Interview: Richard Linklater of “Boyhood”

Posted on July 17, 2014 at 8:00 am

Richard Linklater is one of my favorite directors.  Films like “Waking Life,” “Before Sunrise”/”Before Sunset”/”Before Midnight,” “Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock,” “Bernie,” and “Me and Orson Welles” display his restless intelligence and remarkable range.  His latest film, “Boyhood,” was an under-the-radar twelve-year project, filming just a few days each year, so that we watch the main character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, grow up before our eyes.  It was an honor to have a chance to talk to him about the film.

“This is an odd movie, because it’s a period piece film, but we were filming it in the present tense,” he explained.  “You don’t get that opportunity very often.”  Knowing as you film that what you are shooting won’t be seen for another decade, “you kind of look at that differently.  Film’s a powerful recorder of the present.  If you look at a silent film, even if you don’t like the movie, it’s a great record of how people lived and what fashions were.  I had no agenda, but I thought this would demarcate its era, just by its own existence.”

He said he wanted the film to reflect the way that children process time differently from adults.  “When you’re young, you hear a song and it’s very specific — fifth grade, eighth grade.  When you get older, it gets kind of mushy.  It doesn’t mean as much.  It gets a little more undifferentiated.”

It is an extraordinary, unprecedented form of storytelling but he said he wanted it to be an ordinary family at the heart of the story.  “These are not superheroes.  They’re people trying to maneuver through life like everybody.”

Mason’s parents, played by Ethan Hawke (Mason senior) and Patricia Arquette (just billed as “Mom”) are separated, at in the film’s first scenes, Mason senior returns after an extended time in Alaska, to see his children.  He said he wanted “the off-screen separation to be a little mysterious,” to maintain the point of view of the children, showing us that children “just feel the effects.  I didn’t want to give the audience information that is outside the viewpoint of the kids.”  Because the actors themselves interacted so little in filming, they were each able to develop their own ideas about what had happened in the relationship.  “Both of the parents are admirable and a little triumphant in varying degrees.  He wanted to be a dad and he is.  He is a big figure in their lives.  And she wants to provide for her kids and get an education and she does.  She’s kind of a great woman, flaws and all.  Who doesn’t have that?”

He had the big picture, “the big issues, moving, the end, the last shot” early on.  “I kind of work that way, big structure planned out, and then kind of macro/micro within it a lot of leeway to be inspired.  In most movies, you’re very rushed during production.  It’s great to work like a sculptor.  I’ll work three days, and then edit, and then think for a year.  Film doesn’t give you that and I wanted to take advantage of it!  Watch at home at 2 in the morning, thinking ‘What does the story need?  Is this part working?  Oh, I need to put back in this relationship.  I never made a film that felt like it wanted to be itself so much.  They always say films are like your kids, but I never believed that before. With this one, I actually do.  It’s its own living, breathing person who I’m now sending off to college.  Reluctantly.”

And Linklater’s own living, breathing daughter is in the movie, playing Mason’s older sister, Samantha.  Linklater said that as the younger brother with older sisters in his own family, “it was hard to carve out space for myself.  They have such an impact on you.”  The girls were such a powerful force in his life and he wanted Mason to have a sister who was part thorn in his side, part witness, part support system.  “They have that rivalry, but as they get older they support each other.”

eller coltrane

Mason sees a range of models of masculinity in the film — his father, two stepfathers, even a teacher who really takes him to task in a scene set in the red light of a photographic darkroom.  “It’s a male world.  They’re in your face.  The male world is in your face, compelled to shape the youth and be in your face all the time.  Men want to be mentors.  Moms will still straighten you out, but they’re more accepting.  A step-parent is a fraught relationship anyway.  These guys who are suddenly in his life — no one asked him — they have influence and authority over him that he feels maybe they haven’t earned. That’s his perspective.  They’re probably not as bad as he sees them.”  In what Linklater called “one of the most violent scenes you will see this year,” Mason’s long hair is cut short at the direction of his stepfather.  Linklater told us that Coltrane’s look of mute, impotent, fury was all acting.  Linklater insisted that Coltrane grow his hair for a few months before the shoot so they could do that scene, and the reality was that he was relieved in the hot Texas summer to get it cut off.

Making the film this way meant no opportunity to go back and re-shoot a scene or add in something extra. That was fine with Linklater.  “Work hard and if that’s the best you could do at that moment, you should be okay with it and make your peace with it.  I’ve never done a lot of reshoots.  I believe in making it work.  That’s the good thing about movies and art in general.”

Many thanks to Rebecca Cusey for sharing this interview with me and for her thoughtful questions.

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