Richard Linklater: "It fit my personality to be collaborating with the unknown future"

The Texas indie auteur on his most ambitious movie yet -- "Boyhood," a coming-of-age story filmed over 12 years

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 8, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Richard Linklater      (Reuters/Patrik Stollarz)
Richard Linklater (Reuters/Patrik Stollarz)

Consider Richard Linklater’s work, and there’s no mistaking the guy’s artistic ambition. Meet him in person and he seems like a faintly hip middle-class dad from Texas, one of those perpetually boyish men of a certain age – Linklater will turn 54 this month, but could pass for a decade younger – who was a star athlete once upon a time and still carries a hint of that swagger. All of that is accurate, as it happens: He grew up in Houston and Huntsville and now lives in Austin, he’s been married for many years and has an adult daughter, and he was a promising baseball player in high school before falling under the spell of Ozu, Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky.

Linklater even worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico for a little while, perhaps the ultimate signifier of Texas manhood. Not long after that, he followed his burgeoning passion for cinema to Austin, co-founded a film society (which hosts the annual Austin Film Festival) and began teaching himself to be a director. Linklater shows his generational roots in at least one important way: He belongs to the last generation of filmmakers whose education came from the art-house cinema of the '60s, '70s and '80s. That process ultimately led to the 1991 “Slacker,” which Linklater shot on the streets of Austin for $23,000 and which became an epoch-shaping hit, labeling an entire generation of disaffected, downscale urbanites and launching the indie-film explosion of the '90s. What was immediately striking about “Slacker” was its experiential power and its utter refusal to obey any plot conventions, or even to have a plot, period. What many viewers didn't notice was that the loosey-goosey atmosphere concealed a meticulously orchestrated structure.

Linklater describes himself as a guy who makes films “about people who talk a lot,” but he has also observed that the unique property of cinema is “how it lets you mold time, whether it’s over a long or very brief period.” Linklater’s most characteristic movies – “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused” and the three films of the “Before Sunrise” trilogy, made between 1995 and 2013 with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke – have all been adventurous explorations of cinematic time, both stretched and compressed. That fascination with time gets pushed to a whole new level in Linklater’s new film, “Boyhood,” which strikes me as something close to a masterpiece and the capstone of his career so far. (I reviewed its Sundance premiere in January, and will post an updated version soon.)

There is nothing like “Boyhood” in the history of cinema. People have compared it to Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries (which are wonderful), but other than the fact that both projects follow real people across a Herculean stretch of real time, they're not all that similar. “Boyhood” was made on a shooting schedule of 39 days, which is neither a little nor a lot in movie terms – but spread out over more than a dozen years. The premise could not be simpler: Follow the life of a boy in an ordinary American family from age 6 to age 18, from childhood to the edge of adulthood, from first grade to high school graduation. But instead of seeing different actors playing Mason Jr., the film’s protagonist, we watch child actor Ellar Coltrane grow up with his character, from an angelic but uncertain little kid to a dreamboat-handsome young man. Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, grows up a little ahead of him in the role of Mason’s big sister, while his parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, grow from impulsive young people into the compromises and minivans of middle age.

On one hand, “Boyhood” is a realistic fable of family life – divorce and remarriage, families broken and blended -- in Lone Star suburbia, largely devoid of the melodramatic plot elements motion pictures generally demand. But there’s also something of Tolstoy in it, something of Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (a lot, maybe), and something of Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons.” When I met Linklater recently at his New York hotel, he was wearing a black cowboy shirt stitched with white, like any other Texas tourist.

This movie is quite an odyssey, both the story behind the movie and the movie itself. You seem like the most unassuming and modest of super-ambitious film directors. (Laughter.)

I guess so. That’s always been my M.O. -- how to get away with shit.

I remember talking to you seven or eight years ago, when you became the first filmmaker ever to get two movies in the official selection at Cannes in the same year. [Those would have been “Fast Food Nation” and the animated Philip K. Dick adaptation “A Scanner Darkly.”] You seemed to have the same attitude about that: “Well, that was an interesting thing to happen.”

Go with the flow. Better than not having either film in, I guess. (Laughter.) What can you say? What can you do? I guess I don’t have a grandiose view of the world in general and I never believe it when someone else has a grandiose moment. I kind of go, “Yeah. Right. I don’t care.” I don’t believe in that, in general. Now, this movie, it’s hard to hide. Twelve years is undeniable. So it’s in everyone’s face.

Yeah. I mean, at a really basic level. This has never been done before, as far as anyone can tell.

Yeah. It kind of hasn’t. At the time I was thinking, “It’s such a simple idea.” I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done to whatever degree. I was sure that at some stage, someone would say, “Oh, what about that film from the Netherlands that was made in 1950? That’s just like this.” It hasn’t happened. By the end here, I realized why it hasn’t been done. Because it’s so impractical and so outside the comfort zone that it kind of fit my personality -- to be OK with collaborating with the unknown future. We’re all control freaks by definition and to admit something like this, to take it on, is just to admit that you really lack ultimate control.

I’m saying that I’m going to collaborate with an unknown future because I look at life that way. To me there is nothing about this realm of the film that doesn’t have a life corollary. I want cinema to be a part of my life. It’s natural for me. It’s my life project, so 12 years of my bigger and hopefully longer, cinematic life project is not a big deal for me.

Well, you faced a number of obstacles with this project, and I guess first and foremost there was the practical one: How do you get some producer to say yes to something that sounds so crazy. “Let me make a movie. Production is gonna take 12 years.” (Laughter.)

Yeah. Well, Jonathan Sehring at IFC was involved from the beginning. I remember talking to a few other producers that I knew about it. I was excited about it, and you kind of throw it out to people. And they were just like, “What are you talking about? Like, no!” Then they’d say, “It’s a great idea. I want to see that movie. But no. That money? I’m not a bank. I don’t know how to justify that on my books. Thirteen years or 14 years or whatever the fuck you are talking about.” They couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Where Jonathan, I think, thought about IFC’s long-term approach, about building a library of films. Basically, the pitch was: “At the end of this epic journey we’ll have this low-budget feature that will be kind of different.” Jonathan pitched it to the nervous people above him — whoever is on the hook for that money — like: “Well, at the end maybe it will be worth more than we spent?” (Laughter.)

But yeah, it’s a huge impediment. And I think it preempts a more ambitious version of this project. Like if Kubrick or Coppola had wanted to do it -- who’s going to give you that $4 million a year? Or that $2 million. James Cameron couldn’t do it. No one’s going to give me $10 million a year, which by year 12 is going to be $20 million a year.

I’d like to see the James Cameron movie made on this model, honestly. That would be great. So nobody’s ever actually done this before – but do you know if anyone ever thought about it, or tried it?

Well, I heard Kubrick actually flirted with it, with “A.I.” People have brought me stories, a little bit: “Oh, somebody thought of this!” Apparently Kubrick also wanted to maybe do a Napoleon movie this way. He wanted to film a young Al Pacino as Napoleon, and come back to him over time. He was flirting with this. So Kubrick was circling this idea, but I couldn’t see the control freak, OCD, Kubrick ever giving in to the storytelling possibility of this idea.

Did you ever have to embrace the possibility that it might not work? That at some point during the 12 years it might fall apart? Or did you just not think about that possibility?

I always took a real active approach: “Here’s the plan. Let’s do the plan. There will be incremental changes." I figured I could deal with whatever happens. But I looked forward to it, I looked forward to incorporating whatever is going on in my actors’ lives that maybe would throw me off my initial concept. It’s like, with Ellar Coltrane, if I would have bet during year one, I’d have said he was going to be a musician. His dad’s in bands. His dad’s a good musician. His mother is kind of a dancer and artist. He’s in Austin. I bet by teenage years he’ll be at band practice. We’ll have that scene. It didn’t happen. He found himself much more interested in visual arts. He was drawing, painting, taking pictures. For me, I kind of like the photography thing. That’s better for me. It’s closer to who I was. So I always knew the idea was open for these incremental adjustments. But I guess because the scale of the film was so intimate, I thought I could pull it off no matter what happened. That it would be manageable.

How much was your initial concept and structure written out or planned?

I’d say the whole structure. I’m a big structure guy. If you look at everything I’ve done, I’ve had to articulate it because I really — I’ve had to think about it now for 12 years. And I think, you know what? So much of what I’ve done is I’ve taken plot and replaced it with structure. I think it’s much more innate to the way the human mind works.

Yeah. I suppose “Slacker” is a classic example of doing that.

We get structure. The human psyche creates structure. We all go through our lives like, “Oh! And then I moved here.” We’re pattern-seeking, structure-producing machines. We created time. Years, months, seconds, centuries, millennia … you know? We did that. That’s not the world. The world doesn’t give a shit. We did that. The universe doesn’t think like that, we do. It’s very innate to humans to sense the structure and have that be a satisfying or logical device for a story. Whereas, to me, plot — I mean, there’s good plot, there’s real things that reoccur and make sense. But then it can be kind of ridiculous — let’s admit it’s a human construct.

So I’ve always believed in structure, and this couldn’t be more highly structured: First through 12th grade, the actual maturation process filmed. Twelve years of everyone’s life. I always believed in that structure. Him going off to college, I always knew it was going to end there. By year two or three, I knew that the last shot of the movie was going to, in a way, mirror the first shot. He’s alone, looking at the sky. At the end, he’s with this person he just met looking out, you know, a little bookend. I had that in mind early.

So, highly structured. But within that, a lot of -- you know, I wanted the whole thing to be like a memory. The Obama election, you’ll remember that when you’re old. You’ll remember there was this interesting election when you were a kid that your parents were excited about! You’ll remember the Harry Potter book signing! I mean, it’s your life now but you’ll back and go, “What was that? That’s never happened again.” Kids aren’t going to show up at midnight, for another book, 15 years from now.

I don’t think so! That was a once-in-a-lifetime cultural event.

It didn’t happen in my childhood. And I doubt it’s gonna happen again. You’re gonna look back at those things — like, I look at my own life and go, “The moon landing!” We took it for granted. You know, that was just my childhood. And then it stopped. And it never happened again. And as time goes on — I was talking to an engineering guy and he goes, “Single greatest engineering feat humanity has ever produced.” And it happened, coming up on 50 years ago. Not recent. It’s not the Internet, it’s not your iPhone. It’s putting a guy on the moon and returning home with very little technology by our standards, very primitive computers. That’s amazing. That humans did that. I mean, Harry Potter’s in the cultural realm, not a great feat of engineering. But I wanted the film to feel like a memory, like what you would remember from childhood, what were those moments that, you know, stick with you forever.

Obviously you let the real lives of Ellar and Lorelei affect the process to some extent. Did you have a principle in mind about where the dividing line was between what you were going to write in advance and how you were going to be pushed by real life?

I always wanted to reflect where they were at. I never wanted to make Ellar or Lorelei experience something they hadn’t actually experienced, or do something if they weren’t there yet. So it was kind of in communication with them, it was always like, “OK, so what do you guys do on weekends? Oh, you’re drinking? Oh, was there beer? Oh, marijuana? OK, well --”

Wow! So did you have those conversations with Lorelei and just sort of forget to be her dad in that moment?

I always had to sense where they were at, both of them. And, you know, the scene where Lorelei — I mean, my relationship with her as an actress is so unique because I’m so close to her. I knew how repulsed maybe she would be at the contraception talk, or anything to do with body stuff, body anything. So I’m like, “Ethan, this is the year now to do that talk. They’re right at the right age, let’s do that dad-trying-to-parent awkward thing. We had talked about that so let’s do that now.” Because I knew she’d be so awkward about it. So that’s just me being in touch. And with Ellar, it was also the same thing, where he was at. It’s really not them at the beginning, but by the end, the characters are kind of them. The film was always designed to kind of go there.

To converge with reality, to some extent.

Yeah. And I didn’t know what year that would happen, exactly. But I knew that collaboration would become more real every year, and it did. It did.

Unlike most family movies, this really isn’t that much the story of a marriage. Or if it is, it’s in retrospect. Ethan and Patricia's characters are already broken up before we get there. Why did you do it that way?

Well, I wanted the kids’ perceptions, like, as time goes on you can hardly remember your parents being together. And from the younger kid’s perspective, I thought, it’ll be vague what happened there. Your parents are separated but you weren’t privy to the breakup, they told you the result of it. I didn’t really want the audience to know any more than the kids knew. I think maybe the older daughter, Samantha, knows a little more but not much more. And then the subsequent relationships too, I kind of knew those would be a part, of it. There’d be a series of stepfathers, all seen from the kids’ perspective.

Yeah. It’s a pretty dire collection of stepfathers. (Laughter.)

Again, it’s the kids’ perspective. I don’t know if the guys are really that bad. But when you’re a kid and they’re invading your house and telling you what to do, they suck. I think just this new authority figure in your house — or maybe you’re in their house, which can be worse. Think of “Fanny and Alexander” — remember when they get sick? It’s a beautiful color movie and then they get sent off to this gray church. I saw that recently and I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s the same damn thing.” The movie goes monochromatic, practically.

I felt the influence of that film in this film. Obviously the setting is totally different, but it’s about a boy and a girl growing up, it’s about dealing with stepparents.

I mean, that movie is a moment in time. It’s one year or whatever. But yeah. That movie’s so great. Bergman has always gotten there. He never really did anything to do with children, except for that. There’s that kid in “The Silence,” who’s just kind of there, and there’s a kid in “Persona” briefly. But he never gave a shit about kids. That’s why “Fanny and Alexander” is so amazing. It’s his childhood, I guess.

Is there some a extent to which this is a story about your childhood?

Certainly. Yeah, it has to be. But filtered through all these other things. Unlike Bergman, I didn’t re-create it. He’s not really re-creating — he’s reinventing a time before he was born, if you really look at the dates. But I didn’t set this in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it’s definitely my childhood, my parenting, my own parents. But it’s also Ethan’s childhood and parents, it’s also Patricia’s. It’s also everybody’s. There’s a certain contemporariness of it. The timelessness of it. But a lot of the things, it is personal. That is my GTO, the one that Ethan’s character sells in the movie. I haven’t sold it yet. I’m hanging onto it.

How much did Ethan and Patricia collaborate in creating their characters?

That’s a little mysterious: Let’s start here and keep talking about your character for 12 years, where they’re going. Patricia remembers me mapping it out: You’re gonna get your degree, you’re gonna get divorced again, you’re gonna have a marriage too, and at the end, you’ll be alone when he leaves. She said I had it all, the big stuff. But the essence of it, each year getting that gestation time, that was the fun part. Patricia and Ethan were both great, just coming back at me with details about their furniture or whatever. All the details came out of this ongoing talk about where their characters were in their lives and their professions and their aspirations, where you catch them emotionally at any moment.

What’s the balance between script and improvisation in what we actually see on the screen?

We’re never improvising on camera. I don’t know how to do that. It’s just ongoing collaboration, you know? Usually, I would write a bunch and then we’d just try to make it work, and they would bring in so much.

I was thinking about that scene at the Astros game, where that guy hits a home run. You couldn’t possibly have known that was going to happen.

Yeah, I just -- in the script, it says “At Astros game.” There’s little dialogue: "Hey, Dad, do you have a job?" That’s all kind of worked out, but where to fit it in and how to do that, no. That was a wonderful collaboration with the unknown, and the film gods were with us. I’m pointing my camera for one inning, and the Astros are one of the worst offensive teams in baseball at this time. I’m pointing my camera down the third base line, basically the point of view of my people. I’m just saying, well, let’s just hope something happens. I need something! And then Jason Lane, who’s my favorite player of all time now, hits a home run. It’s not out of the frame, it’s not to center or right. It’s right down the line, in the shot. You know, it wasn't planned, but it just happened.

How many days every year did you have with your cast?

Generally it was three. We usually filmed three days, but it was also like, “Oh, they’re letting Patricia off her TV show a day early, so we got the weekend. She’s gotta catch the flight Sunday morning, but we can film another scene. Where they’re all together.” It was always a scheduling crunch.

So despite your laid-back Austin demeanor, you really had to be organized when you had these people together. It was work.

(Laughter.) Oh, yeah. This film had a year of pre-production and two years of post-production. Not your typical indie schedule. It was always putting a little puzzle together. I mean, every film is. This one was just times 12. Everything was that times 12.

“Boyhood” opens this week in New York and Los Angeles, with wider national release to begin July 18.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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