The Times of His Life

Richard Linklater reflects on his Boyhood, a deeply felt, groundbreaking cinematic experiment chronicling a boy’s coming of age over the course of 12 years.

©2014 IFC Films
Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.
July 3, 2014 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
Tom Keller Richard Linklater

People have been kind of, like, ‘How could you make that kind of commitment?’The truth is, we commit to things all the time in life, don’t we?

Time’s winged chariot hurries near for all of us, as the poet Andrew Marvell once wrote. Oscar-nominated screenwriter and filmmaker Richard Linklater is more acutely aware of this than most celluloid artists, his singular oeuvre—from his 1991 debut, Slacker, to Dazed and Confused to the Before Sunrise trilogy, each tracking indelible characters in a memorable location over a single revolution or 24-hour span—providing ample evidence. Linklater’s thematic signature might have been of necessity born—the Austin native says he has, historically, struggled greatly with financing “bigger films—where people do more than talk to each other”—but has evolved, over time itself, in rich and profound ways.

With Boyhood, already much-praised and well-decorated since making this year’s festival rounds, Linklater breaks new cinematic ground, chronicling a boy’s coming of age over some 4,200 days, or 12 years, each “chapter” of the film shot with the same actors, including Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and newcomer Ellar Coltrane, in brief, annual increments. The resulting film is ambitious—nay, audacious—from a production standpoint, “a leap of faith,” Linklater says, and deeply moving as a work of art. In an era where too many artists find a niche and mine it to barrenness, Linklater continues to be restless and curious and experimental, his audience being the great beneficiaries, viewing his films always, of course, time well spent.

Artists often say that each of their films is like one of their children, but Boyhood is a film you actually, and almost without cinematic precedent, took time to raise.

Yeah, yeah. What a life commitment, you know? People have been kind of, like, “How could you make that kind of commitment?” The truth is, we commit to things all the time in life, don’t we? We commit. Boyhood was a wildly impractical way to make a movie, but it was really the only way to tell this story that I wanted to tell, to express all of these ideas over a much bigger canvass of time.

At 53, you seem to be still in this phase of constant discovery and experimentation that most artists grow out of.

I know what you mean. A lot of filmmakers or bands, they’ll have like one or two really weird ideas, and then they settle into something else kind of, like, normal. Everybody’s different, I guess. I’ve always approached cinema in an, “Oh, wow, could you really do this?” kind of way. I’m interested in narrative. How many different ways can you tell a story? What can you bring to storytelling? If we know most of the stories the world has to offer, then maybe it’s how they’re told that really matters. What are some new ways to tell stories? In film, there are still a lot of ways to tell a story that we haven’t tried yet. There are a lot of ways to communicate a narrative that haven’t been tapped. I’m just doing my little part, I guess.

The idea of time has been a key theme, almost a character even, in many of your films. How has your relationship to time changed as an artist and as a man?

That is one ongoing relationship, isn’t it—our relationship to ourselves and our pasts, the times we live in. It’s a pretty fascinating area. But I don’t really know. It’s relative, isn’t it? Time moves differently in different phases of life. I’m kind of past that point where I want time to slow down. I realize it’s a limited commodity, though, as far as human beings go. When you’re young, you don’t really appreciate the finiteness of it. You can’t, really. It’s all ahead of you. But once you cross that 50-yard line, you start to think a little more about wasting time. There’s not really a lot of it to waste.

When was Boyhood first conceived, so to speak, and how much of what you shot last fall, the film’s final sequence, was in your head when you started production 12 years ago?

A lot of it, actually. I knew the boy would go off to college. It was all planned out, basically, the trajectory of the main characters, how they would evolve, how they would end up at the end of the movie. All the major moves and physical stuff, that was all planned out. There wasn’t a lot left to chance. But the specifics of each year and each scene, which we shot in one-year intervals, were left wide open. We knew what we wanted the scenes to cover, generally, but the dialogue was left open until we were close to shooting. I knew I wanted the boy to meet someone, that there were two people in the shot, and he was heading off to college. I knew that was the ending. But I didn’t have exact dialogue; I just knew the feeling, for sure. I don’t know if I could’ve made the movie if I didn’t know where it was going. It’s kind of good to know your ending, I think. It gives you something to aim for.

World According to Garp author John Irving says he won’t type a first sentence until he knows the novel’s last sentence.

I’m a fan of that. That’s how I write. I have an outline, and I always know my ending before I get going.

Tackling a project like Boyhood is almost an act of rebellion against time itself, isn’t it? The ambition and intention rely on fate not being too unkind to those participating. Were these ever considerations for you?

Yeah. Making this film was a leap of faith in some ways. It was an act of optimism. On the most basic level, it counted on us all being alive and well and together in 12 years. And it also counted on the project itself being worthwhile enough to spend that kind of time on and make that kind of commitment to, that it was a positive creation and a cool thing to have done. You kind of sign up for that and work toward it and hope you get lucky, just like in the rest of your life. You’ve gotta get a little lucky, or at least avoid the unlucky.

But creative writing moves, doesn’t it? Doesn’t what you write in 2002 shift even a little bit by 2013? How does life give you story notes on a project like Boyhood?

That was the major collaboration on this movie, really: the unknown future, the random, unknowable future. Not only how my cast members would incrementally age, which appears more radical with the younger actors because they’re really going up, but the culture too, the things going on in the world. It’s kind of how we go through life; we aim for stuff, but you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. You just know something’s going to happen. Time and space will get filled with something. I was confident I could count on that and be a good collaborator with that and get it on film. Within Boyhood, I felt I could play off the culture and the world as it evolved.

Watching the culture mature through the film through music and cultural touchstones, references to Gnarls Barkley and John McCain, Harry Potter and the war in Iraq, there’s a time capsule element to this.

Well, yeah. I mean, the movie is about one boy growing up, right, but probably we all grew up a little bit during those 12 years. Those are just some of the signposts or landmarks of the times.

You’ve worked many times with Ethan Hawke, your cinematic alter ego and fellow Oscar-nominee [with Julie Delpy] for the Before Sunset and Before Midnight screenplays. What does he bring to a project like Boyhood?

What I love about working with Ethan is he brings everything. He brings his own ideas, his own writing, the man that he is. He incorporates much of his own thinking into everything he does. He’s all in. He’s always the first one committed. We get going from there. He’s the best kind of artist.

When we’re talking about Boyhood as a screenplay, what does that document look like through the years?

Oh gosh, ultimately there are script pages for every year the film covers, but they weren’t all written at the same time or sometimes even very far in advance of shooting them, in some cases. They were all kind of written year to year. There was an outline, for sure, a broad outline, and then a sub-outline that kind of laid out what I wanted to accomplish in each year that preceded the script itself. Sometimes the script itself, with dialogue, was still being finagled the night before shooting. At the very beginning, it was just a basic idea and a couple of scenes and some notes. I got the film financed on its idea.

What are the benefits or the challenges of working and writing in that fashion, which is almost unheard of in the world of cinema?

Well, I had the luxury of having a year to think between scenes, which you don’t ever really get in filmmaking. I could film a little bit, then step back, edit it, look at it, then figure out what we wanted to say next. The film was always in a process of writing and editing itself, strangely. I had two years of pre-production, two years of editing, if you add it all up. I could edit it all, hang out with it, figure out what was missing or what we still needed, how is that element evolving and is it important anymore? The reality of what we shot and the vibe of that would really influence what came next. It was just a process of incrementally going where the actors were going. The slow part of these actors changing allowed the story to flow very organically and naturally, so much of the credit really belongs to the human beings that they are.

It’s a very concrete, unforgiving past you’re capturing on film. What you shot a decade ago is fixed, locked, immutable. You can’t go back and reshoot the sequence from 2006.

Yeah. Maybe that’s scary. Maybe not.

A lot of the big moments in Boyhood, the hallmarks—the proms and ceremonies and kisses—they don’t happen onscreen. It’s all offscreen. We get the small moments instead. Tell me about that choice.

The good thing about having a year off between the scenes is that you get to burn through and work off all of the clichés, all of the bad ideas that you have—which are often the first or initial ideas that you have. The first idea anyone might have on a story like this is: we’ll hit all those moments—the first kiss, the first dance, all of those firsts. Then as I got closer to the idea, “I’ve seen all of that. It’s all been done.”

Even in my own life, those memories—the “big things”—are kind of undifferentiated and unimportant in retrospect. We think of them in the moment as being very important, but your memory doesn’t always treat them that way. I rarely think of my first kiss. I have many more unique experiences in my life. Those quote-unquote special memories, a lot of times—at least for me—you look back at them and you’re almost peripheral or like an extra in some generic scene from your life. Like graduation? Everyone’s graduation is basically the same—it’s kind of uninspiring and full of protocol, whatever. Any big ceremony is boring and anticlimactic. And they’ve been done to death on film. It would be weird for a film like this to consider graduation some point of triumph, having him walk across the stage and get his diploma. Guess what? That’s not really what the movie’s about, getting a diploma. Public school education is not the real gist of this movie. It’s about a boy growing up. The more I distilled that idea, the more those clichéd ideas went away, and the clearer the other things came into focus. What do you remember from your youth, the things that really matter to you now? For me, I remember stealing a drink with a buddy and splitting it in the parking lot at graduation. But I don’t really think that was the best or most memorable part of my youth.

Turns out, the things we dress up for are rarely the best parts of our lives.

Never! My memories are my memories. They’re mine. Look at your life. The things you most cherish, probably, are the really tiny moments that, maybe, no one else even really knows about. I realized early on that Boyhood was going to be a film about those moments, an accumulation of little things that have a cumulative effect of a real life lived and witnessed. I felt strongly that audiences would connect with these characters.

The dialogue in your films is consistently outstanding, very naturalistic and authentic. How is that achieved as a writer?

First off, having that as a goal is a good place to start. Naturalism is not really the goal for a lot of writers. In most of my films, it is. That’s the beginning of it: the intention. Then having an ear for cadences, phrasing, the ways people talk, that’s probably something. Then I work with the actors themselves, to make the dialogue more believable and real through their voices, so that’s a lot of workshopping and rewriting, just to further articulate the film’s ideas. And then there’s the performance itself. It’s a lot of different things, really.

What advice would you offer an up-and-coming screenwriter?

Find your own rhythms and your own expression. We’re just storytelling. The core is storytelling, always. What’s unique to cinema? Really feel like you know the medium itself. It’s different than other mediums. There are a lot of greater writers in the world, but to write for film, you have to understand the medium as much as possible.

From a craft and discipline standpoint, what is your writing process?

I live the life of a writer, really. The filmmaking part, the production stuff, is really just, “Yeah, we got some money, let’s go film this thing!” I live for that, really, I do. But when I’m not doing that, I have a little library, and I’m in it all the time, and I’m reading and writing and outlining and researching and taking notes and reading some more. I just sit at my laptop. You know: screenwriter.

© 2014 Writers Guild of America West

READ ALSO: A 12-year-old Boyhood graduates to the big screen, and Richard Linklater couldn’t be prouder. He wrote every word by heart.