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Interview: The cast and writer-director talk Boyhood

Continuously dissecting the importance of seemingly ordinary moments that drive our everyday activities and emotions may initially seem tediously boring. But the powerfully gripping process of interlacing the most vital daily occurrences into one passionately driven film can pave the way for it to become one of America’s most important contemporary dramas. That’s certainly the case with writer-director Richard Linklater’s latest daring and compelling film, ‘Boyhood,’ which opens tomorrow at select New York theaters.

Actors Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane and writer-director Richard Linklater discuss their drama, Boyhood, at the film's New York City press conference.
Karen Benardello

At the time when he was becoming one of America’s most distinctive voices in cinema in 2002, Linklater came up with the creative and innovative, yet equally risky, idea to film the character study of a seemingly average suburban family struggling to emotionally survive. Instead of making the drama over the normal few consecutive weeks that many independent films take, the filmmaker bravely shot the movie over the course of 12 years. That way he was able to feature the same two child actors throughout the entire story, who star as siblings who experience the turbulence and joys of childhood and adolescence together.

‘Boyhood’ follows the maturing of young Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter) from their time in elementary school to when they leave for college. At the beginning of the drama, Mason is just 7 years old, living with Samantha and their single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), in a small town in East Texas, before she decides to advance her education and career. The three move to Houston to be closer to Olivia’s mother, who helps her raise the two kids as she goes back to college.

The children’s estranged father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), returns to Texas after living to Alaska to reunite with them as they grow older. While Mason Jr. and Samantha initially hope their parents will reunite, Olivia decides to marry one of her professors, Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella). However, they eventually end up divorcing after he proves to be an abusive alcoholic.

As Mason later enters high school, he and his father have become closer, as Mason Sr. has proven to be more responsible after getting a stable job. Taking a hint from his father, who has also married and had another baby, Mason Jr. decides to start dating one of the girls in his school, Jill (Evie Thompson), but tensions between them grow as he express his personal philosophies that clash with her ideals. As both Mason Jr. and Samantha truly begin to explore who they are and what they want in life after their turbulent childhoods, the two have grown into their own distinct personalities, and aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

Linklater, along with the main actors in his film, including Hawke, Arquette and Coltrane, generously took the time recently to participate in a press conference at the Crosby Hotel in New York City to discuss shooting ‘Boyhood.’ Among other things, the writer-director and performers discussed how uniquely shooting the coming-of-age drama over the 12-year period creatively emphasizes how movies don’t always have to be driven by high action and tension sequences, and can instead realistically showcase the relatable emotional struggles many people face; how focusing the movie’s story on Mason Jr. overcoming the struggles in his childhood and adolescence, in part by showing his creativity and passion through his photography, inspires everyone to truly ponder what they want in life, and find a way to carry out their desires; and how Linklater’s experiences as a writer and director throughout his career allowed him to authentically speak to the actors on the set of ‘Boyhood,’ and elicit the type of performances he required to tell the film’s story.

Question (Q): How has this film changed the way you think about cinema, and what cinema should and could be?

Richard Linklater (RL): When we were embarking on this, I had never seen this type of film before. I figured that by this point, people would be pointing out to me how this type of film had in fact been made before somewhere, but it’s never has happened. The film felt original in a way I had never seen before. It felt like a huge idea when we first started, but it was an idea I had spent years thinking about.

It sounds arrogant, but I felt like I was in the same boat as a scientist who goes to sleep at night and dreams the formula that solves his problem that he has been working on for years. I was a storyteller trying to think of a solution, despite the limitations I was confronted with. But I think about the boundaries of narrative all the time. I was very excited when I approached this idea. I thought it had all these unique storytelling possibilities.

Patricia Arquette (PA): As far as cinema goes, I feel like I’ve watched a really strange shift over the course of my career. I’ve seen it become the business of bankers. I feel like with the restraint in which Rick directed this movie, including the balance of the structure and collaborative openness, he didn’t tell the obvious dramatic story. Most people would say, you’re not catering to this demographic. There are dynamics to the human connection and space for the human relationship in the film that will lead to financers having to be a little more supportive of this type of movie.

I also think young film audiences will also enjoy this. I think the more we move towards technology, the more of a need we’ll have as humans to see movies that are about humans.

Ellar Coltrane (EC): I think there’s this tendency or need for audiences to gravitate towards high tension dramas, as people think they’re the only stories worth telling. We’re drawn to big, fantastical moments that don’t happen to most of us. So I think it’s powerful to dwell on the little things.

Ethan Hawke (EH): It’s interesting that the movie does get a lot of power from our pre-conditioned experiences at the cinema that something big or horrible is going to happen. We think we couldn’t just be watching some people drive to this university if there isn’t going to be a car wreck.

But that’s how I feel about a lot of my life; a lot of my life is wasted worrying. The movie actually captures the feeling of, well, they’re spending the night camping and building the house. But how do any of us survive those nights? But there’s something about how the story works, not just in its relationship to its own storytelling. Storytelling doesn’t live in its own vacuum; it’s in response to other things.

Q: There’s a real consistency and subtle changes to your three characters, and where they end up after the 12 years. Do you think they also undergo big changes?

EH: It depends on how you define big and small changes. There are certainly small changes, in terms of normal storytelling. My character goes through some significant changes, and certainly so do Mason and Olivia, but they’re humanist changes.

EC: There are small things that you notice after 12 years. But they’re not entirely noticeable day-to-day.

RL: The whole movie is about this collection of intimate moments that probably don’t’ fit into most narratives, as they don’t advance the character or story enough. That was the feel to the whole movie.

Q: What was the experience of meeting every year for 12 years to film the movie? Did any of you ever have a doubt about making this type of movie?

RL: It was special to get together every year. We all committed to making this life project. It never felt like anyone wavered.

EH: I think I can say that we collectively grew to love it more and more. At first, it felt like a fun experiment, and then it turned into something we all love so much.

But the plot has grown into something the audience unfortunately needs. But what’s funny about plot is that over time, you don’t even remember it. Rick has forgoed with this movie all the unnecessary plot points. Our lives don’t have plots, but he felt the narrative does, and this movie skirts around that.

RL: I replaced the plot with structure, which is much more innate to how I think. People put structure in everything, including time.

EH: Structure often doesn’t have lies to it, while plots often do.

Q: There’s a point in the film where Mason gets into photography. Was the idea of him picking up photography a conscious decision? Did that parallel all of your experiences when you decided to become an artist?

RL: I always thought that we’d see Mason get into some kind of art once he entered high school, as a way to express himself. I wasn’t sure exactly what form that would be, and I thought maybe he’d get into writing or music. But he actually did become a visual artist and got into photography, and I liked that. I was taking pictures at that age, and I thought that was a perfect thing for his character to get into.

EC: Absolutely-I think the idea of being lost in the artistic process is a very therapeutic thing that’s incredibly valuable.

EH: The most beautiful thing for me about making this movie was watching Ellar become this creative entity. It’s Ellar’s performance, creativity and passion that elevate the film. The structure worked, but it required a certain level of inspiration. Watching Ellar survive adolescence allowed the movie to not just be Rick’s expression, but also his. That was happening in the movie and on the set. Ellar’s not Mason, as they’re different people, but there’s a similar development.

Patricia and I discovered the arts young, and much has been said about how transformative and healing that can be. But you can also be creative in various ways, including athletics, if you find a passion for it. You can express your personality in baseball the same way as in the arts. I can wish for two things for my kids-great friends and a passion for something.

PA: The beautiful thing about art is that on some level, it’s a little spark of a life force. Some of our greatest musicians, for example, may have been flawed humans, but were somehow connected to something beautiful. So being able to get past egos, barriers and walls, where you can hopefully be able to be present enough to listen to a director who has a beautiful vision, is great.

Showing up with these people every year and building off each other was collaborative and built upon itself. I felt safe with everyone and trusted their process.

Q: While the film is called ‘Boyhood,’ it also really looks inside the heads of Patricia and Ethan’s characters. Was that something you purposefully set up, or did you showcase that because of the actors’ performances?

RL: It was always going to be a portrait of growing up and parenting, and the idea that you never stop growing up, especially when you’re a young parent. With Patricia and Ethan’s characters, they’re still growing up as they’re parenting. But as adults, we have our own childhood experiences to draw on.

While filming, we had five children born between the three of us grown adults here, and that was an ongoing part of life. So it was a multi-generational collaborative process. We had life all around us, and we wanted to see the parents’ perspectives.

I remember the inability as a teenager to understand my mother. You do understand your parents in some ways, and can be the most empathetic person, but you don’t have the life experience at that age to fully understand and feel what they’re going through.

EH: I’m happy the film shows Patricia’s character as a mother and a lover. I’m so proud to be a part of a movie that respects her character the way this film does. This type of woman is so true in real life, but I don’t see it in many movies. Women are usually one of these personalities, or are in the background who just gives some encouragement to other characters. But this character is so three dimensional, which is so exciting. The women in my life who have seen the film so appreciate the portrayal of Olivia.

But besides being good, she also does stupid things. She’s a good mother, but doesn’t always make the right decision. We’re used to people in movies being one thing all the time.

RL: She is a great woman, but there is so much complexity in her. She shows that we’re all human. Patricia was so real and inspiring in the role.

Q: For the actors, this movie was shot very differently than how most films are made. Was it difficult to get back into character when you would meet again?

EC: Well, I wasn’t acting in many other movies, but I get asked that a lot. It was a very long build up every year. We would often have a couple months to think about what we were doing, and then a solid week of workshopping to figure out where the characters were that year. So by the time we got to filming, it was easy.

EH: There’s a lot of noise about the structure of the movie. But the truth was, we had a very good director. Going back to the scientists, they usually have their breakthrough ideas when their young. So it was interesting that Rick was in his 40s when we started this, but his style of filmmaking hasn’t changed much, but he’s a lot more experienced. If he had done this movie when he was 26, the way he had to work with Ellar, which was different from the way he worked with me and Patricia, would have been different. I’ve worked with Richard eight times now, and I’ve seen he has learned how to speak to people the way they need to be spoken to.

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