Why 'Boyhood' is a movie for the ages

By Helen Barlow

It's a film that's been 12 years in the making, a drama capturing a boy's life from childhood to adulthood using the same young actor throughout. Director Richard Linklater and his cast talk to Helen Barlow.
The young Ellar Coltrane near the start of Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood.
The young Ellar Coltrane near the start of Richard Linklater's movie Boyhood.

Having mentioned his ongoing highly ambitious project, Boyhood, in interviews over the years, Richard Linklater finally unleashed the 163-minute film to captivated critics, first at Sundance and then in Berlin.

Now it's coming to the New Zealand Film Festival. Incredibly, the way the story unfolds came as a surprise because Linklater didn't divulge too much along the way.

"I've been asked about it for nine or 10 years, but we were trying to keep it as quiet as possible," the 53-year-old admits. "Who needs that extra pressure?"

A laid-back film-maker who does not want to confine himself to conventional film-making, even if he's had modest hits with School of Rock and Bernie, Linklater wanted to make a film about childhood that would touch on the themes of time, ageing, and memory.

Boyhood follows Before Midnight, the third entry in Linklater's Before series, though those films were never planned as a series, and the breaks between them were close to a decade.

Boyhood was always going to span 12 years and was ultimately shot over 39 days, usually for about three or four days a year between 2002 and 2013.

"I wanted to make a film about childhood, the imposition of living in your parent's house, the confines of childhood when we're supposed to be in school from first to 12th grade," Linklater explains. "I had this idea to cover it as much as I could by giving a little bit of information over a long period of time. I've always been fascinated by long-term studies in science."

Linklater cast frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke as dad Mason snr, Patricia Arquette as the mother, Olivia, and as the elder extroverted daughter, Samantha, he cast his own daughter Lorelei, who as a child was interested in acting, but is now is a visual artist.


Ellar Coltrane with Ethan Hawke who plays his Dad.

Finding the boy to play Mason in Austin, Texas where Linklater lives and filmed, proved the greatest challenge.

"For Ethan and Patricia it was one conversation, 'Wow, what a weird idea! But yeah, I'll do it.' They were challenged by it. But a kid of 6 years old has no concept of 12 years.

"So I was talking to the parents and getting them to think it was a cool idea for their child to go through that. I hoped it would be a fun thing in the boy's life; add something to it and not become a trauma."

After meeting many young boys, Linklater settled on Ellar Coltrane, whose parents are artists.

"He was a thoughtful kid. I just liked talking to him. And he grew up to be this really cool, thoughtful guy."

Rather than write a conventional screenplay, Linklater started with a structural blueprint and would write and edit (with longtime collaborator Sandra Adair) along the way. The story drew on many of Linklater's own experiences: his parents separated when he was 7 and he spent most of his childhood living with his mother, who taught at Sam Houston State University; his stepfather was a prison guard.

Linklater also incorporated real events from Ellar's life, like his keen interest in photography.


Ellar Coltrane with Patricia Arquette who plays his Mom.

He admits he's a big fan of naturalistic cinema and his seminal films Slacker (1991) and Dazed & Confused (1993) are prime examples of the style he has favoured throughout his career.

"It's the style of acting and the kind of story I'm telling. In my world, actors are going to be encouraged to bring themselves as much as they can. During the rehearsal process there was a lot of rewriting.

"It's all those little moments you might remember from childhood that interested me. Take an evening like high school graduation. I didn't want to show Mason marching across the stage getting his diploma and saying thank you to the principal. That isn't what I remember as the highlight. I would remember drinking in the car with my buddy and the party afterwards."

Always astute in his choices, the director had the last shot in mind from the second year of filming.

"It was intense filming on that final day as you can imagine. In the end, the film is the best version of what I could have hoped for, especially for the maturation of Ellar and Lorelei. It felt like it unfolded like a dream or a memory."

Watch the trailer for Boyhood

Linklater didn't show the kids any of the footage and doesn't recall them asking for it.

"We would talk throughout the year," recalls Coltrane, "and Rick would prepare me for what we would be working on. A lot of it was recalling the experiences of what was going on in my life to shape the situations, specifically the dialogue and to monitor how I deal with people in different situations.

"From the very beginning I told Ellar to put what he wanted to say in his own words and to explain how he felt," explains Linklater.

"In the last five or six years he was a full-blown collaborator at script level. Ellar's relationship with Lorelei was interesting because she doesn't have a brother. They both had siblings later, but not at the beginning."

"Growing up in an alternate universe is very strange," Coltrane admits." There are large parts of the character that are me and are very personal. I have little memory of the first couple of years but watching it for the first time was surreal. Very few people get to witness themselves ageing and I'm still trying to figure out how I really feel about it."

Interestingly, the Before films and Boyhood fed on each other.


Ellar Coltrane as a teenager.

"We started this in 2002 and it powered Ethan and I to jump back into Jesse and Celine," says Linklater.

"Just the idea that we were going to be doing this for 12 years made revisiting them a little more reasonable.

The Ethan from Before Sunset is the first Mason snr we see in Boyhood, as we filmed that around the same time." After filming for eight or nine years, Linklater showed Hawke what he had shot.

"Ethan was just, 'Wow! They grew up and we aged'. I wondered where is that point where they grow up and you start ageing? Nobody ever tells you."

Arquette was in for a shock too. "Ethan and I just got old," she laughs. "We were young, we got old. They were young, they got to grow up. But I think it was part of what we all recognised as exciting. And Rick was very clear. 'You can't get any facial reconstruction and anything like that, right?' But it's very strange. Life goes fast. I think that's part of what the movie makes you feel, how fast life goes."

Linklater knew Arquette had been a mother from an early age. "Patricia was the only one I ever thought of for the role, and I called her up and said, 'What are you going to be doing 12 years from now?' And here we are. She is very brave and kind of fearless that way. That was the quality I was looking for."

"It was exciting," Arquette enthuses. "I looked forward to it every year. It felt like a top secret, true artistic project that I got to work on with people I loved. I enjoyed my time, and missed my time, and was excited to see them.

"Really, the hardest part for me, it was last year when it was winding down and I said, 'I don't want to give this movie to the world. I already love this movie, I love these people and these kids, and I don't want to hear anyone else's opinion if they think is good, or boring, or stupid. I don't care what their opinion is'."

Ultimately, the film is as much about a single mother struggling to raise her kids with a second uncaring husband and another partner who came and went.

Meanwhile, the unconventional father shows he truly loves his kids in a way that his ex-wife has failed to see.

"I think in a lot of our lives, we do have these blinders on," says Arquette. "This mother was really impacted by Mason snr leaving, and feeling like she was left with the responsibility and she really resented him.


Director David Linklater.

"So much so that she never got to see what a great dad he was or all the other things he brought, because she put him in a box. And he put her in a box.

"One of the things that really resonated with me after seeing the movie was how much I do that myself. How much we all do that. How limited we are in our own perspective of each other and our past experience, and how it really was."

What: Boyhood, Richard Linklater's movie about a boy's life between the ages of 6 and 18, starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette

When and where: Screening in the New Zealand International Film Festival. Auckland screenings on July 25 and 27.

- TimeOut

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