The summer movie season’s greatest marvel – greater than those CGI apes – opens Friday in Sacramento.
Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is a coming-of-age story in which the lead actor (Ellar Coltrane), as well as his character, literally come of age before viewers’ eyes. Linklater began filming in 2002, reconvening his cast for three- or four-day shoots for the next 11 years to tell the fictional story of a Texas boy named Mason.
As Mason moves from navigating his divorced parents’ (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) tense relationship to embarking, years later, on his own first romance, Coltrane’s voice deepens, his limbs lengthen and a summer audience accustomed to special effects is dazzled by an effect that isn’t.
One not life-like, but just life.
Linklater’s aptitude for enriching stories by revisiting characters over time drew two Oscar nominations, for co-writing 2004’s “Before Sunset” and 2013’s “Before Midnight” – sequels to 1995’s “Before Sunrise” – with actors Hawke and July Delpy. He made those films while still working on “Boyhood,” his most epic film in scope and run time (2 hours, 44 minutes) but still a characteristically low-key, intimate work.
Linklater, in a phone interview, said he sought to make a film that did not focus on a big event or a fixed time but rather the experiences of “growing up, and parents and those relationships.” Filming over many years “was the only way to express what I really want to say,” he said.
Documentaries, most notably Michael Apted’s “Up” series, have followed the same subjects for years. Narrative films have not.
“I felt like it was new territory, and that was exciting,” Linklater said. He joked that he was sure that at some time during the film’s shoot, or during a festival run earlier this year that included Sundance and Berlin, he would find out about a predecessor.
“I kind of expected by the time I got here, at the end, it would be ‘Oh yes, in Scandinavia back in 1958-1970,’ ” Linklater said. “(But) no one has come forth with their film. We have shown it all over the world, and people have said ‘I’ve never see anything like it.’”
“Boyhood” opened in some U.S. cities earlier this month, to enthusiastic box office and ecstatic reviews. The film sits at 99 percent “fresh” on the review-aggregation site Rottentomatoes.com.
“Few filmmakers ever make a great movie,” Mick LaSalle wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “Fewer still ever make a movie that expands what movies can express. Richard Linklater does both with ‘Boyhood.’ ”
Others have not tried the “Boyhood” gambit for good reason. A longitudinal approach is “unnatural” to narrative films, Linklater said, “for obvious reasons – control, all those things.”
With so many moving parts – cast, crew, locations – much can go wrong on a two-month movie shoot, never mind a low-budget production reliant on a child actor’s participation for 12 years.
Linklater could control some variables. Film distributor IFC was on board from the start. “Every year, they would give us a little money,” Linklater said. Hawke and Arquette also remained committed, with Arquette taking time off each year from her 2005-11 TV series “Medium” for the film.
In searching for the boy, Linklater auditioned only kids who already were actors. Coltrane, an Austinite like Linklater and son of a musician father and former dancer mother, had an agent when he came to the “Boyhood” audition. He won Linklater over in a series of long talks.
“He was just the cool kid, the guy who was kind of excited about ideas and music and movies,” Linklater said of Coltrane, then just 6. “He wasn’t academically precocious, he wasn’t one of those know-it-all kind of kids. He was just kind of his own guy.”
Linklater also liked Coltrane’s parents, which was just as vital.
“You’re kind of casting the parents, too, at that age,” he said. “To kind of see him through this life project, you need a lot of familial support for that. Not someone who gets mad and jerks their kid out of the whole thing.”
Coltrane, in a separate phone interview that also hosted Arquette, said he was too young at the time to understand the project’s scope, but that “I was definitely ready to invest myself” to the degree he could. He already was a fan of Linklater’s 2001 lucid dream-themed animated film “Waking Life” and wanted to work with the director.
“Richard has an amazing confidence and way about him,” said Coltrane, now 19. “When he sets his mind to something, he just kind of does it, without pushing or struggling. He never sacrifices. It’s very infectious.”
Coltrane never balked at being tied to such a long-term project, even during adolescence.
“I never really had that need to rebel, from anything,” he said. “ I was home-schooled, and my parents never really forced me to do anything I didn’t want to do. So the structure and the kind of obligation (of) this project was a really exciting thing for me.”
Linklater did not need to hold auditions for the key role of Mason’s older sister. His daughter, Lorelei, plays her.
“She kind of really cast herself,” Linklater said of Lorelei, now 20. “She was just kind of an exuberant little singing and dancing kind of kid. It was just natural for us. She wanted to do it, (and) I knew where she would be every year.”
Cast and crew kept things low pressure for the young actors, Linklater said.
“We weren’t results-oriented, we were process-oriented,” he said. “There was no accountability. It was just something fun we did every year. I mean, we were making movie, but it didn’t have any of the trappings of most movies, like (imminent) release dates.”
The process started without a script, but with a highly detailed outline of how the story would go.
“Rick told me in our first conversation the changes the family would go through, my character would go through,” Arquette said. “But he also left a lot of space to see who the kid developed into, what the world was going to be like in the future.”
Linklater could foresee in 2002 that Barack Obama would run for president in 2008. But that campaign becomes part of the story when Hawke’s politically aware dad enlists his kids to help persuade neighbors to put Obama signs in their yards.
Actors had input, though not as much as Delpy and Hawke did on the “Before” films. Linklater sometimes incorporated an anecdote or line of dialogue suggested by an actor or producer but was “very discerning,” Arquette said. “He would say, ‘That’s an incredible story, but it doesn’t belong in this movie.’ ”
Linklater would huddle with Coltrane to ensure fictional steps in Mason’s development were not a head start on Coltrane’s own.
“I didn’t want to impose anything on him,” Linklater said. “He was bringing his own essence to the movie.”
And often, his own style. As Mason reaches adolescence, he grows artier looking, sporting highly varied hair styles. But the long hair Mason wears when younger – later shorn by a barber at Mason’s disciplinarian stepfather’s behest – was not Coltrane’s idea.
“That was one of the only times they asked me to alter my appearance,” Coltrane said. “They asked me to grow my hair out.” It was summer when the barbershop scene was shot, and although Coltrane looks depressed in the scene, he actually was “overjoyed” by his character-driven buzz cut, he said.
“It’s very hot in Texas,” he said.
“That just shows what a good actor he is,” Arquette said of Coltrane. “He could have cracked a smile, but he just looked miserable.”
Coltrane did not see that or any other “Boyhood” scene until the film was complete.
“It was just kind of a mutual decision” between Linklater and him not to watch footage during filming, Coltrane said.
“I wouldn’t really gain anything from seeing it,” Coltrane said. “It’s a very different thing to be acting on a set with people that you know and care about. To see that reflected on a screen is a very intense thing psychologically. Now, I am much more equipped to deal with it.”
Even now, the effect is “very surreal,” Coltrane said. “Because so much of what you see in the film is how we change and grow, and how we are affected by these different experiences.
“I don’t remember a lot of those early years, but I very much recognize myself in that child. So that is part of what is interesting, too, is how little you really do change. How you are formed at a very early age, and that doesn’t really go away.”