Fittingly enough for a film about a long, unhurried process of discovery, it wasn’t until near the wrap of production that Richard Linklater decided he would call his 16th feature “Boyhood.” That was in the summer of 2013, more than a decade after he and his cast and crew had shot the first frames of their movie about an East Texas kid named Mason Evans Jr. and his journey through childhood and adolescence. Seeking a title that would suggest not only the picture’s narrative scope but also its lengthy shooting history, Linklater settled on “12 Years” — a seemingly perfect choice, at least until the writer-director discovered there was a similarly named, soon-to-be Oscar-winning prestige picture on the horizon.
“I was like, not ‘10 Years a Slave?’ Not ‘15 Years a Slave?’ Are you kidding me?!” Linklater says with a laugh. “I was like, OK, the world is telling us to stay out of numerical titles.”
Another early possibility was “Childhood, Boyhood and Youth,” a nod to Tolstoy’s autobiographical 1852-56 trilogy of novels. But it was an abbreviated version, “Boyhood,” that wound up on the call sheet and eventually the finished film, even if it still strikes Linklater as somewhat misleading — and not just because his young star, Ellar Coltrane, whom we first encounter at the age of 6, is no longer a boy but a handsome lad of 18 by film’s end.
For although “Boyhood” is in some ways the ultimate coming-of-age story, told from a gradually evolving, deeply immersive child’s-eye perspective that inevitably transports us back to our own lost youth, it is no less the story of Mason’s family — a microcosm of an archetypal splintered American brood. The pivotal roles of Mason’s parents, who are already divorced when the film opens, are portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who, along with Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter, who plays Mason’s older sister), made a long-term but non-binding commitment to the project in 2002.
While the shoot progressed in three- or four-day increments over the next dozen years, the annual process of brainstorming took months, during which time the actors participated in Linklater’s writing process, filling in his broad narrative outlines with their own dialogue and personal experiences of childhood (and, for Hawke and Arquette, parenthood). Free-form as it was, every year this creative alchemy resulted in one more 15-minute chunk of the script, albeit sometimes pulled together as late as the night before shooting.
“I was aiming for reality. I never wanted it to feel written, but it was,” Linklater says in an interview at his Austin Film Society offices, in advance of the picture’s July 11 domestic release through IFC. “I was always just taking the temperature of these four people where they were at, and where they were going. It was an ongoing collaboration. But the biggest collaborator here, looking back, was time.”
Whatever else it may be — an epic cinematic bildungsroman, an aughties pop-culture time capsule, an apt demonstration of Jacques Rivette’s maxim that every film is a documentary of its own making — “Boyhood” feels above all like that great movie rarity, a fully realized experiment. Fluid, funny, melancholy and wise, it unites the youthful, form-busting spontaneity of Linklater’s early work, like “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused,” with the casual profundity and masterly assurance a filmmaker attains only with age.
By the time the picture made its world premiere at Sundance (nearly a quarter-century after “Slacker” screened there in 1991), the waves of rapture flowing through the Eccles Theater seemed to signal more than just an audience swooning for another movie. Even coming from Linklater, who had brought the Park City crowd to its feet just a year earlier with “Before Midnight,” this haunting new work was clearly something special — a film the likes of which the audience had never seen and indeed might never see again.
At 53, Linklater has built a quietly unassailable case for himself as either the most experimental mainstream artist or the most mainstream experimental artist now at work in American movies. Possessed of an essentially comic temperament, he has become an intimate, emotionally generous observer of everyday life whose finest films — among them “Boyhood” and the romantic trilogy of “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013) — are not just relationship studies, but also compelling exercises in form and content.
Taken together, “Boyhood” and the “Before” pictures amount to one filmmaker’s monumental reflection on the passage of time, the irretrievability of the past and the uncertainty of the future, and the two projects are more closely linked than even their shared themes would suggest. While Linklater and Hawke had long toyed with the idea of revisiting the characters from “Before Sunrise,” it wasn’t until 2002, when they committed to the 12-year sprawl of “Boyhood,” that they felt sufficiently emboldened to make “Before Sunset,” a film that Linklater still describes as “maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done.” He quickly adds, “It’s good, in art, to do those things you’re a little afraid of.”
(Photographed by Dan Winters for Variety)
If the “Before” movies are essentially Linklater’s riff on Rohmer, each one an endearingly loquacious two-hander played out against an idyllic Old World setting, then “Boyhood” is unmistakably his tribute to Truffaut, who directed perhaps the greatest movie ever made about restless youth, “The 400 Blows.” Similarly, the French master’s extended collaboration with actor Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel feels like an early template for what Linklater and Coltrane have pulled off here.
To the uninitiated, those might sound like lofty reference points to attach to Linklater, a laid-back Austin native who goes by Rick and punctuates every other sentence with “yeah” or “you know”; and who, during our interview, sometimes himself resembles an overgrown kid with his T-shirt, shorts and unruly mop of hair. But no one familiar with the filmmaker’s work would be surprised by his penchant for odd philosophical digressions or his aw-shucks erudition. It’s the same stealth intelligence at work in his movies, which often conceal an unusual narrative and formal ambition beneath their shaggy, unpretentious charms — a subversive streak that has set Linklater apart from some of his more bottom-line-oriented contemporaries.
“Telling a longform story is such a simple and obvious idea. And yet you think, well, why hasn’t anyone done it? Because it makes no sense,” Linklater says. “It never did make sense on paper, and it still doesn’t. Artists get it. Businesspeople glaze over. They’re like, ‘You’re asking me to give money, and I’m not going to see a return for 12 years?’ ”
Fortunately, “Boyhood” received a financial commitment of $200,000 per year from IFC, for a total budget of roughly $2.4 million — a strikingly modest amount for a production that wound up with 143 scenes, employed a crew of 400, and went through a year of pre-production and two years of post-production. The reward for operating on such a shoestring was an extraordinary sense of creative freedom. Defying the norms of filmmaking at either the studio or indie level, Linklater and his crew worked for years with no release date in mind, no obligation to show their footage to executives, and certainly no orders to whittle down their two-hour, 42-minute final cut to satisfy a Harvey Weinstein-style overlord.
“It almost didn’t feel like a movie,” says the director, who notes that the production process was the opposite of the swift, efficient shoots to which he’s accustomed. In the time it took him to make “Boyhood,” Linklater helmed no fewer than eight other features, including “School of Rock” (2003) and “Bernie” (2012), two very different comedies featuring Jack Black’s two finest screen performances; the unusually dark-toned double bill of “Fast Food Nation” and “A Scanner Darkly,” both of which premiered at Cannes in 2006; and, of course, the nine-years-apart duo of “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” (He also directed six episodes of TV series “Up to Speed,” which he created.) Compared with these projects, “Boyhood” took shape slowly, with the fine-chiseled detail of a sculpture, one that Linklater and his collaborators could work on at their leisure.
“We had the luxury of just so much thinking time,” he says. “(Each year) we were watching it, adding to what we shot before and editing that, just living with it and thinking, ‘What does this film need?’ ”
One of Linklater’s crucial early decisions was to shoot the entire picture on 35mm, a practical choice as well as an aesthetic one, given the 12-year timespan and the volatility of new digital formats. “I knew there would be nothing better than a 35mm negative to get a consistent look,” he says. Today, with celluloid seemingly going the way of the dodo — the efforts of a few die-hards like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino notwithstanding — “Boyhood” can be read on one level as an elegy not just for childhood, but for cinema itself. It is a film that, in every aspect of its conception and execution, feels proudly out of step with the prevailing logic of Hollywood, made by a director who couldn’t have defied conventional wisdom had he not spent a significant amount of time working within those conventions.
Linklater is old enough, too, to look at the state of the American independent cinema movement of which he is a co-founder, and to recognize some of the challenges he’d be facing if he were getting his start today. In his estimation, “Slacker,” a generational touchstone that helped pave the way for the mumblecore movies, would be relegated to a Sundance sidebar and a VOD deal, while Universal probably would never have financed “Dazed and Confused.” He bemoans the fate of the off-indie movie — star-free pictures with budgets of $100,000 or lower — that a major specialty player like Fox Searchlight (Linklater’s distrib on “Waking Life” and “Fast Food Nation”) should be distributing and isn’t.
“I tell young filmmakers it’s the best time to be a filmmaker. On the other hand, it’s no secret that it’s the hardest time to get your film seen,” he says.
Grim as this state of affairs may be, however (Linklater himself is undergoing the usual scramble to get financing for three projects in his backlog), the director hasn’t lost his faith in the potential of his chosen medium. Whether that potential means some future continuation of either the “Before” trilogy or “Boyhood,” he isn’t saying at this point. And while his separation anxiety following the completion of “Boyhood” has been crueler than most, he notes that he always envisioned the film as a portrait of youth and no more, with a distinct beginning and end in mind.
“Today, I feel like they’re both over,” he says of the two projects. Then he adds, “But you have to feel that way for a while.”