For 25 years, Richard Linklater has led a remarkably eclectic and expansive career, finding ways to work from both inside and outside the Hollywood system, and experimenting dramatically with narrative form. Though Linklater has proven himself more than capable of making movies with a satisfying three-act structure—The Newton Boys, School Of Rock, Bad News Bears, Me And Orson Welles, etc.—he more often looks for new ways of telling stories, from the roundelay of philosophical musings in films like Slacker and Waking Life to the dusk-’til-dawn feel of Dazed And Confused and Before Sunrise. He’s also mixed live-action and animation (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), made unlikely features out of nonfiction (Fast Food Nation, Bernie), and expanded the story of Before Sunrise’s Celine and Jesse across two additional films (Before Sunset and Before Midnight) that chronicle not only their feelings for each other, but also changes in their perspective over time.
In that sense, the Before trilogy feels in step with Linklater’s extraordinary new film Boyhood, a temporal experiment 12 years in the making. Year by year, from age 6 to 18, Linklater follows Ellar Coltrane’s Mason Jr. from childhood through his high-school graduation and beyond. Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays Mason’s older sister, and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play his parents, who have been divorced for some time when the movie opens. With his mother pursuing her education through a series of bad relationships and his father an inconsistent presence in his life, Mason bounces from home to home and city to city, and grows up before our eyes. The conceit of watching Coltrane and the other actors age over the course of the film is an emotionally powerful one, and it inspires Linklater to experiment subtly in other areas. Linklater talked to The Dissolve about the genesis and logistical challenges of Boyhood, his depiction of the South, and his underlying faith that time would have an impact on the audience.
The Dissolve: Boyhood screened at the True/False Film Festival, and it seems like the perfect embodiment of that festival’s mission to blur the line between documentary and fiction. How were you looking to balance the demands of narrative with the real developments over time?
Richard Linklater: You know, I wasn’t so sure we should even show [at True/False], because truly there’s nothing about the movie that’s a documentary, yet it feels real. It was meant to feel like a document of time, and it was a collaboration very much with the real world, and what was going on at any given time. It does blur the line in the mind. Someone said if you didn’t see Patricia and Ethan and didn’t know them from other movies, you might almost swear it was real. Some guy in New York the other night, he seemed like a normal guy, but after the movie, as I was leaving, he said, “How did you pick this family?” [Laughs.] I’m like, “They’re actors.” He thought I’d done something like that TV show, An American Family, picked a family and followed them all of these years. I’m like, “Are you crazy?” Anyway [Boyhood] does get blurry, and I wanted it to work that way in the viewer’s head.
The Dissolve: How did you account for that on a script level? How did you open it up enough to where you could bring in developments?
Linklater: It was ultimately 12 scripts. Every year, I got to think about it. And as we got closer to shooting, I got to see how the film felt over the years. It’s rare that a film gives you that chance to edit and think about what it needs. There was this ever-growing film that I got to just contemplate that was pretty amazing. I never did a film that wanted to be itself so much. Just its own thing. So it was a very incremental adjustment every year with the actors. It’s a methodology that’s so unnatural, so different, but there was a real upside within that.
The Dissolve: So you didn’t have certain narrative signposts or points that you knew in advance you wanted to hit?
Linklater: I definitely had a strong structure. I definitely knew when they were moving, all of the life/family shake-ups, the moves. I had these 12 scripts, so I could write any idea of what could go in this movie, and then I would just put it in a slot. But then when I got to that year, I had all of these notes, and I could work with the script and work with the actors just the way I always do.
The Dissolve: How did you settle on Ellar Coltrane, and how did you go about altering the film in order to accommodate changes in his life and in his personality?
Linklater: I always told him that the film was going to go where he went. It would merge with him. [Mason] is not him at the beginning at all. He wasn’t like that, and he wouldn’t dress like that. He’s a lot cooler than that kid at the beginning, in a way. We kind of had to normal him up a little bit. Ellar was pretty advanced. So was Lorelei. They didn’t really like the wardrobe the first few years of the movie. They said, “I would never wear this!” We were trying to explain, “Because you guys are both weird...” [Laughs.] “You both are not very normal,” whatever that means. And so I always knew at some point that [their characters were] going to fuse with the real person. I think that’s Ellar up on the mountain at the end. That’s him.
The Dissolve: Would you have, then, to keep up with Ellar throughout the year? Or would you have conversations approaching the script stage?
Linklater: You know, it was very fluid. We live in the same town and we’re family, practically. A couple years into this, we would see him around and go to movies, and it was always just like gauging where he was at in a real casual way. His life was actually very different than his character’s. Ellar was primarily home-schooled, he didn’t have a lot of the same experiences, he didn’t have any siblings—he had a younger sister at some point, who’s now about 9 or so. So his life is very different, but I was always just trying to get the essence of him.
The Dissolve: And how did you account for the fact that Ellar and your daughter weren’t actors, or necessarily aspiring to be actors. How do you work with them, performance-wise?
Linklater: Well, I had the confidence that I could make it work. With the reality I was trying to create, I thought I could dial in each year on who they were. But, you know, some people refer to Ellar as a non-professional actor, and I’m like, “Bullshit. He’s been acting professionally for 12 years in a row.” He’s working with Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and these are serious actors, and we spent a lot of time rehearsing. So he’s a good actor. He really gets that. And he was an actor from the start. He had been in a movie and some commercials and stuff. Lorelei was a real natural, too.
The Dissolve: While Boyhood charts the development of this boy, his family, and culture at large, does it also chart your development as a filmmaker? How did your process change as it went along?
Linklater: It’s kind of humbling to consider, but I didn’t evolve. As far as this movie goes, I didn’t want to evolve. I wanted it to feel like one movie. Any developments I had as a filmmaker are reflected in the other films. “Oh, the filmmaking improves as you go along”... I’ve gotten that backhanded compliment somewhere along the way. I hope not. I didn’t start when I was 20. I had done a lot of films before I had started this, and I had a visual plan for the whole movie, and there was a tonal thing I was hoping to maintain. Consistent throughout. For it to work, it had to just feel real, and any changes are just observational. I had some visual rules from the beginning that I just stuck with the whole way, so I didn’t evolve. That was the whole point.
The Dissolve: There has to be some continuity. What other organizational challenges did the film present? It’s hard enough for a cast and a crew together for one movie, let alone 12.
Linklater: Logistically, things were just off the charts. Crazy. It’s insane making 12 films, and each one had its own problems. So at the end of the day, for a low-budget indie film we spent two years in pre-production. Each time you have to get a crew, you’ve got to rent just for a three-day shoot, you still have to do all of that stuff: Get production insurance, tech-scout, location-scout, cast the additional parts, get the crew together, make deals. So weeks and weeks each year, and then post-production. We spent about two years editing, if you really add up all of the editing-room time, because every year we would have the luxury to edit what we just shot, attach it to whatever we did before, and then edit the whole thing again. We had a cast and crew of over 450 people who came through in various capacities for various times. We had a core crew that was there the whole time, with quite a few people who put in nine years or more. And there are probably 10 or 12 [people] who did either 11 or 12 years.
The Dissolve: Boyhood uses music and cultural events to mark time, but no titles or dissolves or other transitional devices. How did you settle on how you wanted to handle the passing of time?
Linklater: That was the most delicate element. I think I felt my way through that. I had the ability to edit years later things that I thought were not quite what I wanted, but I’d use that year to work through the bad ideas, the things that were obvious, or being too clever. I always had to hang on to the perspective of the kids growing up, and how the audience would perceive it. I wanted it to be taken in a certain way and not be clever about it, but those transitions were very important.
The Dissolve: Did you have to be sort of content to leave things a little rough?
Linklater: I think the tendency would be to draw attention to it, like, “Hey look how it’s a year later!” And your memory doesn’t work that way. I wanted the thing to feel like a memory, and it just kind of flows. So I wanted the audience to earn the transition by observation. Sometimes it’s a little more obvious. But I didn’t want like, a direct-cut close-up of Ellar with long hair, and then the next shot he has short hair. I actually cut a transition between years one and two and then again between years 11 and 12 because I wasn’t happy with it. It was a little too obvious.
The Dissolve: Is there a lot of footage on the cutting-room floor?
Linklater: No. There’s no longer version. I would say there’s a lot less footage on the floor than in most movies. We were sort of hemmed in every year. It probably seems loose and flowing, and I want it to, but it was pretty much rendered as planned.
The Dissolve: Among other things, the film is really nuanced about growing up in Texas, and about the South generally. Do you feel like you’re sensitive to how the South is portrayed on film?
Linklater: Maybe a little bit. In my films, there are specific types I try to bring a little perspective to, based on my own experiences. It’s little like, “Hey, you can’t make fun of us. We’ll make fun of ourselves.” That’s how I felt safe on Bernie or something like that. I can make fun of East Texas, but I don’t want you to. I don’t want someone from New York coming down and saying we’re all a bunch of hicks. But Southerners are used to that. They’re used to being condescended to by the national media, so I have a sensitivity to that. But the thing is, [Southerners] really appreciate it when they’re treated with a certain respect. I don’t have a big ax to grind about it, though. I did get a Bible and a shotgun when I was 13 for Christmas. Looking back at the time, it was like, “Cool!” I would shoot the gun at targets and, you know, I didn’t shoot up a school at some point. I did practice gun safety. It was a part of me then. It’s not a thing in my life now. There wasn’t a malevolent intent behind these things, or the way I portrayed anything in the film. Take the church service, it’s just like, well...
The Dissolve: It’s just part of life.
Linklater: Yeah. You know, listen to what the preacher’s saying, you might learn something or feel something. I didn’t have an axe to grind about any of this. It was just kind of a recollection.
The Dissolve: If you’re a liberal-minded person in Texas, and things like fundamentalism and guns are a more prevalent part of the culture, you maybe…
Linklater: …see things a little differently. There are dark sides to some of this, but there are just too many people that aren’t sinister, too many believers who are really good people. You get represented by extremes, but the reality is something much different. So it becomes this kind of alien culture where people have all of these assumptions about things on the ground that really aren’t the case. I’ve always felt on the gun-culture thing, the more rural you get in America, the more that guns are tolerable, and the more urban you get, the more restrictive. You have Republicans in New York City saying, “Nah, we don’t really like these guns,” and you’ve got Democrats in Montana saying, “Hey! Let’s all hunt, everyone should have a gun!” It’s a rural versus urban thing rather than a political thing. That’s my view.
The Dissolve: Because of Boyhood’s time conceit, you’re afforded the opportunity to play with the audience’s ideas of how a narrative is supposed to behave. For example, if you see a drunk guy speeding off with a car full of kids, you expect…
Linklater: You’re going to hit a pole…
The Dissolve: Right, exactly. Or if a bunch of boys are on a construction site and they’re playing with saw blades...
Linklater: I know! You know, that never crossed my mind when I did that scene. And the first time I saw it with a big audience, you could feel that tension in the theater, because the blade is right behind the kid and you think he’s going to get cut. But it never crossed my mind. At the same time, you get through childhood and most of the time it doesn’t happen. We all get stitches or break a leg or have a cast for a little percentage of our childhood, but nothing that dramatic. So I didn’t really know I was setting expectations. When the dad says “Don’t text and drive,” and then his girlfriend hands him the text, and it’s like, “Okay here we go...” I didn’t realize just how utterly conditioned we are. Even in this movie, you’re an hour and half or two hours in, and you still think it’s that kind of movie? Yeah, we’re so utterly conditioned. I mean, it makes sense. It’s nothing evil. We’ve just been trained. Movies are about extraordinary things. If you want to see your normal life, who wants to pay for that? But life doesn’t usually have much of that [peril].
The Dissolve: There are other ways you play with expectations, too. When you’re following this boy from 6 to 18, you might expect his graduation to be this big, emphatic moment, but you approach that from kind of a side angle.
Linklater: Yeah, he doesn’t walk the stage or anything like that. [Laughs.] The film is all very personal, and I was hanging onto my own memory. I was grateful for those years between shooting to filter out the bad, because your first ideas of representation usually aren’t the best. My main thought was, “How does my memory work?” I remember graduation. It was boring, and I was an extra in a big event, and there was nothing personal about it. But I do remember being in a car with my buddy Danny, and he had a drink and we were kind of farting around afterwards. And I do remember my mom talking too much at a little gathering she had for me that I really didn’t want to be at. If something is represented too much, we all bring in too much, and I don’t need to see it represented again. Even in my own mind, the good stuff came later. It gets better and more interesting and less fraught.
The Dissolve: Was the character of Mason a fusion of sorts between yourself and Ellar?
Linklater: Yeah, I think so. It’s very personal, but it’s filtered through all of us if you think about it. The adults, too: Patricia, Ethan, and myself, we’re collaborating with our parents and who they were, and ourselves as kids, ourselves as parents at this moment, and kind of figuring that out, so there’s this kind of triangulation at all times. We’re filtering our ideas through these kids who are in the moment as kids growing up. There’s hardly anything in this movie that wasn’t real to some degree, that didn’t happen to myself, or one of my collaborators. Pretty close to everything is based in somebody’s reality or memory or something, pretty much across the board. That’s a good place to start.
The Dissolve: Do you have kind of a similar approach with the Before movies? In terms of that kind of melding of experience and interest?
Linklater: Those can go a little farther afield. There’s more room for digression. This was pretty straightforward. The narrative of [Boyhood], while essentially not driven by plot points per se, the way it unfolds is very similar to the way all of our lives unfold and the way that time passes. I thought I had some basis for reality that would work on the viewer.
The Dissolve: There have been similar experiments: Michael Apted’s Up series, the Antoine Doinel films, and to some extent the Before trilogy. Did those movies enter into your thinking in how you wanted to make it? Or things you wanted to do differently?
Linklater: To be honest, those films don’t enter in, because this is doing something very different. The filming every year part is what none of those that you mentioned do. I really wanted to feel that in one sitting you felt a whole life go by as much as possible—the whole maturation process up to getting out of high school. I hadn’t seen that before, and that’s the narrative problem I was trying to solve as far as what to express and how to express it. It was powerful. I think there’s a scene in an Eric Rohmer film [We believe the film being referenced is 1992’s A Tale Of Winter. —ed.] ... the star of Rohmer’s  film Summer [Marie Rivière], she was sitting on a bus and I realized that she’d been in this darling movie from years before that I liked a lot. She’s older, but it’s unmistakably her, and she’s just sitting on the bus next to the lead and it’s a cameo. I mean, she’s an extra! She didn’t even have a line, but if you know his world, you go, “Oh that’s whatshername.”
The Dissolve: Did you have faith that the power of time as a concept would carry enough emotionally that you didn’t have to press?
Linklater: That’s it. I bet the whole farm on what I thought would work with every ounce of my cinematic being, the way we perceive time and cinema and the way we identify with people put before us in a certain way. I thought, “Oh, there will be this cumulative effect.” It’s an investment. Just the way the crew and the cast had invested, two years in, three years in, it just deepened and felt richer.
The Dissolve: That’s how you feel when you watch it.
Linklater: You’re sitting in a seat for two hours and 40 minutes or whatever. You’re kind of living through this life and there’s an investment. You’re giving your subject time and they’re giving you their whole life, but there is a reciprocal thing going. I felt that that’s how it would feel to watch it. So I just knew that I didn’t need to trump it up, I didn’t need a lot of plot, I didn’t need a lot of machinations, and that with the storytelling I could just kind of show life. It’s well-paced. The film doesn’t linger. There are 143 scenes and 164 minutes. It’s not watching paint dry. It’s really carrying you along. There’s a lot of stuff happening. It’s all about pace and trajectory. It’s all about the little things that don’t have a place in a movie. I was quoted once saying, “This is all the shit they cut out of the movie.”
The Dissolve: I found myself moved by the film at completely random intervals. There’s no big emotional epiphany, but sometimes you recognize that Mason is older, and he’s growing up and he’s doing these new things.
Linklater: I thought just perception and identification would carry it. You see this in other art forms, too. I saw this photo display of this guy with his wife and her sisters, and he takes a picture every year, whenever they’re together. [Linklater is referring to “The Brown Sisters” photos by Nicholas Nixon. —ed.] It’s like four sisters and they line up in the same way, same order, and they’ve been doing it since they were teenagers and now they’re middle-aged. I saw it in a museum once, like three years ago, but this project goes back to the ‘70s. You walk around the room, and they’re not on top of each other, but you see them, and you walk over here and they’re a little older, and it’s just fascinating, you know? You see how life just accumulates. Our fundamental view of the world is measured by who we are today and who we’ve been, and that’s not going anywhere. It’s only expanding throughout our lives, it’s always profound and inescapable how we perceive the world through that viewpoint. So I think this movie conjures something in that area that’s really fundamental to how we process the world and time.
The Dissolve: That’s an idea that you’ve explored in other films, too.
Linklater: I think so. In those ones I think I’m just trying to process how it feels to maybe remember the way you felt for a day, or the way your mind works or something.
The Dissolve: Films like Slacker or Waking Life strike me as repositories for certain ideas you might have been puzzling over at a certain time.
Linklater: I’ve found a cinematic form that I was trying here in both of those. Slacker, Waking Life, and Boyhood are all kind of interconnected in some strange way. They all came from “aha!” moments. They are all three ideas that wouldn’t work on paper, but I always thought would work on the viewer.