It started as “a narrative problem,” writer-director Richard Linklater says. “How do you tell a story, with actors, over a long period of time? You can’t re-cast it when you’re catching up with somebody, year by year. The change in appearance would be too abrupt.”
He wanted to follow a child from first grade to college enrollment, “and I was stuck with the limitation of the physical appearance of whatever young actor I had.”
His solution is “Boyhood,” the most acclaimed film of the year, a movie that uses the same actors – children and adults – over 12 years of filming just a few days each year, telling a story of one Texas family and one boy. “It may be years before anyone works up the gumption to match its achievement,” critic A.A. Dowd said of “Boyhood.” And that’s almost certainly true.
Linklater, who turns 54 at the end of July, is best-known for such talky/ thoughtful films as “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” another long-term project following a couple (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) through a budding romance, a courtship and eventually years into a marriage that’s in trouble. To say the filmmaker, who got his start as an indie classic “Slacker,” is a patient man would be an understatement.
“Cinema makes you patient,” he says. “Sometimes it takes 10 years for a film you want to make to come together. That’s not unusual. But in this case, it was fun to have a life project that was taking just a chunk of time every year. I had to have my artistic antenna out, thinking about this movie, all year long, every year. Parenting, growing up, all these things that are part of life i was paying more attention to, because of this film I was making.”
And he would be taking a sensitive, introspective little boy along for the ride. Ellar Coltrane, now 19, went through “multiple auditions” as a 6-year-old, trying to land this role. He, and his director, got lucky.
“Ellar’s a lot like he is at the end of the film,” Linklater says of his star. “That’s Ellar, sitting at the top of a mountain, observing, taking it all in. That wasn’t him – Mason (his character) – at the beginning of the film. But even so, there were days, every year, where I was grateful that I’d cast the perfect kid.”
“Boyhood” follows Mason, a Texas boy, part of a broken family, as he copes with a stressed, working-class mother (Patricia Arquette) and sometimes-bullying big sister (Lorelei Linklater) and misses his free-spirited, often-absent father (Ethan Hawke).
Coltrane remembers that he was an aspiring child actor, home-schooled, going on “a lot of auditions, at the time I was cast.” He can’t recall much about the early years of filming, but he never lost interest in this lifelong commitment and never minded giving up a chunk of each year to making “Boyhood.”
“It’s surreal,” he says, looking at the movie now. “There’s parts that are terrifying, or could be embarrassing. It’s also kind of comforting to see those parts of myself kind of magnified – these awkward teenage phases that you go through. Seeing them years later is a lot different from the way I experienced them. When you’re that age, you don’t feel like a complete person. Everything is this dramatic part of your personality. To see it all together and in context is a beautiful thing and kind of comforting and reassuring, existentially.”
Coltrane says he was always able to treat Mason, his alter ego, “as a character . .. As much as I used myself as a reference point, I was taking those personal memories and putting them outside of myself to play Mason, putting them through a different filter.”
Linklater, despite his daughter being in the film, felt far enough removed from the world of the kids that he would give Coltrane assignments – pick his brain for what he was going through each year, and then script accordingly. Ellar’s into “Star Wars”? So is Mason. Ellar’s about to start dating? “Take notes, remember exactly what you and that first girl you talk to talked about,” Linklater says he told Coltrane.
The result is a movie that’s a lot like life itself – little details, arguments about the most banal things, kids testing boundaries, and a divorced couple trying to do right by their children. A filmmaker famed for his “gift for spotting the extraordinary in the ordinary” (Film Journal International) has his career-crowning achievement.
But perhaps the real acclaim should go to the way Linklater, for decades a role model to aspiring filmmakers, managed to make a movie without turning his young star into a diva. Coltrane is sensitive, soft-spoken and articulate. Making the movie altered his life, he admits. He idolized the set photographer, who mentored Coltrane’s budding interest in the arts. He is planning on going to college rather than solely pursing an acting career, because of that.
“In the last year of filming, sometimes I’d step back and look at Ellar at a distance and go, ‘WOW. Did I pick the right guy, or what?’” Linklater says. “He’s smart. He’s 19, he’s a good actor and he’s got options. School, acting, art, whatever. And no limits, no restrictions. Maybe that’s the message of the movie. Mason learns from his parents, that one great teacher who takes an interest in him, and his own observations. He won’t be limited, like his parents, who had responsibilities — kids — at his age. After ‘Boyhood,’ the world is his. The fact that he grew up to look like a rock star didn’t hurt, either”