Richard Linklater is a lot like a Richard Linklater movie. There’s a looseness, and an approachability that is engaging (and made for an enjoyably chatty Berlin Film Festival interview), but it’s also somewhat deceptive of the deeper currents of thoughtfulness and a kind of philosophical curiosity, that run beneath the laid-back, genial exterior. And both these sides of his personality are on full display in the wonderful “Boyhood” (our Sundance review is here) his twelve-years-in-the-making study of a young boy from ages six through eighteen, when he finally leaves home for college. It is both a simple, unpretentious portrait of a certain child coming of age, and a sprawling, ambitious, encompassing exploration of grand universal themes. It’s hard to think of another example where the operatic has been so unassumingly presented.
Of course, much has been made of the unprecedented nature of the shooting schedule: Linklater and his actors—Ellar Salmon, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and his daughter Lorelei Linklater play the central family—shot scenes once a year, for twelve years. And certainly, marshalling that sort of a production, and getting that sort of commitment from cast and crew is a fantastic technical achievement, aside from anything else. But what might have been slightly obscured in all that is that the film in its finished form is far more than an exercise in a kind of “Can I pull this off?” gimmick; it is a thought-provoking and intelligent attempt to evoke the actual sensation of time passing, lives being lived, and identities being constructed.
It seems clear that these concerns pre-existed the idea for the drawn-out shooting process. Indeed, Linklater’s other magnum opus, the ‘Before’ trilogy (the second of which he conceived the year after the “Boyhood” project began filming), can also be seen to have many of the same preoccupations with transience, albeit in a more conventional form. A few days before Linklater would be up on stage accepting his Silver Bear for Best Director, we had the pleasure of talking to him about how he approached “Boyhood,” time, memory, the universal, the specific and Sheryl Crow. Here’s our interview in full.
I hear you got a kind of awkwardly long ovation at the public screening last night?
Ha, yeah, you never know quite how to deal with that. Usually in the U.S. they stop when I say “Thank you!” but here they kept going and going. It’s a weird position to be in, but who could complain?
You did spend 12 years making this film so maybe they felt the least they could do was spend five minutes applauding.
Well, that’s the cool thing when the audience responds in the spirit of what you put forth. It’s like, okay, a lot of effort went into this and they’re feeling that the film reflects that and they appreciate that it’s unique and something they hadn’t seen.
And it must be heartening to see the film travel so well outside of the States?
Well that’s always a question, how will it travel? And what cultural things, like what will get a bigger laugh? The NSA line got a bigger laugh in Berlin than in the U.S.—Germans take that stuff very seriously and so it was funny to them, you know. We’re the ones tapping [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s phone! So certain things resonate more, and then other things less.
But I wasn’t totally surprised because even though it’s specific to the U.S. there’s something about the film that taps the commonality of the human maturation process. And parenting. too. It’s one of those films where you see the universal in the specific. I’d a guy from Africa tell me that “Oh, it kind of explains my dad to me” because he found something in it. And that’s what we do when we observe art, we take it in and adjust it to our own lives.
I really wanted to ask you about the universal and the specific in the film. Because to me it starts universal as in, the story of a boy, and becomes specific, as in the story of this boy.
I think that mirrors how we go through our lives, like at first you don’t even know your boundaries. I’m just alive. I’m a kid, I’m getting my impressions. But as my world gets bigger and I grasp more of it I feel like more of an individual. Some species you’re just a tribal member, there’s no notion of self. But for me, it’s the growing conscious awareness of yourself in relation to parents, siblings, culture, school. It hopefully mirrors that awareness spectrum that I was thinking about a lot.
And as a kid things are happening to you, and you’re reacting. But then he becomes a little more conscious, he defines himself, becomes more vocal, he has tastes. And that’s how I felt in my own life. Also, we define ourselves a lot by what we’re not. There’s a universality to being born, but from that point on all the things you’re not is the sculpture of what you are.
And that’s not to mention just the sheer accumulation of time. I bet the whole farm on that property of storytelling, that you would become invested and this would be a building up of time unfolding.
Is it the film you’d envisioned twelve years ago?
Actually, yes. It’s the best version. I’m not kidding.
How did the scripting process work? What did you start out with back then?
Certainly not the dialogue. I knew the structure. Like, I knew the last shot of the movie eleven years ago, let’s say. But I was playing off everything that was happening in front of me, collaborating with Ethan [Hawke] with Patricia [Arquette] and the kids, who, as they matured, they become even more collaborative. It was always this open process and anybody could contribute. Because it was such an interesting thing to contemplate — childhood and parenting, we’re surrounded by it. Our own kids, our own selves as parents, ideas of our own parents; it was this ongoing thing.
And it was great to have the luxury of time. You know, every year I had a year to think up the next part, based on everything that had gone before. So by year four, I’ve got three years that I can look at, that are edited, that we’ve been working on, and I can feel where it’s going and where it wants to go. I was stuck with this kind of architecture but yet within that the décor, the details were always being reworked, being found. That’s kind of how I work on any movie, there’s always a strong outline, a structure and then within that structure, a certain looseness to work with the actors. It makes you keep working — the night before, I want to have the great idea that keeps the scene interesting, I want to leave myself open to that.