“Boyhood” is a movie that tracks the story of a 6-year-old boy over the next 12 years of his life raised by his struggling mother and estranged father. “Boyhood” goes nationwide on July 11 from IFC Films.
Understand that this is not a documentary about a 6-year-old. It’s a fictional story, starring 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane as Mason, and for the 12-years, would make this movie. The movie also stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the boy’s parents.
Written and Directed by Richard Linklater, “Boyhood” is the most ambitious movie to be produced in a long time. While most films are made over a period of weeks or months, could a contemporary drama be made over a far greater stretch of time? Then to complicate matters, can such a movie follow the growth of a character, and actor, from a little boy to a young adult.
Linklater manages to take this challenge head on and succeed thanks to the long-term commitment of the filmmaker, crew, actors and IFC Film.
It all started when Linklater wanted to make a movie about the singularity private emotions and hard-to-describe experience of childhood, but childhood was such vast territory, he wasn’t quite sure what to start. Then an idea hit him. “Why not try to encompass all of it?” he recalls asking.
Linklater knew such an undertaking would be out of the question: it was creatively mind boggling; financially impossible; no cast, crew or film company would commit to a 12-year project. So he dove in.
The Challenges of Time
“It was like taking a great leap of faith into the future,” Linklater muses. “Most artistic endeavors strive to have a certain amount of control but there were elements of this that would be out of anyone’s control. There were going to be physical and emotional changes and that was embraced. I was ready for it to be a constant collaboration between the initial ideas I had for the piece and the reality of the changes happening to the actors along the way. In a way, the film became a collaboration with time itself, and time can be a pretty good collaborator, if not always a predictable one.”
Putting together a movie of this magnitude would require a well thought out strategy, especially if you’re trying to convince a financial backer to be your partner. Rather than a conventional screenplay, Linklater started with a structural blueprint and was able to win the long-term support of IFC Films.
The film making process had to be simple too. Every year, the cast and crew: would gather whenever their schedules could align for 3-4 day shoots. Linklater would write and edit with collaborator Sandra Adair along the way and only they would know exactly what was happening during the 144 month process.
Many blindly took the leap with Linklater. “It was especially insane for IFC Films to commit to this and I know that Jonathan Sehring [President of Sundance Selects/IFC Films] really fought for it,” he says. “He had to explain ever year what this expenditure was and why there wasn’t going to be anything to show for it for more years to come. I was lucky to find that otherwise this would not have been possible.”
Time has its gambles. What if the lead or any of the actors moves or passes away? Will financial support still be there? But time also has its benefits. “It was incredible to have this kind of gestation time,” Linklater comments. “It’s something that’s never happened to me before and I know it’s something that’s unlikely to happen again.
Finding the Boy
The task in finding the lead was crucial. “We were looking for someone to come along with us for 12 years – and that’s not something a kid can fathom at 6 or 7,” Linklater notes. “So it was kind of a crazy task, where I was looking at kids wondering, ‘Who are you going to be when you grow up and what’s your life going to be like?’”
He found his lead in Ellar Coltrane. “I had the feeling Ellar was going to be an artist of some kind even at that age, in part because his parents are both artists, but also there was just something unique about him,” Linklater remembers. “And I felt the world he was growing up in would lend itself to what we were doing.”
When production started at age 6, Coltrane’s memories have that blurry childhood haze with only flashes of direct memory. He recalls that at first he was strongly guided by Linklater and did a lot of memorization. As he grew over the year, the process gradually opened up and Ellar began to assert his own creative instincts more and more, which became more and more satisfying.
“Rick and I would usually start each new year by talking about where I was at and then incorporating some of that into the character,” he recalls. “Over time, my life and my character’s life began to meet in places and I became a bigger part of creating who Mason was. As a kid, of course, everything feels much more simple and now there’s so much more that I can see now about how dense and complicated this family’s relationships are. I think, in many ways, being part of the film gave me more perspective on relationships, especially my relationship with my own mom which, like Mason’s, is complicated.
Portraying Time On Screen
For Linklater, it was important that the film feel like one cohesive and fluid movie. Technical choices had to be made up front and could not be changed. For example, the movie gambles by shooting in 35 mm film, since even in 2002 film itself was becoming a fading format. “Towards the end of production, it became harder and harder to shoot on 35mm,” Linklater reflects. “But it helped give us that seamless flow.”
Although adding cultural clues to indicate transitions from year to year helps convey time, there was little need to clue the audience since it was written on his young actors’ faces. “Every time we started to shoot, you could see various indicators in Ellar and [co-star] Lorelei that things had changed,” Linklater comments.
“It became a bit like getting together every year at came,” he laughs. “We had this core group of people who united every year for 12 years and it really did become like a family in its own way. But it also kept growing, and we ultimately had 143 cast members and over 400 crew. It did seem to get a little tougher every year to pull it all together, but I think we all felt increasingly that we were in a creative groove together.”
Every year, Linklater and Adair would add the previous years footage to the story and at the end final editing was minimal. “It was all kind of working,” the director recalls. “It was longer than I had originally conceived; I had originally thought 10 minutes per year, adding up to 120 minutes, but I realized after the first year that wasn’t exactly how I was going to work. I decided to let the film be what it wanted to be without imposing that kind of restriction. Ultimately, it’s both kind of an epic and yet, at the same time, very simple and intimate.”
In the end, the movie has Mason heading off to college, standing on a mountain top with an infinite number of directors his character and event he actor can take in life. “I remember standing there and the sun was setting and there was just his incredible vibe,” Linklater recalls. “It was the final shot of a 12-year experience and there’s just no way to describe that feeling. It’s not something that can be repeated.”