Richard Linklater speaking in Berlin about his latest film, Boyhood.
By its nature, a movie as unique as Boyhood comes along rarely at best. Thankfully for audiences, it's a blistering gem of a rarity. Beginning in 2002, Richard Linklater, along with actors Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and even his young daughter, Lorelei Linklater, boarded a project unlike any other. The working title for the film, which would be shot over a dozen years, was Boyhood or, sometimes, The 12 Year Project. Filmmaker, celebrity cast, and kids grow, mature, and tell an extraordinarly story of the most usual of circumstances—a family making their way in small town America in the 2000s. And at its center is a delightful and precocious boy, Mason, played by “newcomer” Ellar Coltrane.
The film opens on Mason's father (Ethan Hawke) arriving to pick up his two elementary school children for a weekend visit. Now separated from their mother (Patricia Arquette), he takes Mason and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) for time to reconnect. He is back in Texas after a long stint in Alaska. He becomes a present figure in their lives, though they continue to live with their mother, who embarks on a promising new relationship. She remarries and brother and sister have two new siblings via their step-father, who on the surface seems like a good guy. Things go a bit south with the relationship, but as the drama subtly unfolds, the years go by.
Tricks of cinema can effectively convey age and the passing of time, but Linklater didn't need to rely on miracles of makeup or cinematography. Linklater shot Boyhood (on 35mm film) with the same crew of main actors, typically restarting production once every year or so. The remarkable change is apparent as the viewer witnesses Mason and Samantha literally growing up over the course of the 164-minute film, from elementary school through high school. And, all the while, the parents also mature.
The risks of taking on a film with these unusual parameters are obvious. What would have happened if someone decided they didn't want to participate? Or worse, what if something catastrophic had happened that would have made it impossible to reconcile with a story being created incrementally? Thankfully, a bit of luck also served this remarkable film well.
Boyhood had a Special Presentation at last month's Sundance Film Festival before its formal premiere in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival. Though it's a story of what Linklater described in Berlin as a “normal family, not an extraordinary family” in mostly rural Texas, the film appears to translate cross-culturally. Linklater and the cast met with journalists and the typically polite applause at most Berlin press events was roars and sustained clapping.
Boyhood star Patricia Arquette in Berlin this week.
Here some highlights from the conversation:
Richard Linklater goes back to the beginning of the project and shares how he set out to shoot a movie over 12 years…
It was July, 2002. That is almost 4,200 days ago. [We thought], “What the hell are we getting ourselves into?” I had the architecture of the whole piece in mind. But then every year we had this gestation period to think about each segment. We didn't film every year—sometimes it was 18 months, sometimes it was nine months—but basically once a year.
…and his intent:
I wanted to show a normal family, not an extraordinarily family. I didn't want to show the big obvious moments we think of when growing up like the first kiss. I had faith that it would all add up in a cumulative effect more than the events themselves—though not that they weren't important.
The kids grow up on camera, but how closely related are their personalities to their characters?
I didn't tell the actors too much about what to do with their lives. Ellar would call me sometimes if he was thinking about cutting his hair or getting an earring or something. So we were aware of it. There is a moment where he had to get his hair cut in the movie, but he was aware of that ahead of time.
Did any cast members see parts of the movie over the years?
Nobody ever saw footage until recently.
Linklater talks about casting and how the idea evolved…
I've worked with Ethan Hawke [many times] and we talked about it when I was in New York and he agreed to do it immediately. He got this weird look on his face and he immediately jumped in. Also, I had met Patricia once in the '90s. I knew she had been a mom rather young in her life. I called her up and I said, “What do you plan on doing 12 years from now?” She was brave and fearless.
…and calling the film Boyhood and casting Ellar Coltrane. And what would have happened had Coltrane grown up as a jock?
It's a story about this family, but it's seen through his point of view. Sometimes it was called the 12 Year Project. Ellar's parents were very supportive and they're both artists. He was this ethereal, thoughtful kid, and he grew up into this very cool, thoughtful guy. Things could have gone in another direction. He could have very easily turned into this 250-pound wrestler and then the movie would have gone in that direction a little bit. Ellar felt like the son I never had.
Ellar Coltrane talks about being grateful to have not seen footage from the movie over the years:
It was good that I hadn't watched it or been allowed to watch any of it growing up because I might have become very self-conscious about it. It was a lot to deal with, watching it just two months ago. It was very cathartic and emotional and I can't imagine what it would have been like seeing it when I was 10 years old—to see that much of myself—but it's beautiful.
A very young Ellar Coltrane in an opening scene from Linklater's Boyhood.
Linklater's daughter Lorelei gives her take on the experience:
I'd say it was a really, really strange experience to watch that. Honestly, it was quite painful at times. I mean, who wants to watch their awkward stages? It was hard. I was crying for a little while there… One year I asked [my dad] if my character could die…
I said no, that would be too dramatic for the movie—it's not that kind of movie… This is unique, I don't think actors have ever been in this kind of a position. Two young people growing up on camera in a narrative.
Added Patricia Arquette:
Richard said, “You can't get any facial reconstruction during this…” [Laughs] But that is part of what the movie is about. Life goes fast.
Producer Cathleen Sutherland shares what were the biggest risks undertaking a project shot over a decade:
The biggest risk for this was Jonathan Sehring at IFC Films agreeing to give us the money for it. We had a very small production budget, but the second risk was signing a contract that we were going to make this happen for $200K (a year). With a project like this, you say a few prayers that things will run smoothly.
Richard Linklater added:
This was certainly a leap of faith and a certain amount of optimism for the future that we'd all be here 12 years from now. It's against the law to contract someone to do something over 7 years—especially a child.
Ellar Coltrane was an adolescent when he realized he loved the movie he was making:
There was a point around 12 or 13 when I fell in love with the project—especially the artistic process and how lucky I was to be a part of it and be a part of this family that raised me a week out of the year.
Linklater on the decision to end the story where it does and whether they could pick up the story into young adulthood:
You could continue, but the story is this point of childhood from first through 12th grade. I look back at my childhood and it's like the prison sentence I had in my mind of growing up. I suppose you could pick up from here and continue into young adulthood, but we haven't talked about that. We're still recovering from this.
Patricia Arquette on her character being a struggling [mostly] single mom and remembering her own childhood:
I do think the middle class shoulder the political choices of leaders. When I was a kid, bouncing checks was something we worried about… The hardest part for me was when [this project] was winding down. I didn't want to give it to the world. That was the part I was wrestling with…