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Richard Linklater on making 'Boyhood,' a year at a time

Published July 31, 2014 9:20 am

Interview • Director Richard Linklater describes "pretty risky" film, shot over 12 years.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Filmmaker Richard Linklater wanted to take a long look at childhood.

"I wanted to tell a story about the whole process of growing up, not just one year, one moment, or that special moment of childhood," Linklater said. "I was kind of concerned with … how the self emerges, somehow, out of this era of our lives. I kind of wanted to hit all those notes."

He wanted to employ a documentarian's approach, to make "a longitudinal survey" of growing up by filming a few days every year, for 12 years.

"It's such a simple idea. I was surprised nobody had ever done it before," Linklater said in a recent phone interview. "At the end of the 12 years, I can tell you why nobody's done it before. It's a logistical nightmare that's pretty risky. … We chose to look at it not as some kind of risk, but some kind of opportunity to tell a story that hadn't been told before."

The resulting movie has been a dream for critics and moviegoers. "Boyhood," which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival last January, is getting rave reviews as it has rolled out across the country in the past few weeks. (It opens Friday, Aug. 1, at two Salt Lake County theaters: Broadway Centre Cinemas in downtown Salt Lake City and the Century 16 in South Salt Lake.)

"Boyhood" tells the story of Mason, a Texas kid (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane) who ages before our eyes, from 5 to 18. The movie follows Mason, his older sister Samantha (played by Linklater's daughter, Lorelei) and their divorced parents (played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) for those 12 years, through many changes.

Linklater said he had the structure of the movie planned out when he started filming in 2001.

"Patricia remembers me, in our first phone call, telling her exactly what's going to happen to her character," Linklater said. "I mean, the big things: 'You're gonna move, you're gonna get married again, in a couple years get divorced, you're gonna get a job, you'll move again.' All the big physical stuff was worked out."

"I knew Mason would grow up to go to college at the end of the movie, but I didn't know who would go off to college," he said. "I knew this would be this 7-year-old I was working with, whatever he'll be like at 18. That was kind of an unpredictable specific."

Over time, staying to a rigid framework wasn't so easy.

"Filmmakers, we're all control freaks. With this, you had to give up the notions of control and shift to adaptability," Linklater said. "To take full advantage of all this time, over the 4,200 days or whatever, we only shot 40 of them — that's a lot of time to think about it, let the film be what it wanted to be."

Arquette and Hawke embraced the concept immediately, Linklater said. (Hawke collaborated with Linklater on his experimental 2001 films "Tape" and "Waking Life" and starred in Linklater's extended-time romance, the "Before Sunrise" trilogy. Midway through the filming of "Boyhood," Hawke and Arquette appeared in Linklater's 2006 movie "Fast Food Nation.")

"They got it," Linklater said. "They would go, 'Wow, think of the possibilities, think of what we could do.' If you think of an actor, they always have a character arc. You can imagine how enticing it would be to have a 12-year character arc. … It was ongoing. We didn't have to have it all figured out up front."

Linklater would gather his cast for three or four days a year to shoot the next installment.

"It was always a hustle," he said. "We didn't have a big budget. Every year we were struggling to make it work on our low budget.

"It was mostly just a logistical hassle of getting the band back together," he said, since the shooting schedule spanned his cast's other projects. Arquette starred in seven seasons of the police drama "Medium" during that stretch, while Linklater made nine movies (including "School of Rock" and a remake of "The Bad News Bears") in that 12 years.

Between the conception of "Boyhood" and the first day of shooting, something else happened that had an effect on the film: 9/11.

"We were shooting a period piece, but we're shooting it in the present moment," Linklater said, noting that the movie is peppered with touchstones of the past dozen years, such as the Iraq War and Barack Obama's election.

"In the way I was collaborating with my cast, who were changing incrementally, I was also collaborating with the culture — artistic, political, just the world we're living in," he said. "I wanted the film to feel like a memory: 'Oh, there was a war on when I was a kid.' … If you came of age during then, all you'll ever know is our country at war."

Linklater said he aimed with "Boyhood" to create a mosaic, piecing together small moments into a larger whole.

"The combination of some of the elements puts a certain feeling on it," he said. "We kind of bet the whole enterprise on people having the ability to respond to these intimate little moments."

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'Boyhood' opens

Director Richard Linklater's drama "Boyhood," a movie 12 years in the making.

When • Opens Friday, Aug. 1

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City; and Century Cinemas 16, 125 E. 3300 South, South Salt Lake