Director Richard Linklater, right, with Boyhood’s star, Ellar Coltrane, now 19
Director Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane, the 19-year-old star of his new film, Boyhood, have a relaxed look in each other’s company – it is as if they were a father and son and we were meeting not in central London but in their front room in Austin, Texas – where they are from. It is a rapport that springs from a relationship unparalleled in film-making history. Boyhoodhas been an extraordinary undertaking, a long haul that began when Ellar Coltrane was six and finished as he turned 18. For 12 years, Linklater shot him growing up with his divorced on-screen parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. Each year, when schedules allowed, they would catch up and film. It was, in its way, a family affair. The only project one might liken it to is the BBC’s Upseries, which has followed children from seven years old through to adulthood – only that is a once-every-seven-years documentary. This was fiction and yet no one knew where the story was headed because time was its unpredictable collaborator.
Dazed and Confused (1993), which was his first Hollywood studio movie, to Bernie (2011), a biopic about a sweet-as-pie funeral undertaker who murders a wealthy widow. But it is theBeforetrilogy that has won him devotees and cult status. These films plunge into the conversations we wish we could have but seldom do on subjects that matter: life, work, love, sex, mortality. The trilogy began with Before Sunrise (1995), about a romantic encounter on a Vienna-bound train between a young American (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman (Julie Delpy). InBefore Sunset (2004), they meet in Paris and once again talk against the clock. The last instalment, Before Midnight (2013), filmed 18 years on, in Greece, is a portrait of their middle-aged marriage. Playing with – and for – time is a continuing Linklater obsession. He is unafraid to ask: What are we doing here? What do we want? How do we cope with time passing?Boyhood is groundbreaking because it does more than ask that last question, it lives it.Linklater is a prolific indie writer/director who has made 17 diverse features, ranging from the American high-school romp
The film opens with Ellar Coltrane’s six-year-old Mason meeting us with a steady green-grey gaze. His mother, Olivia (Arquette), is asking him about his inattention in class. He has been sharpening rocks as arrowheads, blunting the school’s pencil sharpener. Already, there is something arresting about his presence. He has a way of seeming more adult than the adults. Some children have this inwardness, this quality of being their own people, humouring parents who want them to grow up by the book. Ellar has no memory of himself at this age but Linklater vividly recalls their first meeting. He was looking for a boy with acting experience – Ellar had made some commercials and been in an indie movie. “I had met a lot of kids but liked his demeanour, which was not all that different to the guy sitting right here. He was cool, thoughtful, a little mysterious – ethereal. I liked what he talked about, the way his thoughts worked.”
Linklater, who has always been sympathetically anti-establishment, explains: “Other kids were straighter. The whole thing was a choice between the artistic and the societal. There were kids who would have grown up to be athletes, student council presidents, made their parents proud. Ellar was the kind who was going to be his own guy, he had not come out of a cookie cutter.”
It is the “mysterious” and “ethereal” that best define what is a miraculous performance in the film – it seems not to be a performance at all. Linklater once told Ethan Hawke: “If I see you act, the whole thing falls apart.” Naturalness is the key to the best of his work. Today, Ellar sits with his legs stretched out on a coffee table, wearing leather sandals, as if about to go on holiday. He has a nose ring and the eyes one remembers and he laughs a lot. His voice is lazy, takes its Texan time. His thoughts are anything but. Linklater – or Rick, as his friends call him – is also casually dressed and easy-going, giving in to laughter at the slightest excuse. One feels there is a family likeness here that extends beyond their laid-back aura to their thinking. It becomes obvious before even the first five minutes have passed that these men are talkers; they spark off each other – meeting them is the closest one can come to stepping into a conversation in a Linklater film.
What is also clear is how paternal Linklater feels about this experiment. From the outset, his decision was that the children (his own daughter, Lorelei plays Mason’s sister, Samantha) would not see any footage before the film was finished. What was it like, when the time came, for Ellar to witness himself growing up on screen?
“It was brutal,” he says, in the gentlest tone. “There is this tiny person that I only intellectually or abstractly know is me. I am told it is me but don’t remember being that person. The film shows how you change over time and how experiences accumulate and shape the person you become. But the strangest part is that I also recognise myself in that tiny person. I realise how little I have changed – how little anyone changes. Stuff happens to you but, deep down, you are the same person.”
He has forgotten “so much of the filming. My memories begin about halfway through.” It was right to insist they wait: “I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to watch it when I was 13. God, it would have wrecked me.” His family, he reveals, have been “floored” by it. You can see how weird it must be for his parents because it is Ellar’s invented childhood preserved on screen, his actual childhood has gone.
Did Linklater ever feel uncomfortable about involving the children in the project? “It was just this thing – if your parents send you to summer camp and you keep on coming back and then turn 13 or 14 and they say: ‘Do you still want to keep going to that summer camp?’ And you go: ‘Yeah, that has been fun every year.’ I think it was fun to be part of – that was the goal. I never had an ethical concern because, in my heart, I always felt it would be a good, positive thing in their lives.”
Having said that, his daughter, one year, asked whether it might be possible to kill off her screen character. And now she tells him thatwatching the film is emotionally challenging. “She found it more so than Ellar. He is being cool about it but there are gut-wrenching elements to beingso depicted. I always took solace that they have young-adult mind-sets now and will hopefully have some perspective.”
The years unroll in the film with no clunky imposition of dates. Changed appearance is often the only clue to time’s accelerations. Ellar’s hair undergoes transformations: the savage shave his stepfather forces on him as a boy (“that will stop you looking like a girl”), the defensive fringe of early adolescence and other embellishments, too, such as latterday purple nail varnish. Has the film made him self-conscious?
“I had to overcome that shit. The gift of the movie is that I don’t worry about that now. There is so much of me on screen, I would lose my mind if I worried. I see myself as a conduit in the film, a vessel for expressing existence.” And it is one of the interesting things about the way Linklater works (true of the Before films too) that he allows elements of his actors’ lives to merge with their characters: “Ellar and Lorelei play fictional characters who reflect their own tastes,” Linklater clarifies. When, in his mid-teens, Ellar became obsessed with photography, this was incorporated into the film (the dark room, we agree, is not a bad metaphor for adolescence). Ellar is still interested though, he adds breezily, “most of my cameras are broken right now”.
Similarly, when he had a “Facebook rant” against social networking and smartphones, Linklater scripted a powerful scene based on it. “I want to try and not lead my life through a screen,” he has Mason saying. The film’s dialogue is remarkable because it sounds improvised but almost never is. In a similar way, the assumption that Linklater must have discarded lashings of film during this ambitious project is mistaken. Trying to get the film financed had, unsurprisingly, been a struggle, but once backers (from financiers to film stars) were on board, they were committed for the duration. And he turns out to be the most frugal of film-makers: “We didn’t have much time or budget so our editing room isn’t that deep in footage. I had the luxury to go back and trim a little, in a way you can’t in life, years later.”
What makes Boyhood exceptionally moving is that it is about more than Mason’s coming of age. You are never allowed to forget how fine the line between being a parent and a child is. When the film opens, Patricia Arquette’s Olivia is a young single mother drudging conscientiously although she minds – and moans – about her loss of freedom. At irregular intervals, Ethan Hawke’s Mason senior rocks up in a flash car with his irresistible smile and shows his kids a massively overcompensating good time. Linklater was keen to emphasise the imbalance between them: “The fun dad, the mum who is in the trenches.” And there are a series of drunken authority figures (Olivia has disastrous taste in men). Ellar observes that alcohol is almost a character in the film. And the scene in which the stepfather (cold and smarmy Marco Perella) terrorises his family is devastating. Linklater wanted to emphasise the effect addiction can have because, it is only now that, looking back at this own childhood, he realises the “erratic behaviour of parents and step parents was that they had alcohol problems”. In the company of the drunken stepfather the children, sober and terrified, are compelled to be the grownups. And by the end, you see that parenthood is a rite of passage too. You feel Mason’s parents have also come of age with all the pain, compromise and satisfaction that implies.
It has been reported that a troubled relationship with his own mother shaped Ellar’s relationship with his onscreen mother. But the truth – he wants to put the record straight – is more interesting: it was the film that positively influenced his home life. “My family dynamic, growing up, was extremely different from Mason’s. My parents were artists and stayed married much longer than Mason’s. It is true I had a rough relationship with my mother for a while but Patricia helped me overcome that. There were scenes in the film that put things in perspective for me in a large way.”
The point in the film at which he leaves home for college was a personal turning point: “It was a very tender moment,” he says. It made him recognise “the vulnerability of my own parents – I could just see them as people.” It is a breakthrough of sorts when Mason registers his mother is “as fucking confused as I am”.
How does he rate his onscreen parents as parents? “Mason senior is a great father. He sacrifices some of his freedom but not all of it. He maintains integrity and tries to impart that to Mason. He is the opposite of my own father who is a musician and has maintained his freedom and imparted a lot to me but is a very distant man.” We see Mason senior grow up, sell his fancy car and try to tell the truth. In answer to his son’s inquiry about fairytales, he tells him there are “technically no elves” (the film’s most charming line). Was Ethan Hawke a handful to work with? “No! He is totally unassuming… He is a goofball…” Elves are superfluous when Hawke is around: “He knows how to access the magic of the world.”
One assumes Patricia Arquette’s Olivia is about to get a parenting rosette, too, but when asked about her mothering, Ellar’s response is startling: “I don’t know that I have an answer… Mums are weird… It is a tender relationship… I don’t think you can judge a mother. It is a lot to be a mum.”
Linklater steps in: “She did her best.” But doesn’t this phrase signify clanging failure? Ellar rushes to the rescue: “Life is made of flaws and everyone is just trying their best.” And then Linklater turns to him to ask urgently: “But who gets our sympathy? The one who tries hardest and comes up a little short? Or the one who doesn’t try much but is fun to be around?”
“They both do,” Ellar says serenely. And Linklater says: “If the movie brings up one thing, I would love it to be that people would, maybe retrospectively, appreciate their parents, kids, siblings – each other.” Ellar is with him on this: “Yeah – and understand that everyone has grown up and gone through this bizarre experience they don’t entirely understand. You don’t choose who you are.” “Yes,” says Linklater, “you don’t deal yourself the hand you have.”
One of the questions Boyhood raises is the extent to which happiness is linked to age. “Happiness has nothing to do with age,” Ellar asserts. “It has to do with your acceptance of reality and that can come at any time.” Ellar was born on 27 August, 1994; Linklater on 30 July, 1960. We try to calculate the exact time they have spent on the planet and Linklater maintains – I’m not sure whether he is joking – that his heart has beaten 1.7bn times. Ellar says he has become more relaxed as he has grown up. Linklater laughs: “I’ll vouch for that.” Ellar continues: “It has been a rough ride. Early puberty was hard. I was alert as a kid yet bottled up. A lot of people speak of the boundless freedom of childhood. I don’t remember feeling that.”
They both nominate now as a moment of happiness. Linklater feels happier than at any earlier point: “When you are young, life is about what you are becoming and supposed to achieve. I felt happy once I realised I wasn’t building towards anything, that I was living my own life doing what I do. I understood that nothing had a purpose beyond its own existence. It took a long time to get there [said with fierce exuberance] and although I used to have glimpses of happiness, my life was hemmed in by objects and structures. I don’t know if what I feel now is happiness or contentment. To be aware of life is to know it is slipping away. I’m more appreciative than I used to be but don’t know if deep appreciation and a sense of the transitory is what happiness is.”
Ellar pitches in: “True happiness is temporary. It is not a place you stay. Life is full of drastic and brutal changes and if you feel the need to resist those then you are never going to feel contented or happy.”
For Ellar, Boyhood meant thinking about how to live in the present. “The eternal challenge,” says Linklater. He thinks Ellar is “far more in the moment than most young people. He has had to think about it. Most people are going: ‘Hey, wait – where has my life gone?'”
“I was lucky not only to have the passage of time but the precious nature of existence reflected to me on a yearly basis,” Ellar observes. His upbringing helped too: “I was home-schooled. My parents never forced me to do anything. I had a lot of time to reflect – I always have had.” But his conclusion is that you need to be able to look back, forward and be in the moment: “All three are necessary to be a complete person. Your past, present and future selves are three real people.” Was there any moment when he felt he did not want to be in the film? “No,” he says.
“If there was one North Star that never moved during the making of the film it was Ellar,” Linklater confirms. “He was the youngest guy in the production and there was never a year when he said: ‘Oh, I’m not feeling like it.'” And what was it like to finish? “Life is full of goodbyes,” Ellar says. “And you don’t always know they are goodbyes,” says Linklater – whose films have always been big on partings. “But oh God, finishing the filming was a slow burn,” Ellar remembers. “The moment of finishing was bittersweet. It was a dear process – we had all come to care about the project and each other. And working on something that long, you forget that one day it will be done.”
Linklater cannot believe it is over and imagines that when 12 months have passed and there is no story to tell, he will feel bereft. It was a film about milestones. In Linklater’s life milestones mean “films and kids”. Ellar says his only milestone has been completing the film. About his own future, he is undecided. He has had a stab at being a landscape gardener, helping out his stepfather. “The moment seized me,” he laughs – the phrase an allusion to the film – “and let me go.” He has also described himself as a “part-time actor” – and it seems certain that, once the film is out, casting directors will be competing for him. But then he unexpectedly volunteers: “I feel that, in a certain way, I have finally begun my childhood.”