FILM: For director, ‘Boyhood’ was an all-encompassing life project

The latest film by Richard Linklater should send him to the next level

For a film to work, the viewer must, in some way, believe what they are seeing is true. That doesn’t mean they all must be realistic, but for fantasy, science-fiction, biopics, comedies, documentaries—whatever—we just need to buy in to the reality conjured on the screen to get lost in the story. Director Richard Linklater, whose films typically take place in the real world, or a facsimile of the real world as we know it, is a master at this.

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His latest film, Boyhood, plays like a grand statement on this idea. Normal everyday life unfolds so furiously, with such care and precision, it’s easy to take for granted that it’s a brilliantly cinematic and well-crafted piece of art. Yet I imagine there will be little doubt that the film is anything but a modern masterpiece befitting a confident craftsman who has grown into one of America’s greatest living filmmakers. Having said that, Linklater still seems under appreciated by most film fans.

That’s likely to change as Boyhood is poised to be a huge crossover hit, a shoo-in for loads of Oscar nominations, and it just might make Linklater a household name. He’s always deserved to have that rarified status as a director whose name alone can sell a movie, alongside contemporaries like the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. Now it may actually happen.

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Heaps of attention has already been paid to Boyhood’s unique, admittedly high-concept structure. In almost three incredibly brisk hours, the audience experiences 12 years in the life of a boy (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane) and his family (the sister is played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei; the mother and father by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, returning for his eighth go-round with the director). No embarrassingly cheesy makeup effects were used, though, to age the characters. Linklater and his crew made the film over 12 years, a few weeks every year.

“[Audiences, critics] are interested because it’s just something they haven’t seen before,” Linklater said when I interviewed him last week. “If it works at all and isn’t a gimmick and touches people it’s even more compelling. Whenever you connect and it’s being interpreted the way it was put forth in the world and taken in the spirit that it was made…it’s wonderful when that happens.”

He’s never lit up the box office, save for School of Rock, a charming little 2003 studio picture he made with Jack Black which is by leaps and bounds his most commercially successful work (earning more than $130 million worldwide on a $35 million budget). Boyhood should also deliver commercially, and it’s further proof that Linklater can work in the mainstream and still retain his voice.

“You don’t have any control how your movies meet the world,” he said. “Sometimes the planets line up that people want to see it, sometimes they don’t.” His 1998 based-in-truth bank robbers tale, Newton Boys (another rare studio picture in his eclectic and odd oeuvre), starring Hawke and Matthew McConaughey, is a case in point. To Linklater, it never gained the audience he thought it deserved, going so far as to say that were the movie released today, people might  react more warmly to it. Perhaps the unstoppable McConaughey’s fresh Oscar-gold reputation can breathe new life into the mostly forgotten Newton Boys?

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For all the critical adulation and relative success of his most famous and revered films (the Before trilogy, Dazed and Confused; all of them near-perfect) it wouldn’t be that surprising to learn there’s yet another hidden gem worthy of a larger audience. My nominee would be A Scanner Darkly—subversive, funny, stylish and hallucinogenic.

“There’s only so much you can do about it,” Linklater said. “I feel fortunate that my films have had a chance, that they exist at all. I’m grateful, beyond that I can’t complain.”

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There was time in the second half of the ‘90s when things weren’t going as well. Financing projects was getting tougher, a few films underperformed. Maybe he was out of vogue. His output suffered (only two films in five years, subUrbia and Newton Boys). Linklater remembers that time as a struggle. “You just get sick of it, and there’s nothing more dangerous than the artist out of work,” he said.

“I’ve seen younger filmmakers go through that, too. You establish your voice or what’s different about you a few films in. Then by about that fourth or fifth film they’re kinda like, eh, this is getting old [laughs]. It happens, your time is up, people are sick of you. The culture just kind of agrees you’re on the outs for a little while. You don’t get the memo, no one tells you explicitly.”

The year before Boyhood went into production (shooting began in 2002), there was a spark that ignited an explosion of projects for Linklater, his most fertile and prolific period, 13 movies in 14 years. As he recalls, it was as simple as deciding to take things into his own hands.

“For me, that was making Waking Life and Tape back-to-back, for so little money,” he said. “If I had to draw a before and after moment I would say everything before Waking Life and everything after. To me, that just ends up this century versus last century. I’ve had a pretty good century.”

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Though it’s filtered through the constraints and inherent lie that is cinema, Boyhood is truth on screen. It’s a hybrid type of movie, combining reality with a narrative construct in a way that’s weird and fresh. I could point you to analogous ideas in movie history: as recent as the 1950s section of The Tree of Life and Shane Carruth’s brilliant Upstream Color or as far back as Michael Apted’s Up series or Francois Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine Doinel.

Yet none of these titles are quite like Boyhood. Linklater’s biggest latest gift to moviegoers is the most rare of things, real-deal originality. Its closest analog can be found in the opening scene of the director’s 2004 sequel Before Sunset, during which Ethan Hawke’s author character, Jesse, so beautifully describes an idea for another book:

The way Jesse describes this hypothetical character’s experience—in an instance, “all his life is just folding into itself and it’s obvious to him that time is a lie… that it’s all happening all the time and inside every moment is another moment… all happening simultaneously”—is akin to how Boyhood is structured, flowing seamlessly from moment to moment. It also articulates the experience of watching the film. Recalling your own experiences as you watch, you occupy “both moments simultaneously,” your life and the lives onscreen linked by the power of cinema and the filmmaker’s gift for finding big things in the common, the every day.

“It is so conceptual, isn’t it,” Linklater mused. It’s easy to link the two films together, as they both deal with the idea of time—manifesting viscerally for the audience its effects on the characters physically, emotionally and psychologically—and how people evolve (or devolve) through it.

How did Linklater come up with the approach to Boyhood? He talked about it a lot in our interview:

“I think of storytelling as there’s all these great stories in the world or things you’re trying to express, but for me the key is always the formal qualities. How to tell the story, not what the story is, but how you tell it. I’m trying to make a film about growing up and I hit a wall because my ideas are spread out over the whole process. A novelist can just cover all of it, but a filmmaker can’t. You’ve got this limitation with the age of the young actor in it. After two years of mulling it and hitting a wall this idea came to me. It solved my problem of how to tell this story.

“I’m often in the margins, thinking about time in cinema and narrative. It created a cinematic canvas on this idea. That’s all it was. I think all of my ideas have to do with time as structure device in lieu of plot. I’ve largely replaced plot with structure and time, which is more innate to the human psyche, if you think about it. How we process this thing called life and time, we do find a lot of structure and patterns. A lot of the films I’ve done that have a lot of these time structures actually contribute to the realism that I’m trying to communicate.

Boyhood is made up almost entirely of these intimate moments that have no place in a well-plotted story because they’re not moving the story forward quick enough and not revealing enough in themselves about character. It’s a different pace. This is a movie that would be cut out of all other movies, the entire movie. It doesn’t fit any traditional rules yet it’s as common as life itself.”

Boyhood was essentially a 12-year side project (“an all-encompassing life project”) for everybody involved. It never hit the back burner, according to Linklater, even during his most productive span of his career. “Any memory from my own childhood I would write down over the years and work into a scene, or anything I would hear anyone talk about. It’s not a bad way to go through life. You gotta pick your subject matter carefully in this world. This was ultimately something very life affirming, deepening and made me more life-aware. I was lucky. Even if I was busy with other things I always knew it was coming, it was always on my mind. It was very cool.”

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Nearly 23 years ago, a story about the director’s sophomore feature, Slacker, the film that jump-started his career, was published in a late summer midweek edition of the New York Times, featuring a picture of a young, long-haired Linklater under the Cinema 21 marquee.

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Picture by Brian Drake for the New York Times (Aug 7, 1991)

He remembers it as a weird time, when Slacker was growing bigger. “It was clear it was becoming a cult film, something else. We broke through at that point and I just happened to be in Portland for that picture when it happened. That film rolled out slowly, so it was kinda cool when it hit that bigger place.”

It was a different time for indie movies then. “They don’t really occupy a place in our culture [anymore], the film out of nowhere from nobody,” Linklater said. “It’s kinda sad. A film like that which only grossed $1.3 million had a big cultural impact. Now I don’t think anyone would take it very serious because that’s not quite big enough. We live in very inflated times. I like films about ideas rather than box office. Or a film that’s different and breaking some new ground. That should be the story rather than how well it’s doing.”

He was hoping to make it back Portland to take a new picture for the release of Boyhood, which, appropriately, opens Friday at Cinema 21, the place where Portlanders first learned what a Richard Linklater film was. Alas, he couldn’t fit it into his busy schedule. Making a movie that’s got everybody talking (and wanting to talk to its maker) will fill your calendar fast.

But, he promised: “I’ll be back there some day and we can take that picture.”

If he does, it would be just another moment within a moment, happening simultaneously. Anyway, that’s kind of the idea…

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