When he introduced Boyhood to a sold-out Sundance Film Festival crowd just shy of 10 p.m. on Sunday evening, Richard Linklater remarked that production began on the epic experiment exactly 4,207 days prior.
Most movies that long to get made bear the scars of creative tugs-of-war and financial crises, quite often growing stale by the time of release; Linklater, however, required every moment of those 12 years to turn a radical idea into a singular achievement that is brimming, quite literally, with life.
Already a young icon, with a résumé of movies like Slacker and Dazed and Confused that helped kick off the 1990s' independent film renaissance, Linklater got the idea near the turn of the 21st century to make a film that tracked a young child into adulthood. The grand aspiration was to visit the same recruit every year to shoot a new installment, with a fictional storyline shaped by child's development and the events of the world at large. It was sort of crazy from the start — sure, films often pile on sequels over the years, but to work 12 years to release a single, sprawling journey was unprecedented in the narrative form.
Linklater got financing from IFC Films, signed on frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette to play the boy's parents, cast his own daughter Lorelei as the sassy older sister, and went looking for a normal kid he could somehow rely on to both be willing to grow up on screen, and, perhaps more critically and precariously, stay interesting enough to focus on for over a decade.
Ultimately, he settled on Ellar Coltrane, a 6-year-old Texan who had little acting experience. As the filmmaker acknowledged, he couldn't legally sign anyone — much less a child — to a 12-year contract, so it required a major leap of faith by both sides.
"He just seemed like an interesting kid, and I knew [the movie] would go where he went, in a way," Linklater told BuzzFeed before the film screened. "But it's also, at that age, you're kind of casting his parents too. His mother's a dancer, his dad's a musician; it's an artistic family, so I thought there'd be a lot of family support for this project."
Coltrane attended the screening, though hilariously, because no one knew he was the star before it began, his startling resemblance to Hawke made it seem like his presence on the red carpet was a matter of the actor bringing family along. At the Q&A after, he said that it took until he was 12 or so to realize the scope of the project he was then halfway through. Linklater told BuzzFeed that he and Coltrane — whose press biography says he was "unconventionally schooled through most of his childhood" — stayed in touch throughout the years, both for the film's purpose and because they became like family.
"I probably feel like his uncle or something at this point; he feels like my cool nephew," he said.
A fresh-faced kid at the outset, Coltrane plays Mason Jr., the younger child of estranged parents; Arquette is raising him and sister Samantha as a young single mother while Hawke, as musician father Mason Sr., is at first off in Alaska to find himself (or avoid responsibility for a while anyway). Hawke has made a career playing charming, intellectual wanderers, and having started this project in between the first two installments of the Before trilogy, we open with him in his prime as an earnest rambler who is either too smart or immature for the real world, depending on how much you identify with his character. (It is a question that is explored both on screen and off, with the actor's career and the lives of fans that have followed it also up for subtle examination.)
From the start, Mason Jr. is a spacy and creative kid; the opening scene sees him adorably explaining to his mom, who just came from a conference with a worried teacher, that he broke the class pencil sharpener while trying to whittle rocks into arrowheads for his collection. And thus begins a crucial thread that Linklater follows from beginning to end: Mason Jr. isn't all that enamored with school or his assignments, but creativity and off-beat genius will blossom in between (and often instead of) homework and days in class.
"I had a plan," Linklater said of the film's overarching story. "The architecture was pretty mapped out."
They'd go down to Texas for about a month of pre-production — it was "like making a new movie every year," Linklater said, what with the location scouting and equipment hauling and script development — and shoot for three or four days. "The script was created by all of us every time," Hawke told BuzzFeed, including dialogue and contextual adjustments to the general concept on which Linklater had spent the previous year pondering.
Any film that attempts to tell a story over a long period of time must incorporate the era's progression in fashion, technology, and cultural norms, and many comedies derive no small portion of their laughs from the hindsight hilarity of the way we used to dress and rudimentary developments that once were cutting edge. By its placement in the midst of rapid shifts in taste, computers, and world events that have made the aughts and early 2010s into an exhaustingly compressed timeline of turmoil, Boyhood is filled with recent history that now plays like nostalgia.
The film opens with Coldplay's early hit song "Yellow" and its early chapters are stuffed with throwbacks such as midnight Harry Potter book release parties, colorful iMacs, and the Gameboy Advance, while Mason Sr. lectures his kids on the lies behind the nascent Iraq War. Unlike most movies that look back on the decade prior though, none of these elements are used as wink-wink gags or political told-ya-sos; these are all scenes filmed back when those consumer products and ignored liberal warnings were of the moment, just like the later bits with Hot Topic clothing and the original Xbox, that initial landlady Funny or Die video, and old Texans growling about Sen. Barack Hussein Obama were simply the zeitgeist.
A conversation between father and son about how there could be no feasible way to make interesting Star Wars sequels, filmed long before the upcoming new chapters were announced, was especially well appreciated by the audience.
It is — in the best way possible — like watching home movies, all driven by Linklater's incredible ear for dialogue and the perverse insistence to continue filming during moments of extreme marital discord: Olivia is a smart woman and great mom, but terrible at choosing men. Samantha and Mason Jr. suddenly shoot up in height at various points in the movie (the girl first, of course). Mason especially goes from chubby pre-pubescent to willowy emo kid, a gifted photographer who spends hours in the darkroom and attending parties reluctantly; you get the sense that he would have been too deep and sensitive to hang out with the kids in Linklater's Dazed and Confused, though he may have shared some joints with them when he reluctantly visited one of their bonfires.
The questions Mason grows up asking, about the point of life and the importance of individualism among other teenage existentialist concerns, should ring in the brains of most audience members, especially those already drawn to Linklater's work; as Mason's dad, who comes back into his life, later says, it's impossible to know the answers. Which is really the point: Boyhood is about searching anyway.