|by Peter Sobczynski
The director of such cult favorites as "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "Waking Life" and the "Before Sunrise" trilogy talks about his latest masterpiece, the intimate epic "Boyhood," and its unusual journey to the screen.
Although his name may not have the same commercial cachet as those belonging to Steven Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino, two of the other filmmakers that became leading lights of the American independent film movement that took off in the early 1990's, Richard Linklater is easily their equal and then some in all other respects. Since making his breakthrough with the 1991 cult favorite "Slacker," he has composed one of the most impressive filmographies of director working today. "Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise," "Waking Life," "Before Sunset," "Me and Orson Welles," "Bernie," "Before Midnight"--any one of these titles would be a high-water mark in the careers of most filmmakers but Linklater did them all and more to boot. Hell, even his occasional excursions into the world of studio filmmaking--"The Newton Boys," "School of Rock" and the remake of "The Bad News Bears"--proved to be far more interesting than they might have been in other hands and on the rare opportunities when one of his films hasn't worked (such as his adaptations of Eric Bogosian's "Suburbia" and the muck-racking best-seller "Fast Food Nation"), they at least proved to be noble and ambitious works that just didn't quite work.
As good as has previous films have been, he may well have actually topped himself with his latest work, the instant American masterpiece "Boyhood." You may have heard about the unique circumstances surrounding this film telling the story of an ordinary boy as he negotiates the perils and pleasures of child from around the age of 6 to 18 as he is about to enter college and adulthood. Instead of casting multiple actors of different ages or utilizing elaborate makeup effects to create the illusion of aging, Linklater cast a seven-year-old boy named Ellar Coltrane in the central role, surrounded him with a small group of actors that included Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the kid's divorced parents and his own daughter, Lorelei, as his older sister, and proceeded to film scenes with them for a few days at a time over the course of a 12-year-long period beginning in 2002. The result is an extraordinary film that not only tells a rich and compelling story but one that also affords us a chance to literally see a person grow from childhood to maturity before our very eyes. This is not just one of the very best films of the year--it is one of the very best films about growing up that you will ever see.
To promote "Boyhood," which is slowly opening around the country, Linklater visited Chicago and, along with fellow critic Patrick McDonald, I sat down with him to discuss the film and its unusual journey to the screen.
One of the most fascinating recurring elements in your films is the way that you deal with representing time in cinematic terms. On the one hand, you have done a number of films featuring highly compressed timelines in which the entire narrative is set over the course of a single day or evening--films likes "Dazed and Confused," "Tape" and the individual chapters of the "Before Sunrise" trilogy." On the other, you have also told stories with a much elongated timeframe--the dreamscape of "Waking Life" or the 18-year span covering the "Before Sunrise" films as a whole. With "Boyhood," you have conducted your most audacious experiment in dealing with the passing of time on film to date. What in cinematic terms interests you about the passage of time, especially in the case of this film?
It was the only way to tell this particular story in the way I wanted to tell it, but I can see where it goes down in the books as a time exploration. I was really trying to create a reality as to how it 'feels' to go through time in that way, to grow up and mature in that time. In the other films I'm also trying to do that, create a reality for the viewer that feels real. That is what the challenge was--for a viewer to take in 12 years and still feel that it's realistic. It was about the tone. Really, it does changed my average timeline now because if you put them all together, it works out now to be a little longer for all of them.
When you began this project in 2002, did you have an idea of how the story would go or did it change and evolve as the years went by?
No, I had it fairly planned out, it wasn't random at all. I'm a big structure and architecture guy. I knew what the last shot of the film would be at about year two. Patricia remembered me telling her the whole character, that she was going to get educated and get divorced along the way. It was all structured, but the fun of it was it gave me the opportunity to think – shoot, edit and then think. In comparison to making a film in a short amount of time, it was different. I used the time element to our advantage, to just let the film speak to me as to what it wanted to be. Also, as the actors aged, I got to see where they were going.
There was nothing significantly different than what I envisioned initially, but yet I knew I would be adjusting every year. It's like life, we all have a plan, and once we get there we can look back and remember how we got to that point. But you can't predict exactly 12 years before that you would be here for this reason. Everything in the film has a life corollary – on one hand, unpredictable, and on the other, expected.
I read online that your daughter lost interest in her role at one point and literally wanted to be killed off …
[Laughs] She never said it in those words, it was more like "Can my character just die?" Die is different than being killed off. It was a fleeting thing with her, probably as much as a father/daughter dynamic than anything else. But she worked really hard, and is great in the film.
As her Dad and the artist behind the film, what did you have to do to convince her that she had to continue for the good of the art?
It became about the good of herself. She enjoyed doing it, and it meant different things at different times for her. But here orientation towards it was a bit different than Ellar's. It wasn't his life. Lorelei grew up on movie sets. It wasn't a big deal for her to be making a movie over the years, it just wasn't. It was a part of our lives and a fun thing to be doing together.
At some point she was asking me, "Hey, are we shooting this summer?" I think she realized she was getting paid. Let's see, she could work in the sandwich shop or do babysitting, or eat craft services, fart around for a week, and make more money with the SAG minimum than any of those other jobs.
Selecting someone to portray the film's central character was a unique casting situation. When you cast an actor like Billy Bob Thornton, for example, you have a pretty good idea of who they are going to be over the course of a twelve-week shoot.
Well, Billy Bob may be the one exception to that rule. . . [laughs]
In the case of "Boyhood," you had to cast someone who would not only be interesting to watch at the age of 6 but who would continue to have the ability to hold the interest of the audience 12 years later. That obviously had to be major challenge, so what was it about Ellar Coltrane that convinced you that he was that kind of person?
It was a huge decision and a huge moment for this production. We played our instincts, and he was a ethereal and interesting kid. At the same time in this situation as well, we were 'casting' the parents, and he had parents who supported him and were artists themselves. They made it a positive thing in his life and nurtured them. The film also nurtured Ellar Coltrane as well, he talks about his friendships and how we became a family. Most movie sets say that, but 12 years later we actually were a family. I got lucky for sure.
One of the unsung heroes in the film is Patricia Arquette's mother character, who arguably advances the most in her career and admirably keeping the family fed, and then ends up almost frustratingly alone. What statement what you making with her sacrifice?
People see that character differently, and even in subsequent viewings they see that the film could be called "Motherhood." It's the depiction of a very complex and real portrait of a woman just dealing with what life throws at her, and doing her best. Ultimately, I think she is a strong and great woman, but like everyone has to go through a bit of hell in the process. Where you are at the end is not necessarily where you'd thought you'd be. Life just happens that way. She does have that moment when she feels bereft, and I think she earned it. She'll probably be all right.
During the 12 years it took to complete "Boyhood," you made something like 8 or 9 additional feature films as well. Did the unique circumstances of "Boyhood" and its production in any way inform what you did with any of those other films and were there any ways in which those projects helped to influence its direction?
I think 'Boyhood' influenced the other films more than the reverse. It had its tone, it was the movie I was going to make and the feel of it was set. And because Ethan Hawke and I had committed to do this 12 year life project, it gave us the courage to do "Before Sunset," which we did the year after we started this. But I definitely didn't want to 'evolve' just within the boundaries of this film, and the others I did want to be different.
Since you first burst onto the scene nearly a quarter-century ago with the release of "Slacker," the American independent film movement has undergone a number of radical changes and many of them occurred during the production span of "Boyhood." For example, you shot the film in 35mm and while that was no big deal back in 2002, it has become almost unheard of these days for any filmmaker to actually shoot on film these days unless they are named Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan.
Two of my last films have been shot on film, this one, and "Me and Orson Welles." It's a choice and I don't obsess about it that much. When I started "Boyhood," there were no choices--it was 35mm. I needed a stable negative in order to eventually finish the film. The real threat came from the outside, 'Well, there might not even be film when we're done.' I knew there would be. It has become rarer, but every film gauge is still available. So through the process of shooting this, we did witness the slow death spiral of film, but we made it through. It became the best of both worlds – we shot on film but we were also able to take advantage of all the goodies the digital post production had to offer. It's convenient, and it helped.
At one point your characters in 'Boyhood' gaze onto an Austin that is decidedly different than the one your characters walked through in "Slacker." Do you think your film had anything to do with the explosive growth of the town, especially in the aspect it being the hippest place in Texas?
[Laughs] Yeah, there was an article in which I was named one of the people that helped ruin Austin. Right now, there are these t-shirts that say, 'Austin, Population: Full.' It's too late. [laughs] I don't know what to say.I like to think when you are 17 years old, it's always your time. You don't know what Austin looked like in 1990. It's all about them – a parking garage can have it's own romance.
One the most remarkable things about a truly remarkable film, "Dazed and Confused," is how similar your high school experience was to mine, even though we were thousands of miles away. What was it about 1970s America that you think contributed to the homogenization from one location to another?
I think by the 1970s we had become one culture, and television – even though it only had three or four stations, made us media savvy. It was one culture in a good way and a commercial way, as local radio gave in to Top 40, so we were all listening to the same songs.
Do you think it still exists today? Could you make a "Dazed and Confused" with a Class of 2014?
I think so, yes. There is something eternal about just being that age – the high school, the way you socialize, the way you rebel, the way you bond and the way you look for something to do. As far as the limitations and the exuberance, I think some things never change. It's the same thing in "Boyhood." It's set in Texas pretty much, but it's a universal story. Who doesn't have a family, siblings and schools? We all grow up with a lot of common stuff.
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originally posted: 07/20/14 12:51:26
last updated: 07/20/14 13:17:12