When it comes to filmmaking, Richard Linklater is like an extreme ultra-marathoner. Forget three-month-long shoots or 90-minute runtimes. For the nearly three-hour Boyhood, the director set out to capture the real-time essence of growing up—divorced parents, bad haircuts, worse breakups and all. Much has been written about the 12 years Linklater and his cast—which included Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane and his own daughter Lorelei—spent making the film in yearly installments. But such ambition is what enables Linklater to be one of the most honest filmmakers working today, the reward for which is the lauded long haul the film has been on since its debut at Sundance in January. Boyhood also just nabbed New York Film Critics Circle Awards for best picture, best director for Linklater and supporting actress for Arquette.
How much of the casting of Patricia and Ethan was about needing partners for the duration of the shoot and how much was it seeing these characters in them?
Well, it’s both. Embarking on something like this, you’ve got to really take a long-term view of what this project is and what it’s going to demand, so you need someone who would have the spirit and be all in. But I think a lot of it really is just their characters. I knew Ethan well and saw him go from being a single guy to a parent. I thought he had a lot to say about parenting and would continue to. That is exactly what happened, and the same goes with Patricia. I had met her once and knew she had become a mom at a young age. I thought, she probably has something interesting to say about struggling with a career and parenting. When I called her up, we talked about just that for two hours. We just talked about being parents, being a kid, our own parents, and she just had so much to reflect on. It’s a deep well when you talk about parenting, so I just wanted people who would always have new things to say.
You probably couldn’t have done Boyhood with someone who didn’t have a child of their own.
No. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind. I mean, not that a person who doesn’t have a kid can’t play a good parent, I’m sure they can, but what I was going to be asking for was something a little beyond just acting. It’s a full-on embodiment and commitment. Some of the notes we were trying to hit toward the end of the movie, especially, I don’t think we could have hit without someone having really been through a lot of that.
Watching this movie plays a lot with expectations, especially with us as audience members. There’s a scene when Ellar and his friends are playing with a saw blade. Immediately one thinks something bad is going to happen that will change the course of the film. And it doesn’t. How did you hold your ground with this concept when you were pitching the movie for funding?
I remember (playing with a saw blade) as a junior high kid. When you look back you think, that’s really dangerous. So much of childhood and maturing is that you’re constantly putting yourself in positions where something bad is going to happen. But guess what? For most people, it doesn’t. With movies, we’re so conditioned for plot structures where, if you introduce something, you have to pay it off. In that scene I was just showing the kids farting around. I was surprised when I first saw Boyhood with a big audience, I was like, “Oh, wow, they think something bad is going to happen even though we’re an hour-plus into a movie.” I had to bet everything on whether the audience would identify with this family and care about them because of the intimacy the audience is going to have with them. This goes back to your question about when I pitched the movie. The response was like, “Oh, cool, 12 years. You see everybody grow up, OK, but what happens?” I had to explain that Boyhood would be all these little things that get cut out of other movies and that don’t have a place in a traditional plot but that have a lot room in our lives.
You’ve compared Boyhood to a sculpture that you were able to create and buff for over a decade and how you want to make all your films this way. What feedback have you received from other directors about what you were able to pull off?
I got a note from a friend, a director, who’s making a film in London, and she was like, “You’ve ruined it for all of us with casting a movie.” In her film, some characters start out as seven-year-olds and she has to cast 19-year-old or whatever age versions of them, too. You cast a different set of actors for the older versions in subsequent scenes. It makes total sense and we’re all used to it, but she was like, “It feels so phony.” I responded, “Well, put the film aside for those years in between.” I don’t know what to say.
Was there anything you would have done differently in making Boyhood?
No. It sounds kind of simple, but it did work out the way it was planned. I admit, Boyhood was designed to include a certain kind of randomness to the future. We were collaborating with an unknown that could be the adversary or the fun wild card, and that’s how we chose to look at it. It was like, “Oh, great, there’s this election going on. I bet we’re going to remember this Obama guy.” You just can’t control everything. We’re giving up that control, but that’s the fun. That’s the secret sauce of this whole project. I’ve always loved that about filmmaking. You show up on set, it’s raining, and you have to just wing it and make things work that you didn’t plan for. I’ve never really had the budget to control everything. (With small films), you’re always having to think creatively on your feet. This film would be 12 years of that.
Boyhood has been an indelible film for many moviegoers. What were some of the films that had a similar effect on you as you came of age, as a male and as a filmmaker? Are there any nods to them in this movie?
Gosh, for me, the two best children’s films ever—and I didn’t see them as a child but as a young adult—are (Francois) Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and (Ingmar) Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. I mean, it’s a great genre. I saw Fanny and Alexander more recently and there’s this kind of creepy stepfather element to that, but I don’t think that was a direct homage (in Boyhood). And with Truffaut it’s just the utter connection and empathy you get and the understanding of seeing the world through a kid’s eyes. Truffaut had that. He always took a very beautiful approach to kids,.
Your movies, from Boyhood to the Before trilogy to even Dazed and Confused have a consistent track record of being honest and true-to-life. What’s your secret?
Whew, I don’t know. I think in so many of my movies I’m really just trying to re-create exact atmospheres as I remember or experienced them. That’s just kind of the way I approach cinema, I guess. I think what bogs you down in a certain kind of filmmaking is over-plotting. I’m big on story and character, and I largely trade traditional plot points for just an emphasis on those things. I think I’m actually a pretty clean storyteller; just the machinations of plot can often paint you in a corner… Life never pays off in a perfect, three-act structure. With Boyhood I said, “I guarantee you audiences will identify with the film.” I’ve always had to fight that battle at the financing level. People will ask, “What are stakes? You need more going on.” It’s like not understanding that the strength of cinema is identification. The medium we live in is very powerful and has a potential that I think a lot of people who are working in it don’t even understand.
Is that why anything that satirizes how Hollywood works always depicts some executive talking about how a movie is going to sell over how honest it is?
Well, I’m not saying they’re not right, if you look at boxoffice results. We can all categorically say, “Guess what? They’re right.” But it depends on the scale of the movie you’re doing and what you’re trying to achieve. My goal is to keep the budget just low enough that I don’t have to make $500 million.
To what do you tribute the longevity with which Boyhood has stayed in the minds and hearts of audiences, as well as of people in this industry, who can be cynical?
I don’t know. We’ve kind of niched out our own little category here, but I mean, we’re thrilled. For a film that came out in July, that people are still talking about and that is actually still is in some theaters is amazing. We are starting to run into people who have seen the movie four or five times, so there is this kind of connection with it that doesn’t—on further reflection—get shallower. That’s amazing to us. We’re grateful.
How hard is it with any project, this one in particular, to accept its graceful end and move on?
It’s hasn’t happened yet, you know. We filmed for the last time a year ago. We were done at Sundance; the film came out. I’m shooting another film right now, and I’m really happy doing it, but Boyhood’s still pretty close by. And I don’t mind that. I think I’ll just live with Boyhood the rest of my life in a kind of wonderful way— first and foremost with the process and the making of it, and then now with this additional lap that’s going on of people actually appreciating what we did, which is amazing. A lot of us spend a lot of time making movies that we like a lot, but then some people like them and some don’t; the movies don’t really grab the imagination of a large audience for various reasons. It’s pretty cool when it seems to happen.
Photograph of Richard Linklater by J.R. Mankoff