Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"...all these little intimate moments, nothing more than that...": Richard Linklater on Boyhood

Dear readers,
Once again it is incumbent upon me to do some figurative flagellation for my neglect to post anything in this phantom country for over a month, though the truth is that ol' JB has been recovering from an accident and the blog had to fall in priority below stuff like, you know, health. 
But hey! Who doesn't want to read a Richard Linklater interview? Will that make up a little? Will that appease those of you who so graciously read this blog with whatever degree of regularity? Huh? Huh? Anyway, more to come real sooooon...

Boyhood’s visual refrain are its protagonist’s wide open eyes, taking in the world, first at six, then at seven, eight and nine, all the way to that age when boyhood is shed for manhood. Mason ages 12 years over the course of Richard Linklater’s truly extraordinary film about ordinary things—trying to make arrowheads by putting rocks in a pencil sharpener, going camping with your father, poring over lingerie catalogues, catching sight of awful images from Fallujah on TV in a bowling alley, watching your smart mother make seemingly inexplicably poor choices in men—as does actor Ellar Coltrane, who began making Boyhood with Linklater in the summer of 2002, when he was only six.

Overwhelmingly moving and brimming with perfectly realized moments of childhood discovery, there has never been anything quite like Boyhood before. Its time-lapse effect has its precedents in, say, Michel Apted’s Up series, Truffaut’s Antoine Doniel films, and Linklater’s own Before trilogy, but the peculiar vertigo you feel in watching characters age 12 years in 164 minutes feels like a watershed moment in movies. And Linklater’s decision to refrain from melodrama feels like the right way to try out this gambit. We can best feel time’s passage by letting it pass without imposing cataclysm or wilds fortune upon it.

Coltrane is joined onscreen by Lorelei Linklater (the writer/director’s daughter) as his sister, Patricia Arquette as his mother, who goes back to school and finds a new career while being a single mother, and Ethan Hawke as his dad, already out of the picture by the time the film begins, though he shows up more and more as time passes, first in a GTO, later in a minivan. The family lives in Texas, and a memorable interlude has Mason receive a Bible and a shotgun for his 15th birthday, his “redneck bar mitzvah,” as Linklater puts it. Songs by Cat Power, Wilco, Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo help place us in time, as Mason/Coltrane’s voice changes, face changes, body grows, and ideas gradually get articulated. “I just thought there would be more,” Arquette says near the film’s end, watching her son prepare to leave her with an empty nest. Those words are heartrending and ring true, yet for the viewer, it’s hard not to think, “But there was so much!”

Richard Linklater

I spoke with Linklater a few weeks back. There is indeed so much that can be said about Boyhood, but I’ll cut this short and let the below conversation cover some of that.

JB: Is this a project you would have undertaken were you yourself not a parent?

Richard Linklater: Never. I wouldn’t have had the idea. When I did I’d been a parent about six years. Which really thrusts you into the mind-set of that developing kid, and which can’t help but dredge up memories of your own childhood. It wouldn’t have felt worthy of exploration had I not been experiencing it, I think.

JB: Whatever parenting skills you’d developed by that point must have came into play not only when directing your own daughter, but also when directing your lead actor.

RL: Absolutely. Everybody knows the old saying in film about not working with kids or animals, but I actually found I was good at it. I like working with kids. I went from the first shoot on Boyhood directly to working on School of Rock. That’s how confident I was. That film was nothing but a bunch of nine- and ten-year-olds.

JB: Parents always talk about how time flies when you’re watching kids grow. One of the things that makes Boyhood so moving is that you’re watching 12 years of a boy’s life fly past in a little over two-and-a-half hours. We feel swept up in time’s passage in such a visceral, overwhelming way.

RL: Yeah, there’s something there about the fleeting nature of our lives. I think you can feel that even if you’re not a parent. Everyone was a kid once. Everyone has parents and siblings and schools. We’re so similar in our maturation process worldwide—more similar than we are different. That’s just what I was hoping to get at with this movie and its particular process. Time flies and we do all get a year older.

JB: Is there anything that might have happened to Coltrane that would have thrown you for a loop? I mean, if he became a juvenile delinquent, or something horrible, like he lost an arm?

RL: [Laughs] I think I would have just kinda gone with it. I never viewed him as a risk. Technically it’s a little insane to make a movie like this, but I had some faith that things would work out. It’s just a way to approach life. You got to assume the best and work hard and hope you get lucky. This whole film involves collaborating with an unknown future. Which is the deal we all make in our lives. So I just tried to feel ready to deal with not only my four cast-members, who are growing up and aging, but also the world in general.

JB: I know that some of Boyhood is autobiographical for you, and I was thinking that, if you were to write a book based on your childhood, or make a period film, like Dazed and Confused, you can control most every aspect of the story and its degree of fidelity to your life, whereas making a film like this one you’re obligated to reflect whatever’s going on around you. That feels like something new to me: it’s fiction, it’s also based in history, yet it’s inherently responding to things happening in the present, like documentary.

RL: It’s a pretty simple idea and people keep asking me why no one’s ever done it. It may have something to do with film people being control freaks. With this MO you have to relinquish certain levels of control and go with the flow. For me, that was exciting! I didn’t know what was coming in the future but I was committed to just adapting. Like life. There was always a life corollary behind our decisions. 12 years is a long time. But I’ve committed my life to film, so to commit 12 years to one project isn’t that crazy.     

JB: One of my favourite scenes in Boyhood is when Hawke is coaching the kids in conversation—and they coach him right back, reminding him that conversation should happen naturally. As I watched this scene it occurred to me that I was watching a lesson in acting in a Richard Linklater movie. Something I like about your films is how people have fluid, easy conversations about big ideas. Ethan Hawke seems particularly deft at capturing that element of your work.

RL: I remember 20 years ago, when I was casting for Before Sunrise, thinking that what I really needed was just the most verbally dextrous and really sharp actor around for that role. That was Ethan. 100%.

JB: Boyhood is filled with things that only happen in a person’s life once. I wouldn’t assume that you’re ever going to do anything quite like this again, so, given that you spent 12 years working on this, do you feel bereft now? I can imagine it might be hard to let go.

RL: I don't know that it’s bereft exactly. On one hand I come away feeling elated that it worked as I’d hoped. On the other, honestly, I just haven’t really processed it yet. It’s out, people are seeing it, but I don’t know that I’m fully cognizant of its being over. With other films there’s been a pattern to help me predict how I’m going to feel. But everything about Boyhood has been unpredictable. Everything about this film was always different.

JB: I think about the moment when Patricia Arquette is driving the kids away from their home forever and she says, “Don’t look back.” That sounds like a crucial survival technique for her. But as an artist you don’t really have that option. It’s hard to tell stories, much less promote those stories, without looking back on your own experience.

RL: Tell me about it. You can’t help it. Your mind is always going forward or back. You have to talk it out lots. But yeah, “Don’t look back” is a way of getting through sometimes, filing something away like it never happened.

JB: I know people keep asking you what would have happened had Ellar given up at some point in the project, but what about you? Did you ever want to give up?

RL: I never stopped feeling lucky just to have the opportunity to make this film at all. I had waves of doubt maybe at the start. We were accumulating all these little intimate moments, nothing more than that, and I did wonder, “Will this be enough? Will it be compelling?” I bet the farm on this idea that the accumulation of such moments over time could be everything. But one or two years in I knew it would work the way I wanted it to. If you can’t draw people in with such moments of universal truth, what can you draw them in with?

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