Filmed Over 12 Years, 'Boyhood' Follows A Kid's Coming Of Age Writer-director Richard Linklater says picking the film's star was vital because he had to guess what he'd be like at 18. "I just went with a kid who seemed kind of the most interesting."

Filmed Over 12 Years, 'Boyhood' Follows A Kid's Coming Of Age

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our first guest today is Richard Linklater, director of the film "Boyhood." It just received five Golden Globe nominations, including one for Linklater as best director and another for best motion picture drama. Both Fresh Air critic David Edelstein and New York Times film critic A. O. Scott have named "Boyhood" the best film of the year. "Boyhood" was shot over the course of 12 years, so we watch the actors getting older for real, which gives their characters a sense of authenticity. "Boyhood" was written and directed by Richard Linklater, who spoke to Terry earlier this year when the movie was released. It comes out on DVD next month. Linklater also made the films "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," the "Before Sunrise" trilogy, "School Of Rock" and "Bernie." "Boyhood" begins when the main character, Mason, is 6. His sister is a couple years older. They live in a small Texas town with their mother, who is divorced from their father. Over the next 12 years, we watch the children grow up as their parents stumble their way through the next stage of adulthood. The parents are played by Ethan Hawke ,who costarred in Linklater's "Before Sunrise" trilogy, and Patricia Arquette. Both of them received Golden Globe nominations also. The boy is played by Ellar Coltrane, and the sister is played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei. Here's a scene from the film. The mother is now remarried but has discovered that her new husband drinks and has an authoritarian streak. He's forced her shaggy-haired son to get a buzz cut. The boy is embarrassed by how he looks. Soon after, alone in the car with his mother, he lets her know how angry he is.


ELLAR COLTRANE: (As Mason) I mean, he didn't even ask. He just cut it. I mean, it's my hair.

PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Well, no wonder you were angry. I'd be angry too.

COLTRANE: (As Mason) I look like a Martian now.

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Honey, you know what? I'm going to talk to him about it later, OK?

COLTRANE: (As Mason) I tried to call you, but you didn't answer your phone.

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) I'm so sorry. I've been so busy with school. Hey, for what it's worth, it's hair, and it will grow back. Now I can see your pretty eyes and your foxy face.

COLTRANE: (As Mason) Why'd you even marry him? He's such a jerk.

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Bill has his good qualities. You know, nobody's perfect. And now we have a family.

COLTRANE: (As Mason) We already had a family.



Richard Linklater, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, throughout my life...


GROSS: ...I've always wondered like - gee, what's that baby going to look like as a child, and what's that child going to look like as a teenager, and what's that teenager going to look like as an adult, and what's that adult going to look like as an elderly person? When I was in, like, grade school, I used to think like - what's the kid sitting next me going to look like an adult? Because I couldn't fathom kids my age looking like adults - it seemed just unimaginable to me that we'd all grow into what adults look like. And I'm wondering if that's part of what you were thinking about in shooting this film over 12 years.

R. LINKLATER: (Laughing) Well, I don't know if that was the main motivation, but it was certainly kind of - part of the idea was to see people transform in one sitting of a movie - to see them transform into that young adult in this case or see the adults get older. I mean, that is the fascinating journey we all make. You just kind of have to admit you're collaborating - your main collaborator here is really an unknown future. So I would have each year to kind of incrementally adjust and maybe go toward who he was becoming. At the beginning, that's not really him. He's playing this fictional character. But by the end, all those years later, I think his character had morphed largely - still a fictional character - but, you know, that's really him sitting up on the mountain at the end. I would say that's Ellar.

GROSS: How much of the story did you have in your mind when you set out to make the movie and how did that change as the years went by and the actors you were working with, particularly the children, one of whom is your daughter, changed?

R. LINKLATER: All - it's both - the macro and the micro.

GROSS: And you changed too, I'm sure.


GROSS: I'm sure you've changed over 12 years. And your idea of how children mature and what happens to parents - I'm sure that changed over 12 years.

R. LINKLATER: Of course, I looked forward to that. That was kind of built into the design of the movie. Even as I structured it and knew the trajectories of the characters and kind of all the physicality - oh, they're moving here, there's a divorce, you get your degree, you move again. The dad comes into your life and, you know, all this. I kind of had that all worked out. But I was kind of looking forward to, you know, the new ideas that would emerge in the process, you know. I had notes I know I wanted to hit later in the film that I knew I couldn't even articulate yet. I knew oh, that'll be eight or nine years before I truly will know the right tone for that scene. But there it sits as a placeholder way into the future. So it's kind of good to know what you're working toward. But it's also rare in film that you have this luxury of time. You know, we filmed 39 days over about a 4,200 day stretch of time, which is incredible. It gave me so much time to just think and process everything we had done so far. I could edit, attach that to this ever-growing film. Year-by-year, it's becoming larger. I would edit the entire film again - watch it, think about it - what does the story need? Incorporate whatever is going on in the culture that I felt was relevant. And then also my incrementally aging and growing-up cast - being in touch with them and what's going on in their lives.

GROSS: Now, you cast your daughter as the older sister in the movie. And she's, like, what, a couple of years older than her brother?

R. LINKLATER: Yeah, she was 9 and Ellar was 7 when we started, yeah.

GROSS: So tell me why you cast your daughter. I was thinking part of the reason - I'm guessing here - that part of the reason was if you were willing to put your daughter through it, then you'd feel more comfortable putting Ellar, Ellar Coltrane through it.


GROSS: And also his parents would feel more comfortable thinking, like, well, his own daughter's doing it, so he's going to treat my son OK.


R. LINKLATER: They don't know who they're dealing with. You know, I never really thought of that. I guess that might've impressed them that oh yeah, I'm putting my family on the line for this. But it was really - it almost felt like I didn't cast Lorelei. She - once it was apparent that the older sister was in her age range, you know, the kind of - starts off kind of the annoying older sister. She sort of insisted on the part. She sort of took the part like, daddy, well, I'm playing that part. She had grown up on movie sets. She'd been in other movies, little parts. And it was just very natural for her. She was very extraverted at that point in her life. And, you know, the sassy kid you see at the beginning of the movie, that was her.

GROSS: But didn't it cross your mind that there might've been one of those moments of - I hate you daddy and I hate your movie?


R. LINKLATER: I didn't think that at the beginning because she was so gung-ho. But surprise, you know, here comes puberty (laughing). You know, adolescence and, you know, here we go. She did have a year where she was like dad, can my character, like, die?


R. LINKLATER: You know, she was (laughing) - that wasn't, like, director-actor, that was daughter-father. And it was really cute, and I couldn't quite figure out if she was having an emotional reaction to the dressing up for the Harry Potter book signing that year. It seemed irrational to me at the time, and I'm like, well, no Lorelei. You know, that would be a little dramatic for the film we're making. You know, she got through it. And then she really came back aboard and she never wanted to bail again. She was really a trooper and I'm very proud of the work she did. She was great.

GROSS: So you describe the character that your daughter, Lorelei Linklater, plays in the movie as like the annoying older sister.

R. LINKLATER: Starts off that way

GROSS: Starts off that way. So here's her starting off as the annoying sister moment.

R. LINKLATER: Oh yeah.

GROSS: And she's singing the Britney Spears hit, "Oops, I Did it Again." And her younger brother is just feeling, like, tormented by being forced to watch her sing this. And she's, like, dancing around the room and everything. So, let me just play that moment. And you'll hear him just kind of feeling tormented and then she starts kind of, you know, tormenting him. And then the mother walks in and...

R. LINKLATER: ...She fakes crying.

GROSS: And, yeah. She fakes that he hit her when really she's the one who's been picking on him. So here's the scene. And this is Richard Linklater's daughter, Lorelei Linklater, as the older sister and Ellar Coltrane as the brother.


LORELEI LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) Oops I did it again. I played with your heart. I got lost the game. Oh baby, baby. Woops you think I'm in love, I was sent from above.

COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) Stop.

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) I'm not that innocent.

COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) Quit it.

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) You see my problem is this, I'm dreaming away, wishing that heroes truly exist.

COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) Quit it.

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) I cry watching the days. You see I'm a fool, in so many ways.

COLTRANE: (As Mason. Jr.) Mom.

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha, singing) But to lose all my senses...

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) What the hell is going on in here? Do you guys know what time it is?

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha, crying) He's throwing things at me.

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Mason, do not throw things at your sister.

COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) She's faking. She hit me first.

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Listen, both of you. I'm going back to bed. I don't want to hear another peep out of here for an hour. Go to sleep.

COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) Faker.

GROSS: That was Patricia Arquette as the mother. My guest Richard Linklater wrote and directed the movie which is called "Boyhood." So I think that's great, and I was wondering if your daughter Lorelei at the time was singing, "Oops, I Did it Again," around the house. And I was wondering also what you thought of it when she was - when she was singing around the house because you know, Britney Spears was so - kind like of sexualized as a young teen and parents were like, oh my gosh, do I really want my daughter being that sexualized, that young.

R. LINKLATER: No, my daughter lives in another - at that age lived in another century. She was listening to harpsichord. She's kind of a medievalist. So, she wasn't really that familiar with Britney Spears. I mean, she knew the name and I think she had heard the song. She had to kind of learn that for the movie. But she was singing and dancing to her namesake, Marilyn Monroe's character in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." That she would sing and dance to, at a drop of a hat. She was a big Marilyn Monroe fan at that time. So, I even filmed as a backup, in case it ever got the rights to the Britney Spears song, I had her doing a take of - from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." So that's really more who she was.

GROSS: My guest is Richard Linklater. He wrote and directed the new film "Boyhood." And his other films include "Dazed and Confused" and "Slacker" and "Bernie." So I want to jump ahead in time a few years in the movie - and this is a scene when your daughter, Lorelei Linklater, is in high school. We just heard her when she was about 9, now she's in this scene. She's in high school. And her younger brother's in middle school. And so in the scene she's with one of her girlfriends talking at home in her bedroom and her mother walks in and is really angry that she neglected to do what she promised to do, which is pick up her younger brother from middle school. So here's the scene.


ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) Samantha. Why the hell didn't you pick up your brother like you said you would?

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha) OK, Mom. Mom, I know you're going to say - she was running late, and we couldn't turn around.

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) No, no. No excuses. The bottom line is, you didn't do what you say you were going to do. You stranded your brother.

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha) It's embarrassing to ask my friend to turn around and get some kid at the middle school.

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) What do you mean, some kid? He's your brother. And you know what? We've helped Janey out before. I mean, she lives right around the corner, it's no big deal.

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha) Sorry

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) You know what, Samantha? You need to start thinking long and hard about who you want to be. Do you want to be a cooperative person who - who's compassionate and helps people out, or do want to be a self-centered narcissist?

L. LINKLATER: (As Samantha) You know what? You're right. I am this horrible person, but honestly he's not a baby anymore - you don't have to treat him like one. He's in eighth grade, and he can find his way home if he wants to.

ARQUETTE: (As Olivia) You know what? When Gabby leaves, you and me are going to have a chat.

GROSS: That's Lorelei Linklater and Patricia Arquette in a scene from Richard Linklater's new movie, "Boyhood." And I - I love just hearing back to back the clip where daughter is like nine, and singing "Oops, I Did it Again," and hearing her in high school - it's much more interesting when you can see it too. So "Boyhood" is not a thriller, but I found myself being nervous during a lot of the movie because I was always worrying that the kids will hurt themselves, or get into trouble, or something is going to go wrong. And it made me think - I'm not a parent, but it made me think about how parents probably live their lives that way because there's always so much to worry about when your children are going up.

R. LINKLATER: It's the worst thing that gets imposed on you as a parent. Like your carefree days are over because - just that part of you - what's that part of the brain that's on the lookout for all danger? I mean that goes on...

GROSS: ...It's called my brain

R. LINKLATER: Yeah, just your entire brain.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

R. LINKLATER: Yeah. Well, that goes on red alert that - that gets - that knob goes to 11 and you're spending your whole time like, okay how are you going to - your job is to protect your kids, to such a degree. But you see it, we're conditioned. Audiences are conditioned, you know. In the film, there's a scene where these boys are like, throwing these saw blades at a...

GROSS: Yeah.

R. LINKLATER: ...Sheet rock I could feel it in audience, and it was the last thing that crossed my mind. It had crossed my mind in the shooting of that that there would be blood, or violence or any mistakes - it was just these guys kind of screwing around. But I felt it in the audience like, OK this is where the kid falls back on the blade and you know we have to - cuts off a finger or something, but it just - that usually doesn't happen in life, and this thing was so much about kind of - you know most - you get through life and there aren't these huge traumatic - there's a lot of little things. And there's another scene where his dad is warning him, don't drive and text. He is on a little road trip, driving with his girlfriend - she hands him the phone - he looks at a picture while he's driving - OK, here's where the car goes off the highway.

But you see how much were conditioned in our, you know plot-based storytelling to have - to set these things up and pay them off and you realize just how fake that is to life. Most of us do survive do survive childhood. Most of the bad things don't happen. You know, we spend all our lives in fear for these things that never happen. And when things do happen, it's unexpected - it's not the way you thought you would and you realize there's nothing - not much you could have done to prevent it, sometimes. You know, but it's - it's just - you know, it's an unpredictable - there's just a random element to i, but yet you have to be concerned as a parent. So it's - it's - it's a tough trick to maintain.

GROSS: But you're so right that were conditioned in movies to expect like, oh this is where the saw amputates his arm...


GROSS: ...Or this is where the car drives off the road or, yeah.

R. LINKLATER: It just doesn't happen. But that doesn't mean the film isn't a good drama.

GROSS: But the thing is, sometimes it does hap - sometimes it does happen.

R. LINKLATER: Sometimes it does, you know. Who gets through childhood without some stitches or a broke - you know, you're going to wear a cast at some point. Something is going to happen. But I just - that itself wasn't that dramatic to me. I was going for the little drama of life where maybe it doesn't feel that dramatic to the - to the parent like, oh we're moving you know just - you're the new kid in school, so what? You know, but for the kid that's - that's highly dramatic - that's traumatic, you know? So, I was trying from the kid's perspective get, just how dramatic you know, life can feel, even though it maybe to another perspective it doesn't feel that way or look that way, but it - it is. It's pretty dramatic. Just getting through life is pretty dramatic.

BIANCULLI: Richard Linklater speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His movie, "Boyhood," has just been nominated for five Golden Globe awards. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's interview with writer and director Richard Linklater. His move, "Boyhood," which covers 12 years in the life of a fictional family and was filmed over as many years, has just been nominated for five Golden Globes, including best motion picture drama.


GROSS: The parents in "Boyhood" are divorced. They're played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. And so she becomes a single mother. She goes back to school to get a psychology degree and hopes to earn a decent living teaching. But it's very hard on her and on her two children when she's in school because she can't give them the attention that she wants or that they want to have. And it's hard for her to focus on school, too. I read that your mother went back to school when you were growing up. Were your parents divorced?

R. LINKLATER: Yeah, my mom was a young mom from the late '50s, early '60s. You know, good Catholic girl. She had her kids - I think when she had her third kid, me, she was 22. And I think she was very smart and still wanted an education and all that. So my childhood was my mom in school, my mom graduating. My mom graduated from college when she was, you know, a certain age. And then she got her masters. And then working getting, you know, teaching and then getting a college teaching job. So Patricia's academic career kind of is based sort of on my moms, that element.

But my parents divorced when I was 7, so in this movie they're divorced from the very beginning because I didn't really want the audience to know too much about what happened there, kind of the way the kids - your parent's separation is kind of a mystery. You never know exactly what happened, maybe you never do. But certainly from a kid, you know, point of view you get pulled aside and said OK, well, Daddy's going to live here and, you know, they just kind of explain it to you. But it's kind of a mystery as to what happened between them before the movie starts. And even in the - at the very end of the movie, we're still learning - there'll be a little hint or a little something, we still kind of hear more about that relationship.

GROSS: The character of the father in your movie - the Ethan Hawke character. When Ethan Hawke has a new girlfriend who he eventually marries in the film, his in-laws - they're really warm and loving, not only to him but to the whole extended family, to his children from another marriage. But they're also, like, so culturally and politically opposite from the Ethan Hawke character. They're very Christian. They're very politically conservative. They have guns. They're culturally opposite. But they're such lovely people. And I thought it was really good that you created these characters who aren't culturally like you or like his character and created two such great people.

R. LINKLATER: Yeah. I'm glad you see it that way because some people sort of laugh like oh, they're these - his new step-grandparents seem a little, you know, they represent a lot of our country. And it's kind of based loosely on my own step-grandparents who were the sweetest people, who embraced my sisters and I as family immediately and loved us. And they were just wonderful. And yet there was that Christmas at age 13, you know, I call it my redneck bar mitzvah year where, you know, I did get a Bible with my name in it and a shotgun in the same year. And you realize it's just cultural. And most people get guns, they use it sportingly and recreationally, and nothing bad ever happens. You know, you learn safety, like he says. And nothing bad happens with those guns. So that's the vast majority of our culture. And I think a lot of people are sort of afraid of it, but you realize it's just cultural.

GROSS: Richard Linklater, thank you so much.

R. LINKLATER: Yeah. Thank you for having me. Good talking to you.

BIANCULLI: Writer and director Richard Linklater speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His movie, "Boyhood," has just been nominated for five Golden Globes, including best motion picture drama. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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