Richard Linklater on Boyhood

Indie stalwart Richard Linklater’s new movie Boyhood is an insouciant epic — a 12-year slice of life that actually took 12 years to shoot. It’s such a simple idea, yet also unprecedented, perhaps because it needed Linklater to come along and finally pull it off.

The movie may be many things to many people, but it wouldn’t be anything without Linklater’s commitment to following one cast — newcomer Ellar Coltrane as the boy, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his parents — for the duration. 

This May, Linklater was in town for the San Francisco International Film Festival, where he received the Founder’s Directing Award. While here he also met to talk about the new film, which opens locally this week.

For years we had no idea you were doing this. Was it ever a secret project?

You know, it was trying to be. But it wasn’t. The very first year I think there was a Variety article. I was like, oh, damn you! People who would go on IMDB or do a little bit of research, and, say the year is 2004, 2005, they’d ask “What’s this film coming out in 2014?” So I would have to talk about it a little bit. The cat was out of the bag. I asked IMDB to take it down but they didn’t because it had been public. They’re like, “We don’t take shit down just because you want!”

Did that complicate the making of it?

Not really. I just didn’t want the idea out there. ‘Cause it’s kind of a unique idea. It’s like the ultimate film of mine. It has a strong concept structurally. You can explain it easily. But then it’s like “Okay, got that, but what happens in the movie?” And I would say “Oh, well. Not much.” I was betting the whole thing on a cumulative effect. That the little moments would add up to something powerful via cinema. The cumulative effect of the identification with this family that we’ve become intimate with. I thought that familiarity would have a power and we would invest. That’s what I was banking the whole thing on. I thought I could get away with little seemingly mundane things in the story itself. But that’s the way your memory works when you look back on your own life. It’s kinda these little things, and it all adds up to… something.

How’d you choose the kid?

Isn’t that the thing? I feel lucky. Of all the kids I met, and I met a lot, I limited it to kids in my region who were already acting. I didn’t want to just swoop a kid off the street; it needed to be someone who’d thrown their hat in the ring as a kid actor. Ellar had done that. And it was so abstract. Even to the parents. Ultimately it was kind of a parental decision. But he had really cool parents. They’re both artists, and saw it as a kind of a life project. But Ellar himself, though. I met a lot of kids, and I just liked the way his little mind worked. He had this kinda cool vibe. He was a cool kid. His taste was far beyond. He was almost too evolved. I had to kind of dork him up a little bit. Same with Lorelei [Linklater’s own daughter, who plays the protagonist’s sister]. We were going for normal, and both of those people aren’t really normal at all.

Going in, how much of the story did you have? And how did it evolve?

I had a pretty strong outline. I work like that in general. Strong outline and, like, I knew the last shot. But then I had this wonderful opportunity that the structure afforded, which was to just have a year to think, to work, to edit things. I would edit what we just shot, attach it to everything previous, this ever-growing film, edit that again, the whole thing, watch it, think about what the next year needed. It was such an intimate project. I got to know everyone’s development, and I could work that in. It was a breathing project. I was never bored with it. I knew it was a deep enough well. I was glad that time would be the main collaborator.

And then how’d you decide what to omit?

The transitions are always the important part, and the flow of it. It’s kinda literary, really. It felt like a novel. I think early on I had some clever transitions that I ended up cutting out, like: “Oh, he’s walking down a hall, then he goes to the other door and suddenly he’s a year older! Boom!” And I kinda learned early on, well, that’s clever, and clever works once. Later I wanted it to be a little more hidden. So I just sort of felt my way through.

Can you describe the practical aspects of the shoot? How often, when, how long?

That’s why people don’t make films like this, as simple an idea as it is. It’s such a wildly impractical thing that it requires so much work to get it done every year. It was kind of like making the film all over again every year. You have to get a crew, and casting, and location permits. It’s a lot of prep. It’s grossly disproportionate to the final film. You don’t get a year of prep and years of post production on a low-budget indie movie. So it was so lopsided and strange. But ultimately we only shot for 39 days over these 12 years. We were very low-budget. It was a hustle. Patricia was on a TV show starting year two. She was in Medium — for seven years! And she was always so busy. And same with Ethan. Fortunately he’s not in every episode, he’s sort of in every other episode. But it was always working around somebody’s schedule. Not to mention my own. I had a lot of films in the interim. But it was always fun to come back. I would say the first six years it was very abstract. The finish line is so far away. I remember the sixth year, we’re announcing to the crew “We’re halfway!” But you remember being in sixth grade — you don’t feel like you’re halfway. You feel like being a senior is still a lifetime away. But by the end, we were feeling the power of it.

All films need commitment but this becomes duty. Were there ever moments of, “God, what have I gotten into?”

Yeah, “I want to change my major! I don’t want to play little league anymore!” wasn’t an option. I never let those thoughts even enter my mind. It was just a commitment. If you think about it, though, adults commit to things in our lives. We commit to jobs, we commit to relationships, or living somewhere. Life is a series of commitments.

And time flies. 

Time does fly. Not for a kid. But I remember when I first started talking to Ethan and Patricia, the pitch was: Where are you gonna be 12 years from now? And we all decided: Well, we’re probably going to be doing some variation of what we’re doing right now. I said “I’m gonna be trying to make a movie, you’re gonna be looking for a good part, and trying to express yourself as an actor. If we’re lucky! If we’re still able, and statistically we will be.” You just have to kinda play the odds. Like, yeah, we’ll still be here. And ultimately it’s kind of an optimistic film. You take a leap of faith and trust that the future will be worthwhile.

Seeing real faces change is powerful stuff. What do you think about computer technology that can essentially replace people with increasingly lifelike digital imagery?

I would just personally have no interest in it. Because that’s not mysterious to me. That’s a technological thing. It kind of evades the actual mystery of life. But I can see the allure. I remember having these conversations in the late ’80s, like, “The actor of the future!” But that’s a geek thing, an anti-human utopian view of, basically, “I don’t understand actors, I don’t want to work with them. I would rather work with a computer.” But I’m looking at what they can bring to it. What do you need from them? It’s a different way to approach performance, I guess.

How do you feel about your recent award from the San Francisco Film Society?

It meant a lot to me because I founded a film society too. [In Austin.] Not in ’57 but in ’85, and I know what goes into that. So that was cool. It’s kind of humbling, though, when you see the names of the other directors who get that award. Robert Bresson? Kurosawa? It becomes pretty abstract to me!

Has making Boyhood altered your movie making methods, or the ways in which you search for inspiration?

Like, I’m still wrapping my head around it. I think everybody involved is still processing it. Usually you’re done and on to the next thing. It hasn’t been a quick doneness. I’m still processing it being over, or what that means. It’s like the first year you’re not in school, like fall comes and there’s no event to be at. It’s like, “Oh. I guess I won’t realize until a year comes and I’m not doing another episode.” Even though the film’s technically finished. Everything about it has been kind of unpredictable and its own thing. Like the idea of showing a trailer or clip from the movie. No clip works. No one scene says anything in itself. It just makes it look kind of banal. Everything’s different. But I like that territory. I feel lucky that people are into it. I always told Ellar, don’t worry, no one will ever see this movie. They won’t go because you can’t explain it. It doesn’t really make sense. That thing about “What happens?” “Well, not much.” “Why would I pay to see that? I can get that free.” But I didn’t anticipate the notion that 12 years seems really intriguing to people. Maybe people do want to see it. That’s a pleasant surprise. And well, damn it, I think people do want to see things they haven’t seen before. That’s important in storytelling, and yeah, I’m glad we did it.