BoyHood fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. This Friday, innovative writer-director Richard Linklater’s bold 164-minute opus covering twelve years in the life of a boy (Ellar Coltrane as Mason), as well as his sister (the director’s daughter Lorelei as Samantha) and his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette as Olivia and Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr.) opens in New York City. I’m sure you’ve heard how Linklater, who broke cinematic ground when he reunited his youthful Before Sunset (1995) stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy nine years later to play the same characters in Before Sunrise (2004) and nine years after that for Before Midnight (2013), has been working clandestinely on this film that does away with even more cinematic rules in regard to time and structure. For this unique film, he reunited his four cast members every year, until both Mason and Ellar were ready for college. Here’s what is said in the press notes: “Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, Richard Linklater’s BoyHood…charts the rocky terrain of childhood like no other film has before. Snapshots of adolescence from road trips and family dinners to birthdays and graduations and all the moments in between become transcendent, set to a soundtrack spanning the years…BoyHood is both a nostalgic time capsule of the recent past and an ode to growing up and parenting. It is impossible not to watch Mason and his family without thinking about our own journey.” On Monday, I was in Manhattan for the following press conference with Linklater, Coltrane, Arquette, and Hawke.
Q: How did this project change your idea of what is cinema and what cinema could be?
Richard Linklater: I had never seen this film before. I kind of figured at some point, people would be pointing out to me how this film had been made before, in some country. But that never has happened–no one came forward with a film that felt original to me, that I hadn’t seen before. It felt like it was a huge but very simple idea that I had, based on years of thinking about it. Cinema in general, narrative storytelling–I have been thinking of the possibilities of it in relation to time and structure for my adult life. When I first got involved with film, I was excited that it had all these really unique storytelling possibilities, I loved the medium so much. And I still think film is a wide-open frontier for storytelling. With this film, I was solving a particular problem, so I liken [what I was trying to do]–-it may sound arrogant –to a scientist who goes to sleep at night and then dreams of the formula for whatever solves his problem. If you’re a scientist and you’re thinking of a problem, the answer’s obvious. I’m kind of in that same boat, but I’m a storyteller who was trying to figure out how to tell the story in BoyHood given the limitations I was confronted with.
Patricia Arquette: I feel like I’ve watched this really strange shift in cinema over the course of my career and I’ve seen it become a business of bankers and spreadsheets. I [admire] the way Rick chose to use restraint when directing this movie and the way he balanced structure with collaboration. He didn’t tell the audience a dramatic story, and most people would say to him, “You’re not fulfilling the formula of storytelling. You’re not gearing to this or that demographic.” [Instead] in this movie there are philosophical elements of human connection and communication, and space for the human relationship. I think the more we move towards technology in our human communications, the more we’re going to have the need, as human beings, to see movies like this that are about humans. What this movie also does well, and I think that young film audiences will enjoy this–is being supportive of exploration [and creativity].
Ellar Coltrane: I think there’s this tendency or need to gravitate towardshyper-drama as if that’s the only thing that makes a story worth telling–those big fantastical moments that don’t happen to most of us. But I think it’s really powerful to dwell on the little things.
Ethan Hawke: It’s interesting that this movie actually gets a lot of power off our preconditioned experiences of the cinema, of our expecting something big is going to happen. There’s an unbelievable tension in the minutia of the movie, because we’re so conditioned to think, “Well, something horrible must happen. We wouldn’t just be watching some people drive to this university if there isn’t going to be a car wreck, right?” What I love is that it actually [taps into] how a lot of my life is wasted worrying. The movie captures that feeling of, “Well, they’re spending the night camping and it’s so scary.” How do we ever survive those nights? There’s something about the way the movie tells its own story but it doesn’t live in a vacuum. The story [resonates] because it is in response to things [not in the movie].
Q: Rick, in your movie Waking Life, you speak about [grasping those moments in life that are socially unacceptable to share.]. Do you think that the vastness of this movie allowed such powerful moments [to stand out more]?
RL: I hope so. The playing field here was real in that way. I didn’t want anything to feel like it wasn’t earned or wasn’t tethered to some kind of reality. I don’t think there’s anything in the movie that didn’t come out of my life or their lives, or something real-world-based. Once you get people to accept it as real, it really opens up to a realm of possibilities [for] how to experience the movie. Look at the vast emotional spectrum. Once you’re getting into people’s own lives, there’s an incredible area or possibility. It was designed to do that, and you can’t specifically say what someone might experience at a given moment. But once you get people to just think about life in general, about their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, and about their own experiences, it triggers all kinds of wonderful things, I hope. Painful and wonderful. Who knows?
DP: Maybe because this film is meant to be about real people, I thought there was a real consistency with the four main characters, in the sense of who they turn out to be after twelve years is who you’d expect from the beginning. For me, there are real subtle and small changes in the characters over time. But do you think I’m wrong and that there were big changes in your characters?
EH: It depends on how you define big and small. They’re certainly small changes by any normal standards of storytelling. But my character goes through significant changes of who he is at the end versus who he is at the beginning. Certainly the boy does. We all do. And they’re very human changes. .
EC: A lot of small things, but after twelve years you’ve aged twelve years. It’s day-to-day, each day you just another day older.
DP: But, Rick, were you going for that consistency year by year and over the twelve years?
RL: The whole movie is kind of a collection of little, intimate moments that probably don’t fit into most narratives. They’re not advancing the character enough, or the story enough, or the plot enough. They all add up to something bigger than each little piece of it. And that mirrors our lives. Everything had a life corollary in that way.
EH: I remember years ago being in a rehearsal room with the great Tom Stoppard, and he was talking about how plot is this unfortunate device that the audience just needs, and what’s funny about plot is that over time you don’t even remember it. He talked about the obvious example of Lawrence of Arabia. You can watch that movie and twenty-five years later you still remember him standing on top of that train, expressing this feeling of power as he is becoming fully actualized. He really wants to be in this kind of close-up. And I couldn’t even tell you where in that story that moment is, or what’s going on. I just remember that I was moved by it. Rick was kind of daring with this movie to forego what Stoppard thought was necessary, bogus plot. Our lives don’t have plot, but he felt their narratives do–and this movie skirts around that.
RL: I’ve replaced plot with structure. The more I have to think about it, it’s like, yeah, structure is plot. We put structure on everything, including time. And structure doesn’t have a lie to it, whereas often plot does. It’s not so much a construct as being innately human.
Q: Rick, I read that your daughter had doubts about this movie.
RL: No, she just didn’t want to get up at ten.
EH: It wasn’t even that early.
RL: Had she not been my daughter, I don’t think she would have [stuck with it]. Her character would have to die, and that would have been a little dramatic for what we were going to do. But all that was fleeting, she really enjoyed making the movie.
Q: Did any of the rest of you have doubts or was it just a fun experience getting together every year?
RL: It was really special for us to work on it and it was special to get together every year. The cast and crew felt it. We all committed to it. A life project. It never felt like anyone wavered, ever.
EH: At first it seemed a little bit like a fun experiment, and then it turned into something I love so much. I think I can collectively say we all only grew to love it more and more and more. We fell in love.
PA: This experience of coming together every year–it was collaborative and it built upon itself. I felt safe with everyone, and I trusted the process. When you’re in the right hands and you jump into the void together from the get-go, really great things can come of it.
Q: Was it difficult to get back into character when you would meet again?
EC: I get asked that a lot. It was a very long build-up every year. Every time we had a couple of months to think about what we would be doing, and then we did a solid week of work-shopping and building our characters and figuring out where they were that year. So by the time we got to the filming, we were already there.
EH: And the truth is, we had a very good director. My father’s a mathematician and usually mathematicians have their breakthrough ideas when they are extremely young. So it’s kind of interesting that you, Rick, were in your forties when we started this because I don’t think your style of filmmaking has really changed that much. You had a lot more experience, but I’m not sure it would have been different if you’d started it when you were twenty-six. However, I can say that your working with Ellar was different from the way you worked with Lorelei, which was different from the way you worked with me, which is different from the way you worked with Patricia. I’ve worked with Rick eight times now, and I’ve watched Rick learn how to speak to people the way they need to be spoken to. And that’s what helped us be ready to play. We were always prepared to play.
Q: I think that one of the most important things about this film is that it’s about the transformative process of art. That comes across in the way it’s constructed, but also at the point Mason picks up photography and it really changes his life. Was that a conscious decision, the idea of choosing photography, and is that paralleling Ellar’s life experience?
RL: I always thought we’d see Mason drift into some art, some form of expression, by junior high or high school; at some point he would start to express himself. I didn’t know exactly what form that would be. I thought it might be either writing or music. If I had to have bet year one, I’d have bet that he’d be in a band at some point. But Ellar actually did become a visual artist. He’s very interested in photography, and I personally like that. I was taking pictures at that age. I remember saying, “Oh, that’s great, perfect.” That was a perfect segue, and a perfect thing for his character to get into.
EC: Yeah, absolutely. I think being lost in an artistic process is a very therapeutic thing, an outlet that’s incredibly valuable.. No matter what it is, just to throw yourself into dreaming something.
EH: The most beautiful experience for me about making this movie is watching Ellar survive adolescence and become a creative entity unto himself. It’s Ellar’s performance and his creativity and passion in the movie that elevated us all. Ellar, you were a central figure and you let the movie be not just Rick’s expression but also yours. That was happening in the movie and it was happening on the set. Ellar is not Mason, they’re very different people, but there was a similar development.
Q: And, Ethan and Patricia, do you relate to theme of the arts being transformative?
EH: Patricia and I discovered the arts when young. Much has been said about how transformative and healing the arts can be. But you can be creative in a lot of different ways if you find a passion. For instance, you can be creative in athletics. You can express yourself with baseball. You can manifest your personality with your team and with your coach in the same ways that you can in the arts. I wish for two things for my kids, which are to have decent friends and have a passion that’s so exciting.
PA: The beautiful thing about art, whether you’re getting paid for it or not, is that on some level it is a little spark of a life force, whatever that is. It’s not miraculous. There’s Biblical art and churches, and some of our greatest musicians were flawed humans yet were somehow connected to something beautiful. In acting, you have to get past your own head and your own ego, and all of these fucking barriers and walls, to just get to a place where hopefully you can be pleasant enough to be in a scene with somebody, to get out of your own way and listen to a director who has a beautiful vision, and just be there.
Q:. Rick, BoyHood is a very big title, so I’m curious if you think of the movie as an intimate character story, or something more sweeping than that?
RL: Both. It’s very specific to this family and to Mason and all that. It is intimate and small and common in that I’ve always thought it is very universal, within that specific world. This could have been made in any country, at any time. There’s such a commonality there as it works through what I’ve always thought of as a very universal, big story about life and time and all that.
PA: But we should say that BoyHood was not the title while were making it.
RL: No, we didn’t call this BoyHood for twelve years.
PA: Sometimes it was the Twelve-Year Project.
EH: Or Growing Up…
PA: We never really knew what the hell it would be called.
EH: It could be anything. Your question even illuminates the answer, which is that it’s an epic about minutia. That’s what it is. It’s difficult to title because of that. But it’s a family seen through one boy’s eyes, so that title makes as much as sense as any other.
RL: Titles are difficult.
Q: Boyhood absolutely encapsulates the film, but it could also have a secondary title like Motherhood, Fatherhood. Because it really gets inside the heads of the parents, Patricia’s character, Olivia, and Ethan’s character Mason Sr., as well as the children’s.
RL: It was always going to be a portrait of growing up and also parenting and aging. You don’t quite grow up once you’re a parent, particularly a young parent. In the cases of Patricia and Ethan’s characters, they’re growing up still. I always saw it as their bumbling through parenting and also growing up. Also, Patricia, Ethan and I had our own childhood experiences to draw on. We had our relations with our own parents, and we had ourselves as parents to draw on. During the twelve years we made this film, we had five children born between us.
PA: And Ellar had a new sister.
RL: That was just an on-going part of life around us. It was a multi-generational collaboration always. I really wanted to see the parents’ perspective. The scene at the end, when Mason is leaving his mom to go to college [and she cries]–we all did that at some point. I remember my inability to totally comprehend my mother’s point of view when I was leaving. At that age, you’re so self-absorbed. You could be the most empathetic person, but you just don’t have the variety of experience to fully understand what your mother might be going through. You can acknowledge that you can’t fully feel it.
EH: The question brought up something that I’m surprised people don’t write about more, which is how awesome it is to see Patricia’s character in this movie, to see a real woman who is a mother and a lover and more that one thing in a movie. I feel so proud to be a part of a movie that respects her character the way this movie does. It’s true in life, you see that woman all the time, but you don’t see that woman in movies. I don’t see her. Maybe she’s in the background, an ancillary element to give some encouragement and some weight to some guy or something. But here is this is a real, three-dimensional human being, and it was so exciting. And the women in my life who see the movie so appreciate it. And it’s not just because she’s just good. She does stupid things as well as smart things. We’re used to people in movies being one thing all the time, but you can’t pin her down.
RL: There’s so much complexity in Olivia. She’s human and has flaws. To work with someone like Patricia, who’s just so ferociously real, was super, super inspiring.
Stupid Question of the Day: This is a movie that stirs memories of growing up. What do you remember about your first kiss, Ethan and Patricia?
EH (joking): Our first kiss? My first kiss was with a girl named Cindy at the Hamilton Roller Rink, during the slow skate. And afterward she said to me, “Do you like Jack Daniels?” And I said, “Yeah, too bad he died.” I didn’t really know what Jack Daniels was then. I got it confused with Jimi Hendrix.
PA: I do not remember my first kiss. That doesn’t mean I’ve had a lot of kisses. I think I was pretty young. But I do remember one kiss. I don’t know why but I really didn’t like the way this guy kissed me. He was a friend of a friend, a pro skater, and he was the only guy I ever gave a fake phone number to. Years later he murdered his girlfriend.