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Kodak Moments: Rick Linklater on His Award-Winning Long-Game Masterpiece, Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

This interview with Rick Linklater about his Boyhood originally appeared as the cover story of our Summer, 2014 issue. As the film wins Best Picture from the New York Film Critics’ Circle, is is posted online for the first time.

Time, along with its cousin memory, are among modernity’s great artistic subjects, with the title of Proust’s masterwork, In Search of Lost Time, articulating the journey of countless authors, playwrights, and filmmakers to creatively capture the sensations and meanings of our rapidly receding past. Among the latter have been directors whose films have reached for these passing years with any number of cinematic devices — flashes forward and back, sudden subjective points of view, changes in film stock, optical effects, aural cues, etc. Today, the aesthetics of temporal play have been democratized; indeed, we live in a time when anyone, not just a filmmaker, can slap a “1977” filter on a photo taken just moments ago and dump it into the dustbin of a cloud-stored history.

With digital moments tumbling one after the next in our lives, creating a perpetual present, there remains something new-seeming about serious contemplations of linear time in cinema. And given the modernist, postmodernist, and now purely technological experimentation around this subject, it’s quite surprising that cinema’s poet laureate of time turns out to be a filmmaker whose own work approaches it in the simplest manner. With his Before trilogy and now his triumphant Boyhood, Rick Linklater achieves profound effects by eschewing the cinematic signifiers of time passing in favor of a simple conceptual masterstroke: by shooting the same actors over years, not weeks, his films are not just about time — they are the product of it.

In Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, Linklater chronicled time’s imprint on the relationship between a man and a woman, catching them upon their first meeting, a mid-life rendezvous, and then a later-in-life breaking point. Still, sequels are not unheard of in film. But employing the same child actors over a dozen or so years for a single feature film is, and that, as you undoubtedly have heard, is the concept behind Boyhood. Ellar Coltrane stars as Mason, raised in Texas by his mom (a wonderful Patricia Arquette), alongside his sister Samantha (Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei), while his dad — the director’s Before collaborator, Ethan Hawke — struggles to find his own form of maturity. Arquette’s character is a great mother but makes poor personal choices, looking for stability from a series of inappropriate men. Hawke’s character, initially masking his irresponsibility with a veneer of hipness, finds his own surprising ways of advancing through the years. And Mason? He just grows up — naturally, beautifully, and without a trace of child-actor preciousness.

Director Richard Linklater
Director Richard Linklater

The actual narrative material of Boyhood is barely worth mentioning. Some of it is the stuff of TV movies — struggling single moms and abusive second dads. Other moments — a father-son conversation at a bowling alley, hanging out with friends at an abandoned house, discovering an artistic passion — are incidental scenes in other films’ larger dramas. It is the accumulation of all these moments that produces Boyhood’s deeply moving affect, with a single line of Arquette’s (spoiled in my conversation with Linklater below) unleashing a sucker punch of unexpected emotion.

Following Ellar from the ages of 6 to 17, Linklater shot Boyhood three or four days a year for 12 years, using non-flashy 35mm cinematography to provide unobtrusive visual continuity. There are no title cards and few references to current events. (The war in Iraq, Obama’s elections, and the NSA make the briefest of appearances.) Mostly, time is revealed through physiognomy — the slowly emerging adult faces of Coltrane and the younger Linklater, and the lines that deepen in Hawke’s and Arquette’s.

Boyhood won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival and has played to acclaim at Sundance, True/False and BAMcinemafest, producing for audiences, in the words of Filmmaker’s Sarah Salovaara, “a mirror image demanding of introspection and a side helping of tears.”

With Linklater being open about his production process, we know the how of this emotional response but not the why. What is it about Boyhood that seems to pierce so deeply at this cultural moment? One could speculate about the film as an argument against accelerating Internet time, or its possible role as a work of American cultural nostalgia, or perhaps just its status as an event within an independent cinema that produces few of them. But I suspect each person will have their own personal reasons for being affected by this film. For me, it was a realization that the picture gave me a feeling I can’t recall being produced by any other film. Watching Ellar grow up on screen, seeing the question of his adult character answered before my own eyes, I felt an awed sense of privilege that I had been included in his life. Time is something not just depicted in Boyhood but something that has been given — an artistic act containing its own form of generosity. The film is in theaters now from IFC Films.

I just recently finished Teju Cole’s book, Open City, which is about a resident at Columbia University Medical Center who has a few patients, but who mostly just walks around the city. He’s obsessed with New York history, exploring neighborhoods, and most of the action of the book is him walking and thinking. Maybe three or four intensely emotional things happen, and those are each given a sentence or two. People compare Cole to W.G. Sebald, but I, of course, thought of Slacker and then your work in general. It seems like you’re often looking for other ways to structure screenplays, whether that’s through geography in Slacker or, in the case of Boyhood and the Before films, time. Is this the kind of thing you think about consciously, formally, or do these structures emerge more naturally? Definitely. I think I’ve spent my whole cinematic life thinking about how storytelling and time affect each other, and the specifics of how time works in cinema. So, yeah, it definitely grows out of all that.

Has that been a reaction to the limitations or sameness of more conventional ways to tell stories? Yeah, but what always comes first is a story to tell, you know? For me, [Boyhood’s structure] was a problem-solving mechanism within a bigger area, which was trying to express something about growing up. I was about 40, had been a parent for seven or eight years, and I had this feeling I wanted to make a movie — or something — about boyhood. For about a year, I was thinking, “Well, what’s the story?” And then I guess I was feeling the limitations of that because every time I’d think, “Okay, well, if he’s 12 then [this happens],” I’d also think, “Okay, but then there was this other thing that [happens at] 17, and then cool stuff around six and seven.” I realized [the dramatic material] was just too dispersed throughout these ages. So I was kind of giving up — I couldn’t really locate one spot. I said, “Okay, I’ll write a novel about it.” And as soon as I sat down at the keyboard, this idea hit me, this “a-ha moment”: You could do a film that reveals itself over time. You could film a little bit at a time and that would solve that problem. It sounds goofy, but it was like a scientific discovery, and it was further proof that I’m really more of a filmmaker than [an artist in] any other medium. So this simple [concept] presented itself fully formed to me, but, in a way, I put 20 years of thinking into it.

It’s a concept that required you to relinquish a huge amount of directorial controlTo fate.

Exactly. It’s the opposite of writing a novel. Yeah, but I like that. That’s closer to where I really live, you know? I like to take the reality I’ve been given and try to make it work within the narrative structure that’s being created. So it just turned into this big conceptual piece. But I didn’t want it to feel like an experiment or anything, because it really wasn’t. I mean, it was highly impractical — it made no sense — but the storytelling aspects of it were rather simple, really.

Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane
Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane

That surprised me when I saw it. I had heard about the film for some time, and I somehow expected it to feel more experimental in form. More episodic, yeah.

And it’s not that at all. Time just flows, and its passage isn’t really reflected in the look or style of the film. You think, so much changes in 12 years. But I wanted it to feel like one thing; I wanted nothing to change. That’s why I shot on 35mm. And then the culture did me a favor because it hardly changed. The only thing that really changed was technology. I did my own little amateur anthropological study, and if you look at other eras in history and take 12 years — say, 1960 to 1972, or 1979 to 1991 — you’d see bigger cultural change. Cars would be different, hair would be different, fashion, everything. But outside of technology, there’s very little that stamps [a year from Boyhood as] “the real 2007” other than that’s when flip phones went to cellphones. That’s one of the only demarcations. There’s a certain sameness in this century so far — that’s my opinion.

Postmodern sensibilities have also altered our sense of what is old and what is current. Now you can wear a shirt from the ’60s, and it’s not like you’re wearing a retro shirt. It’s just a shirt.It doesn’t mean anything. We showed Slacker a few years ago on its 20th anniversary, and I had to tell the young people, “Those cars, they were retro then. Those weren’t the cars of the day. They were old, hip then.” So there’s a double age gap.

Did you have any fears 12 years ago about embracing this concept on a practical level and committing to seeing it through? No. I was excited by the challenge of it. All the hurdles, all the impracticalities, you can kind of just outwork all that stuff. It was a hard thing to finance, but IFC came on board and committed a little bit every year. It was a big leap of faith into the future. It’s the ultimate optimistic film, I believe, because you’re saying you think you’re going to be around 12 years from now, and that 12 years from now, the film will still be worth doing. At the end of the day, we spent a year in preproduction and a couple of years in post, which isn’t what you would spend on a 30-whatever-day shoot on a two-point-whatever million-dollar film. But that’s just what this one necessitated. On a low budget, you’ve got to really use your time properly, and that’s the one thing we did have — a lot of conceptual time.

Change is the wrong word, but how did you have to shape the way you work in order to be able to commit to the long-term nature of this film? Were there other projects you couldn’t take on due to your commitment to Boyhood? No.

No? This was never set at any one time of year. It wasn’t like, “We’re going to shoot every July.” It was loose. I made nine or 10 other films in this time period, so I was fairly busy. You just work it in. You look at the coming year and start trying to make the planets align. “I think next year’s bit is a fall thing. Let’s aim for October.” And then, by mid-summer, we were checking people’s schedules, and trying to see when we might all converge for a few days.

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

How did an episode, one year’s shoot, come together creatively? Every year I would tell the cast, “Here’s what’s coming next year.” Like, “Next year is the road trip year.” But I wouldn’t have it all written. I’d have it all outlined.

You had the whole movie outlined? Yeah. Like, I knew the last shot of the movie probably the second year. [The film’s storyline] was built on a grid: first through 12th grade and then going off to college. That always stayed. As a kid, I felt that was the grid that was imposed on you. You’re sort of stuck in your parents’ house, stuck in school, and all this stuff is expected of you. And then there’s this moment where you potentially can leave home and go be an adult, your own person. I remember so looking forward to that, so that was the conception. It was personal, a lot of the architecture, but I was tapping into things that I remember pretty distinctly that I thought probably wouldn’t have changed much for anybody who’s ever grown up and had siblings.

Certain rites of passage? Yes, but early on I knew I didn’t want to hit all those notes I’d seen in so many movies, like the first kiss. This film has very few firsts. I was looking instead at all the in-between moments. I thought the whole thing would be like a memory. Like how you look back and remember things — it’s the little things, not the big moments, which catch your attention. I bet the whole farm on the cumulative effect of all this little stuff, shit that, individually, doesn’t have much meaning at all. I just thought the power of cinema and the cumulative effect of time and the way audiences invest in stories and characters would carry the day.

Did you change as a filmmaker during that time, and did that affect the way you handled certain sections? Did the later Rick Linklater want to go back and re-edit the early scenes? Or wish he had done them in a different way? No. When I was doing this film, I was always the [same] guy who started it. I could wrap A Scanner Darkly, and then six weeks later shoot the year’s episode of [Boyhood], and there’d be no connection [between the two]. Someone told me that it seemed really unlikely that I could maintain the same tone over 12 years, and I said, “That’s easy for me.” It’s what you do, you know? That’s the job.

There are visual consistencies that run through the film. I hope so, yeah.

Did you conceive of specific ones from the beginning? Yeah, just kind of a look. You have your visual metaphors and simple thoughts about rules.

What were some of them? I always wanted to be pretty close to the characters, just kind of in [Ellar’s] world. Feeling your way through it. Nothing too elaborate. I don’t know any way to say it [other than] “pretty straightforward.” I didn’t want the film to ever feel like it was commenting too much. It’s the reason why a score didn’t work. It would be like the film would be commenting on itself or trying to steer the viewer in some emotional direction. That’s also why there are no cards saying, “2007.” It was all about paring it down to the essentials. The visual style was just kind of a more straightforward approach, but not documentary.

Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Tell me about the kids and how their growing up affected the film. There’s a moment in the film, a medium wide shot in the school where Ellar is with a bunch of his friends. It’s a time cut, and I remember looking at the group and not being able to tell which one he was. It wasn’t until the next shot I picked him up. He had physically changed. He’d grown a little bit.

And not only in physical appearance but in emotional temperament, too. Obviously, the way Ellar changed must have shaped the film. I always knew, despite whatever preconceived ideas and structures and plans I had, that it would ultimately go where he went. And Lorelei too, to a slightly lesser degree. But it was open for that. My goal was that Ellar would be a collaborator just like Ethan and Patricia. And that happened about halfway through. I started pulling more out of him or asking him for more specifics — anything to make it more realistic. At one point I told him [the character] was going to merge with who he was to some degree.

How would these collaborations work out? I would give him assignments. I’d say, “Well, next year, you meet a girl at a party, and I want to do a scene where you just talk to her. I want a real talk between two teenagers, so write down everything you talk about this year when you’re in that situation.” That would impose a certain kind of third-person observational mode on him, which I think he is in anyway. He is kind of a visual artist, and he’s a thoughtful guy, so that wasn’t a huge leap for him. And then we would work up the scene around some of these conversations and what [a girl] might say.

So he’s fairly close, I take it, to his character. By the end, he is kind of that guy, to whatever degree. Ellar himself didn’t go to college. He didn’t have a traditional education. He studied photography, and he’s a photographer, but he didn’t take it in school.

Do you think the film had a role in shaping who he is now? Because obviously he was involved in an artistic endeavor growing up and now he’s an artist. Yeah, I hoped it would in nothing but a positive way. To have spent your life involved in an artistic undertaking, it’s got to affect you.

But it could’ve gone the other way. Yeah.

You could’ve had some kid who turns 14 and is like, “Wait a second.” I joked that he could’ve been a 240-pound wrestler, and it would’ve been a film about a kid who becomes a wrestler. Filming, making a movie, is such a combination of absolute control and then a certain acceptance of reality. I’ve always been pretty good at that. “Okay, it’s raining, plan B — we can shoot from the porch.” You just have to adjust to the reality. If you’re one of those filmmakers who is so exact and specific, you have to have a lot of money to control all those elements. I’ve always been the guy insinuating myself into whatever limited budget or reality I had. To be in step with the real work and build a story within that, that seems to be my natural place. So the idea that something could happen in 12 years, it was like, “Well, whatever it is, it won’t be too catastrophic.” I knew I would be able to incorporate and work around stuff, whatever it was. And the truth is, nothing too big happened.

With that line of Patricia Arquette’s line at the end, Boyhood is like the best minimalist fiction. A tiny bit of language devastates you. “I always thought there’d be more.” You build all the way there. I do love that. Maybe it is like a novel in that way.

How did you come up with that line? I spent a lot of time in the last year thinking of that last scene with [Patricia]. I remember talking to my closest collaborators, like Ethan, about what was it like when they went off to college. And I had my own experience, too. My mom wasn’t that demonstrative, but I could tell she was upset [when I went off to school]. She was just kinda sitting there smoking, and I was like, “Bye.” And she was like, “Okay.” It was very minimal. So the idea of her sitting there alone, I had that, but I needed more dialogue. My producer Cathleen Sutherland had just taken her daughter off to college, and she said she cried all the way to the airport. And then she called her daughter at the airport and told her, “Oh, just so you know, this is the worst day of my life.” That’s “so mom” — put it on your kids and make it all about you. So that [story] gave me a little more permission. And then Ethan remembered his mom saying something like, “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be so happy to be leaving me.” So, the people who knew what that scene demanded, we all were contributing and talking about it. And then, working it up with Patricia, we tried different things. That notion of mortality — I had talked to someone else who realized that they had spent their whole life [raising their kids], and then it’s over. When you’re young you feel, “Oh, there’s this new world that’s all fresh.” But after a certain point, it’s not uncommon to feel like, “Mortality. Okay, I’m done. It’s over.” I guess it just depends on where you’re at at the time. And so, yeah, there was that notion of, “What’s next, my fucking funeral?” I like Ellar’s line: “Aren’t you jumping ahead 40 years? You just cut out the next half of your life.” It’s a very real feeling [for her] at that moment, but the next day, she’s going to be at a friend’s house with a drink in her hand and things’ll be fine. She’ll probably meet some new guy. She’ll be okay, I suspect.

How about with Lorelei? She had gone off to college two years before.

How much of your own relationship with your daughter appears in the movie? It’s called Boyhood, but it really could be called Bumbling Through Parenthood. It’s really both those things. As far as her character goes, I obviously had a front row seat to her development and could know where she was at at any given time and work that in. She’s not really an actress, but I could kinda tell what she was comfortable with or uncomfortable with. The year Mason Sr.’s talking about contraception and stuff, that was that awkward moment when anything to do with bodily [functions] was disgusting to her — like, “Ugh!” — and so I could kind of use that.

Was the film always a positive thing in terms of your relationship with your daughter? Yeah.

There was never a conflict? Never. It was always a cool thing. I mean, she grew up on movie sets. It’s not weird for her to be on camera. She was in other things over the years here and there. She’s not an aspiring actress or anything, but it was kind of a fun thing we could be working on. Like, “What am I doing next year?” “Okay, well, your character’s going to be —” It was something to think about, a fun ongoing project. But she had a couple of rough patches. She talks about it openly. There were a couple years when she got really self-conscious. She realized she wasn’t that extroverted little girl who wanted to be an actress. She was playing the harp, painting, and sculpting. And she had kind of had enough. She asked me if her character could die.

How old was she then? Probably about 11 or 12. But then, it came back around.

What did you say when she asked, “Can I be written out of this thing?” I don’t quite remember, but we worked through it. She told me she remembered me saying that [her dying] would be too dramatic for the movie: “It’s not that kind of movie where a sister dies and defines your life.” It’s like, no, we’re in the statistical norms here.

But there was never a kid’s rebellion against her parents dovetailing with the obligation of doing a movie? No, because, think about it: Kids are used to being bossed around. “Okay, go to school.” Or, “You’re going to camp this year. Here’s the camp you’re going to.” Or, “Oh, we’re going on vacation.” No one asks kids. I mean, they do more now, but when I was a kid, they didn’t care. Kids are used to being pointed in a direction and told what’s going on. But yeah, the moment when they feel they don’t have to [do what their parents tell them], that’s also just about the moment when they’re starting to work and caring about money. And then they realize they’re getting SAG minimum and that this is the best summer job. You could work in a sandwich shop all summer and make less money than you’d earn in one week [on the film]. You hang out, eat craft service with all these cool older people who treat you well and are fun to be around. On a practical level, I think it helped that they got paid a little. Let’s hear it for good old capitalism.

At the Sundance Q&A you talked about IFC and how you went from being this little film on their slate, one of 20 productions, to their only one. How did that dynamic play out in terms of your business relationship with them? It changed over the years, that’s for sure. The company changed, but bless them, they stuck with it, and [IFC’s] Jonathan Sehring was still there at the end.

Did you have one deal for 12 years or did you have to renegotiate for each shoot? No, it was one slightly vague deal for 12 years. They would give us $200,000 a year. They could up it, but they never did. Every year, we’d ask for a little more because union rates and film stock went up. And it was like, “No, you’ll get $200,000.” We never fought too much. I was just grateful to have it every year, but it got tougher and tougher.

Because of inflation, your budget was, in fact, shrinking. It was a slowly shrinking budget, yeah.

Did you enter into the deal with a specific delivery date 12 years in the future? Not really. And I sped it up — I jumped a year. Near the end I said, “Oh, if I can film that [one final part], we can be done.” They weren’t really ready for it on their accounting. So I kind of messed them up a little bit.

Was Ethan’s contribution in this film different than the role he played as a collaborator in the Before films? Not really. It’s equally enormous. I mean, it’s different because he dropped in and out of this film. He was there half the time, maybe. But we spent a lot of time talking about it, and it wasn’t just about his character. His eye is on the big prize, you know? What is the whole film? What does the film need? He’s a good, challenging collaborator. We’re always pushing each other. This whole collaboration, it’s both a depiction of bumbling through parenthood, trying to figure out how to be a dad, but then, also, [drawing upon] our own childhood and stories. Almost anything that really happened to somebody could fit its way in here. Like, the car [scene], I think Ethan’s dad told him he could have the car. It was important to me that that scene had really happened. Everything is sort of from somebody’s experience.

What I love about that scene is how such a casual, almost inconsequential moment for Ethan’s character is going to be remembered as such a pivotal one by Ellar’s. That’s kind of like life in general. You’re a minor character in other people’s lives, but they’re maybe a lead character in your life. And that goes for parents, too. That’s why I think it’s important to give of yourself, to put your best self forward when you’re given the opportunity and you’re able. That’s what parenting drags out of you. When a kid asks a question, you can’t just be glib or a smart ass like you’d be in normal life. You’ve got to give a really thoughtful answer because it could change someone’s life. I felt the whole film was like that. Let’s give a little of ourselves.

Now that this film is over and you’ve done three Before films, is there something else on your plate that’s similarly ambitious? It’s weird that both of these two long-term, time-conscious projects have come to the end within a year of each other. I don’t know what’s next. I mean, I have a bunch of stuff I’m trying to get done. And, yeah, there’s this one thing I’ve been working on — researching and writing — for over 10 years, a 19th-century period film that’s gotten pretty large and expansive. I don’t know if it’s an eight-hour movie or a TV thing or something. But it’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It’s pretty ambitious.

Is the film world still one that satisfies you? You’ve got Steven Soderbergh leaving film, and directors focusing on TV or web-series. Yeah, it’s kinda my only game, you know? Every film I try to get made, [I think], could this be TV? It’s so clear that’s where the money is for adult-ish stories and content. But I’m still stuck in the feature film format.

Why do you think that is, especially since, as you say, there is more money in television for some of the themes and subjects you’re interested in? Is it just because you conceive of yourself as a filmmaker first, with all the historical meanings that definition implies? Maybe. I don’t know. I guess I just think in those terms. I think [the feature film] is a good format. I just like that storytelling medium. There’s something about TV where you have to trump up a lot of subplots to get to the next episode. I can appreciate a lot of TV, and I watch some of it, but to me, it doesn’t relate to film. I’ll hear so much about a show, and then I’ll watch it and go, “That’s it?” Like, I get it, but that’s it? I just believe in film, and I think you can do that and not be some old fuddy-duddy from a different era. The feature film’s been around 100 years, you know? And there are so many great movies that haven’t been made yet.

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