Director Richard Linklater is known for defying Tinseltown tropes with films that are more about place and pace and character than roller-coaster plotlines—Slacker, the 1991 flick that put him on the map and helped define Gen X, had no plot at all. And who can forget Dazed and Confused, his hilarious day in the life of a bunch of 1970s Texas high school kids? But in terms of convention-busting, the 53-year-old director has outdone himself with Boyhood, his latest film.
A Hollywood first, it was shot over a dozen years (no gray hairspray or latex wrinkles required) and follows a family’s milestones and travails as its boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), matures from a six-year-old into a college freshman. Patricia Arquette stars as the divorced mom, Ethan Hawke as her reluctant-to-grow-up ex-husband, and Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, as Mason’s older sister. The film, which opens July 11, has generated major buzz on the festival circuit, and has already been tossed about by many as an Oscar contender. (Update, 1/17/2015: Boyhood is now officially an Oscar front-runner, with six nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, and Best Original Screenplay.) The story behind the making of the film is almost as good as the fictional tale, which takes us from small-town Texas to Houston, and finally to Austin, mirroring the director’s own youthful path.
Mother Jones: What possessed you to do this?
Richard Linklater: I was 40ish. I’d been a parent for eight years or so. Childhood was all around me. I wanted to express something about being a kid, about that process of maturing. But I couldn’t land on any moment that seemed worthy of a feature film. And just as I was about to give up—seriously, just as my hands hit the keyboard to start writing something not a film—this idea hit me. My problem, narratively, was how to tell a story that covers a lot of time. Because in film, you can’t just age a 7-year-old to be 17. And I was like, why the hell not just film a little bit every year? Which is, on one hand, a very simple idea.
MJ: And on the other very risky.
RL: Yeah, I mean, it’s such a crazy, wildly impractical idea. The logistics were tough enough that we didn’t even talk about doomsday scenarios. We’re all just a phone call away from our lives changing pretty enormously, so you kind of play the odds. I remember saying to Patricia, “Where are you going to be 12 years from now, just theoretically?” It wasn’t hard to convince an adult to jump in. A kid, they’re not even aware what they’re getting into. But once everyone took the leap—all the artists did, and Ellar’s family was all in—it was just logistical and financial. I mean, who’s gonna help us make this? That’s when you bump up against the complete impracticality of it.
MJ: Right, because they ask, “What if one of your leads gets in an accident?”
RL: Yeah, well, how about this: Legally, you can only contract someone for seven years, so it wasn’t even legal! It was a leap of good faith on everyone’s part.
MJ: What do you look for in a six-year-old you know you’re gonna be stuck with for 12 years?
RL: [Laughs.] Yeah! Boy, wasn’t that a big decision! I just met a lot of kids. There was something kind of cool about Ellar. His parents are artists, and I remember talking to people I was working with: “He’s just kind of a thoughtful kid. I don’t think he’s going to be the straight-laced athlete anything like that. I just kind of like the way his mind works, this six-year-old. He’s fun to talk to.” I mean, I knew the film would meld somewhat with who he was becoming. If he would have been this huge guy, a football player or wrestler, it would have maybe been…
MJ: Friday Night Lights!
RL: Or some view of that that’s not typical, I would hope.
MJ: So how did Ellar change, and how did you adjust for it?
RL: He didn’t really change, or Lorelei, the daughter—my daughter. They just grow up. And the film was loose enough to work around their own development, even though the architecture was pretty set.
MJ: And, of course, you had to write in current events. Like Ethan Hawke’s character canvassing for Obama.
RL: That was part of the design, too. I would be playing off the culture of that moment. As a kid, I remember those presidential elections. It was always kind of from the kid’s standpoint. Like, I grew up under Vietnam. If you’re a kid now, the Iraq/Afghanistan/Middle East is gonna be the white noise of your childhood. So I wanted some of that in there—the soldiers coming back.
MJ: How close was the film to what you’d originally envisioned?
RL: Tonally, it was exactly what I’d envisioned. The film was a very planned-out effort, and then it also had the looseness to incorporate so much. But that’s how I work in general.
MJ: Late in the film, Mason’s mom has this depressing rant where she laments that she thought there would be more to life. That’s probably not the best thing to say to a kid going off to college.
RL: Well, you know, moms! They make it about themselves. They’ve sacrificed their whole life. One actual line: My producer Kathleen took her daughter off to school, and she told me, from the airport—she was crying the whole way—that she had called her daughter and said, “Just so you know, this is the worst day of my life.” And I said, “You really told your daughter that?” She goes, “Absolutely.” My god, I felt that in a way, too, but I was happy for my daughter! I knew this was good for her. I just thought that was kind of hilarious, so I worked it in.
MJ: When you cast your daughter, was that partly just to limit the number of unknowns you were facing?
RL: Yeah, selfishly, it really was. I mean, she had been in a couple of movies, grown up around movie sets, knew a bunch of actors. It was something she absolutely wanted to do. As time went on, that changed a little bit, but it was big in my mind. One of my fears was like, What if Ellar’s family moves? It was logistically impossible to begin with, so I didn’t want to throw in another wildcard. At least with Lorelei, I would know her whereabouts. [Laughs.]
MJ: Does directing your own daughter pose any special challenges?
RL: At some point she certainly wasn’t an aspiring actress; she was a painter. She did come to me and say, “Can my character, like, die?”—like the disgruntled actor they kill off in the TV series! I told her, “I understand, but it would be too dramatic. It’s not that kind of movie.”
MJ: Yeah, I was struck how Boyhood steers clear of death and illness and accidents. And yet Hollywood trains us to ask, “When is something big going to happen?” In a film about small moments, how do you decide how much drama to include?
RL: You can feel, with audiences now, that they just know something bad’s going to happen. There’s a campout—you just see danger. You say, “Okay, this is what’s gonna happen.” But in life, it really doesn’t that much. Our parlor game in between setups, especially toward the last three years, [Ellar and I would] say, “Okay, we do this whole movie, and then you’re just walking down the street, and some guy just randomly comes up and stabs you in the neck, and you bleed out on the sidewalk—like a five-minute shot.” [Laughs.] We’d come up with ridiculous, crazy endings.
MJ: Is there a trick to getting little kids into character, or are they just playing themselves at first?
RL: I wasn’t asking them to be that far outside of themselves, but the characters aren’t them. I think it frustrated both kids a little bit: They had to be a little more dorky and innocent than they actually were to be age appropriate. Ellar’s taste was beyond most kids his age. He was allowed to watch R-rated moves at a young age. His music taste was way out there. I knew, in the teen years, the movie would start to reflect his actual taste. Lorelei kind of hated it. Like, “‘Ugh, I’m wearing dorky clothes I would never wear.'” That kind of thing.
MJ: Do you think the essentials of boyhood have changed since you were a boy?
RL: The culture shifts. Technology changes, but like a lot of things—I’m not giving a yes or no answer—it’s different, obviously. I hesitate to say better or worse. Parents are much more attentive. The rules of parenting have changed. By the modern definition, we were a generation of neglected children.
MJ: And it was great!
RL: Yeah, I wasn’t complaining. You’d get let out of the house, you’d come in for lunch, and then we’d see you for dinner. You want to give your kids a long leash somehow. Not in the air right now—everyone’s more paranoid, I think, scared.
MJ: Which of your own experiences—as a kid and a parent—are reflected in the film.
RL: So much! It is a reflection, to a large degree, not only of my own boyhood and parenting, but also Ethan’s and Patricia’s and everyone involved. It was like this ongoing collaboration with our own parents and the parents we are or are trying to be, and always bumbling through.
MJ: What was your situation growing up?
RL: I had two older sisters, was a pretty outdoorsy kid. Athletic. Unlike Mason, I was much more of a sports guy. Anything with a ball. Football, baseball, basketball. I played football in high school, baseball in college. I was kind of a jock. That’s not represented in the movie at all.
MJ: Yeah, Mason is this artsy emo kid.
RL: He was kind of the other side of me. I took pictures, too. I was kind of an artist in forming. As a teenager, I wanted to write novels. By college, it was theater, plays, and then, shortly, it was film.
MJ: And your parents?
RL: They were married about 11 years. They divorced when I was about seven, I guess. Ellar himself went through it. His parents did not stay married the whole 12 years.
MJ: Alcohol is a notable theme in the film. The adults drink a lot, and there are these drunk, intimidating stepdads. Is that something you encountered?
RL: A little bit. I think back, and there was always some adult in my face, and some of them volatile. I grew up in a small town in East Texas and some of the behaviors were even more crazy—adults who fought—and I realized looking back that a lot of this was alcohol-fueled. In the movie, there’s just always someone in your face telling you what you’re doing wrong or how you’re not fitting in, whether it’s school or home, or someone else in your life.
MJ: There are also small moments of jealousy, where one sibling feels they’re being treated differently.
RL: My sisters would swear that I was the spoiled kid who got everything he wanted, and I would go “No way! I worked my ass off and you guys got everything.” We’re all kind of in our own narratives.
MJ: At one point, Mason rants about how technology is destroying our social interactions. Was he channeling Linklater there?
RL: I actually do think a lot about that. What is the effect? Am I happier? Are we changing? How are we different? When you hear about a group of kids who don’t even want to all go together on a Friday night because they’re all at home on Facebook with each other, you go, “Well, they’re safe at home, but is that a good thing?”
MJ: Thank you, Steve Jobs!
RL: Exactly. I always have a mixed message with those guys. There’s this kind of arch-libertarian, not-necessarily-sharing-the-wealth kind of vibe to that whole industry that’s kind of troublesome. Manufacture in China, hoard all the cash—I don’t really know if you’re a good citizen.
MJ: Texas tends to be a pretty conservative place. Were your parents conservative?
RL: No, my dad’s from the Chicago area, my mom’s from Northern California, so I’m kind of a first-generation Texan. They’re not typical Texans in any way.
MJ: I gather you dropped out of college to work on an oil rig?
RL: Well, I dropped out first. I was on a baseball scholarship, and had a heart rhythm problem. I couldn’t really run anymore. It would’ve been my junior/senior years of college that were spent working in the Gulf of Mexico. I’d always had the shitty jobs, low-paying restaurant crappy, so I lucked into it. It was grunt labor, kind of dangerous, but I was being paid well for the first time in my life. I was very systematic about saving up my money so I could buy my freedom. Once I moved to Austin, I just watched movies, read, edited, shot movies—I was teaching myself. I stretched that money pretty far. That’s why I feel bad. It’s such an insidious world now that you get out of college owing so much money. I was lucky and had a scholarship, and since we didn’t have any money I was also a Pell Grant recipient, so I got out of college not owing a thing. Had I got out owing $50,000, I would not have ever sat down to do what I was able to do.
MJ: Bringing the Boyhood crew together every year must have felt like a family reunion. Do you feel a sense of loss now that it’s over?
RL: I’m still processing it. It’s weird. On one hand, it feels right, but this film’s always been kind of in a unique spot in the lives of everyone who worked on it. As much as we controlled it, everything on this movie has been an unpredictable ride. Everything’s different. Everything’s times 12.