Makeup and padding can do wonders for aging a person on film. Richard Linklater is the first director, however, to age his fictional characters the old fashioned way: letting time do the job naturally.
Boyhood, which opens on July 11, is a singular production. Linklater shot the film over the course of 12 years, assembling the cast whenever he and they were available. It's a coming of age story about a tumultuous childhood, but the lead character in the film is actually time itself. The audience not only sees Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) gradually metamorphosize from boy to young man, they see the world of 2002 slowly catch up to the present. (Or the past, if you're watching in the future.) It's an evolving snapshot of a moment in time, and Linklater's aim in capturing it is nothing less than revealing how time works.
Although the director has taken on experimental indies and mainstream blockbusters before, nothing could've prepared him for his most ambitious film yet. Now that the perhaps longest awaited wrap party ever is behind him, Linklater spoke with us recently about some of the unforeseen challenges of a film shoot that seemingly had no end in sight.
I just knew it’d be full of complications. That’s what the project was going to be: one big complication. On most films, you get a cast and a crew together, you shoot, then everyone goes and does something else, and you finish it in post production. We had to do that every year. We had to cast, scout locations, get a crew together, see who was available, find out what Patricia [Arquette]’s schedule is, find a weekend, see if it works. But every year we were sorta jumping through those same hoops.
We very intentionally shot in the same way throughout, just to get a unified look. 35mm negative is about the most stable thing you could shoot on. We kinda had that from the beginning. I remember it not even being a question. You know the HD formats, I didn’t really like them very much at all. I’m just not warming up to them. But they change a lot. The film would have six different looks if we tried to keep up. I wanted there to be no outside indicators from the film itself that time was moving along. It all had to come from the characters, the culture, something. Again, it’s how life unfolds. You don’t think "Oh, it’s a new year, I’m gonna see what's new"—you just kind of move forward.
Some people are saying that the filmmaking improved as it went. And I hope not. I’ve made a bunch of films—I’m not trying to learn on the job here. I was trying not to evolve at all as a filmmaker. I wanted a sensibility. It wasn’t, "Oh, let’s have a handheld year with cameras running all over the place." I was just following through on the sensibility that was there at the beginning and that would tell the story properly. I didn’t want that to change. I did a bunch of other films in that time period that for different reasons looked different ways. But this film, I wanted it to be very consistent—as consistent as possible, given our budget limitations.
Eller’s personality plays into how the character develops. I told him somewhere along the way, the early ideas we had, the family structure—that’s just the architecture, but it’s going to fuse with him to some degree. It’s not biographical, it's just his spirit, who he is. I never wanted to impose too much there. I’d check in with him throughout the year sometimes. And as we got closer to shooting a couple months out we’d sit down, talk about what was going on in his life, I'd give him assignments, like "There’s a big theme this year about GIFs. Write something, think about it." He’s become more and more of a collaborator.
I was thinking about hair as a metaphor for childhood. You don’t have control, not only over your life—where you’re living, who your family is—but even often your own person. Someone else says, "Okay, you’re getting a haircut, you’re wearing this," and how frustrating that was at times. To me, it feels like a little violation, having to get a haircut; kind of a power thing. But in reality, I told Eller to grow his hair out, and he was so ready to get it cut. Even though he’s playing like he’s being assaulted there in that scene, in reality he couldn’t wait to get his hair cut.
Every year, I had a year to reflect and think, "What was going on in a young person’s life? What was going on in a parent’s life? How was culture moving or not moving?" We’d edit the year we just shot, and we’d put on everything we’d shot up to that, whether it was two years or 10 years, and spend a lot of time with it, think about it, think about what the film needs, what do the characters need, what the right moment to aim for in the future. I couldn’t predict exactly what was gonna happen, I just knew it would happen. It’s just thinking that there would be a future, kids would grow up, everyone would age a year later, and I would deal with the reality in front of me at that time. But I did have kind of an outline of the whole project. Ultimately I think it’s an optimistic movie and an optimistic way to make a movie. It’s having faith that you’re gonna be around and it’ll all be worthwhile 12 years from now.