Interview: Richard Linklater Talks ‘Boyhood’, the Industry and Life’s Little Punctuations

Richard Linklater Boyhood interview

Richard Linklater on the set of Boyhood
Photo: IFC Films

If you’re not yet familiar with Richard Linklater‘s new film Boyhood that’s something you’re going to want to remedy sooner rather than later. Filming began in 2002 when Linklater cast seven-year-old Ellar Coltrane as Mason and began work on a project that would take twelve years to complete.

Coltrane stars as Mason as snapshots of the young boy’s life were captured each and every year with Ethan Hawke playing his father who, before the film even begins, has divorced his mother (Patricia Arquette). Mason lives with his mother and sister (Richard Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei Linklater) and the film bounces through time as Mason goes from elementary school to his very first day in college.

It’s a film as unique as they come and another showcase for the writer/director that brought us films such as Dazed and Confused, School of Rock and my personal favorites, the Before trilogy of films — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. In fact, it’s those three films that begin our conversation as we wasted no time getting right to business over the course of a 30-minute interview that discussed not only the Before films and Boyhood, but working in such a money-driven industry, the news convicted murderer Bernie Tiede (the inspiration for his film Bernie) was living in a small garage apartment at his house, Boyhood‘s origins, the title and so much more.

That said, I hope you enjoy this lengthy interview and I urge you to see this film the first opportunity you get.

For some context as to how the interview began, we started by discussing how I went about recommending which of the three Before films a local film publicist should watch first, because…

Before Sunset

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset
Photo: Warner Independent Pictures

When it comes to your Before films, I think the installment people come to think of as the “best” depends on how old you are when you first see them.

Richard Linklater (RL): Yeah.

I saw Before Sunset before Before Sunrise and I looked at Before Sunset as something of an “ultimate, romantic dream”, and then Midnight comes out and I’m sort of just a step behind it, but understand and relate to a lot of what they’re discussing.

RL: How old are you?


RL: So you’re closer to that one.

Yeah, and I think this is something you’ve sort of tapped into with a lot of your films and would you call it almost a documentary style?

RL: I certainly want them to be perceived as some kind of reality. They’re obviously constructs of [my reality] and I think, [with] Sunset and Midnight, I kind of arrived at this style that does feel like almost an eloquent documentary. Still cinematic, I feel, but I want it to almost have as little syntax between the viewer and the material and the people.

I think I read it in another interview, but in Boyhood you tend to avoid showing the major moments, focusing more on the reaction and result of those moments.

RL: [Staring at the ceiling] Yeah… I don’t know what that is, I just think you lose people sometimes when you– Those major moments in our lives, they almost feel like, at least me personally, I always felt like I was an extra [in a movie]. First kiss, graduation, weddings, funerals… I don’t think they’re yours really, you’re sort of cast in them.

So I’m always going for the moment that feels like it’s totally yours, of your making, of your memory, of your choosing, of your doing, which means you’re kind of doing yourself a favor and avoiding cliched territory. Not that you can’t put a new twist on it. You can do something original in there, potentially, but with something that’s been done to death and so poorly. Who knows?

Yeah, because how many times have we seen a guy go after, and get, the girl? We can all relate to that part of the relationship, so you don’t really need to show it. What’s unique is what comes after it. With Boyhood specifically I thought the closest you even get to cliche, or something we have seen before, is the dinner table scene, but that’s a major moment in the film.

RL: Yeah, it’s just drama. It’s a family kind of breaking up and stuff, but kind of how you’d remember it. Life goes along at a certain tone, then there are these little punctuations, occasional aggressiveness, violence, erratic behavior around people you’re stuck with. In my life, being a young man growing up, where and when I grew up, there was a fight or a threat or, you know, people kind of threatening here and there, it felt real.

First kiss, graduation, weddings, funerals…
I don’t think they’re yours really,
you’re sort of cast in them

When it comes to that, how much of this is meant to be looked at as a memory? With that scene I just mentioned, if someone were to say, “Oh it’s so cliche and melodramatic,” my response would be to say, “Well, you remember those moments as a little more exaggerated.”

RL: The whole movie is kind of — you see it as a memory, probably. It’s kind of like, “Why am I remembering this moment, or that moment, or why am I remembering this part about that?” those real high notes, on the scale of drama.

Memory isn’t exact. It’s this re-staging, recreation every time you have the memory, it’s not a rewind button, it’s a theatrical production. So, yeah, it’s funny how things sift through your mind and your memory over the years, so it probably would be exaggerated. You would conflate things, so I think that’s pretty valid.

I showed Fanny & Alexander recently and, having done this movie now, I was looking at it and realizing it’s similar in that, and maybe I glommed this years ago, it was like, “I think this is all in Alexander’s memory.” Like he didn’t really cause his step-father’s death by fire, but maybe he heard he did die and then years later he had bad thoughts and conflated that he had caused it. You know, when you’re a kid you’re attached to everything, you’re causing things, and you realize these random things happen and your relationship with them, but it’s almost like the magical thinking of a kid to think you have more control than you do.

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
Photo: IFC Films

How much of this film was mapped out before you actually started. I understand you did plan on twelve years.

RL: Yeah, certainly, that was the, the “grid” I call it. That was the institutional, first thru twelfth grade grid. That, and all the family movements, Patricia remembers me telling her everything that happened to her character. Like, you’ll get your degree, you’ll divorce, I laid it all out.

So you had them staged at each year before you even began?

RL: Yeah, I had a pretty strong architecture, I would say. The building was up and the roof was on, if not dried in. I had that year, all that interim time, to just think about it. Movies don’t really give you that opportunity. Movies are like manufacturing, you’ve got a 22-day production schedule, and you’ve got an 18-week post production and it comes out this day. You do your best, [because] that’s just the way it is. [With Boyhood] I had nothing but open horizon.

In what ways did that help?

RL: It was just part and parcel with the project, but the upside of that is this incredible amount of gestation time to just think. I would edit what we just shot, attach it to this ever-growing thing, watch that again, edit that whole thing again, sit with it, maybe watch it late at night one night. I’d just keep thinking, Where’s this thing going? What needs to come next? and meanwhile I’m thinking Sixth grade, sixth grade… seventh grade, seventh grade… and what’s going on that year?

And are you scripting it the whole time or are you adjusting?

RL: I’m outlining, picking those moments.

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
Photo: IFC Films

And how much did you pick the brain of your cast? Patricia has a child, Ethan has four and your daughter’s in it and so you’re seeing her grow at the exact same time.

RL: It was kind of this on-going collaboration. I would say certainly from my own memories, and now my own reality of bumbling through parenthood. Ethan’s the same, we all have parents, collaboration with our own parents. Things would come from anywhere, there’s sort of a group “memoir-ish” quality to it.

There would be a subject like, this year you’re going off to college and “What was that like for you?” I’d maybe ask people. I had my own experience, but I’m looking to — I can honestly say there’s nothing in this movie that isn’t attached to someone’s actual reality, mostly mine, but everybody else’s too, an idea or a thought, or something has some basis in the memory of somebody.

I imagine Ellar [pronounced Ell-er] as well.

RL: He increasingly did, as he grew. As a kid, not so much, a kid just approaches it and kind of works through it, but he started asking questions and he was always this fascinating kids. He was just the most interesting kid and he’s a really interesting young man.

And did you know him before you started?

RL: No, traditional casting. He’d been in an indie film, he had an agent, headshot and resume. I wanted to get someone who had at least tossed their hat in the ring as an actor, even a child actor, because I thought that would indicate a certain amount of family support for what would be a huge commitment so that would be a huge start.

If I had just pulled some kid off the playground it would be like two years in and “I never wanted to do this. Who are you?” Where [with Ellar] it would at least be like, “Well, you were acting as a kid, you wanted to do this.” But it never came to that, Ellar was such a pro. He was the most consistent element as far as he was always ready, always had stuff to say, always looking for to it.

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