The Time of Their Lives
Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane reflect on the 12 years they spent making 'Boyhood'
Richard Linklater is busy. So busy, in fact, that even though he lives in the Austin area, the only chance we have to talk for a major profile in his hometown's weekly paper is an hourlong phone call while he's on an airport layover in New York. He's got a movie – Boyhood, his 18th feature film in his 25-year career – that the entire world is fascinated by. Boyhood took home two major awards when it screened at the Berlin Film Festival (and narrowly missed on that festival's top prize), and personally earned him the Best Director award. It's since played at SXSW, the San Francisco International Film Festival, and the Seattle International Film Festival, winning every award that it has been nominated for in the process.
"It's a very similar response in every territory," Linklater explains of screening the film around the world. "This film could have been made in India, and we would all understand it. Everyone grows up."
"Growing up" is the theme of Boyhood, which stars Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter), Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke as they age 12 years. The film was shot in short bursts from 2002 to 2013, which allows for the breathtaking effect of watching Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater go from small children to fully grown almost-adults during the film's 166 minutes. But while it's easy to describe Boyhood as a movie about growing up, the film is broader than the title suggests – and the things that it explores make a fitting connecting piece to the rest of the work in Linklater's catalog, despite the fact that it bears little resemblance to the bulk of his filmography.
Linklater first rose to fame with Slacker, the shoestring-budgeted debut that put both the director and his hometown on the map as players in the booming world of early Nineties indie film – and it's a far cry, on the surface, from the expansive, immersive Boyhood. So are most of the other films Linklater made in between the two. More than two-and-a-half hours in length, Boyhood is by far his longest film (none of his previous movies ran over two hours). Where Boyhood is an epic that tells the story of a life through the minutiae, most of Linklater's films are focused on the heightened moments. His Before trilogy adds up to three movies' worth of magical encounters; his studio comedies like The School of Rock and Bad News Bears are standard, if charming, examples of Hollywood three-act formula, with dramatically shifting character arcs; his more adventurous films, like Slacker, Waking Life, and the underregarded adaptation of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, drift in focus from character to character, more bent on capturing worlds and moods than lives on film.
But Linklater doesn't believe that Boyhood deviates from the path he started on as a filmmaker back in 1991, when Slacker ensured that he'd never have to consider going back to work as an offshore oil worker. "I've spent my adult life really thinking about narrative storytelling," he says. "And the ways I want to push those boundaries seem to have to do with time, and how that affects and works in a storytelling way – that is cinema. Even Slacker – it was an early idea, that you could make a film that goes from one character to the next in this specific amount of time. It's time as a structuring device, or time as the lead character."
Time's important to Linklater, but it's also in short supply as he prepares to promote a film that Rolling Stone declared "there has simply never been anything like." That sort of superlative gets tossed around a lot when discussing Boyhood – the Huffington Post called it "a once-in-a-lifetime movie," and Salon gushed that it's "a masterpiece that isn't quite like anything else in the history of cinema."
The accolades are coming heavy for Linklater, who – despite his cult status as a touchstone of the indie film awakening – has only ever sniffed major awards with a handful of Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nods as a co-writer on Before Sunset and Before Midnight – but he sounds exhausted.
"I never want to be out of Austin very much, but this film in particular is requiring me to go around," he says on the phone from New York. "I was in L.A. for a couple days, and I'm in New York as of late yesterday. I'm here for like 27 hours, then I go to London, Paris, and I think Brussels. It's short – kind of a day and a half in each place. The way that movies are released – there are more outlets and more people who want your time. I wish technology would step in and you could do one massive, five-hour interview, and then that would be all you have to do."
But Linklater's busy now for the simple fact that all of the accolades are getting Boyhood right: Nobody has ever done something like this before. Of course everybody wants a lot of Linklater's time. Time, ultimately, is what we're all here to talk about. It's the thing that makes Boyhood so breathtaking to watch – the film captures the inescapability of time in ways that narrative films have never done before. Other movies, we know that it's Robert De Niro in old-age makeup, or that it's River Phoenix and not actually Harrison Ford shouting, "It belongs in a museum!" Time is the hook to Boyhood, Linklater's longest, most ambitious, and perhaps best-reviewed film: But it's also what it has in common with his earlier work.
"Tape, that's a real-time experiment," he says, referring to his 2001 camcorder drama, which also starred Hawke. "That was interesting to me, a film that unfolds in real time. I had been building up to that for a while. And then Before Sunset ends up a real-time experiment. This was the other extreme, I guess – if you average out all of my films, they're all more normal now, if you add a 12-year project to the equation. Film can be anything, and I like that dramatic exploration. You could argue that Waking Life might be a few seconds long – you don't know. No one can tell me how long that film is and what temporal landscape it occupies."
Linklater, in other words, made a movie unlike anything any narrative filmmaker has ever accomplished before – and he did it simply by following the same obsessions he's had his whole career. All he really needed to pull it off was the perfect subject.
A Boy's Life
Ellar Coltrane is in New York, too, when we talk – and like Linklater, he's getting a bit exhausted with the promotion process. That might seem strange – Coltrane is 19 years old now, and the movie he's been working on, literally, his entire life is finally getting its debut in front of an audience. A different sort of teenager might be pumped to be getting all the attention that he deferred during the years he spent making the movie, but Coltrane isn't that sort of young man. He's a soft-spoken, contemplative 19-year-old who talks about "gaining awareness," and describes his parents (his father is local musician Bruce Salmon – "Coltrane" is Ellar's middle name) as "pretty out there."
"It's very weird," Coltrane says of talking to people about the film now. "It's very surreal and abstract to be discussing this thing that was just kind of a part of my life. It wasn't really a job for me – it was just part of me growing up, so to be discussing it like this, and analyzing it, and kind of selling it – it's very surreal, but it's beautiful to share it with people. My feelings change definitely, but really I'm grateful to get the chance to put this thing out there that I was a small part of creating."
Coltrane may describe himself as a "small part" of creating Boyhood, but finding him was one of Linklater's biggest challenges.
The process of casting Coltrane was a long one – he recalls 10 different callbacks, though admits that it may be a distortion of childhood memory – but the director definitely cast a wide net in seeking out the actor who would put the boy into Boyhood.
"I don't remember an exact number, but I remember reading a lot – just a lot of kids," Linklater says. "And they were all actors. As I remember, I really wanted that. I thought it was an indicator of family support if they already had an agent, a head-shot, a résumé, and were working a little bit – at least as much as a 6- or 7-year-old could. That indicated that the family had already decided it was okay for their kid to be in this world a little bit – we weren't picking some kid out of the street."
Coltrane had been interested in acting from a very young age, and had been in a few commercials, as well as one film (he played the young version of Joshua Jackson's character in a 2002 indie called Lone Star State of Mind) before getting involved with Linklater. The audition process didn't involve a script, but it did involve a lot of "getting to know you" time. Ultimately, the fact that both of Coltrane's parents are artists helped make the collaboration seem viable to everyone. "Obviously, there's no way to really comprehend how long 12 years is at that age, but I was a pretty alert kid, and I had been raised around people working on weird art projects," Coltrane says. For his part, Linklater was hopeful that Coltrane and his parents would want to see the project through.
"The whole project was like this leap of faith [for] anyone involved. Every crew, every cast member, everyone just sort of had a general faith in the idea, and believed in it enough to stay involved and keep coming back," he recalls – though he also made it a point to stack the deck in favor of making it something that Coltrane could look forward to whenever it came time to get back in front of the camera.
"Kids like movie sets," he laughs. "There's a lot of food around, it's fun, they're always being doted on. I always wanted it to be a fun element in everyone's life, and it really ended up being that way."
Actually making the film was a constant in Coltrane's life, but it wasn't something that dominated his childhood. They may have spent 12 years making Boyhood, but to hear Coltrane tell it, the filmmaking process was more like going to camp than going to work – production was limited to 3-5 days a year, with no more than a week of rehearsals. Beyond that, he and Linklater would just eat lunch together a couple times a year, and Coltrane would get assignments to flesh out his character by taking notes on parts of his life that could inform Mason's own interests. (Two of those – a conversation Mason has with his father about Star Wars and a rant he delivers to his girlfriend about Facebook – made it into the film, according to a New York magazine interview with Coltrane.) "I was always kind of thinking about it, but it was also very noninvasive," Coltrane recalls now. "It was never something that took over my life. As meaningful as it was to me, and as big a part of my life as it's ended up being, it really wasn't that big of a commitment."
Of course, Coltrane isn't the only person who made a commitment to a 12-year project from the outset. Hawke is one of Linklater's longest-running collaborators – he'd already appeared in four of the director's films before Boyhood started – and immediately demanded to be in the film when Linklater began discussing it with him.
"He got this look on his face and just said, 'Yeah, I'm gonna play that guy.' Well, I said, 'Ethan, you're so busy. What if you can't come in when we need you?' And he said, 'No, I will make it work,'" Linklater recalls.
Bringing Hawke into the picture was perhaps predictable, but reaching out to Patricia Arquette took a certain amount of chutzpah – at the time he approached her for the movie that would become Boyhood, the two had never worked together before.
"I just had a hunch," he says. "I'd seen her work, and I'd met her once – and I knew she had been a mom. The key was she'd been a mom young, like 20 or something when she had a kid, and incorporated that into her life. And I thought that was so much what the movie was."
Linklater called Arquette and the two discussed the idea for hours; by the end of the conversation, she was in. "She just liked the idea, the subject matter – 'Wow, what a crazy idea. Wow, that could be cool.' Artists get it, you know," Linklater says.
Arquette's performance is probably as vital to the final product as Coltrane's. She's in most scenes of the film, and carries most of the plot, as the lives of the young children of single moms are necessarily dictated by the choices of their mothers. ("It could be called Motherhood," Linklater admits, "The first half of the movie, I think Samantha's a more expressive character than even Mason.") And if the relationship between Mason and Samantha feels real and lived in, it's probably in part because the relationship between Coltrane and Arquette is real, too.
"Patricia is a really important person to me," Coltrane says. "She's been – both of them [Arquette and Hawke] have been a big part of my life, and a big part of who I've become. And Rick, as well. They've all been mentors to me, but we're also friends now in a new way that we've never really been. Especially when I was young, you can't quite talk to a child the way you do an adult – but even still, we were working on something together. As intimate and personal as it was, it was still a project that we were collaborating on, and so in the aftermath, we've been very much bonded by the experience."
The aftermath, of course, is the biggest question – for Coltrane, for Linklater, maybe even for Arquette and Hawke, who give unique performances. When you spend 12 years making a movie, what do you do for a follow-up?
Time and Time Again
Boyhood wasn't supposed to be called Boyhood, not originally – Linklater worked on the film with the title 12 Years in mind. Then in year 12, 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture, and that idea went out the window.
"Someone IMDb'd and was like, 'There's a movie coming out called 12 Years a Slave,' and I was like, 'Really?' Not 11 years a slave, not 13 years a slave. Twelve years," Linklater laughs now. The result of the coincidence is, perhaps, that Coltrane is even more the face of Boyhood than he might have been if the title weren't so directly focused on him. It's not necessarily something that leaves him thinking that acting is going to be a big part of his future going forward.
"I've been thinking about that a lot, obviously, and everyone kind of wants to know," he says. "In a lot of ways, I don't really feel like an actor. I was never handed a script and told, 'Learn this.' I don't know if that's really something I could do at this point. More than anything, I want to create things. That's what I learned from this process more than anything – that being lost in that creative process is the greatest thing in my life, and really the only thing that gives me any kind of solace."
Coltrane – like Mason, the character he portrayed for 12 years – is fascinated by photography. He loves to draw ("difficult to describe; I draw the inside of my brain, basically," he says when I ask what his work looks like) and is teaching himself to play the banjo. When he's done promoting Boyhood, he wants to go to college, before he makes any further big plans about what his life will look like going forward.
Coltrane has time. That's the fascinating thing about talking to the young man who's spent most of his life as the key player in Linklater's unprecedented project: He may have spent a dozen years working on a movie, but he also only turned 19 last August.
Richard Linklater, meanwhile, is 53 years old, and talking with him about time as a concept has a different flavor. Boyhood is unprecedented in many ways, but it's not the first thing that Linklater has made with a long tail – the Before series spans from 1995 to 2013, and he's contemplative when asked if he's still looking to tell stories that are based on the accumulation of time.
"It's sort of happened this way – this comes to the finish line so close to [the end of Before Midnight], so it's been these two time-based, life projects," he says. "It does feel like the end of something, but I don't know what."
His next project is as-yet undecided, though he's got a few ideas cooking. He laughs when I ask him if he's prepping a fourth movie in the Before series for 2022 – continuing the "once every nine years" theme that the previous three have observed, but he doesn't rule it out. Unprompted, he brings up the idea of continuing from Boyhood into Manhood.
"Someone asked, 'Oh, are you going to continue into manhood on this?' I was like, 'No, I hadn't really thought about that much, but we technically could ....' But it's still way too soon. You have to see how it shakes out in your consciousness over time, if anything else is left there to be explored or not. It's way too early to say, on either front."
Still, the fact that Linklater's not ruling out a return to either of his decade-plus storytelling projects is telling in its own way; it's unlikely that he'll wrangle together Coltrane, Hawke, Arquette, and his daughter, Lorelei, for another few days every year until 2026, but listening to Linklater talk about filmmaking and narrative storytelling, it's clear that his obsession with time, and with finding ways to use it in either its compressed form – as with Slacker, Tape, or Before Midnight – or as something heavily accumulated, like Boyhood, isn't going anywhere.
That's a theme of life, as well as of movies, of course. Time passes whether you're filming it or not, whether or not you recognize that it's a tool you can use in your storytelling, whether you hide from it or embrace it. And that, ultimately, is what makes Boyhood such a captivating piece of work: not just that it documents a dozen years in the life of this very ordinary family, but that it's the first film to do so. There've been constant technological advances, sometimes by leaps and bounds, over the past century of film, but time has been in every director's toolbox since day one. The fact that it took until 2014 for us to see it utilized in this way is shocking, and we're lucky to see this basic building block of life incorporated into storytelling, finally. It is, after all, about time.
Boyhood opens in Austin on Friday, July 18. See Film Listings for a review and showtimes.