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Interview: Richard Linklater on the 12-year Journey to “Boyhood”

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” has been as universally acclaimed as any film in years, and audiences responded in kind last week when the film opened in New York and Los Angeles to sold-out crowds. The story of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) has an undeniable hook in that it took Linklater—the already beloved writer/director of films like “School of Rock,” “Before Midnight,” and “Dazed and Confused,” among many others—twelve years to make it. Shooting for a few weeks a year with only four principal actors—Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and his daughter Lorelei Linklater—the director crafted a deeply personal, intimate story of human development. It is not just about these kids and these parents. It is about us. And Linklater was kind enough to take some time out of a very busy publicity to talk to us about how he pulled it off.

As is often the case with interviews here, the conversation started with a bit of discussion and memory of Roger.

RICHARD LINKLATER: I’m sure every filmmaker in the world is going to say this to you forever but “I think Roger would have liked this movie.” (Smiles.) It’s not fair. People can claim that forever. But it’s almost his documentary; it’s the name of his BOOK. The name of his book [“Life Itself”] could have been the name of this movie.

If most directors looked back at 12 years of their filmmaking, they could see changes in their approach to form and their art. When you watch “Boyhood,” do you see anything like that in your own work?

The funny answer is “no.” I haven’t developed at all. I haven’t gotten any better. But that was by design. You’d have to look at the other films I’ve made during this stretch of time. With this, I just had a tone and a style and a look that was going to be the whole movie no matter what. I was really trying to match. When the idea came to me, I wanted it to feel like it was one movie. The only thing you would notice is everyone slowly got older and aged and grew up. There was going to be nothing in the film itself. If the style had changed, it would have been jarring. It would have punctured the reality I was trying to create for the viewer, which is you’re just in these people’s world. There can be no intermediary between.

How far in advance did you know how that world would develop? Did you know, for example, that Mason would become a photographer when he was younger or that his mom would re-marry twice? Or WHEN did you know those plot developments?

All the marriages, divorces, moves, big stuff—I knew he’d go to college and I knew the last shot of the movie from the beginning. The photographer thing? I knew by high school he’d be expressing himself. I thought he’d be a writer. Knowing Ellar himself at that point—he’s living in a music town, his dad is a musician, I thought he might be in a band. I thought I’d be filming band practice. The film would go where he wanted to some degree. That’s not what happened. He ended up with an interest in photography. I thought, “Great.” I like that more. That’s closer to who I was [at that age]. I was taking pictures. I was observational. It was more fitting. That’s a good example of us going in his direction.

So there’s a balance across all 12 years of knowing where certain things are going to go but organically growing with the characters. And yourself?

Yeah! Everybody. It’s designed to incorporate the future, the unknown. I knew there were notes to be hit at the end that I wouldn’t be capable of [when I started]. You just got to live it. I got to live ten more years to earn that ending.

Well, other than the natural aging, if you knew the ending, how would it have been different if you made the whole thing 12 years earlier?

It might have been interesting. It wasn’t like I was 20. I was 40 and I could have gone there. I’d had my own adult relations with kids. Certainly, we all have relations with our parents. It would have been something but nothing like this. The cumulative investment by all of the actors over the years really informs the whole thing. The second half it starts building. You invest more. Some of the last scenes, I think “She’s earned that.” Patricia’s breakdown. She’s earned that. We’ll forgive her that.

She’s so good. I’ll admit I kind of missed how good she is the first time and didn’t appreciate it until the second time.

Yeah, yeah. Well, she’s the one who’s kind of dragging you through the movie. The way you drag through life. You can almost be critical of her. You don’t really see the momness.

And you’re focusing more on the boy of the title the first time.

It could have been called “Motherhood” or “Mother and Son.”

How close did you get with Ellar and his family? Did you go to his birthday parties?

Yeah, I think so. Maybe once. There was some gathering. I felt like he was like a nephew. Definitely family. We’d go to movies. “Hey, call Ellar and see if he wants to go.” Lorelei [Linklater, Richard’s daughter who plays Ellar’s brother in the film]—they were sort of siblings to each other. They fell into that thing really quickly. He didn’t have any siblings so to be scolded by an older sister and made fun of kind of really changed his perspective. She fell into that easily. The first year, she was giving him shit.

Given the fact that you have a daughter and so you could have gone this route, how would it have been different if it was “Girlhood”? How is this a “Boy” movie?

It is kind of “Girlhood.” Especially in the first half of the movie. You’re getting her life and his life. And Patricia’s strong point of view. It IS “Girlhood” and “Womanhood” to a pretty large degree.

But you made a choice. How would it have been different if it was “Parenthood”?

I wanted to make a film about being a kid and I knew it would reflect on being a parent too. But you have to pick a point of view. I think there are a lot of movies about parents who have kids and it’s really about the parents and it kind of negates the kids’ point of view. I wanted to do it the other way, where it’s really kind of the kid’s view of his parents. People are like, “He’s kind of a ne’er-do-well dad.” No, he’s not. He’s working. You don’t know much. You don’t know what happens off-screen. And, as a kid, that’s kind of how it is. You don’t really know what your parents do all day when they’re not there. Your own limited scope of the world is projected on them. You might like them or deal with them but you really have no idea for the longest time. That’s what makes that last scene with Patricia when he’s leaving kind of poignant. There’s a disconnect. He can’t understand what she’s going through because he hasn’t lived enough years. He can FEEL for her but he can’t fully know. It doesn’t make sense. You have your own emotional and experiential set points.

How do you finance something that no one knew existed for a decade? Was it out-of-pocket?

IFC. I had made two films with them early century—“Waking Life” and “Tape.” And they gave me a couple hundred thousand a year to shoot on film, pay minimums, to get it shot. No one really got paid. It was our gift—to be making the movie. We didn’t really have any post production plan. Let’s get there and see how it goes.

That’s quite a…

…Quite a leap. For anybody. I talked to a few producers I had worked with and they were like, “What are you talking about?” It just made no sense. I got lucky. There are probably a lot of good ideas floating around in the world but you’re not anything without some support. It’s a low-budget film but they made a choice. IFC was right. They have a long-term plan. They’re a library. They’re a company. IFC wasn’t even a distributor when this started. When they started this, they probably produced 15 films that year. Somewhere along the way, they were producing one film—mine—after they started distributing.

There’s a lot of luck involved in that.

People say “It was such a risk. What if someone died?” Well, my four cast members & myself—odds were 12 years ago that we would all still be here. I always say the REAL statistical anomaly is that YOU would still be here. The guy who green-lit the film would have the same job in our industry.

Or the company at all would still be thriving.

Or the company. A few years in, I was like, “OK, it’ll be easier to get funding now that I can show somebody something. Here’s four years.” Every year, I had more hope of being able to finish it. But it was getting started that was the hard part.

Now what? In today’s market, how do we get this to as big an audience as possible?

It’s happening. It’s happening. It’s unbelievable. People are really responding. It opened in New York and L.A. last week and it’s real review-driven. People are finding some connection. I would have never predicted that too. I thought that you can’t really describe the movie. It’s a movie about moments. Everything that I could say about the movie wouldn’t get people to rush out and see it. What I didn’t anticipate was the 12-year structure being the thing itself. Wow, you get to see someone age. I was just thinking from a storytelling perspective. I didn’t look out and think that the structure would be something that no one has seen before.

Yeah, but, that structure is entwined with the storytelling.

Yes, they’re one and the same. Absolutely. I knew it would be cool. I thought it would be unique. But it’s so…

Is there any part of you that wanted another year? To keep going?

Nope. 12th grade, man. College next. The film itself—I’m sending my kid off to college. And it’s really hard.

It made me think about the little moments in my life—is there a promise I’ve already made to my kid that I don’t remember—are there personal elements or stories that are incorporated into the narrative of the film from your own life?

Of course. All of it happened to myself or someone involved. Everything has some basis in reality.

I think people are responding to that too. It feels personal.

Yeah. It’s very specific. Personal. It’s not the big thing. It’s the accumulation of little things.

You’ve played with form in so many ways—"Waking Life," "A Scanner Darkly," this, even the "Before" movies to an extent—is that something you think you’ll continue?

It must be how my mind works. When I think about how to tell a story. You can’t help but be who you are. I do spend a lot of time thinking about storytelling and cinema. I’ve always been optimistic about it. When I first got into film in my early 20s, I felt like the world was a lot of open territory—a lot of stories that hadn’t been told. I was always excited about the newness. Could you make a movie about this? Why wouldn’t that work?

Are you still there?

Yeah. I’m still there.

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