Oscar Special: Richard Linklater on ‘Boyhood’
Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making portrait of growing up in America is unlike anything else you’ll see at the movies. Like all great stories, “Boyhood” — now nominated in six Academy Award categories — takes the specific and makes it universal. Unlike most movies, though, it does so without a three-act structure, or much in terms of conventional plot.
“I’m big on character and story but I don’t think I’m necessarily Mr. Plot,” Linklater, who is nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, said in December when the film played at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings. “Plots and trickery, that’s the enemy of reality. Most of us, our lives are a story and the grid we’re all on is time. … We make sense of our lives retrospectively. It’s never plot twists. It’s this flowing thing that we’re making sense of in a bigger, storytelling sort of way.”
Linklater, as you probably know by now, shot the film over the course of 12 years, annually assembling his cast for the next installment of the story. It follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up from age 6 to 18 in Texas from 2002 to 2013, ending with him moving into his freshman college dorm. Alongside him for most of the trip is his older sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelai). The pair split their time between their divorced parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke in Oscar-nominated performances.
Time and age do their work on them all through the course of this remarkable film. The final product, Linklater said proudly, came out more or less as he envisioned it from the start.
“The truth is it was kind of a methodical process of trying to make what idea I had from that initial inspiration,” he said. “I could feel and see the movie and I was just doing that. It was very process-oriented.”
As they convened annually for shoots, the script changed slightly, he said, mostly as Coltrane matured and Linklater attempted to infuse the boy’s developing personality into his character.
“Getting through it was a test of stamina, patience and all of that,” he said, “but it was using those random elements that you never get in film — like time — and using that to the best of our ability, to have that year to think about what happens next and hone the script more.”
Linklater has made unconventional films before. His debut, “Slacker,” drifted between conversations in Austin, Texas. “Dazed and Confused” meandered through a single day and night with ’70s high schoolers. “Waking Life” blends animation and live-action footage of Austinites musing. He was making other films throughout the extended production of “Boyhood” — ranging from the kid-friendly comedies “School of Rock” and “Bad News Bears” to artier projects like “A Scanner Darkly” and “Bernie” to the last two installments of his “Before” trilogy — but he said “Boyhood” proceeded without the influence of those stories.
“This was always its own little world that we created, that we returned to, that was outside of everything else,” he said. “Like, I would just have finished a film that’s wildly different — or I would feel it was — and then come back to telling this story along the lines that this story had to be told. It was easy to jump back into.”
And after a few years with the cast, he said, the actors needed little preparation to get back into their characters. Coltrane had been in commercials and worked as a child actor before “Boyhood,” and continued to act in other things early on, but as the project moved along, he worked less, focusing instead on “Boyhood.” Hawke and Arquette, of course, had other films going over the 12 year stretch. But, Linklater said, the actors slid into their recurring roles easily year after year.
“They were going off and playing wildly different roles in other things,” he said. “People ask Ethan and Patricia, like, ‘Was it hard to get back into the characters?’ and the truth is, never. It was like, boom, they land in Austin, we start rehearsing and it’s there. It’s a role so personal to them that they’re able to do it.”
When “Boyhood” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, it was met with seemingly universal praise. But little hype about the movie or its unusual process had preceded its festival debut. Though there was scant press coverage or industry chatter about the film in advance, Linklater said he didn’t try to keep it secret. In fact, he noted, during the first year of filming, Linklater’s 12-year plan had been reported in the Hollywood trades and the film was listed at IMDB.com. But he also wasn’t running around boasting about it for 12 years.
“What was there to say?” he said. “We were tempting fate so much just in the undertaking that I didn’t need to invite any extra scrutiny or pressure. It wasn’t like people were signing confidentiality clauses or anything, there was just nothing to be gained (by talking about it). Ethan talked about it plenty, but nobody wanted to hear about it. It’s such a weird thing that it was like, ‘OK, good luck with that. See you in nine years or whatever.’ It was abstract. I’d get a quizzical expression from people in, say, 2005, just like, ‘Oh what is this film coming out in 2014?’ ‘What the hell is that on your IMDB page?’ And I’d have to downplay it, like, ‘Oh, it’s just this thing we’re doing.’”
The passage of time is subtle in the movie. There are no title cards announcing the year or Mason’s age, and Linklater resisted the temptation to fill it with dramatic match dissolves that point ham-handedly at the fact that Mason is growing up before our eyes. One of the reasons it works so well is that it doesn’t visually boast about the process.
“The goal was that you would just sense the years going by,” Linklater said. “That’s what the film was going for, this seamless, time-passing feel, the way it does in your own life. I never anticipated that the process itself would be something people would talk about.”
In less-assured hands, the film could have easily come off as a one-note gimmick. Instead, by the end of “Boyhood,” you’re thinking less about Coltrane’s height and bone structure and more about his character, the thoughtful adult Mason is becoming and how his mother will deal with an empty nest.
“Even when I was pitching the movie, it was always about the characters and the story,” he explained. “It was never like, ‘Oh, people will want to see it because it was shot over 12 years.’ That never crossed my mind.”
There’s a scene in the film where a junior high-aged Mason is drinking beer with older kids at a construction site, talking about sex and playing with saw blades. It’s a familiar scene of adolescence for most people. The presence of the saw blades seems ominous, but at scene’s end nothing tragic happens. That’s how it usually goes in real life, of course, but not in the movies.
“The first time I saw it with an audience, I felt a chill go over the audience,” Linklater recalled. “I was like, ‘Uh-oh, they think something’s going to happen.’ … It was funny to see how much we’ve been programmed by like, ‘Plant a gun in the first act (and it must go off in the second or third).’ How we’re just slaves to plot points.”
Real life doesn’t work in plot points and neither does “Boyhood.” It mimics the rhythms of real life in a way you don’t imagine can be pulled off on-screen over the course of three hours.
“As a kid, you just sort of wander through a minefield of your adolescence,” Linklater said. “But most of us get through fairly unscathed. There’s tragedy out there, bad stuff happens, but mostly not.”
Bad stuff does happen in “Boyhood.” Early on, Olivia marries a professor who turns out to be a violent alcoholic. But the film doesn’t get bogged down in the trauma that Mason experiences. Olivia gets the children out of the house, they move on, and, while the domestic drama remains a part of Mason, it doesn’t dominate his life or the film. A later, third marriage ends off-screen and unremarked upon.
Some of the typical benchmarks of growing up also are left off screen. We don’t see Mason lose his virginity, but we do see him break up with a girl at the end of high school. We don’t see him walk across the stage at high school graduation, but we do see him sneak a drink with a friend and go to his parents’ graduation party.
“It’s hard to describe what happens in the movie,” Linklater said. “Nothing huge happens, but life goes by and it’s this collection of intimate moments. It’s everything and nothing.”
The film incorporates period-appropriate bits of pop culture and technology along the way. Samantha sings a Britney Spears song. Olivia reads Harry Potter to Mason, who later goes to see the first Potter movie on opening night, dressed as Harry. Mason Sr. takes the children to watch Roger Clemens pitch in Houston. The family campaigns for Barack Obama in 2008. A young Mason works on a fluorescent iMac G3.
In 2014, these things are infused with memory. But how do you shoot nostalgia in the present tense?
“I wanted the whole movie to feel like a memory of some time, so it was easy to think, like, ‘What would you remember of this year?’ Linklater explained. “Technology ultimately is the thing that will change the most in this age. That’s the demarcation of these years. Technology, and maybe the haircuts, too.”
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