“I’ve been lucky. I’ve made a lot of what, on paper, looks like a wide range of different type of things but they were just all stories I was really interested in telling. It’s a storytelling medium and I’m lucky to tell a variety of stories. But I never put a limit on myself. We’re limited enough in the world as it is.”
Richard Linklater, made a splash with the micro-budget collaborative indie Slacker (1991) and followed it up with the evocative high school time capsule Dazed and Confused (1993) has never stopped trying new things. Even while he’s flirted with mainstream comedy in School of Rock (2003) and Bad News Bears (2005), he keeps returning to his indie roots, experimenting with DIY animation, documentary and oddball fiction / non-fiction hybrids like Fast Food Nation (2006). And he is one of the most collaborative filmmakers in American cinema. After exploring the brief connection between two young adults in Vienna in Before Sunrise, he reunited with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy to revisit the characters later in life, collaborating with his stars on the scripts for Before Sunset and Before Midnight to further explore characters and their lives and relationship evolved over the years. What began as a stand-alone film turned into a continuing meditation on the nature of individuals and relationships over time.
Before he embarked on Before Sunset, however, Linklater had already begun an even more unconventional project: Boyhood, a film that covers twelve years in the life of a boy (and to a less extent his older sister) growing up in Texas, from first grade to arrival at college. Linklater began filming in the summer of 2002 with Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, his own daughter Lorelei Linklater as the boy’s older sister, and newcomer Ellar Coltrane as Mason, and he reunited the cast and crew for a few days every year for the next twelve years to watch the characters grow with the actors. It opened up a whole new kind of collaboration as it drew from the lives and personalities of Coltrane and Linklater to define the growth of their respective characters and from the world around them to inform the personal stories.
Boyhood was the Centerpiece presentation at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival and Linklater traveled to Seattle to personally present the film. The morning of the screening, I sat down with the personable, easy-going director to discuss the film, the challenge of the project, and the nature of collaborating over such an extended period.
Keyframe: You made the Before film over an eighteen-year period, turning individual films into a continuum. Now you’ve made a single film over the course of twelve years. How does this kind of production schedule change the way you develop the story, and how does the passing of time affect the evolution of the story?
Richard Linklater: It’s funny because committing to this for twelve years, back in the early century, I think it helped. It certainly emboldened Ethan and I to jump into Before Sunset and Before Midnight in a way. You’re in it for this life project thing so it gave us a little more courage. Because that was scary, going into Before Sunset, going back into those characters. But they are very different. Those weren’t planned, it wasn’t a planned eighteen-year thing where Boyhood is a very planned twelve-year project. And they’re both longitudinal explorations I guess, if you think about it, but just flip sides of one another. You’ve got these nine-year gaps where they look so different and here you’re kind of seamlessly trying to age the way time suddenly… It’s capturing a whole different them.
Keyframe: Did you have beats along the way that you intended to hit—narrative ideas that you wanted to explore through the twelve years—when you started or did those come along the way inspired by events around you and the cast?
Linklater: Certainly. It was all planned out, the structure, the family movements and all that. But I knew I had the luxury of every year having a year to think about what’s next. Films don’t usually give you that. You have a production schedule, post-production, script, you’ve got to make it all work. Where here it made it feel like some life sculpture or something. You could just sit with it. I could watch what we just shot, edit it with everything before it, this every-growing thing, watch it, re-edit it, think about the film needed, what those relationships should be, and each year thinking whatever age the boy was. Like seventh grade, what was going on? What seems appropriate? And then I’m dealing with real people. Like ‘What’s going on in your life, Ellar?’ I never wanted to get too far ahead of him, I never would say, ‘Okay, this is the year you get…’ I would like, ‘So what’s going on? What do you do on weekends?’ He’s like my nephew at this point so we could be pretty frank. And it’s like, ‘Well, you know…’ I’d tell him, ‘I went out in this camp out when I was in sixth or seventh grade and there were these older guys talking shit about girls.’ I was asking him about weekends, like, ‘If you’re out with the guys would there be beer? Is anyone drinking?’ And he goes, ‘Well, we kind of prefer marijuana.’ I’m like, ‘Ohhhh, OK, so maybe you’re smoking a joint.’
Developmentally I didn’t want to get ahead of him, I didn’t want to impose anything on him that didn’t seem like already a part of his life. And same with his emergence as a visual artist, a photographer. Ellar’s dad is a very good musician, he lives in Austin, and I kind of thought, when I made the choice, this kind of ethereal, interesting kid with arty parents, musician dad, growing up around music, I kind of figured he’d be a musician and by his teenage years he’d be in a band. But he didn’t go that way. He was taking pictures and painting, a visual artist. I like that too, that’s closer to me, I was the guy taking pictures and writing and things. His life went in that direction so the film went that way with him. That’s a good example.
So on one hand the structure of the family is planned but then it’s random. This whole thing was a collaboration with the future or with time and an uncertainty, but everything has a life analogy. We’re all working toward something or you’re imagining a future and ourselves in it, that’s all you can do, right? But does the reality always conform to that? To some degree, if you’re lucky, and to some degree not. It was just like that with the film. I don’t know what the future’s going to be but I think there’s going to be a future. I think, if we’re lucky, we’ll all get here. I didn’t know exactly what it would be but you work toward it.
Keyframe: Do you see the possibility of revisiting Mason with a follow-up or a continuation of Boyhood?
Linklater: The idea for Boyhood was so hinged on those years, first through twelfth grade, “the grid,” I call it, the institutional sentence we get as a young person. We’re supposed to be in school through twelfth grade; you’re supposed to live in your parents’ house, if you’re lucky enough to have a parents’ house to live in. It just felt like a certain kind of imprisonment, I just couldn’t wait to be free from that at a certain point, so I imagined this maturation process encompassing those years and I hadn’t expressed it in film. Little bits and pieces but so much of the other stuff I hadn’t been able to express at different stages of life. It would be totally different and it would be fun to work with these people again, but there has been no serious thought about that or what it would be. And as for the Before things, we’re in that huge hiatus. Honestly, after Sunset, I did have some ideas, I thought what it couldn’t be and it almost demanded another one and the way that one is, ‘Well it would have to be more domestic, they’re in their forties,’ and I had thoughts about it. I don’t really have any thoughts about another. The last one was difficult to make. Fun, but they get harder. If it’s a trilogy, that’s pretty good. It’s weird that these two have come to the finish lines within a year of each other. That’s just how it worked. But again, the idea for Boyhood came before those two sequels so it must have triggered something.
Keyframe: When you committed to Ellar Coltrane, you didn’t just gamble on him staying through the project through twelve years, but that he would grow as an actor through the film, that as a teenage he’d be interested enough to continue as an actor and be good enough to remain interesting. That is almost as much of a gamble as simply banking on him showing up again every year. And it paid off.
Linklater: Yeah, just hoping he’ll be a subject worth following. Yeah, it’s a huge leap. I got very lucky with that guy, he was an interesting kid and he’s a pretty fascinating nineteen-year-old guy. A very unique cat. I’m one of those who think I can work with people and get performances out of them even if they’re not actor actors. So I had some kind of confidence that I would be able to pull off wherever he went, the film would go, if we still did. You know, you just hope it will be a worthwhile thing because contractually no one’s obligated. He could have said, ‘You know, I’m not enjoying this, I’m not going to come back this year.’
Keyframe: Except your daughter.
Linklater: Yeah, she was in fact stuck in the film. (Laughs.) I didn’t know this but you can’t put anyone under contract for more than seven years. Did you know that? That’s why all those TV actors have seven years and then they can get off the show. Patricia [Arquette] did that. Year one, she got on Medium for seven years, so we were always working with her schedule. But it makes sense. And I don’t think you can contract a six-year-old for anything. And you shouldn’t be able to. So it was all based on a leap of faith and goodwill. But think about it. Film sets are pretty fun for kids. They get free food, adults doting on them, it’s fun.
Keyframe: And college money.
Linklater: It took my daughter a little while longer to realize it than Ellar. Ellar was like, ‘Hey I’m going to get a new laptop.’ Or ‘They got these knew iPhones now.’ I remember the moment he got an iPhone. My daughter realized you could work at the sandwich shop all summer or you could work one week on this film and they pay about the same. SAG minimum is still some significant income. It’s like $1400 or something. That’s some significant money for a kid.
Keyframe: Toward the end of the film, on his fifteenth or sixteenth birthday, he celebrates with his dad and his Texas grandparents. The grandmother gives him a Bible and his grandfather gives him a shotgun.
Linklater: Fifteen. For me that was thirteen. My redneck Bar Mitzvah.
Keyframe: And yet there is nothing satirical about it, you don’t make fun of it, it’s very sincere and he’s touched because he understands what it means to them. I don’t know what it means to him but I do know that he recognizes that it means something to them.
Linklater: That’s pretty autobiographical, in a way. I have these step-grandparents that were suddenly in my life and they just accepted us unquestioningly and were so giving. It was a little different cultural, the deeper you get into East Texas, but they were the sweetest people. It was just a different culture. I think the world has a view of these backwoods-y, crazy. . . .I mean, not that there’s not dark sides in some of these territories, the whole country’s a little scary in certain pockets, but that was just my experience of it. Pretty soon you’re shooting. But as a kid it’s what’s coming at you. On the one hand it’s funny and real, but on the other it is done in a very sincere way. You see what you want to see in it. But I’m glad you appreciated it.
Keyframe: Were there any challenges that you didn’t anticipate that showed up in making this film?
Linklater: There are so many pitfalls but we got lucky, you know, we worked real hard. Challenges… I think it was every year felt like making a bigger film. You had to cast and location scout and tech scout and getting a crew together felt like such a big deal for a three-day shoot. Everybody was like, ‘Here we go again!’ The numbers are so out of whack. We had a year for a low budget indie film epic, which don’t really exist, we had like a year of pre-production and two years of post-production if you add up all the time in the editing room. You would never do that, who could afford it? All the numbers don’t really work so it was like, ‘This is a grind!’ It was a lot of effort. It wasn’t like take a year off and then just work three days a year. You had to work several months a year. But it was always around our schedules. I knew that would be a problem, I knew scheduling and such would be a thing. I’d say all the things that were unknown that I know now were all kind of great. Just the feeling that everything’s different, everything about this is so different from all my other experiences. It’s just not often in your world that you have a completely different experience that you know you probably won’t have again, or the circumstances are so rare that it would never feel like that again. It was kind of wonderful, the odd nature of this, that it didn’t even feel like a film. It’s like something else.
Keyframe: Tell me about ‘The Black Album.’ Did you make that yourself and where can we get the playlist?
Linklater: Yes! It exists. I want iTunes to do it, so you can download ‘The Black Album.’
Keyframe: Is there a listing somewhere on the web?
Linklater: I think there will be. We’re trying to talk them into it. I’d like to make that available.