years in postproduction, which we did, if you add it all up. It had to happen that way to capture the incremental aspect of the story. To have that kind of time to sit with it, to think it out—it really is a cool sculpture at this point, because I had 10 years to buff it. I’m spoiled now. I want to spend that long on every movie.”
Linklater isn’t the only one changed by the experience of making Boyhood. “We poured ourselves into (the film),” adds Hawke. “This whole thing could not be more personal to me, and everybody else involved. There is a lot of Rick in this movie, a lot of Ellar, Lorelei, Patricia and me, and because it is so personal, it is sad that it’s over.”
It seems as if both Hawke and Arquette would be up for a sequel. Just don’t bring that up with Linklater, whose exasperated response at the mere suggestion was, “Now you want me to start answering questions about the movie Manhood?”
Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke photographed by J.R. Mankoff