Richard Linklater & Ellar Coltrane talk ‘Boyhood’

His 12 year experiment cataloguing a child's transition to adulthood is a mesmerising mirror on American pop culture

Boyhood
Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood Universal Pictures

Richard Linklater likes playing with time. In his Before Sunrise trilogy, we witnessed its effects on Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who over three films went from being bright young things who meet on a train, to a middle-aged couple grappling with the choices and compromises they've made for the sake of their relationship. Where years passed between each of those films, Linklater's latest experiment with time does something far more bold and ambitious.

Shot for one week a year over 12 years, Boyhood charts the everyday experiences of an ordinary child called Mason, through ages six to 18. As the lead, newcomer Ellar Coltrane literally grows up on camera, while Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, playing Mason's divorced parents, age before our eyes. Made with love and commitment, the film is Linklater's masterpiece: an intimate, insightful, witty and clear–eyed cinematic portrait of what growing up and finding one's place in the world really feels like.

Despite the long production period, Boyhood was made pretty much under the radar. Did you deliberately try to keep it low-key?

Richard Linklater: I would get asked about it. The first year, actually, there was a small Variety article that I begged them not to print. But someone's agent had told someone about it, so they wrote an article and the film got posted on the iMDb. Then, for the last 10 years when I've had a movie come out, some people would ask, 'What is this movie that comes out in 2015?' I tried not to talk about it much because there wasn't much to say.

How did you get involved, Ellar? 

Ellar Coltrane: He (Linklater) auditioned me among a lot of other kids. It's a very vague memory; it's a long time ago. I had no idea it was going on. I was excited, I was interested, but it was just something that was happening.

Presumably you didn't know what you were taking on at that point?

Ellar Coltrane: Not initially, no. It definitely started to dawn on me gradually. But there's really no way to comprehend how long 12 years is when you've only been alive for six.

Richard Linklater: It's actually kind of cruel to enlist a child – and my own daughter's in this – and hold them to something they wanted to do as a kid. There's a reason the legal system limits that contractually to, like, seven years, at least.

How did you convince Ellar's parents?

Richard Linklater: I didn't really have to. He'd already acted in a few things and they're both artists and they saw it as an artistic undertaking that would be an interesting thing, potentially, not a bad thing, in their kid's life. I say I cast Ellar but you kind of cast the parents. I thought they would be supportive and that was really important for the health of not only him but of the project, I felt. Because my biggest fear would be that they moved a long way away and said, 'We don't want to do that any more.' You know, they could do that.

Ellar Coltrane: Or they're like the dreaded, overbearing stage parents.

Richard Linklater: Yeah, it could go wrong in so many ways. So you just try to predict the future based on whatever intuition you're getting at that moment.

Was the script ready in 2002 or did it develop over the years?

Richard Linklater: Both. The structure was there and I kind of knew the last shot. But the details – scenes, dialogue, exact goings on – were worked out year to year. I work like that in general. A really strong narrative structure and then a lot of looseness within that structure. 

There's an almost Magnificent Ambersons feel in the sense that the story of Mason and his family is also a picture of early 21st century America. Was that your aim?

Richard Linklater: Yeah, I knew by its very nature that it would be that, but I wanted it to be from a kid's perspective. Not too heavy on the cultural details, just as a kid would perceive them, what you would remember. I think the film is really a memory film. Even in the contemporary moment that we were shooting, I was conscious that it would one day be a memory of the kids. Anybody, but the kids especially. So I was trying to capture what you might remember as a kid.

And you how do you do that?

Richard Linklater: There're these big moments that tell you are important but if you really think back on your own life, it's a lot of little things that you don't have any business remembering. Technically, why do you remember that little detail? You just do. It stays with you for reasons you can't quite explain. So I wanted the film to be filled up with that kind of stuff, not so much things like, 'The President is giving an address tonight about something important' or 'Politically today in the Hague…' No, it was all about how you perceive your life unfolding.

“The whole thing is a big leap of confidence or trust or optimism about the future, that it would play out the way you hope” – Richard Linklater

Is this finished or are you planning to continue it into adulthood?

Richard Linklater: We haven't really talked about that. This was so locked into that stamp, into the cage that you're put in as a kid. At least that's how I felt. You have to be in school through 12th grade, you kind of have to live with your parents unless something weird is going on in your life. To me it felt like that was the restriction of my maturity, and I think a lot of people feel that way. So I knew it would end with him going off. I don't know the future. I would like to work with Ellar again as an actor, but who knows?

The stepfathers in the film are very different but they both have problems with alcohol. Why?

Richard Linklater: I don't know. That's the way that worked out.

Ellar Coltrane: Hm, that's a good question. Why did it work out that way?

Richard Linklater: Again it's from the kid's perspective like, 'Why would my mum be with this guy whom I don't like much?' When it starts off there's a little honeymoon in both cases, so I think that's from the kid's perspective. But yeah, those are controversial choices, what you expose your kid to. The dad can hide whatever's going on, the mum can't. That's her life and she's got primary custody. There's a complex attraction in both cases. One is a professor of hers. So she probably looks up to him. And then one of the others is kind of a student, so she's on the other side of that. I thought that was kind of interesting.

Did you ever worry that you might not have a film at the end and was there ever a point where you might have shelved it?

Richard Linklater: No, that wasn't really an option. I edited every year so I knew what was happening. It felt like it was going as planned. Not specifically planned but it felt like the tone and the spirit of what I was trying to do. So yeah, it felt like it was on target all the way. But who knows what traumatic events might have prevented it from ending the way I wanted it to? It seems like, maybe, such a random thing. But so much time and energy had gone into thinking about it and manifesting it, so it was more determined than random.

Nonetheless, it seems like it was a big leap of faith.

Richard Linklater: Oh yeah, the whole thing is a big leap of confidence or trust or optimism about the future, that it would play out the way you hope. Because a lot of things don't play out the way you want them to. But at the same time we're making something consciously, so you have a chance. You can't really control your own life or other people, but when you've all agreed to do the same thing and an artistic thing, you do. That's what I like about the parallel world of film. It's like life but you do have more control.

Given how long you were working on Boyhood, can you see yourself changing as a filmmaker in the movie? 

Richard Linklater: Obviously it shows how I am at that time. I think every film you do, you set up the parameters of the visual style, the tone. So much is set just at the conceptual level and it's a director's job then to maintain that tone or to take the story where you want it to go. So to me it feels like one film and I never did anything different. I didn't want any visual metaphors like, 'Oh, the film starts off one way and then at the end it's all hand-held and it means something.' No, it was all going to look and feel the same. The only thing that was changing was they were maturing. That's what I wanted.

Ellar, Ethan Hawke plays your biological father and you hang out like buddies in the film. Did you learn anything from him?

Ellar Coltrane: So much. He has a lot of experience. In creating the film and especially right now, in this kind of aftermath, he's a very valuable person.

Richard Linklater: I can't think of a better mentor than Ethan because he was in a movie when he was, like, 13. He was a child actor and he's very conscious and thoughtful. So he's been great.

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Ellar Coltrane Courtesy of Universal Pictures UK

Is there a big difference between your life and Mason's, Ellar?

Ellar Coltrane: Yes and no. As far as day to day activity and kind of just the nature of my childhood, it was wildly different. I had a pretty unconventional childhood and Mason's was fairly standard for a middle-class American. But emotionally and at more deeper levels of personality, it's very similar, because it's me. A lot of it is just me. A lot of the dialogue is things that I was actually saying and thinking.

Richard Linklater: We had to dork him up. He was like the coolest eight-year-old you have ever seen. He had rips in his jeans. He would walk into one of these schools where we were filming and all the kids would kind of clutter around him. They all wanted to be his friend. His taste was so advanced for his age, too. He was already watching R–rated movies when he was very young and his music taste was off the chart. So putting him in the clothes we put him in, and kind of boxing him in, was early on. I knew that eventually he'd catch up with who he really is at some point. But those early years, he wasn't him.

Was your childhood unconventional because of the film or were there other things?

Ellar Coltrane: There's a lot of it I don't really want to go into that deeply. But certainly being involved in this film project was a large part of that. It was a very foreign part of my life. No matter how close I have been to anyone, really, no one really understands that part of my life.

Ellar said Mason's was a standard childhood. Was that your intention?

Richard Linklater: Yeah, maybe. Who knows? I mean if you get technical, there's no standard or average anything. You could argue that. But yeah, I thought there was a standard commonality about anyone growing up anywhere ever. I was kind of fascinated by how we're similar and how we're different. I think that's the plight of the individual: how to find your place in the world and maybe try to find out elements of yourself that are unique and worth pursuing, if at all.

Was it your boyhood?

Richard Linklater: Yeah, I think this is an active collaboration between contemporary boyhood: Ellar's boyhood, Ethan's boyhood, my boyhood, all of ours. It's a very personal film. Not point by point autobiographical or anything, but I think it's very personal to all of us.

You mentioned that it's a very observational film seen through Mason's eyes. How much of that detail was in the original skeletal screenplay and how much came from Ellar?

Richard Linklater: I always thought Samantha would be a strong character in it as [Mason's] sister, because your siblings are a big deal in your life when you're a kid. They're right there in your face, as are your parents. But I wanted to mirror his own evolution. As you get older you get your own room. You get your own life. Your own interests spread. So your siblings start getting a little farther away from you, as do your parents; they're less involved in the narrative of your life and you start to take control of it yourself. So I wanted it to feel like that.

“I think that's the plight of the individual: how to find your place in the world and maybe try to find out elements of yourself that are unique and worth pursuing, if at all” – Richard Linklater

Are you an observational kid by nature, Ellar?

Ellar Coltrane: I'd like to think so.

Richard Linklater: That's why I thought photography was kind of a nice art form for Mason to pick up. That's slightly observational.

Ellar Coltrane: And that was me at the time. I was very interested in photography.

Richard Linklater: And that's the six year old I met. The way he thought and talked about things. How he would ask questions. What was on his mind was more along that line than a super-active, aggressive. You know?

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Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater Courtesy of Universal Pictures UK

Where does your interest in the passage of time come from?

Richard Linklater: Everybody's interested in the passage of time because we're all living through the passage of time. It's the way everything unfolds. My cinematic storytelling instincts have always been pretty intricately entwined with the notion of time and cinema, and how the art form is based on time in a way no other art forms are, and the way you can manipulate it. So I think this was just one more pushing of a boundary, maybe, of storytelling vis-a-vis time, in a way that I thought would work because of the effects of time. The accumulation of time would work cinematically the way it does in our lives, like you feel more invested in something the more time you put in and the more you witness. Just in your own life you feel deeper about things. I was hoping the audience would be on that similar trip based on that.

You treat your women in a fair and equal way in your films, unlike a lot of other male directors. Is that conscious?

Richard Linklater: Stories are cultural and most stories are male related. I always thought of this as a mother and son movie where I knew the mum would always be there more than the dads. The dad sort of comes and goes but the mum is always there.

Ellar Coltrane: That is a really special relationship that a lot of men are really afraid to admit is as important as it is.

Richard Linklater: Yeah, my relationship with my mum is very different from my relationship with my dad.

“There's really no way to comprehend how long 12 years is when you've only been alive for six” – Ellar Coltrane

Ellar, has your phone been ringing a lot since Sundance?

Ellar Coltrane: Not as much as you might think. It's not usually that direct, but I'm ready.

Given how long you worked on this for, what was the last day of filming like? What did it feel like when you knew you were doing the final shot?

Richard Linklater: The last shot in the movie is the actual last shot.

Ellar Coltrane: In that moment, with the sun going down, that was the moment. Except it wasn't just me and that girl, it was the entire crew. It was incredible. It's indescribable. But it was beautiful.

Richard Linklater: I just know I will never have another moment like that at the end of a movie. The end of a shot at the end of every movie I can kind of remember, but this was that times 12. You can imagine the build up over time. The same way it works narratively, slowly building, the crew felt it. It just built and built and then we got to the end and it was indescribable, really.

Have you felt a sense of loss?

Ellar Coltrane: It's bittersweet, definitely. But this is what we've been working for.

Richard Linklater: Yeah, it's like life itself. You know it's coming, but here we are.

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Ellar Coltrane with Patricia Arquette Courtesy of Universal Pictures UK

Any plans to bring Jesse and Celine back in a follow-up to Before Midnight, Richard?

Richard Linklater: In the way that we're not thinking about this and we're just kind of recovering from the process, that's how I feel about those films. We've a five-year window of not even thinking about them. In a way those feel like they're over. A trilogy felt kind of perfect. I don't know what is in store, but it's certainly too early to think about it. 

People have been talking about Oscar attention for Boyhood. Do you care about awards?

Richard Linklater: Do I care? Everybody else does so I might as well, right? We put in our 12 years. If anyone wants to throw honours our way, we're not going to say no. But you realise the kind of arbitrary nature.

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