Boyhood is like no other movie you’ll see this year. Conceived more than a decade ago by writer and director Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), the film was shot over a 12-year period, beginning in summer 2002 and ending last fall. It charts the course of one family during that time: divorced parents Mason (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and their children Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). We watch all four of them change, grow and age, and in the cases of Mason Jr. and Samantha, both the characters and the actors evolve out of childhood and into early adulthood right before our eyes. Coltrane was seven when production started and 19 when it finished, and it is both somewhat unsettling and profound to watch him transform over the course of the 165-minute running time.
Linklater would gather his cast together every year for a few days of filming (the movie only took 39 shooting days to complete), spending the next 12 months editing what he had and mapping out the next segment — while he and the others were all working on other projects as well. At a recent press conference for the film in Los Angeles, Linklater spoke about what happened during that annual “down time.” “We’d end each year and kind of talk about the next year a little bit — what I felt was coming next year,” he recalled. “Given everyone’s schedules and busyness, this was everyone’s side project, my own included. I was doing a lot of other films in these 12 years and everybody was busy. But we would always talk about it. Ellar and I would often get together and talk about next year a bit, or Ethan and I would talk on the phone. But it would get real intense once it was around the time we would shoot.”
“Rick would talk to us a few weeks before about sort of the specifics of that coming year,” chimed in Arquette. “‘Okay, you guys are going to have this scene in the coffee shop and he’s about to go here and you’re doing this. And you’re talking about a garage sale or whatever.’ We’d talk about our ideas about what we thought our character might say or experiences someone had had or their mother had had or their brother had had or their friend, then we’d incorporate things and Rick would decide. Sometimes we’d be up ‘til two in the morning, all of us. When the kids were little, they weren’t really participating so much in that writing aspect of that. But when they got older, they started bringing a lot to the table.”
One of the most unique aspects of Boyhood is the lack of a conventional narrative structure. The film is not split into the traditional three acts; nothing in the first half hour has ramifications in the last 30 minutes. The characters evolve but don’t experience the revelations that determine their arcs in a “normal” movie. Ethan Hawke explained the benefits of telling a story outside that standard framework: “It was just so fun to tell a real story about a real family. So much of the problem with most movies is they create a false narrative, so that it has a beginning, middle and end that all takes place over six months. But our lives never feel like that. We have moments of grace, or moments when we feel something deeply, but it is because of 90 million other things that happen before it and not just that moment.”
Linklater also strenuously avoided grafting melodramatic incidents onto the film, even though there are moments when, as viewer, we actually feel the pull of expectation that the film is going go that way (i.e. there’s a moment when we’re almost positive that there will be a car accident — and there isn’t). “It tells you how conditioned we are,” said the filmmaker. “We don’t make films about the ordinary. Why watch a film that reflects real life? I want to watch something that does have the car wreck, does have the thing, because why make art about normality? We’re really conditioned in films particularly to have the big moments.
“It’s fun to see audiences, even so far into this movie when they know kind of the vibe of it, watch something like the campout scene in eighth grade when they’re throwing those blades around,” he continued. “You can just feel it… (but) it never crossed my mind anything bad would happen. It’s bad enough what they’re talking about and that effect on a young man’s psyche (laughs). No, it never crossed my mind, but it shows you how conditioned we are. Most of that stuff doesn’t happen. Most of us do survive childhood (laughs). Not all, but most, amazingly. So everything about this movie fits into the statistical norms. You do survive. You do get through that.”
For Ellar Coltrane, whose journey toward becoming an adult does serve loosely as the movie’s spine and central focus, watching himself grow up on the screen (he saw the finished film for the first time last January at the Sundance Film Festival) was dramatic enough. “I mean it is incredible, and certainly we changed the most drastically I guess,” he offered. “But one of the most amazing parts to me is just how much everyone changes… there is this idea that you reach a certain point and stop, that you are just an adult and that’s it, but everyone grew up a lot. It is a really elusive part of existence, the way you change over time. It’s really hard to see it in yourself because you are experiencing your life.”
Patricia Arquette added that seeing herself change onscreen, both as a person and an actor, did not necessarily make her wish she had worn her hair differently in one scene or changed her line delivery in another: “The things that I hate are also the things that I love. The mistakes are what make something human, not the perfection. Whatever mistakes you make as an actor at 32, those are the choices a 32-year-old are going to make. And there’s something authentic to that.”
Hawke said that watching little Mason grow to the edge of manhood and seeing all the experiences he and his family accumulate along the way will be something that anyone watching Boyhood can relate to. “The weird thing about this movie is it’s incredibly unique and specific, but it also reminds us, ‘Oh, I remember when my friend did that.’ Our experiences align in the movie. Our experiences are not as unique as we feel them to be. When you’re going through adolescence, it feels very specific to you and your problems. Same when you’re getting a divorce. And then when you step back and you start to see so many people have similar experiences. That’s what I love about this movie.”
Boyhood is out in limited release Friday, July 11.