Sundance 2014: How Richard Linklater Spent 12 Years Chronicling ‘Boyhood’

PARK CITY, UTAH: Early in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Mason’s mom (Patricia Arquette) asks him to paint the doorframe. They’re moving out of their apartment — the first of several relocations over the film’s dozen-year narrative — and painting everything back to white. On the frame, Mason finds those little marks charting his and his sister’s growth, how tall they were at which age. More than any other contemporary filmmaker, Linklater understands cinema’s inherent value as the keeper of those little marks. The story of Boyhood‘s 12-year production (“We started this film 4,208 days ago,” Linklater joked at yesterday’s Sundance screening) is so fascinating that it threatens to overpower the narrative — since the former is so ambitious, the latter so slight. But this is a moving and powerful film, one that is all but without precedent.

In a nutshell, Linklater started making the film a dozen years ago, when star Ellar Coltrane was just a boy. Every year, Linklater and his cast (which also includes Arquette and Ethan Hawke as Mason’s parents) would reunite for a few days to shoot a bit more of the film, from a script he continued to develop out of his original 2002 outline. So what we have, finally, is a chronicle of a boy becoming a man, year by year — a chronicle often modified by the real lives and experiences of those acting in it.

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As Hawke explained at the post-movie Q&A, “One of the ways Rick likes to write a movie is to invite his performers to be a part of the filmmaking process with him. It’s very clear, the movie he wants to make, so that lets him be incredibly open to us.” And as the years passed, those contributions deepened: “A lot of it, for us, was talking about what it was like to be in fourth grade, but also now, we were parents of fourth graders, so we had the luxury of being able to look at it from both points of view.”

It’s not a film that’s heavy on plot; it has the meandering spirit and general curiosity of Linklater’s debut picture Slacker and the Before… trilogy (which themselves form a similar kind of accidental documentary). In fact, Linklater toys with our expectations, seeming to set up possible tragedies and other hyper-dramatic moments, and then sidestepping them entirely. Several big moments occur entirely off-camera, left for us to put together afterwards. There are certainly moments of tension and drama (its 160ish minutes would be a real drag otherwise), but as a general rule, Linklater is less interested in narrative than observation.

A standing ovation following Monday's 'Boyhood' screening. PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Bailey/ Flavorwire
A standing ovation following Monday’s ‘Boyhood’ screening. PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Bailey/ Flavorwire

And that’s the unique gift of the film. Thanks to both its leisurely running time and sprawling production, the closing passages of Boyhood are particularly meaningful — because we’ve seen Mason develop, become a person, form an identity. You can understand how he became who he is; you see the qualities (good and bad) that he’s acquired from his parents. And that anthropological quality extends to all elements of Linklater’s subtle screenplay, which notes how things that start as tics become behavior, how little strains widen and solidify, and (most thoughtfully) how maturity, though it has occurred before our very eyes, is still often an illusion (just ask Mason’s perpetually adrift mother, or his rolling-stone papa).

The patience required of Linklater in his cast, to dedicate themselves to an incomplete work for so long, is something I can’t even wrap my head around, but it clearly pays handsome dividends. The filmmaking is confident and carefully considered, because the extended timeline allowed those opportunities. “It was an interesting editing process, obviously,” Linklater said. “You got to spend all those years — just two months ago, I trimmed and was still working on something from year two. I had ten years to think about it.“ After looking at the material for that long, there must’ve been some temptation to chop it down, tighten it up, but Linklater resists, and the film is stronger for it. Near the end of the film, there is a quietly beautiful sequence in which Mason (who has become a talented photographer) simply wanders around takes some pictures. And in his own innovative way, that’s what Linklater is doing through the entire film.

Boyhood screened this week at the Sundance Film Festival. IFC Films will release it later this year.