The Beautiful Reality of 'Boyhood': Why Richard Linklater Took 12 Years to Make This Film

The extraordinarily ambitious project could only be pulled off by a director able to maintain an intense focus on a project’s goals for more than a decade while also being flexible enough to react to the surprises that would inevitably crop up.
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In the ever-expanding list of resources available to filmmakers today, the factor of time generally does not make an appearance. Yet time was an asset that Richard Linklater, writer/director of the enormously acclaimed Boyhood, had plenty of.

The film, which follows the life of a boy from first grade to high school graduation, was shot and edited over a 12-year period. “What a luxury!” says Linklater. “I’ve always thought how great it would be to work for a while on a film, put it away, and then just hang out with your footage and think.”

When Linklater proposed his idea for Boyhood to frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke, the actor thought about it briefly and then agreed to the incredible 12-year commitment. The film would be shot in three-day blocks, one block per year, and audiences would watch the characters mature for real, rather than through makeup, effects or casting changes. Hawke’s role would be of the father, who, divorced from the boy’s mother, plays a limited but important part in the boy’s story.

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Mason, age 6. Photo by Matt Lankes.

It was an extraordinarily ambitious project that could only be pulled off by a director able to maintain an intense focus on a project’s goals for more than a decade while also being flexible enough to react to the surprises that would inevitably crop up. But Hawke, who’d arguably done some of his best work with Linklater, knew that if anyone could accomplish something like this, he was talking to him. He took the part then and there.

Patricia Arquette signed on as the mother of the boy and IFC Films agreed to make the very long-term investment. Linklater cast non-professional actor and Austin native Ellar Coltrane (age 7 at the time of the first block of shooting days) as the boy, Mason. He selected his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, to play the older sister.

Linklater had a basic outline for a story, told from Mason’s point of view, that encompassed his sometimes turbulent but definitely ordinary life—with a mother searching for secure work and love, a generally annoying sister and a string of other people who enter and leave his life. It was important to Linklater to create something that felt real and not to get bogged down in “movie-ish” action and plot points.

“I knew I’d have to give up a little bit of the control you have when making a [traditional] movie,” Linklater admits. The flip side of a luxurious 12-year schedule is the increased risk of unforeseeable problems, especially when the emotional resonance of the story must be carried by an actor cast at the age of 6.

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Mason, age 7. Photo by Matt Lankes.

After each annual shooting session, Linklater would spend as much free time as possible locked in the cutting room with longtime editor (and Boyhood co-producer) Sandra Adair, sculpting what he’d shot and planning what he could do the next year to keep the story feeling truthful and organic. While the first year’s shoot was essentially all scripted, subsequent years became more and more an exchange of ideas among the collaborators.

“I worked in a very different way with Sandra because we had all this time,” Linklater says. “I think if you take the two years added up that we spent editing—which is very unusual for a low-budget film—and all the time we spent talking about what we had and what we might want to get the following year, Sandra had an enormous impact on the film. You usually work on shaping material you’ve shot, not on how you’re thinking about shaping parts of the story you haven’t shot yet. That’s why she ended up with a co-producer credit.”

In fact, working on Boyhood was “almost therapy,” he continues. “I can talk to her in a way I can’t really talk to others. She was the constant. People come and go—cast, crew—but Sandra is the constant.”

Linklater treasured the time spent away from the project, too, which allowed him to return to it with fresh eyes. “There are some projects where you’re going after something simple and very specific and you might as well just keep working all the time until you’re done,” he says. “But if you’re working your way through subject matter that intrigues you, then it’s great to have that kind of time. I’m always asking myself, ‘What am I learning?’, ‘What does the film want to be?’

“For that, you want time,” he says. “And I had time! Every year I shoot for three days, edit that material and attach it to this ever-growing thing. Then re-edit that. I can watch it alone at 2 in the morning and go, ‘What does it mean?’ or ‘That through-line isn’t taking flight, but here’s this other thing I never would have thought of.’ That gestation time was invaluable.”

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Richard Linklater.

As anyone who’s seen a Linklater film should realize, he would do everything possible to avoid the clichéd moments one associates with a genre movie. He wanted to steer clear of extreme highs and lows that seem to be there only for dramatic effect. And he didn’t want to mark time with the standard rituals—birthdays, graduations—that tend to propel less artistically ambitious films.

“The tone I wanted from the get-go was that everything progresses seamlessly,” the director explains. “Your knowledge of the new years and the transitions would only come from your observations. We didn’t want anything authorial like a title card or some obvious event that pulls you out of these people’s lives.”

The director admits having to fight the temptation to draw the audience’s attention to the transitions from one year to the next. It was such an ambitious project, after all. Who wouldn’t want to make a point of the fact that these people really are a year older?

“You almost want to say, ‘Here’s how we’re different from every other film...’” he trails off, “but that was something we had to work through. We had a transition from the first year to the second that I didn’t cut till damn near the end. But it was just too on the nose. We’re going down the hall and Mason goes to a door, then he opens the door and he’s a year older! I eventually looked at it and I was like, ‘It’s clever.’ Clever works once. It didn’t help the film. That’s the great thing about having all that time to work through those clichés and those impulses to show off and to instead just distill it down to what it wants to be.”

Cinematographer Lee Daniel, who would switch off through the years with DP Shane Kelly, shot Boyhood on 35mm film even though it was clear even at the start (in 2002) that celluloid was on its way out and digital cinematography was on its way in. “I didn’t like the way digital photography looked back then,” Linklater says. “It was getting impressive and I used prosumer digital cameras for some smaller projects, but for something like this, 35mm film negative was certainly the best format at that time.” Shooting on 35mm film ensured a consistent look throughout the 12-year project.

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Samantha, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Mason, age 9. Photo by Matt Lankes.

He notes that the decision became a bit problematic by the last few years of production. “It didn’t help that towards the end, film was on its slow death spiral,” he laments, having observed firsthand the chain reaction that helped speed the industry’s transition to a nearly all-digital universe. “We shot everything on film, but I could see how [the digital transition] happens: The rental houses don’t make as much money with the equipment, so there’s less maintenance. It becomes harder to get things serviced. There are fewer labs, and the ones that are around can’t necessarily offer the same level of service. Eventually you just want to shoot with digital cameras because shooting film has become kind of a pain in the ass.”

As with most of Linklater’s films, the photographic style of Boyhood was designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. Almost, but not quite, documentary style. “Someone who saw the film said that if they hadn’t seen Patricia and Ethan in it, they would have thought it was a documentary,” the director recalls. “I don’t mind people perceiving it that way, but obviously there are camera moves and other things you probably wouldn’t see in a documentary. We weren’t really trying to make it look like a documentary, but we didn’t want to ever draw attention to the fact that the scene was lit and there’s a camera and all that.”

As the kids matured and the lead adults started living their parts, he received an increasing amount of input from his performers—both directly, in the form of ideas for action or dialogue, and indirectly, as Ellar’s developing personality evoked in Linklater a sense of how Mason would behave.

“To me, while I’m making a film, it’s a living, breathing thing,” Linklater elaborates. “Each story’s different, but I always knew this would mesh to some degree with who Ellar was. He started giving me a lot of input as he got older. I’d ask for it. I’d give him assignments like, ‘Next year [your character] is going to meet a girl. Let’s think about the words. When you talk to girls in your real life, write stuff down.’ I welcome that. I always have. Since the first time I turned on a camera with actors, that’s always been my approach: a real workshoppy method.”

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Mason, age 18. Photo by Matt Lankes.

Linklater would screen each year’s dailies for Hawke and Arquette but not for the the kids. “They never asked,” he says, “but my impulse was not to let them watch it. I didn’t want them to be self-conscious and think ‘Oh, I look terrible’ or something. You know how you can just have an emotional reaction like, ‘That’s not my voice!’ because it doesn’t sound like you think it does and you get self-conscious. I didn’t want them to judge it.”

As the story evolved over that 12-year period, Linklater was always firm about maintaining naturalism and eschewing the dramatic extremes he feels audiences are conditioned to expect today. “I wanted it to feel as close to real life as possible,” he says.

“That’s the tone and the beat of it. I’d always have to ask myself, ‘What’s it usually like? What was it like for me?’ Kids put themselves in dangerous positions all the time, but most of the time really bad stuff doesn’t happen. I might think, ‘Hey, maybe someone could lose a digit here,’ but I was like, ‘Nah, I really did that stuff and nobody lost any digits.’ We don’t need that to capture some of the things that might not seem dramatic on the surface but are very emotional events for a young boy.”  

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