BOYHOOD Interview: Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane on 12 Years of Filmmaking
The morning after Boyhood had its Austin premiere at SXSW, I found myself with about 10 other journalists, all eagerly awaiting the arrival of writer/director Richard Linklater and star/former-boy Ellar Coltrane for a roundtable discussion of their respective life's work. SXSW marked the second festival appearance of Boyhood, but given that the film was shot in Texas, the premiere in Austin, a city where an especially memorable portion of the film takes place, it came with a sense of homecoming and geography, considering Linklater spent much of his own boyhood in Houston before relocating to Austin in his early 20s to find independence and develop his voice.
Though the film contains many nods and in-jokes regarding growing up Texan (many of which only became apparent to me by the laughter of locals amongst the crowd), these custom details are secondary to the film's weight, as the setting and specifics of our own lives are merely a backdrop for the shape shifting experience one typically encounters during 'the best days of our lives'. The places and main characters of everyone's lives vary, but if ever there was such a thing as collective consciousness, Boyhood taps into the shared experience of growing up North American, in unassumingly potent strokes.
One of the results of Linklater's technique is a soundtrack that weighs equally the Britney Spears Mason, the film's growing protagonist, endures from his big sister and the Wilco forced upon him by his father. In one of the most unique soundtracks I can think of, the film's musical tastes evolve with Mason; the mature sounds of Yo La Tengo become more appropriate as the backdrop for the ideas circulating in Mason's developing consciousness, while coming of an age during which time he becomes able to relate to the bittersweet wisdom of hard-lived artists like Jeff Tweedy. Had Mason been exposed to Linklater's Waking Life at age 16, he might be very interested in sequences like 'the holy moment'.
For all the wisdom contained within Boyhood's 160 minute running time, to many, the film's ambitious structure will alone be enough to sell tickets. Thus it was no surprise that when Rick and Ellar finally arrived to answer to the more-curious-than usual-press, many of the initial questions were directed at the glaringly fascinating narrative bravado of spending 12 years making the same film.
Richard Linklater: I'd been thinking of a film about childhood... and I was having trouble because I would kind of pick a period of my own childhood that I thought was worth exploring but then there were all these other parts - well that was 3 years later, that was 4 years later - and there was a certain frustration, I was sort of stalled out on that - it wasn't happening. And then it hit me - Oh! Why not film a little bit every year. So that was the big idea. It was such an impractical idea too, but it solved my problem. It feels almost like science. A lot of your thinking goes into solving problems and discovery. So, I thought enough about it and then out came this fairly simple idea, which was right in front of my face, that hadn't been done for a lot of logical, practical reasons.
Not unlike Dazed and Confused, which is fun to think of as an elongated segment of a different man's yesteryear, Boyhood plays like an album of life fragments. This isn't the stuff glory reels are made of; more like a possibly accurate imagining of one's life flashing before one's eyes. It's likely surprising which memories come to mind when all is said and done. For better or worse, your life unfolds in one way at one arbitrary point in history. It's enough to make a high-school senior say "If I ever start referring to these as the best days of my life remind me to shoot myself." But whereas Dazed and Confused exists in the spirit of the American Graffiti nostalgia film, Boyhood is a feat unto itself, in which the present becomes nostalgia before your eyes. The film is not about re-creating the past as much as it's about letting the present unfold. And like Dazed and Graffiti, two films that utilize emblematic soundtracks to evoke their time and place, Boyhood is a decade+ mix tape of the sights and sounds always lurking in the background of life without making too fine a point on any given news item or trend.
Richard Linklater: It was always gonna reflect the culture as to presidential elections, wars... but kind of from the kid's perspective. I remember in my childhood, just scenes of it. What you see on TV, music, you might hear on the radio, TV shows and little bits you might remember. Presidential elections come and go - little signposts - but I didn't wanna say any of it's too big a deal - it's really from (Mason's) perspective.
At the roundtable the focus continued to lie on the 12-year production angle, and what kind of benefits the leisurely schedule afforded Linklater's craft.
Richard Linklater: I played that card because it was like a sculpture or something you have a lot of time to polish and think and remove or put back. That was the one asset we did have. We didn't have much else on a technical, particle level. It was pretty methodical really. I make all these films that seem like they're kind of thrown together (laughter) but really there's a lot of planning that goes on.
The architecture was pretty set. Patricia talks about me telling her her whole character, and what's gonna happen and all that. I knew the last shot of the movie I think at year two or something. I knew the last shot but that's it... I got to spend every year thinking about what it would be... within that structure.
It's rare you get that schedule, that chance to keep working on your sculpture - but it was the way the film grew too. I would watch it and think about what's required of the next episode or what comes next. It was all sort of planned out, but I kind of had to feel my way through it too. Everything in this movie has been times 12, so usually when you call martini, which is the last shot of the movie, even if it's a short shoot there's kind of like pressure, but you can imagine after 12 years and saying this is the last shot, you could just feel it in the crew and cast.
In terms of releasing an epic of this scope, both at the SXSW Boyhood screening Q&A and the press roundtable, Linklater was asked if he'd ever considered splitting the film into chunks or presenting the piece episodically to make the 160 minute film running time more digestible to a culture of waning attention spans.
Richard Linklater: I had done two films - Tape and Waking Life - and when I had this idea, I guess around 2000-2001, I was talking to some people and everyone kind of liked the idea, I would explain how the movie's gonna be and everyone was like "cool!... But you're asking me to put up money and I won't get any of it back for like 13 years??" And I'm like, "yeah!" and they're like, "I... just can't do that." No one could wrap their heads around it. But Jonathan Sehring at IFC - I'd done these 2 films with him and I think, at that point, their production company was stationed so that he was able to work it into their system as a long term production. But there was some like "Well maybe we can show 15 minutes, you know, in parts and I was like "yeah, yeah, yeah..." but really I was like "No, absolutely not. This is one". Someone suggested that recently. "Oh, well why don't you split it into three-" and I was like, "No, it's one."
One of the central curiosities of the press involved star Ellar Coltrane, and how one goes about casting such a critically make or break role.
Richard Linklater: Yeah, that was the big leap. And I'll say this about Ellar. I was casting a guy I met when he was 6 - he was turning 7 about the time we started shooting - but it was really casting the parents. He had cool parents - both artists. They had strong Austin and Texas ties - I didn't want them moving to Seattle year 2 or 3.. I needed some amount of access year round. I felt it was an ongoing collaboration.. an ongoing project where that was important. And for the family to get behind this as an artistic undertaking. So it could be a positive thing in their son's life. And they got it. I think they felt that.
Ellar Coltrane: I never felt like I was committed or sentenced or anything like that. I was excited. And the momentum built.
Richard Linklater: When you're a kid, you don't commit to anything. Your parents are kicking you around saying - "Oh, you're going to this camp, you've got to go to school.. Oh, we're going here on vacation.." No one asks you anything.. And so Ellar was pursuing acting. He had been in a film at that time. He'd been in a couple of other things... so he had a head shot resume and he was into that world to whatever extent a 6 year old can be... and it was like "Oh good, you have this thing that you want to do and that could've changed." He could've realized that he didn't want to be an actor and that he hated movie sets. But that didn't happen. It was kind of a fun thing. We were the fun summer camp. Or film camp or whatever we were.
Ellar is asked if he was ever compelled to watch dailies throughout the years.
Ellar Coltarne: I think there was a time when I kind of wanted to... But seeing it now, I definitely understand why I wasn't shown anything because it's really quite a head trip to watch. Even now, at 19, it's a lot to deal with. I don't know what it would've felt like at 10 or 14 or anytime throughout. It would've messed with my head.
Months before sending Boyhood out to the film festival circuit, Linklater gave both Ellar as well as his daughter Lorelei, who also grows up in the film acting as Mason's sister, copies of the final cut for them to each watch privately. He explained how they were going to have to develop their relationship with the film over time. There would certainly be a level of comfort required before putting themselves in a position of answering for it, like the position in which Ellar found himself that morning in March. Given that SXSW was only the second festival Boyhood screened, it's safe to say Ellar was still processing his feelings about the film and his pivotal, almost inherited role in it. Many in the room were eager to hear what it's like watching yourself age 12 years within the running time of a longish feature film.
Ellar Coltrane: Yeah, it's definitely strange. There's certain parts that I remember very clearly and can remember the year and the time leading up to shooting it and what was going on then and it's equally strange to have times I don't remember at all .. I remember shooting that but I don't remember that year even. Also remembering times in-between the shoots that were missed - especially in high school when I was cycling phases very rapidly - some of which I'm pretty grateful for.
But as weird as it undoubtedly is to watch your body grow up on the big screen, which is an experience Patricia Arquette pointed out to another journalist, that happens to every actor, Boyhood is far more unique than its concept. I've seen the film twice now and with no personal investment in the production, I easily consider Boyhood to be one of the most moving cinematic experiences of my life. Curious as to whether an objective screening was possible for Ellar, I asked if he is getting to a place where he's able to divorce himself from the character Mason and project his actual experiences onto the film like the average film goer.
Ellar Coltarne: At a basic point it feels like me and feels like my life and so much of it parallels things that have happened in my life. So I really try take myself out of it as much as I can when I watch it, and I feel like I get a much more valuable experience, you know, not trying to put my personality into it any more than is already there. But it's there whether I want to see it or not.
Richard Linklater: It's such a unique position for Ellar and Lorelei too, to be put in, to see yourself. It's one thing to look through a family album but something about 35mm film feels so real. It's photographed nicely. It's lit. It's not like a home video. It's like . . . it feels more official, or more real or something in some strange ways.
Beyond its' structural innovation, the film plays like the tone-perfect masterpiece Linklater has been driving towards his entire career - if not literally, as the case happens to be. In films like Slacker and Waking Life we're given principal characters who take a back seat to their perceptions, employing a technique in which the protagonist is observing himself. The audience is simply along for the ride of the company whom the 'main characters' choose to keep. And good, curious company is certainly a driving force behind Linklater's entire filmography, if not personal life. With Jesse and Celine, we see characters very clearly developed by their perceptions. In Before Sunrise, the preoccupations of characters living it up in a finite amount of time, present love as a sharing of perspectives - a passionate rapping about the life conclusions of the young, spontaneous, and piss & vinegar-filled. The following two entries into the trilogy show a fascination with time, and how the question of what becomes of our ideals when removed from romantic circumstances, in the end is the stuff life is made of . . . the fortitude involved in becoming less curious with age.
Even as far back as Linklater's first feature effort - It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (if ever there was a mantra for firsthand experience) the protagonist is an embodiment of aimless curiosity and feeling one's way through life. One of that film's most resonate images involves Linklater himself staring out of a train window. It's unclear what he's thinking about - perhaps he's fantasizing about what would happen if a beautiful French girl boarded that train and just as quickly left with him just because. Because life is the scenarios you create for yourself.
And now 25 years after Linklater played his own silent protagonist in Learn To Plow, we are given the ultimate character piece with Mason. Though Mason plays like a prologue to many of the characters that would inhabit much of Rick's earlier work, a few years after Boyhood ends, Mason will graduate university. Like many 20-somethings, he will be as confused by life as ever, if not more, considering the stigma that more answers are supposedly discovered upon one's coming of age. Likely, Mason will undergo more than a few journeys, perhaps not so unlike Jesse's or maybe even similar to Linklater's own. I have a hunch he'll be the type who often dreams on trains, seeking out a life on his own terms. If this feels like a reach, it's important to remember that this was the same 6 year old who, in the film's first frame, would rather stare into the clouds wondering, than watching television.
With all this prologue in mind, it's fun to imagine a 10th grade Linklater, Vonnegut in hand (as we see Mason), walking the halls with a head full of new and stimulating ideas at that age when one's mind is most susceptible to being blown. Hoping for more images along these lines, I asked Linklater what type of early events made an impression on the filmmaker he would become.
Richard Linklater: My own life was different than Mason's in one regard. I was on sports teams and stuff... but I was also you know at the writer's fair, I wrote on the newspaper and I was a photographer - I was doing all that too. (In Boyhood) I just kind of suppressed one side of myself and emphasized another, as far as my own memories.
I was always a writer, I remember I was the kid in 5th grade who... everyone has to write a short story, and my short story would get read in front of the principal. We all had to write a play and mine, in the 7th grade, got performed for the entire faculty. But, I don't know, I was always a writer, I guess, and a bit of a director too. I ended up directing our 6th grade production. I didn't want to act. We all had to go up for a part and I'm like, "Y'know, I think I should be in charge of everything." And the teacher was like "Well, okay."
And as for Ellar's personal coming of age, in a time when most kids were out discovering the type of artists they'd identify with, he was already participating in my own hero's magnum opus. I wondered what it was like coming to recognize the gravity of the Boyhood project at an age when he could finally appreciate it.
Ellar Coltarne: It was very much at the same that I started becoming interested in painting and visual art and being, kind of into art in general. It's a very deep artistic process... I mean making film at all, but especially Rick's method.
Did you have a first favorite Richard Linklater film?
Ellar Coltarne: Probably Waking Life. Apparently, in my audition - I told him that Waking Life was my favorite movie.
Richard Linklater: There's no way a 6 year old had seen Waking Life.
Ellar Colatrne: No I definitely had. My parents made a point of showing me a bunch of your movies, so that I would have some like-
Richard Linklater: That's irresponsible.
Around the Internet: