Stories typically have a beginning, middle, and end. For Richard Linklater, however, traditional storytelling holds little appeal. Of the director's 17 feature films, a scant few—such as School of Rock and Dazed and Confused—adhere to narrative convention. Far more common are form-busting movies like the freewheeling Slacker and the acclaimed trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. Linklater's latest movie, Boyhood (in theaters July 11), is his most ambitious yet: a singular coming-of-age saga that was created over the course of 12 years. The film, which stars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and newcomer Ellar Coltrane, was written and shot between the cast and crew's other projects. In an innovative twist, audiences get to see the characters—and actors—age in real time on-screen. While there's no universal recipe for shaking up the formulaic, Linklater offers some suggestions on where to start.
The key decision Linklater makes for each of his films is what shape the narrative will take. "There are a lot of stories in the world, and I spend all my time thinking about how to tell them. That, to me, is the cinematic element. That's the hard part: the right narrative form on every movie is the thing I have to break. New forms have always been a part of my thinking. 'Could you ever tell a story this way? Why wouldn't that work?' I might spend a year on a film like Bernie, figuring out how to tell it. My first film anyone saw was Slacker, and the question there was, 'Could you tell a story that had no central character but still made sense?' Cinema is such a unique art form that still has a lot more storytelling possibility. So I've always gone on the premise that there are a lot of new forms that have yet to be invented or utilized, even when I was a young punk kid."
Sometimes bold experiments are born of finding work-arounds to limitations. "I wanted to tell a story about childhood, but I was having trouble landing on what part of it to express. My own thoughts and experiences were scattered throughout different ages, and that's a limitation, obviously. You can't just wave a magic wand and your actors are three years older—you have to pick your spot. The idea for Boyhood was one of those 'aha' moments that at its core was problem-solving. The film's structure emerged out of trying to solve the problem of how to express that story over a long period of time. It's very straightforward, but in a way that hasn't been done before, because it's just completely impractical."
Linklater knows motivated viewers will make the leap—they'll work a little harder than many filmmakers give them credit for, if the story has integrity. "My stories are actually very cleanly told. There might be something formally challenging, but I'm never trying to confuse anybody. If you establish rules and play by them, the audience will buy in. I want the film to be what it wants to be, and once the audience accepts what's happening, they're in all the way. That goes for pace and length and all that stuff. Once people are invested, it won't be an issue."
Linklater may be motivated by new stories, but sometimes he has to wait for technology to catch up to them. "I spend time digging into certain characters. If that necessitates some kind of new technology and a new way to tell a story, then I want to see if that could work." Linklater says he'd been thinking about the idea that turned into the film, Waking Life, for about 20 years. "It never worked as a film in my head—technologically speaking—until I saw this animation coming together that some friends of mine were developing. It was one of those similar 'aha' moments" 'Oh, that crazy film I’ve been thinking about just doesn’t work live-action, and it wouldn’t be an animated film. But this thing is a hybrid. It’s real and a construct. Kind of like a dream.' The technology allowed me to tell that story the way I wanted to tell it."
A film isn't just a narrative; it's a framework in which to create. "I'm a big designer. When I write a screenplay, I've diagrammed the architecture of the story. There's really got to be a structure; art demands it. I care more about structure, less about plots. Anything plot-driven feels a little more man-made, more manufactured. I'm always going toward something that's a little more true to life."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.