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Richard Linklater Discusses His 12-Year Project 'Boyhood,' Chronology, Memory & A Movie That Occurs Offscreen

Photo of Jessica Kiang By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 18, 2014 at 1:20PM

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.

So it’s about keeping the process creative and not just fulfilling a blueprint?
Absolutely. I’m not interested in just rendering something I thought up a long time ago. I want it to be very much a living, breathing object based on the creativity of the people involved. [The trick is] to max that out right at the point of shooting. So you’re like, right we’ve thought about this as much as we can, and this is now game time… and then it’s over. I never do the next day thing of “Oh, I wish I’d…” I never allow myself to do that. It’s always, “No we did our best.” Because we did.

Another characterizing element of it for me was the interplay between the present-tense feel and the sense of it all as remembered.
It should be those two things. I kind of saw it as a memory film. I mean, it’s very contemporary to the moment but I wanted at the end of the day for it to feel like a childhood memory of what life was like. Which is hard to do, when you’re always in the present moment, especially when you’re shooting this way. By definition it’s very linear, very present.

"I was allergic to things I have seen depicted in fiction enough times that I don’t know if there’s anything fresh to do there."

But it’s also shaped by the moments you choose to include, which are so rarely the big dramatic events themselves and are much more often the small moments before or after.
That was a choice for sure. I guess when I thought of each next year, I thought, “Well this is about the time he’d have a first girlfriend, ok, well that just happened, offscreen" and I’d just pick it up there. It’s just a choice, maybe someone else would have hit all those points, and that’d be okay, that’d be a certain type of movie. But I guess I was allergic to things I have seen depicted in fiction enough times that I don’t know if there’s anything fresh to do there. And graduation to me wasn’t walking across the stage and getting my diploma, it was in the car with my buddy after. You know what goes on around the stuff. So much of this movie happens offscreen. I mean the very beginning, the pivotal point happens before the movie even starts — the breakup of the parents.

A great deal of the film’s relationship to its time periods are communicated through the soundtrack. At Sundance, you mentioned that you weren’t sure all the tracks were 100% cleared yet.
I’m more sure now, not absolute, but more sure. And yeah, the music works in this thing on a couple of levels, I mean there’s a chronological element — you know, the music is from a certain moment—but then a lot of it is about the point of view of the characters: who’s listening to it, whose taste is it? Is it what’s on the radio or is it what Olivia’s listening to, or the Dad’s a musician, so what would he listen to?

And then as the film goes on I think the music reflects more of Mason’s own taste. I mean, when you’re young that’s how you define yourself and your taste, by “I’m going to go buy this album, or download these songs.” Culture is coming at you, it’s being force fed to you so I think you define yourself by what you’re choosing to consume.

Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater

It's interesting also how you managed to choose songs that didn’t have particular meaning for me, but that I totally understood and reacted to emotionally in this context. I mean, it’s the only film to have given me a pang at a Sheryl Crow song. How did you select the tracks?
That’s a good question, some I remember just being big in the culture. But unlike say “Dazed and Confused” where I could go like ”Yeah, I was making out in a car to that so,” here I was 40 when I thought of this movie. I can’t tell you what an eleven year-old or a seven year-old [at the time] would have been hearing.

We did research in fact, with kids who were somewhat the age—this is a few years in. I made a list, I gave them hundreds of songs and they checked through and sometimes they gave me back songs, but they had to write a little narrative about what they were doing and what that song meant to them. So it wasn’t necessarily what it meant to me because I wasn’t the age, but it meant something to them. So I was like, ok, that’s a good litmus for me.

And a lot of the feedback was stuff like, “I kinda hated this song, but my older sister was listening to it all the time.” So then it was me, going through a lot of music. Some I wasn’t that familiar with, and was like, oh right, now I see what everyone’s talking about! My older self, I wanna listen to what I wanna listen to, but this was good, it opened me up to a lot of new stuff that wasn’t in my present world.

This article is related to: Berlin International Film Festival, Richard Linklater, Interviews, Interview, Boyhood, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

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