Richard Linklater has every reason to be proud of his latest movie, and he knows it. Visiting town in May for SIFF, the genial Austin, Texas, filmmaker was in the middle of a triumphant festival rollout for Boyhood (reviewed here by Robert Horton), from Sundance to Berlin to South by Southwest. The film, made over 12 years as its lead actor ages before our eyes, has received uniformly great reviews. It's already on my 10-best list for the year, and I think it'll get—and it deserves—an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. (Linklater's been nominated twice before, for co-writing Before Sunset and Before Midnight.)
Is the movie, I ask Linklater, as much about the family of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as a portrait of the growing individual? "It's really from the boy's perspective," he says, "but I knew it'd encompass the family, the siblings, the parents. I knew it'd be all of the above. It can't help but be about the family. You see how beholden we are, how intertwined we are, how dragged-through our parents' lives we are, how much our siblings are in our worlds growing up."
Given the frequent moves and serial marriages of Mason's mother (Patricia Arquette), the intermittent appearances of his father (Ethan Hawke), and the family's economic uncertainty, is this a normal American family? "I think they're pretty normal," says Linklater. "They're just getting by, lower working class, a typical struggling family. Probably the majority of our country is a lot closer to them than what we see represented quite a bit."
In a real and remembered sense, since we filmgoers have lived through the same dozen years of history, the economic stresses and background news events that affected us affect Mason, too. Shooting a few days each summer, Linklater recalls, "It was adapting to conditions. We started before the Iraq invasion. The Obama election of '08—that comes up in real life, and I'm like, 'Yeah, I want to work it in.' That's something you're gonna remember. I didn't know how it would end up. We did it before the election. I was personally hoping Obama would win. It was just an interesting moment, especially in a polarized place like Texas."
Time is fluid in Boyhood, which forgoes the usual coming-of-age milestones and melodrama. Linklater explains, "The tone of the film came to me in one big swoop. It would transition with no demarcation, no titles, no years, nothing. I wanted it to flow like a memory does. I think audiences will pick up the different times. You get your orientation." Familiar songs reflect the passing years; we see a few news events on TV; and Harry Potter parties give way to iPhones and Facebook. It's the latter touchstones that stick in a child's mind, says Linklater, along with new houses, friends, and step-siblings. As for the wider world, a child "might not be informed, but you would be aware something was going on. Like I grew up when the Vietnam War was going on in the background, and I didn't totally understand the politics of it. It's just around."
Childhood is a kind of bubble in the movie, and it comes as shock to Mason each time his mother packs up for a different home or husband. "That just mirrors my own childhood," says Linklater, whose own parents divorced. "You change towns, Mom gets a job... you don't have much control as a kid. And you think, 'Everything will stay the same, and we'll still stay in touch.' But you can't, you don't, especially at a young age. Life is a series of losses. You just go where the breeze takes your parents, whatever those circumstances are. You remember all that. In a way, that's the narrative backbone of the film: the family moving and relocating and different family situations. It's not really the essence, but it's the structure."
That constant mutability—of Mason, of his family, of life in general—is an evident theme of Boyhood, which Linklater had mapped out from the start, he tells me. Still, with each year's new filming, didn't he have to adjust his writing to the times and aging cast? "I never saw it as a re-assessment," he replies, "I just saw it as an ongoing process. This thing wasn't like a film, it was like a living sculpture or something, a life project. This one demands kind of a leap of faith and a certain trust in the future. Kind of like in life: You will collaborate with it. Whatever it gives you, it'll be something you have to deal with. We're kind of control freaks by nature, film people. But we had to give that up and have some confidence that we'd deal with the way the kids in this were developing—and whatever else was going on in the culture. There's just an ongoing collaboration there with time."
Linklater still sounds enthusiastic about the long breaks (during which time he made other movies, including Bernie and Bad News Bears), citing "that year of gestation to think... to have that year to look at all the footage that we'd shot and edited, to think about all those relationships." It's a temporal experience that no other director (or viewer) has had, though there are parallels to the Seven Up! documentary series, and to watching Jean-Pierre Léaud grow up in the movies of François Truffaut. Linklater adds, "It was a huge luxury not to have a release date, to have no concerns other than [the movie] itself. It felt like a living cinematic time sculpture."
Did he ever have doubts about editing it down to shape—that Boyhood might end up a TV mini-series instead? "No. I knew the last shot of the movie. I knew that probably by the second year. I was always thinking of the big picture. With the first two sections edited together... it was like, 'It's working the way I wanted it to.' And by six years, 'OK, it's all going as planned.' I had enough time to think about it. I just believed in the strong central concept of the movie.
"People would ask, 'What happens in the movie?' I would go 'Not much.' I didn't have much to say. Because each scene is kind of banal. Each scene on its own wouldn't fit into another movie. But I think there's a cumulative effect that it would all add up. You would be invested in these people and accept their reality. It's the ultimate sum being greater than the parts. But that's how we feel about our own lives. As you get older, you really feel it, you have a perspective."
By 18, entering college, the character of Mason has gained some of that perspective on the small, significant moments we've seen before. "He's kind of got it figured out," says Linklater. "He's had his little revelations. He's viewing the world kind of skeptically, and he's thinking for himself."
Before then, it's all flux and childish (and adolescent) impressions for Mason—a life in transition, never settled. "That's just how it felt being that age," says Linklater. "I remember you were in a constant state of becoming. Everything you're doing is for some future purpose. You're in school to get smart and learn. You're eating healthy so you can grow and your brain works well. Everything has a purpose other than itself, if seems. That's what the world is throwing at you."
Significantly, that long gestation process for Mason's near-adult personhood leaves him at about the same age as his screen parents were when their son was born (and about the same age as Hawke in Before Sunrise). The loop is closed in a way. After that, says Linklater, "A new hand is dealt you in adulthood that you can't really imagine."
Moviegoers now the age of Hawke and Arquette, some of them parents, will see Boyhood quite differently than their kids or millennial viewers closer to Coltrane's age. "It's a very different experience as an adult watching the movie," says Linklater. "Time and history are so relative. What's recent to us is a lifetime to them."