I had the privilege in June to be in the audience for the BFI South Bank Q&A event with director Richard Linklater, who was in town to discuss his new film Boyhood, released in the UK July 10. The film itself earned a rare Smoke Screen rating of five stars, as you can see for yourself here. If that still doesn’t convince you that this is one of THE highlights of the year in cinema, feel free to head over to the Rottentomatoes page for this film, where the aggregate score currently sits at 100%.
The film itself was shot from 2002 to 2013, covering 12 years in the life of young Texan boy Mason and his family, using the same cast throughout. Thus over three hours you see all the actors age in line with their characters. There are no prosthetics, no CGI ageing/de-ageing effects, and no on screen text cues to tell you when a time jump has occurred and what the onscreen year is.
The story is life itself: Mason and his older sister Samantha learn to face the realities of growing up, while their divorced parents cope with the ongoing challenges of parenting in an ever-evolving landscape. The cast features Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, with newcomers Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater playing the children. This film really carries the electric feel of a true experiment, even if it bears some similarity to other film and TV projects such as Michael Apted’s Up series.
Below are some nuggets from my own notes of the event relating specifically to Linklater's new film (with a good deal of conversation also focusing on his Before trilogy, which are an obvious and interesting set of films to compare to Boyhood), his ideas of cinema and time, and how he selects and works with actors in particular. The BFI also have an edited video of the event on their site, where you can watch Linklater go into greater detail about his earlier career, and his work in film promotion and preservation.
Linklater was also kind enough to indulge me with this:
The following links are worth checking out:
Note: this interview contains spoilers. The interviewer was the BFI’s own Exhibitions Director and Head of Festivals, Clare Stewart.
CS: I want to zoom in on Boyhood briefly. You commenced it in the time in between Tape and Waking Life and School of Rock. How did you embark on this whist continuing your film trajectory?
RL: We shot in the summer of 02, and then I went from that onto School of Rock, we just jumped in. I had the idea around 2000-2001, I was thinking about it while at the Venice Film Festival with Tape and Waking Life, when I was pitching the idea. I found that actors got it, I tend to divide the world between actors and everybody else. Actors were like “yeah!”. Ethan and Patricia were saying to me: “think of the storytelling possibilities”. So they were in when I described it. But then I talked to the money people, producers and such and it was like I was speaking a different language. They were like “we get our money…when?”. It was kind of hilarious, the different worlds. But I got lucky eventually: IFC came on board and gave us a little money every year. So we jumped into it in summer 2002.
I think the biggest gap was between years one and two, because I was doing School of Rock and it was difficult with Ethan and Patricia’s schedules. It’s such an impractical idea for those reasons. Towards the end there was a certain momentum but in the early years I guess the end felt so far way, it felt so abstract.
CS: Im going to ask you to elaborate on your fascination with time which runs through so many of your films. A project of this kind, and also the Before Trilogy: there are few parallels in the history of cinema. It is a huge undertaking with few examples of how to go about it in terms of creative and practical terms. What was your starting point in that sense?
RL: If you think about it, time is kind of the building block of cinema. If you want to think about it like a painting, time is like the paint. It is unique to film: the recording of actual time, but also the ability to manipulate it. I was always excited about that. I was always thinking about storytelling: “why can’t you do this and that, and would that work?” So that is where the idea for Boyhood came from. I just think there are a lot of possibilities in narrative, in storytelling. And in those boundaries time is the thing that loosens it all up.
I was kind of betting the whole movie on there being this cumulative effect in the way we perceive cinema, and it would have this power, so that you would invest and care about these characters through the sheer accumulation of time in the way we do in the time of our own lives. I think that is unique to film, the way you identify with what you are watching. I was betting on that. It works that way, hopefully.
Then you can get away with the little things that generally have no place in cinema. You can’t stop an action film to stare at a dead bird: it doesn’t advance the story or fit into the formula of efficient storytelling. But it works here, because you care, hopefully. That is what I was aiming for from the beginning: concentrating on the minutiae, like the film was a memory.
CS: Can I ask you about how the scripting process works, how you work with actors, and about the degree to which the spontaneity we see in your films comes from improvisation or you being definitive about what you want them say.
RL: Well I worked with actors on this film as I always have: It is very collaborative, but we never improvise on camera. Never. It is aways rehearsed, there is very much a workshop/rehearsal process. Here (talking about his 1991 film Slacker) I would cast a lot of non-actors, but it was all structured: I knew the beginning, middle and end and what happened in each scene. Kind of like Boyhood.
Within that structure it was very loose though. The cast contributions are what made it special, unique. Thats what a collaboration is, you get to a place you couldn't get to alone. I cared what worked for the film. I trained as an actor and that’s how I wanted to work: as an actor. Not just say my lines and hit my mark, I always treat actors as artistic collaborators, whatever the age. Ellar in Boyhood became that. When he was seven it was a little different but by the time he was eleven and twelve I was giving him assignments. At one point I asked him: ‘write some dialogue imagining you had just met a girl.’ I kind of pushed them into the writer mode a little bit, knowing it was going to be rewritten and workshopped, I felt we’d arrive at what works for the film no matter how we got there. I wanted to include them.
CS: Was Ellar a professional actor, and likewise were your actors in Slacker professionals?
RL: I met young actors, the kind who had agents and resumes, who had really thrown their hats in the ring. Ellar had only been in one indie film, and some commercials. He was six. But it told me that he had family support, which was really important, as I really needed his parents to not say at year eight: ‘he never wanted to do this.’ I wanted it to be professional. Ellar never wavered. But I did want to get people who had acted, who knew they wanted to do that. In Slacker on the other hand, and to a degree Waking Life, I was giving cards out or I had friends recommend people, and I wasn't necessarily looking for the best actor as opposed to the most interesting unique person. I thought I could get a performance that would work for the film. Everyone can act, who hasn't been in a school play? But who can be themselves on camera and bring whatever you think is unique about them? Ive always had, in certain parts, good luck with people who don't have full training. Ive found that, in certain moves and in certain parts, that its not always necessary to have ‘great actors.’
CS: In your films what resonates is the way you often hone in on particular characters who really demonstrate a sense of place. Austin obviously here in Boyhood, and I'm thinking of Bernie, where all of the incidental townspeople in that film are very rich individual characters.
RL: Yeah those were all local people. No actors, though some do local theatre, but most are not actors. I was just looking for authentic people who can be themselves on camera, but doing material they haven’t necessarily written. Not everyone can do that. I cast a wide net, meet a lot of interesting people, but then I give them a test like I will hand them some lines and then get them to act out on camera. Some people just cant process that, they can’t bring who they are to it on camera.
CS: Before Sunrise - did you really have the other two films in mind when you embarked on that film?
RL: No. Doing Before Sunset, the second one in the trilogy, is possibly the scariest thing I have ever done in my film career. Twenty years ago we were in Vienna shooting the first one! We felt compelled: Jessie and Celine had remerged in our lives and we felt they were saying something about that point in our lives, about being 32 as opposed to 23. But it was scary to revisit them, to maybe mess it up and mess up the first film. But Boyhood we had actually started a year before Before Sunset, so committing to doing this life project I think emboldened Ethan and I to do another life project! But we didn't know there would be a third one either.
CS: There are nine years between the films…
RL: Yeah, it just worked out that way. It seems to be about five to six years in when we start wondering ‘is there something new to say about a part of life?’
CS: One of the things that is so wonderful about the films is that we are invited in, it is extremely intimate, but at the same time, everything that they go through seems to be incredibly familiar. How did you strike that balance creatively?
RL: Well I think Jessie and Celine, and the family in Boyhood: they are not extraordinary people. There is something normal about them, so I think there should be a lots of familiarity. We are more similar than we are different in what we do in our lives. It is a challenge to make that watchable and cinematic. It takes a lot of work. The scripts of these films are very delicate and laborious: to make it seem improvised. It is really highly structured.
CS: It strikes me that you are a filmmaker who is extremely interested in playing with technology and the opportunities it affords you: Tape and Waking Life. I read somewhere that you shot all of Boyhood, conversely, on 35mm. Weren't you fearful that that technology might become redundant while you were making it?
RL: Not at all. There is nothing more stable than a 35mm negative. Had I started on the best HD camera back in 2002, I’s have been on my fifth by now. It was never even much of a decision. But I didn't like the way digital looked back then, it looks better now, I’ve shot 2 of my last 3 films on a Lexa. We caught a little bit of the death spiral of 35mm towards the end. But it was still good to hear ‘check the gate’. It is dying. But technology is great. In 2002 and 2003 we were getting booms and mikes in the shot and things and I would just joke ‘we can fix that with the technology of the future.’ It was funny, but I wasn't really kidding; it came to pass. It became incredibly inexpensive. For example, even just a month ago, I was showing the film and I hadn't ‘finished-finished’ it, and there was some poster in the background from the National Football League which it turns out we didn't have the rights for. So we were like ‘screw you, we can fix that.’ Back in 1993 that would’ve meant thousands of dollars on rotoscoping to take it out. I like technology in that way!
CS: We’ve touched on your acting collaborators, but I'm interested in those you build behind the scenes, often uniting a broad and diverse range of people. I’m thinking of key people like John Sloss, and Athina Rachel Tsangari, the Greek director/producer who was actually in Slacker, and who then produced a film called Dogtooth and then made her own debut Attenberg.
RL: Yeah she worked with me on Before Midnight on Greece, and I made her act in it too!
CS: You’ve also carried with you Lee Daniel, your cinematographer, and your editing team.
RL: Probably the most constant in my life has been Sandra Adair. That’s a key position. You kind of have to share a certain cinematic brain, or at least we do now. It makes it easier. It was very different on Boyhood though. Normally with a film an editor will weight in after a film is shot. But with Boyhood we were shooting every year, then edit 15 minutes or so of footage, and then we’d have a year to think about it. But as the film went on, we would always edit that year’s material and attach it to this ever-expanding film, and then edit the whole piece again. I would have a year to think about it, I would sit alone with it, maybe at 2am in the morning. But I got feedback from Sandra really early on; I can sit and talk with her in a way I really can’t with anyone else in my world. It was like therapy, talking with her, and she would give me feedback. In a way it was like discussing a finished film, except in this case this was a theoretical future film! It was a wonderfully different approach, but we had the luxury of time. We spent about two years total editing. For a low budget film that is not what you usually get, plus we spent two years in pre-production too.
Everything about Boyhood was kind of crazy, none of it really makes sense.