There’s a scene in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in which a divorced father known only as Dad (Ethan Hawke) is spending the weekend with his two kids, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and trying to show them a good time. But no matter what he asks them — “How’s school?” “How’s your mom?” “How are things going?” — he can’t get anything out of them other than “Fine” or “Good” or a shrug.
So Dad dramatically pulls the car over to the curb, tires screeching, and pleads to his kids, who have entered the phase of adolescence in which they withdraw into their own world, to just talk to him. He’s not asking for much: He only wants them to respond, to connect, to share what is going on in their lives with him.
For many viewers, the scene will ring true from either side of the argument — nagging fathers or sullen teens. Parents will smile in recognition of both perspectives, especially trying to bond with a child starting the torturous process of puberty who regards grown-ups as aliens. It’s a small, miraculous moment in a movie filled with them, capturing a sliver of day-to-day reality without contrived drama. Like the rest of Boyhood, which opens Friday, the exchange is a reflection of life, simple and unadorned, projected large on a movie screen, something that has become sadly rare in Hollywood pictures.
Although the scene, like the rest of Boyhood, feels loose and improvised, everything about it was carefully planned and constructed. Shot over a period of 12 years, during which the director and his cast would get together in Austin to rehearse for a week and shoot for three or four days, Boyhood is the latest — and best — cinematic experiment by Linklater, who launched his career with the 1991 comedy Slacker. That film floated from person to person as they told their often-strange stories to the camera in the style of a documentary. The movie’s cult success launched a body of work split between Hollywood studio productions ( School of Rock, The Bad News Bears, The Newton Boys) and independent, more avant-garde fare ( Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Tape).
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But until now, Linklater was best known as the director of the Before trilogy ( Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) which drops in on the lives of a couple (Hawke and Julie Delpy) in nine-year intervals. Those films, which are comprised entirely of dialogue and picturesque locations, lacked the artifice and cutesy plots of most movie romances. Watching them, you felt as if you were seeing two people getting to know each other — and fall in love with each other — in front of your eyes.
The combination of precision and improvisation in that trilogy informs Boyhood, which is epic in length (two hours and 45 minutes) and astounding in its wisdom and intimacy. Linklater conceived the project after he became a father in 1994. Raising his daughter Lorelei stirred long-forgotten memories and feelings.
“Parenthood puts you back into the mindset of a kid,” says Linklater, 53. “It reminds you of your own childhood. As Lorelei got older, I wanted to express something about that feeling — something about the limitations of a young person — but I couldn’t pinpoint an exact idea. They were all spread out. I spent two years thinking about it until I asked, ‘Why couldn’t you film a little bit every year and capture the whole thing?’ It felt like an exciting way to approach narrative. Film is 119 years old now, but I’ve always felt there’s still wide open space for new ways of storytelling.”
With the financial support of IFC Films, a small distributor of American independent movies, Linklater embarked on his cinematic experiment: Find a young boy, cast two actors as his parents, and then film them as he aged from 7 to 18.
After auditioning hundreds of children, Linklater settled on Ellar Coltrane, who was 6 when he got the part of Mason. The director cast his daughter as Mason’s sister.
“Casting Ellar is probably the single biggest artistic choice I’ve ever made,” Linklater says. “I tried not to put any pressure on myself, but I met a lot of kids and kept bringing him back to get to know him. He struck me as a thoughtful, ethereal, mysterious kid. I thought he would be perfect.”
Coltrane, now 20, was so young he can’t remember the first year of shooting. But he does recall Linklater encouraging him to do a combination of acting and investing his own personality into the character — an observant, quiet, artistic kid.
“Although I remember myself as being a lackadaisical child, I was very invested in the movie from the very beginning,” Coltrane says. “A lot of what Rick did early on was to form a bond and find a place where me and Lorelei felt comfortable being ourselves and becoming these characters.”
Linklater cast Patricia Arquette as Mom, Hawke’s ex-wife, who has bad luck with men and struggles to raise their kids even with the help of her former husband. Although there was no set script — each year, the actors and director would decide what direction the story would take depending on what was happening in their lives — she says committing to a 12-year cinematic experiment was more exciting than it was frightening.
“My dad was an improvisational actor, so I grew up playing games and understanding the process,” Arquette says. “That primed me to be not so frightened that there was no full script. From the beginning, Rick told me of some of the changes my character would go through over the course of the film. But a lot of it was also plain trust and rebonding every year when we would talk about people we knew and how they moved through their lives. It was a big experiment, and we jumped in blind. Most directors would not have hired this kid. He’s not turning it on for the camera, he’s not charming you, and having his real parents on the set meant incorporating their own interesting perspective into the film. The biggest danger is what if he starts thinking of himself as a child star? That could have been a disaster.”
Although the film is called Boyhood, Arquette admits it could have also been titled Motherhood, since her character’s experiences are critical to Mason’s emotional development and view of the world, the way parents can’t help but shape their children’s personas. Although Mason is the center of the film, we see enough of Hawke’s and Arquette’s lives to experience their growth and maturation, too.
From the start, Linklater was intent on avoiding anything that would pull the viewer out of the movie — that would break the illusion you were watching real life instead of fiction. There aren’t even any markers signaling the passage of time: The only signposts are simple things, like Mason losing his baby fat, the songs heard on the radio or Lorelei’s sudden growth spurt.
“If the audience is going to accept this family as a reality, then there has to be no artifice,” Linklater says. “Early on, I thought I would have a score, but then I decided that would make the movie feel like there was an author behind it. Anything that felt like an authorial touch, like a title card that said 1986, I stayed away from. It’s a lot of work to achieve that, because the whole thing is constructed. This movie is more or less an accumulation of intimate moments. I didn’t want the film to ever guide you. I wanted you to come away from it with your own observations.”
Despite the risk inherent in a 12-year film shoot, Linklater says it was remarkably smooth (the only hiccup: One year his daughter asked if her character could die, because she didn’t want to dress a certain way, but her pop said no).
“When Rick approached me about ‘the 12-year project’ I said yes right away,” says Jonathan Searing, president of IFC Films. “I likened it to the only touchstone I could think of — Michael Apted’s Up series [a number of acclaimed documentaries that checks in on a family every seven years] — but Rick was very clear this would be different. My wife and I have three sons, one of whom was 16 at the time and the others 5 and 7, so I felt like not only had I lived already through this as a parent, but I was about to embark on this adventure again. Looking back on it now, it seems like an insane proposition, but as I have told Rick, if he had said he want to make the film for 24 years, I would have still hopped on board.”
Francois Truffaut checked in on Antoine Doinel, the teenage protagonist of The 400 Blows, in three subsequent films to see how he had turned out as an adult. But those pictures were spaced out by several years. They don’t have the you-are-there immediacy of Boyhood.
Like he does in most of his films, Linklater avoids coincidences and freak occurrences: There are no shocking twists, no sudden accidents, no unexpected tragedies. The movie doesn’t even show us the things you’d expect, such as Mason’s first kiss or the loss of his virginity. Linklater purposely avoided the stuff audiences are used to, focusing instead on the mundane moments of life and mining the simple beauty in them.
“I love Italian Neorealism [movies such as Rome, Open City, which depicted real life as a way of social and political commentary], but they’re very dramatic and they’re always making a lot of points,” he says. “That’s what most movies do. But in this case, if I ever went there, I would lose the reality I was trying to create with these people. Childhood is dramatic enough. Just getting through life is hard enough. The stakes are high enough already. I’ve watched the movie with audiences who gasp when the kids start throwing a sawblade around, because they immediately assume there’s going to be an awful accident. That’s what movies have conditioned us to expect. But that’s all plot artifice. To me, this film replaces plot with structure — the way time passes and reveals itself and the way we deal with it when we confront it.”
Although Coltrane has a manager now (and has played small roles in several other Linklater films), he hasn’t yet decided whether he’s going to pursue acting. He also was not allowed to watch a single frame of Boyhood until the film was completed, because Linklater didn’t want him to feel self-aware or awkward. When he finally saw the finished movie, his reaction was understandably complex.
“Pretty much every year in the movie reminds me of something in my life,” he says. “The early years are hard to remember, but throughout it’s very nostalgic. It reminded me that as a child, you’re living in your parents’ world. And your perception of them is what they want you to perceive of them. As you become a teenager and become your own person, you start to see the humanity in your parents and their flaws. That can be hard to accept at first. That’s a difficult part of growing up. To me, that’s one of the most interesting aspects of the film — the passage of time and the maturation process. It’s eerie how much of myself I still recognize in that 7-year-old boy on screen.”