Director's Chair: Richard Linklater - 'Boyhood'
Issue: February 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Richard Linklater - 'Boyhood'

Last July, director Richard Linklater, who first made a name for himself with the independent release Slacker, released his most heartfelt, idiosyncratic and ambitious film to date, the tour-de-force Boyhood. Written, produced and directed by Linklater, and shot over a 12-year period, the film was the first of its kind — an intimate epic about growing up, as seen through the eyes of a young boy and his sister. Starring Ellar Coltrane as Mason, Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei as his older sister Samantha, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as their divorced parents, the film received widespread acclaim — and has also turned into a global box office hit, amassing close to $45 million so far ( Boyhood was budgeted at just $4 million).

Now, at press time, the indie drama is largely seen as the frontrunner in the Best Picture Oscar race (especially after it won Best Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes, and Best Film, Director and Supporting Actress at the BAFTAs), a testament to its creator’s vision and perseverance. Here, in an exclusive interview, Linklater, whose credits also include Dazed and Confused, School of Rock and the Before Sunrise trilogy, talks about making the film, his love of post, and the unique challenges posed by a production that spanned over a decade.

This was a very ambitious project — almost like a time-lapse study of these characters. 

“That’s a good description. I’ve always been interested in the passing of time, and I set out to make very intimate portraits of a family — particularly of the kids — with time going by. So in one sitting you could see a life lived, and it’s an epic in its scope but also very intimate in terms of its subject matter. It’s a theme that you find in literature a lot, but not often in film, but I felt the audience would just connect with it because of its familiar, everyday backdrop and things you can relate to. So I hoped there’d be this cumulative effect in the viewer, and everyone is interested in how time passes and how it affects us. And in my narratives I’m always looking for new territory and how to tell a story in a new way, and I’ve often found that time’s an interesting structural device.” 

IFC financed this. How tough was it getting a company — and the actors — to commit to a 12-year project?

“It was easy getting the actors on board. They’re like, ‘Cool! It’ll be great.’ But financing any indie project is never easy. Once I really sat down with Jonathan Sehring, head of IFC, he got the same look in his eyes as the actors — like an artist would. He got it. And I got lucky, as a regular producer just cannot afford to think in a 12-year structure. But IFC has a channel and a library, so they can think long-term.”

Casting was obviously very crucial. How did you know Ellar Coltrane was the right boy for the role? 

“I went on my gut instinct, but you’re right — it’s a big risk as you don’t really know if the six-year-old you start with will still work out when he’s 14 or 18. I was just open enough to go where he went to some degree. The story was there, but I knew it would take a different shade depending on who we cast and what happened to them in their own lives. So potentially he was the most volatile element in the mix, and I remember thinking at casting, this is a huge decision, and how do you feel totally confident? But every instinct told me, he’s got the right family, the right background, the right support, and I think he’ll grow up to be a very interesting, artistic, thoughtful person — and that’s exactly what happened. And I feel very fortunate in that regard.”

Technology’s changed a lot in the past 12 years. How did that affect your approach?

“All the new technology only helped, which I love. It’s there to assist us with our storytelling and hopefully make it easier. I basically had the best of both worlds, as we shot it all on film and got the consistency of a 35mm negative, and then did a DI finish with all the incredible latitudes and abilities that you get with that. We even had a running joke from year one, as so much of film production is about the perfection of the image, so you’ll see a boom reflection or a shadow in a mirror and have to cut and reshoot. I’d joke — but be serious, too — about that stuff and say, ‘Don’t worry, in 12 years we’ll be able to just paint all those mistakes out very cheaply and quickly.’ And that’s exactly what happened. We were able to change a poster on a wall for nothing by the end, whereas before you’d have to rotoscope and it’d take forever and cost you $35,000.” 

Where did you shoot and what was the yearly schedule like?

“We shot in Austin, Houston, San Marcos, Big Bend — all over Texas, though we were sort of based out of Austin. We did a lot of road trips, so it was like a road movie. We were always on the run, and there’s a ton of cars and car shots. There’s 143 scenes total, and we had to work fast on a very small budget, so we’d shoot for about three days a year. But then that’d take two or three weeks of production each time, to get all the crew together, prep and location scout, and do any additional casting and intensive rehearsals and so on. So the actual shoots would be like these sprints. So the film was incredibly lop-sided in terms of all the prep time and then post and editing time spent around those three days each year.”

This was shot by two of your regular DPs — Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly. How did that work and what did they bring to the mix?

“It was more of a scheduling thing. Our shooting was always dictated by cast availability, as everyone’s always busy doing other projects and movies, so once we’d nailed down our dates, we’d just try and get back as many of the crew as we could. And ultimately, we had quite a lot of people who worked on it for over ten years, and some that were on it for all 12. I think we had over 400 people work on it over the years, so it was like this big, fun, traveling circus that just built up momentum.” 

Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

“We posted as we went along, in my offices in Austin. We’d edit what we’d just shot and then as that material filled up we’d then attach that to all the footage we’d cut before it, so I’d have this ever-expanding film I could reference, along with the department heads. It’d sit on the shelf for a while, and then I’d go back and watch it as we got closer to production again. And I’d have a year to think about it and write stuff before we started shooting again. So there was a lot of gestation and thinking time... By the end I was able to go back in and cut stuff and shape stuff over a 12-year period, which is pretty amazing. And I’d also trim and then add material back in — as it was stuff I’d miss later.” 

Post was obviously crucial. Do you like post?

“I love post and everything you can do to shape your film, but I actually feel the most creative in rehearsal and then shooting. That’s when I feel like I’m really making the film. I don’t feel like I’ve ever ‘found’ the film in the edit and post, like some directors do. There’s a certain schematic at work that I’m trying to follow.” 

The film was edited by longtime collaborator Sandra Adair. Tell us about that relationship and how it works? 

“I used to cut my own stuff when I began, like all filmmakers, and then she cut Dazed and Confused 22 years ago and we’ve been a team ever since. I think we share the same brain at this point, a certain shorthand, we have great chemistry, and she’s just really good. She did an amazing job, and she got a co-producer credit as she was so integral to making this film. It’s really rare when an editor can just weigh in on a film as it’s being made. Usually when I edit with Sandra, we’re sitting there in post after it’s shot, and trying to make it work. But with this, the dynamic was such that we could sit and discuss it all at length. ‘Is this element really working? What’s not working? What does it need?’ So it was like all these therapy sessions, where we’d shoot for three days and then spend all this time in post and editing, shaping the story as we went. It was kind of like a time-sculpture, and to do that in a narrative context was truly amazing.” 

How many visual effects shots are there in the film, if any?

“We did some image stabilization and tidying up, but there’s no traditional VFX.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker? Where did you do the mix?

“I always knew the music would be a huge part of this as it’s really a period piece, but we were uniquely shooting it in the present tense. And music is so big in triggering memories. But I also knew that a score wouldn’t work. It would feel too authorial. I wanted audiences to just get lost in the movie, so all the period songs became very important, and getting all that right was a big part of post. And we did the mix in Austin on a Dolby-approved stage.”

The DI must have been vital. Where did you do it and how did that process help? 

“We did it at Stuck On On in Austin, where we did the VFX. I’m a big fan of the DI, and we were able to even everything out, especially all the different light levels in the driving scenes, but I try not to go too crazy in the DI — nothing that’d draw attention to itself. And we had a good basic negative.”

You’re one of the few people still shooting film. Is film dead? 

“I don’t think so. Economically it’s changed, obviously, but I don’t think it’s going away, and I hope we always have it as a choice.”