'Boyhood' Director Richard Linklater Discusses the Creation of His Indie Epic
The director talks about the process and pop cultural minutia of the movie that took 12 years to shoot.
Excuse the cliche, but Boyhood is unlike anything you've ever seen before. Director Richard Linklater spent 12 years shooting the film with the same cast of actors, which allowed him to tell the story of adolescence with unparalleled realism. The story follows Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up from age six to 18. Boyhood takes momentary snapshots from each year—a collection of Mason Jr.'s formative memories—rather than rely on a traditionally structured narrative. And the people around him transform as well, whether it's his mother (Patricia Arquette) dealing with a series of failed, abusive relationships, his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) going through her own growing pains, or his father (Ethan Hawke) trying to get his own life together. Cultural markers (pop music of a given year, Wiis, smartphones, etc.) also brilliantly tie together the movie and showcase the passage of time as much as any of the aging faces. In Boyhood, Linklater crafts a sweeping modern epic without any notions of grandiosity. It's a simple story of humanity that's naturally authentic in a peerless way.
Boyhood proved it's worth at this year's Seattle International Film Festival, taking home the Golden Space Needle Awards for best film, best director, best actress (Arquette). The film now makes its theatrical return starting this week at Harvard Exit Theatre and Bellevue Lincoln Square Cinemas.
We had the chance to sit down with Linklater when he was in town for SIFF and discussed Boyhood's pop culture minutia, if there were any rules for the actors between filming sessions, and baseball.
One of my favorite things about Boyhood was how the soundtrack stayed current and chronological as the film progressed. It helped naturally convey the passage of time. Did you pick the music out each year as you went along or was it more a reflective selection after the shooting had wrapped?
It was a little postproduction. I kind of put off a lot of that a little stuff toward the end. Not the very end, but in the last three or four years I started getting into the music a little more. I mean, I knew it would always be in there, but it’s not exactly my demographic. I was kind of scouring the lists for those years and picking stuff I liked, but I had a lot of younger consultants. I wanted every song to have some kind of emotional memory for somebody. It was fun reading all those responses from young men, since mostly the film is from Ellar’s perspective. They were like, “This song was on at every party,” or “My sister liked this song. I hated it,” or “All the girls liked this,” or “This was cool! I listened to this in my room.” I wanted to hear personal stuff about all that.
As he got older, the movie sort of wants to reflect Mason Jr.'s own taste. When he’s riding with his girlfriend on a road trip, he’s listening to the Arcade Fire. He has that album. He likes that song. It’s his taste. Where before, when you’re a kid, it’s just kind of what’s coming at you; usually from older people, either your parents’ taste or your older siblings'. Maybe it’s different now, but I remember when I was a kid, you’re not the DJ.
I think that’s still the case. I mean there’s a scene early in the film where his sister is singing Britney Spears to intentionally annoy him. That felt very real to me, because when I was that age and my sister would sing pop songs like that and my reaction was essentially, “Oh shut up. I hate this stupid girl music.”
(Laughs) Yeah, I knew at the time that would be fun and annoying. Because she’s sassy and likes performing just to annoy him.
Another interesting aspect of Boyhood is the way you see technology change as the movie progresses. Like it starts out with landlines and then something like a Wii is introduced and by the end of the film characters are FaceTiming. When filming, were you cautious about what technology to introduce on screen?
I mean, I had a choice almost every year what to show. It was so weird doing a period film in the present tense. I remember in the second year, when he’s in the classroom, there’s the iMacs. And I was like, “I’m going to shoot a profile of that,” because I knew that they wouldn’t be around forever. But you take a guess; all you know is it’s going to change. You don’t know what it’s going to be.
That goes for all the people involved too. I remember the introduction of the Wii and kids playing it all the time. We had one. I was like, “Yeah, that’s kind of interesting.” Or the different computer games. That was just all going to be a part of it. Because I think that’s the only thing that is changing. I didn’t see—and again I’m older—I didn’t notice any huge seismic cultural shifts outside of technology. The cars kind of look the same. The fashion looks the same. Hairstyles look the same. From 2002 to now, there’s not a huge range. If you jump back a few more decades and you get these tremendous changes.
Yeah, like if you go from the late ’80s to the early ’90s, there’s much more of a fashion shift.
Yeah, you see it! But maybe if you’re 18 now, maybe they would be able to know. But I think technology sort of drowns all that. The need for physical change kinda always came out of boredom and restlessness, but I think technology squelches that in the individual. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
Were there any things that you shot and when you went back at the end you felt like, “Oh this doesn’t feel right for the time?”
Not a whole lot. So much of what I shot is on the film. It was so kind of tightly scheduled and everything. There were a few little things I tried that didn’t totally take off, or I’d have a few comments on things that I ended up not using because I didn’t think they’d resonate. There was one comment: When the parents come back from the honeymoon, there’s a dinner scene right after and there’s some reference to the (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami. The kids have gone and tried to raise money for it. And then I think the very next year Hurricane Katrina happened, and I thought, “Oh, that sort of erased that as the cultural touchstone moment.” Just little things like that.
But even when you’re filming and incorporating the (2008) Obama election, it’s like, “Well what happens if he loses the election?” And I said, “Well it’ll still be interesting that there was this polarized culture.” It’s still a moment regardless of what happens. But I remember those elections. And I wanted the whole film to kind of feel like a memory, looking back on a life. I grew up and there was the Vietnam War and I remember those elections - Nixon in ’68 and ’72.
That’s another thing that I thought was great. The plot was very much memory focused, kind of mental snapshots. There were through lines across the years, but it was more these about these moments, these splashes of time. That’s partially a result of the way you shot it, but it was really enjoyable because that’s more how we actually perceive life.
It’s especially how you remember things, but it’s actually how you perceive your life as it moves forward. That’s what I was trying to capture in some entertaining way. It just would’ve seemed cheesy to have these standalone big moments. I think maybe that’s an impulse someone could have, but I had all that gestation time to work through the cliches and seen-it-befores and try to get at something else. You look back on your life and you wonder, “Why do I remember that weekend? Why do I remember that camping trip? Why is that taking precedent over other things?” There’s a certain randomness to it, I guess, but it must mean something. So I always went with that.
It was hard to describe this film. Easy on the big, “Oh, 12 years. Everybody ages.” But people were like, “But what happens?” I was like, “Not much.” (Laughs) I had a lot of confidence in the idea and the big picture, but there were times early on, I said, “Is this going to be enough?” Because it’s not much. It’s little stuff. But I bet the whole farm on the cumulative effect; that you would identify with this family and hopefully care about them and feel close to them in some way. So I bet it all on that. But you could’ve got to the end and said, “Eh, nothing much happened. So what? Who cares?”
When you were putting the film together were you doing rough edits of what you shot each year or did you wait till the end to revisit what you’d shot?
We’d shoot and edit that year. I’d attach it to however much had been before, so it was this growing thing. Then I’d edit that whole thing again. And just spend a lot of time with it. I’d watch it alone and think about where it had to go, what relationships were developing, what things I wanted to express, gauge where the kids were at, where the culture’s at… it was this living, breathing thing. Even though I made a bunch of other movies in the meantime, it was always kind of there on a burner. It kind of demanded a lot of attention actually. The numbers are kind of crazy: We spent a year in preproduction, two years of postproduction. You don’t usually get that schedule for a low-budget indie epic, which makes no sense either.
As much as Boyhood is about Mason Jr.’s growth, the other characters are dynamic too. I enjoyed the frankness of Ethan’s father character, when he’d mention, like, “I don’t want to have to learn about you via Facebook.” He kind of morphs from the cool deadbeat dad into a fully realized person.
The kids are growing up, but the parents are too. They were young parents, so you see them struggling through how to parent. He’ll even talk about it at times. “I’m not going to be that kind of dad. Let’s really talk.” It’s kind of his personality. You can feel he’s trying, as is she. So it’s a portrait of that. Could’ve been called Parenthood, but that was taken.
Were there any rules or stipulations for the actors? Like, “Oh, Ellar, don’t get a septum piercing” or anything like that?
Yeah, a little bit! Before anything major changes. Patricia said I told her she couldn’t get Botox or anything because Olivia wouldn’t be in that kind of world. (Laughs) But yeah, Ellar would call me up, “Hey man, I’m thinking about getting my ear pierced. Is that okay?” I was like his dad. He was asking permission. (Laughs) “Hey, I’m thinking about cutting my hair.” It was always kind of a concern. And I never said no. One year I was like, “You can’t cut your hair because you have to get this haircut.” He was so happy to get his hair cut. In the scene he looks like he’s being assaulted, basically, but in truth, he was so fucking happy to have his hair cut.
Despite nothing much happening, there’s a pretty rich variety of cinematic shots in the film. Probably my favorite is the one at the Astros baseball game, where it’s a single shot of a home run and the characters’ reactions all in one frame. That moment is so perfect.
That was real. That’s when I knew the film gods were with me. Because I had an inning and I was like, “Okay, we’ve kind of filmed the concession stand and dialogue and stuff. I just want to get some kind (shot) of Astros on offense. I shot them pitching. Maybe someone will get a hit. Lets just go with it and then…”
Perfect home run right down the line…
Within the lens! He didn’t hit it to right field. He hit it right in the middle of the frame! And you can actually follow the ball. I don’t even need to digitally enhance it. And then, over here, that was an actual reaction (from the actors). I was like, “Holy shit! Did that magic just happen?” I think you could sit there for games and games and games and never get that. And I had like one inning. It’s amazing the Astros scored any runs, really. (Laughs)
Opens July 24, Harvard Exit Theatre and Bellevue Lincoln Square Cinemas, $8–$11