Regarded as a defining voice of Generation X following his early films Slacker and Dazed And Confused, Richard Linklater’s subsequent filmography has included a mainstream comedy classic with School Of Rock, the controversial Fast Food Nation, and a trio of life-in-a-day romantic dramas, which commenced with Before Sunrise. His eminently quotable words have remained a constant, with even R.E.M. paraphrasing his words in their single ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’: “Richard said, ‘Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy’.”
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Again packed with verbose philosophising, Linklater’s new film Boyhood ensues the 24-hour narrative for a story that charts 12 years in the life of a family. The parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, could be described as Gen X characters, but Linklater isn’t repeating his past work. Instead, his focus addresses the ordinary existence of people from childhood to middle age.
Filmed for a few days each summer over the course of those 12 years using the same core cast, the main focus of Boyhood is Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. Mason grows before our eyes from a child to a young adult as his identity and physicality evolves, year-on-year. The culture around him changes too, with subtle movements in fashion and current affairs drifting into his life, set to an almost chronological soundtrack that includes everything from The Flaming Lips to Lady Gaga. Indeed, the society around the family possesses a personality of its own, from the annoying older sister singing Britney Spears’ ‘…Baby One More Time’ to the Obama election campaign and the craze for all things Harry Potter.
“Whether it’s the music or just what’s going on in the world politically, there would always be some kind of backdrop,” says Linklater. “We started the movie post-9/11 but pre-invasion, I guess, and I saw that shaping up. When I was growing up, the Vietnam War was the backdrop. It was always on TV; it was just something that was going on constantly. It just felt like there was always a war going on. I wanted to capture how that felt from a kid’s point of view: it’s there, but you don’t really understand it.”
Despite Linklater’s obvious skills as a filmmaker, the success of Boyhood would have to depend on the performance of Coltrane, who plays Mason with growing confidence as the years roll by. “A six-year-old can’t really agree to anything long-term, can they?” laughs the director. “You can’t say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a job for you for the next 12 years’.”
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I wanted it to feel like how you remember your life. A lot of the time you think, ‘Why do I remember that?’ It seems so insignificant…
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Coltrane’s early interest and love of acting, together with the support of his parents, made him as reliable a choice as any six-year-old could be. “My goal was for it to be a fun expressive part of his life that would be something to look forward to. And Ellar never wavered; there was never a year where he said, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do it.’ My own daughter [Lorelei, who plays Mason’s sister Samantha], however, she wavered a little bit early on. But she got back with it. It helps if they get paid, too. You could make more money working for us for a week with three days of shooting than you can from an entire summer of flipping burgers.”
The big elements of the story – or in Linklater’s words: “The architecture of life” – was planned out in advance with even the closing image planned quite early in the process. The rest was “a collaboration with the future” during which Linklater had a year to plan ahead for the next scene. On one occasion, it was finally time to deploy a scene based around “a redneck bar mitzvah where he gets a gun and a Bible”. In others, it was more reactive to events in Coltrane’s own life. As Linklater recalls, “They were acting more in the first half of the movie. At some point, I said, there’ll be more of collaboration with who you really are. By the end, I wanted it to be pretty close, and I think that’s where we got to.”
It’s not, however, a laborious march from Mason’s first day at school to the day he leaves home, via experiments with sex, drugs and alcohol. Linklater professes to be bored with the over-significance attached to coming-of-age staples, so those elements are soft focus sections of the narrative.
“I wanted it to feel like how you remember your life. A lot of the time you think, ‘Why do I remember that?’ It seems so insignificant. It’s funny what has shifted out, and what’s still there. And also, with those ‘big events’, you often feel like you’re playing a role or something, like it’s not even you, it’s you going through some obligatory thing that you have to do.”
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He’s really just a guy who was born to live through a certain era, trying to make sense of it all…
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Essentially an everyman character with an independent streak, Mason’s genetic roots are interconnected with many of Linklater’s other creations. “He’s not a superhero, he’s not a secret prince of a kingdom or something, he’s really just a guy who was born to live through a certain era, trying to make sense of it all,” says Linklater, his voice carrying an element of surprise to even the most routine of questions. “I think, by the end, it looks like he’s left Dazed and is heading right into Slacker, and who knows, maybe he’ll go to Europe and meet a girl on a train in a few years. He ends up like a character from my other movies, but that was probably inevitable.”
Most films get under your skin when you try to second-guess the fate of the main character. Boyhood’s charms come to prominence with the realisation that Mason isn’t going to suffer a life-changing event. Simply, he’s going to keep existing. How does Linklater reconcile that concept with the need to entice an audience?
“It sounded good conceptually when people would ask about it. ‘Twelve years, everyone grows up... But what happens?’ And I’d go quiet.” The conviction in Linklater’s voice suggests that he always truly believed in the project, even if he admits to occasionally having doubts – which would only be natural over the course of more than a decade.
“I knew people would invest if they believed these characters and cared about them. With the way we perceive cinema and time, this cumulative power would hopefully play out. So at some point all these little things do add up to something.” He notes that little things are huge events when you’re a child, using a haircut as an example – perhaps inadvertently allowing a glimpse at little Linklater’s own childhood.
Boyhood is a film with plenty to say about the nature of family and the changes that evolve within us all. But what does it say about recent American society?
“Oh, I don’t know if it’s trying to say too much about that,” he states, but soon warms to the question. “I don’t see that much cultural change. I don’t see new forms of music particularly, I don’t see super new fashion trends, I don’t see new cars and architecture and new design. A lot of that creativity is in technology. I see a lot of change in that world.
“But in our world, I think I’m amazed by how little things change. My own little longitudinal cultural study tells me that things are slowing down. All of our creativity is coming out of technology and not so much the real world. If you go from 1959 to 1971, you’ve gone through some different looks; the culture looks different, right? Even ’79 to ’91, you’ve gone through different fashions, looks and hairstyles and music trends. But these 12 years? Ultimately, I’m not the best perceiver of that. A 20-year-old might pick out the nuances of how much culture has changed.”
Linklater’s status as an unappointed spokesman of Generation X may have passed, but his experience, together with a boyish enthusiasm for story, suggests that his best work is now emerging.
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Words: Ben Hopkins
Boyhood is in cinemas from July 11th, distributed by Universal.
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