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Richard Linklater on Why Boyhood Isn’t the Film You Think It Is

Richard Linklater. Photo: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images

Every movie is a time capsule in its own inadvertent way, but Richard Linklater makes his films like that on purpose. The 53-year-old director memorably chronicled the effect of time on relationships through his three Before Sunrise films, but he’s attempting something even more ambitious with Boyhood, a coming-of-age tale that Linklater shot in small installments over 12 years. It’s fascinating to watch the main character Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) grow up over time, and behind the scenes, Linklater continued to grow too, making several of his best films (including his biggest hit, School of Rock) concurrently. He sat down with Vulture recently to discuss his intimate new epic, and to dish on some of the big stars he helped discover over his career.

A lot of people go into Boyhood expecting to cry, perhaps anticipating a whole lot of maudlin coming-of-age moments that you totally sidestep.
Well, it’s the first, obvious thought. And I’m not so uncertain that it wasn’t my first thought, too. Because of all the time I had to shoot this film, I got to work through all those thoughts and go, I’ve seen some of those moments before, are they really that interesting? And it was about getting in touch with my own memories, too — sometimes I remember the details around the event better than the event itself. I never really think of my first kiss much, I think of all the other fun things along the way. And sometimes you’re only an extra when it comes to the big moments from your own narrative.

But that expectation for a big, cinematic moment can be kind of fascinating to behold. There’s a scene in the movie where Mason and his friends are throwing these dangerous metal blades around, just goofing off, and I remember when I saw the film at Sundance, the audience was completely convinced that one of the characters would get hurt. When the scene ended, people actually laughed at themselves, because it was like a gun that hadn’t gone off.
Oh, that was fascinating! I heard a chill go through the audience, but something like that never crossed my mind! As a young person, you risk your life regularly while fucking around, and you make it through. But I did think, Oooh, the audience really thinks something is going to happen. Did I just disappoint everyone? You see how we’re conditioned by movies? They usually depict the out-of-the-ordinary stuff — like, people pay to see the stuff that doesn’t happen in their own lives. We want to see great violence, great sex, great adventure and romance, but I was playing a different game here, obviously, hoping that the cumulative effect would have a different effect on you emotionally.

Music has a big role in the film — you can tell what year it is just by the pop songs the characters are listening to — although you lost some of the songs from the Sundance cut, right? That one introduced its final year with “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk, but it isn’t in the theatrical cut.
Yeah, there was a handful of cues we just couldn’t get. Weezer, too. We were on a discount, so I think some people just didn’t want to give us the songs. Cool people like Wilco, Arcade Fire, Sir Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan gave us songs, but, like, Weezer and Daft Punk didn’t? You never know who’s going to have an attitude or not want to be a part of it.

When you watch the movie now, do you think at all about the other movies you shot in between all these segments?
I kind of don’t. I just think about this movie as its own thing. Intellectually, I could look at parts and say, “Oh, I shot this and then went off to do School of Rock” — which is what I did after year one of Boyhood. But I don’t demarcate it like that. This film, though, did influence other things I was doing in a strange way, particularly the two Before Sunrise sequels. We started this in ’02, and in ’03, we did Before Sunset. The idea that Ethan [Hawke] and I had committed to a 12-year project probably gave us the courage to revisit that.

When Boyhood begins, Mason is the quietest character, and mostly reactive. Once he becomes a teenager, though, he’s opinionated and confident, and I actually felt proud of him for it.
Yeah! He’s sticking up for himself, he’s got opinions, he’s got taste. He’s kind of reactive early on, because I was trying to figure out how he felt as a kid. You have your own mind and your own little realm, but you’re so affected by everything around you before you acquire agency in this world and come into your own. The film mirrors that, because the other characters start to slowly recede as he gets older. Now he’s the one who’s driving the car. It’s his music we’re listening to. Little kids just play powerless in the corner, but I remember that feeling of being 15, feeling that boldness.

When you started this project, there were a lot of unknowns. How did you manage to find, in IFC, one of the only independent film companies that didn’t go under over the past decade?
I know! Think about that, statistically. But we got incredibly lucky through this whole thing, we really did. Everything went our way, even though it was like making 12 films and all it entails. People have asked me, “What were you going to do if one of the actors died?” and really, statistically, I knew that the four actors and myself would probably be around in 12 years. The anomaly is that the same film company would be — and that the same guy, Jonathan Sehring at IFC, would have the same job. Now, that is out of the ordinary!

You’ve got a real knack for casting talented actors at the beginning of their careers. Let me throw a few out at you, and you tell me what your first impression of them was. How about casting Parker Posey for Dazed and Confused?
Oh, love at first sight. When she came through the door, I thought, I’ve got my Darla. You just wanted to look at her, and I loved her energy. Wonderful, total star.

How about Julie Delpy for Before Sunrise?
She was living in L.A. when I met her, although I don’t think she’d done any American films at that point. She was the second woman I auditioned for the project, and I knew she was interesting, but you never think you’re gonna meet the One that early. So I went and met with a hundred other girls, and then I had to come back. She told me years later, “Oh yeah, I was drunk when I met you.” But I don’t know if that’s true, because she was so smart and so sharp.

You also cast Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, which really launched him. You must be thrilled by his career comeback and Oscar win.
It’s fun in all realms of life when you have friends who get to live in a world that they worked for, that they created. Matthew was always great, and on the day I met him, I thought, This guy is a good character actor. To see that articulated 20 years later in Dallas Buyers Club, while not surprising to me, is still kind of fun. It all worked out, and now everyone agrees with me.

Richard Linklater Talks Directing Boyhood