Cast of Boyhood. All photos by B. Balfour except Patricia Arquette at Golden Globes
Far too much of the buzz and ballyhoo about this season's indie awards darling Boyhood has focused on the fact that the film was made in real time -- sort of. Director Richard Linklater took his core ensemble — Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater — and reconvened them once a year for a few days over a 12-year span to shoot this family drama of a divorced couple and their two kids going through life’s ups and downs. Shot intermittently from 2002 to 2013, it depicts a young boy in Texas growing up with divorced parents, ending with adolescence and the advent of adulthood.
This native of Houston, Texas, told a common story about an ordinary family in a relatively conventional place, which might not have merited all the attention had not media and tastemakers seized on its unique process of construction. The reaction has been so arch that it’s overshadowing other, more subtle but equally important, qualities of the film.
Yes, if this 2-1/2 hour story had simply documented a family's disarray and aftermath with its eye-opening dissection, it might have earned as much praise. But the film did something far more essential when it changed focus from the family dynamic to Mason’s (Coltrane) personal evolution: he takes up photography, which helps define himself beyond the family’s trials. That move distinguished the movie from being just another domestic drama.
Creating Boyhood seems perfectly in character for a such a unique creator as this distinctly Texan director. His second film, Slacker, established his approach to filmmaking. Linklater worried less about plot and action than taking his audiences along a voyage into his consciousness, whatever it was into at the time.
As Linklater has moved along, his storytelling skills evolved while his films have retained a certain signature tone and attitude. Often working with the same actors such as Hawke (who has done the Before series with him), Linklater has put his faith in his actors and they in him.
The 44-year-old Hawke — one of his most veteran collaborators — helped anchor this project as he took risks with the two younger actors who played the kids. Both he and the 46-year-old Arquette have done the breadth of work in acting from television series to a range of indies and major studio movies.
Of course all have been rewarded for this unique venture. The film was then nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, winning Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Arquette. It has also received six Oscar noms, including Best Picture, Best Director, and acting nominations for Arquette and Hawke, which Arquette took home.
After Boyhood’s 2014 Sundance Film Festival premiere, it competed in the 64th Berlin International Film Festival’s main section where Linklater won the Best Director Silver Bear. Once it was released in July, 2014, it was declared a landmark film by many notable critics, who praised its direction, acting and scope.
This Q&A is culled from a press conference held at The Crosby Hotel in 2014 just before the film’s initial release.
Q: Has Boyhood changed the way you think about cinema, what cinema could and should be?
Linklater: Embarking on this, I had never seen this type of film before. I kind of figured that by this point, people would be pointing out to me how this type of film had in fact been made before in some country, but it’s never has happened. No one came forward with the film that felt original to me that I had never seen before. It felt like a huge idea — very simple — but an idea I had, based on years thinking about it.
Cinema in general, narrative storytelling, the possibilities of it in, relation to time and structure — I had spent my for my adult life thinking about that kind of stuff. With this film, I was solving a particular problem, so I liken to — it sounds arrogant — a scientist who goes to sleep at night and then dreams of the formula for his whatever that solves his problem.
If you’re a scientist and you’re thinking of a problem, o you get the answer that’s obvious. I’m kind of in that same boat, but I’m a storyteller who was trying to figure out how to tell the story, given the limitations I was confronted with. I think about this all the time in cinema: boundaries of narrative and filmmaking. I was excited about it.
When I first got involved with film, it had all these really unique storytelling possibilities. I loved the medium so much. I think film is still a wide-open frontier for storytelling.
Arquette: As far as cinema goes, I feel like I’ve watched a really strange shift over the course of my career. I’ve seen it become the business of bankers and spreadsheets. I feel like with the restraint in which Rick directed this movie — the structure couple with the collaborative openness and the balance of those two things — he didn’t tell the obvious dramatic story. Most people would say, “You’re not following the formula of storytelling. You’re not catering to this demographic.”
There’s a philosophical element to the human connection and communication and space for the human relationship. If this movie does well, first of all, financers will have to re-examine and be a little more supportive of exploring. I also think young film audiences actually enjoy this. I think the more we move towards technology in our human communications, the more of a need as human beings to see movies that are about humans.
Coltrane: I think there’s this tendency or need to gravitate towards hyper-dramas as the only thing that makes a story worth telling — these big, fantastical moments that don’t happen to most of us. I think it’s powerful to dwell on the little things.
Hawke: It’s interesting that the movie actually does get a lot of power off our pre-conditioned experiences at the cinema of thinking something big is going to happen. There’s unbelievable attention to the minutia of the movie because we’re so conditioned to think, “Something horrible must happen. We wouldn’t just be watching some people drive to this university if there isn’t going to be a car wreck, right?”
But what I love about that is that’s actually how I feel about my life. A lot of my life is wasted worrying. The movie actually captures the feeling of, “Well, he’s spending the night camping and it’s so scary.” But how do any of us survive those nights? But there’s something about how the movie works, in its relationship not just to its own storytelling but the storytelling doesn’t live in its own vacuum. It’s in response to other things.
Q: Despite its 12-year spread, there’s a really consistency to the arcs of the four main characters in the film. What did you see as the subtle and big changes to these characters?
Hawke: It depends on how you define big or small. They’re certainly small, by any normal standards of storytelling. My character goes through some pretty significant changes of who he is and the end, versus who he is at the beginning. Certainly we all do, but they’re very humanist changes.
Coltrane: There are a lot of small things after 12 years. Like, you age 12 years, but day-to-day, you’re just one day older.
Hawke: If he wanted to do a movie about transsexuals, he did a bad job [laughs]. I was trying to be funny, but that really wasn’t. Now it’s going to be all over the Internet. Please forgive me. Delete that comment.
Linklater: The whole movie is this little collection of intimate moments that probably don’t fit into most narratives. They’re not advancing the character or story enough or the plot that it would all add up to some things that are much bigger. That was the feel to the whole movie — but that mirrors our lives. Everything has a life corollary in that way.
Q: What was the experience of meeting over the 12 years to film Boyhood? Did any of you ever have any doubts about making this movie? Apparently, Lorelai Linklater reportedly had her doubts…
Linklater: That was kind of a fleeting thing. Had she not been my daughter… She approached the director and asked if her character could die. I explained to her it was a little dramatic for what we were trying to do. But that was a fleeting thing. She really enjoyed the movie.
It was special for us to work on it. It was special to get together every year. The crew felt it and the cast. We all committed. It was a life project. It never felt like anyone wavered, ever.
Hawke: I think I can say that we collectively grew to love it more and more and more. At first, seemed a little bit like a fun experiment, and then it turned into something I love so much. I remember years ago being in a rehearsal room with the great Tom Stoppard, and he was talking about how plot is this unfortunate device that the audience just needs. And what’s funny about plot is that over time, you don’t even remember it.
He talked about the obvious example of Lawrence of Arabia. You can watch that movie and 25 years later you still remember him [Peter O'Toole] standing on top of that train, expressing this feeling of power and what happens as he was becoming fully actualized of who he wanted to be in this kind of close-up.
I couldn’t even tell you where in that story that is, or what’s going on. I just remember that I was moved by it. He cited Gena Rowlands in a certain movie. He couldn’t remember the plot.
Rick was kind of daring with this movie to forego what [Tom] Stoppard thought was necessary, a bogus plot. Our lives don’t have plot, but he felt the narrative does. And this movie skirts around that.
Linklater: I replaced the plot with structure. I think it’s much more innate to how I think. We’re more adept to think, “Structure is plot.” Humans put structure in everything, [such as] time.
Hawke: Structure often doesn’t have line to it, whereas plot often does.
Linklater: It’s not so much a construct. It’s innately human.
Q: Do you see Boyhood as an intimate character study or something more sweeping than that?
Linklater: Both. It’s very specific and intimate to this family and to Mason and all that. It is intimate and but it’s very common, and I always thought it is very universal, within that specific world. This could have been made in any country, at any time. There’s such a commonality there. I’ve always thought of as a very universal, big story about life and time and all that.
Arquette: But also, Boyhood was not the [original] title.
Linklater: No, we didn’t call this “Boyhood” for 12 years. It was a name on our call sheet.
Arquette: Sometimes it was “The 12-Year Project.”
Linklater: Or “Growing Up.” We thought that was a little too vague. It was from a boy’s perspective, but it could be everything.
Hawke: This question even illuminates the answer, which is: it’s an epic about minutia. That’s what it is. It’s difficult to title because of that. But it’s a family seen through one boy’s eyes, so that title makes as much as sense as any other.
Linklater: Titles are difficult.
Q: While the title of the movie is Boyhood, there could also be secondary titles, like Motherhood and Fatherhood. What was going inside the heads of Mason Sr. and Olivia? Was that something you set out to do?
Linklater: It was always going to be a portrait of growing up and parenting and aging. You never stop growing up, especially when you’re a young parent. Their characters are still growing up still. I saw it as bumbling through parenting and also growing up. As adults, we have our own childhood experiences to draw on, we had our relations to our own parents, and we had ourselves as parents.
While filming, we had five children born between us, and that was an ongoing part of life. As kids, you have that perspective in that moment and thinking about your parents, but you’re not a parent yourself. It was this multi-generational collaboration always.
Life was all around. I really wanted to see the parents’ perspective. That scene at the end when [Mason Jr.] is leaving his mom — we all did that at some point. I remember the inability as a teenager to totally comprehend my mother’s point of view at that age. You’re so self-absorbed.
You can be the most empathetic person, but you don’t have the life experience at that age to fully understand what they’re going through. You can acknowledge, but you can’t fully feel it. We see that contrast in that scene so well, I think. We spent a lot of time talking about, all of us.
Q: You mentioned before that Boyhood is an epic of minutia. Does the vastness of this movie allow for those powerful moments of silence more than other films because it intertwines realism?
Linklater: I hope so. The playing field here was real in that way. I didn’t want anything to feel like it wasn’t earned or tethered to some kind of reality. I don’t think there was anything in the movie that didn’t come out of my life or their lives or something real-world-based.
So within that, once you get people accepting it as real, it really opens you up to an incredible realm of possibilities of your experience of the movie, because it just relates to your own life and looking at that emotional spectrum. Once you’re hitting some people’s own lives, that’s an incredible area. It was designed to do that.
You can’t specifically say what anyone can experience at any given moment, but once you get to thinking about life in general and your own life and your lives of loved ones and your own experiences, it’s triggering all kinds of wonderful things, I hope — painful and wonderful, maybe. Who knows?
Q: Was it difficult to get back into character every time you met up for Boyhoodover the years? Did you watch any dailies?
Coltrane: I wasn’t acting in other movies. I get asked that a lot. It was a very long buildup every year. We always had a couple of months to think about what we were doing, and then a solid week of workshopping and building the character and figuring out where the characters were that year. By the time we got to filming, we were just already there.
Hawke: We had a very good director. My father is a mathematician. Usually, mathematicians have their breakthrough ideas really young.
[He says to Linklater] It’s interesting that you were in his 40s when he started this, but I don’t think your style of filmmaking has changed that much, but you’re a lot more experienced. If you had done this movie when you were 26, working with Ellar was different than the way you worked with Lorelai which was different than the way you worked with me and different from the way you worked with Patricia.
I’ve worked with [Richard Linklater] eight times now. I’ve watched Rick learn how to speak to people the way they need to be spoken to. And that’s what helps you be ready to play. We were always prepared to play.
You brought up something that I’m surprised that people don’t write about more, which is how awesome it is to see Patricia’s character in this movie, and to see a woman who is a mother and a lover and more than one thing in a movie. I’m so proud to be a part of a movie that respects her character in the way this movie does. It’s so real and it’s so true.
It’s true in life — we see it all the time — but I don’t see that woman in movies. [A woman in movies] she’s in the background or an ancillary element to give some encouragement in some way to some studly guy. But this [Olivia] character is a real, three-dimensional human being, which is so exciting. The women in my life who have seen the movie so appreciate it. But she’s also not just good. She does stupid things and smart things.
Linklater: There’s a complexity to Olivia.
Hawke: I just love her… We’re used to people in movies being one thing all the time.
Linklater: She’s a great woman at the end. She’s worked toward that. There’s so much complexity to her. We’re all human. There are flaws. To work with someone like Patricia, who’s so ferociously real, it was super-inspiring.
Q: Mason Jr.’s interest in photography changes his life. Was that a conscious decision to have him pick up photography? Did that parallel any of your ownexperiences when you decided to become an artist? Frankly I feel the is the crux of the film far more than the time-span concept or a simple study of marriage, divorce, and its effect on families. Without this development the film would have been far more pedestrian.
Linklater: I always thought that we’d see Mason get into some kind of art, some form of expression by junior high/high school. Somewhere in there, he would start to express himself. I didn’t know exactly what form that would be.
I thought maybe it would be writing or maybe music. If I had to bet, I thought Ellar would be in a band. But he actually did become a visual artist. He was very interested in photography. I personally liked that. I thought, “That’s great!” I was taking pictures at that age, and I thought that was a perfect segue and a perfect thing for his character to get into.
Coltrane: Absolutely. I think being lost in the artistic process is a very therapeutic thing and an outlet that’s incredibly valuable, no matter what it is, to throw yourself into creating something.
Hawke: The most beautiful experience for me about making this movie is watching Ellar become this creative entity unto itself. If the movie didn’t work, it would’ve been a stunt or gimmick around time. It’s Ellar’s performance and his creativity and passion in the movie that elevate it. It makes it more than structure.
The structure is working, but it requires a certain level of inspiration.
Watching [Ellar] survive adolescence and let the movie not just be Rick’s expression, but also [Ellar’s]. That was happening in the movie, and it was happening on the set in different. Ellar is not Mason; they’re different people, but there’s a similar development.
[Patricia] and I discovered the arts young. Much has been said about how transformative and healing that can be. But there are other ways to be creative. You can be creative in athletics. You can be creative in a lot of different ways, if you find a passion for it. You can express yourself with baseball. You can manifest your personality with your team and with your coach in the same way that you can in the arts. I could wish for two things for my kids: decent friends and a passion that’s so exciting.
Arquette: The beautiful thing about art, whether you’re getting paid for it or not, it is a little spark of a life force, whatever that it. It’s miraculous, some of the great biblical art in churches. Some of our greatest musicians may have been flawed humans, but were somehow connected to something beautiful.
In acting, you have to get past your own head and your own ego and all of these f*cking barriers and walls, and get to a place where you can hopefully be present enough to be in a scene in someone to get out of your own way, to listen to a director who has a beautiful vision and just be there.
Chilling out with these people every year, meeting each other, building on each other… It was collaborative and built upon itself. I felt safe with everyone, and I trusted their process. And it was jumping into the void from the get-go. When you’re in the right hands and you jump into the void together, really great things can come of it.
Q: Boyhood is a movie about growing up -- one way or the other. Ethan and Patricia, what do you remember about your first kiss?
Hawke: Our first kiss? My first kiss was with a girl named Cindy at the Hamilton Roller Rink, during the slow skate. And she said to me afterward, “Do you like Jack Daniels?” And I said, “Yeah, too bad he died.” I didn’t really know what Jack Daniels was then. I think I thought it Jimi Hendrix.
Arquette: I do not remember my first kiss. That doesn’t mean I’ve had a lot of kisses. I think I was pretty young. I’m sure it was a peck.
But I do remember one kiss. I don’t know why, but I really didn’t like the way this guy kissed me. He was a friend of a friend. He was a pro skater, and he was the only guy I ever gave a fake phone number to. And years later, he murdered his girlfriend.
Boyhood is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray