Q&A with Richard Linklater

Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

An extended discussion with the director about his new film, "Boyhood," and his overall artistic process.

The key perk of writing about director Richard Linklater is that it gives you the perfect excuse to talk to Richard Linklater. A conversation with him is a lot like one of his films: discursive, profane, thought-provoking and just plain fun. In preparing “Richard Linklater’s Indie Epic” for the July/August issue of departures, I arranged what I thought would be a brief chat with the auteur about Boyhood, his “low-budget indie epic.” It turned into much more. For fans of Linklater and his films—or just anyone who wants to know what kind of person sets out to make a movie over the course of 12 years—here is the extended discussion.

Q: So let me start with the big question: What’s the hardest part of filming something over 12 years as the world changes around you?
A:
There weren’t really earth-shattering changes. The film would be able to incorporate anything that happened; I was looking for consistency. And I got lucky, I will admit. I would have thought starting out that there would have been bigger shifts. But I came out of it thinking the culture hasn’t changed as much as I would’ve anticipated.

Q: That said, was there ever a moment when you were afraid the whole project might suddenly derail due to the vagaries of time and fate?
A:
No. But right out of the gate it was, how do you get a film like this financed and off the ground? Artists get it, you know? Patricia [Arquette], Ethan [Hawke], everybody. But it’s a wildly impractical idea. How was this going to work? You make it fun. It was like summer camp. Some people ask, what if someone died? That would be a bigger life problem than film problem.

Q: That’s a well-adjusted way of looking at it. What was the moment of inspiration, where you said to yourself I have to do this?
A:
The idea was really solving a problem. How do I make a film about childhood? I couldn’t really pick one moment and all my ideas were spanning so many years. I was kind of frustrated and had just about given up when this idea hit me. What if I could bite off the whole thing on this huge canvas? One film that covers so much of the process of maturing? Once that big idea hit me, it was like, has anyone ever done this? I’d never seen it. It’s such a simple idea in a way.

When I think of film, my focus has been on storytelling and how to tell stories in different ways. I think this idea kind of percolated out of that. What are the boundaries of cinematic storytelling? But specifically it was to solve this one narrative problem. I wasn’t going to let it go. It was just about finding the right partner. I’d done two films with IFC and they sort of believed in me. Every year I’d get a little money. But it was low budget. It was contradictory: a low-budget indie epic.

Q: So your inspiration was essentially how you could make the process as hard for yourself as possible.
A:
That’s what the arts are for, right? I like it when people swing for the fences even if they don’t quite come out of it. You have to admire the effort. I’ve always applauded crazy undertakings, not just in art but in life. What the hell? That’s what we’re here for.

Q: Did you look to other films for guidance?
A:
Just those about different ages of maturity. Pick an age and there’s a genre of film that fits that particular moment. I started stepping on my own toes a little. I go to areas I’ve covered before in my filmography—the teenage years—trying not to repeat myself but coming from the same place.

Q: I actually think this informs how we as viewers look at your filmography. Watching the character Mason grow, it felt like Portrait of the Linklater as a Young Artist.
A:
I’d never thought about it that way, but yeah. He becomes a character out of all my other movies. Just sitting there talking and talking. I guess I can’t help it.

Q: But it’s cool!
A:
Mason—[played by] Ellar Coltrane—really is like that. I either got lucky in casting or I helped shape him to be that way. Who will ever know? For me, it’s the ultimate nature-nurture study. Ellar was ultimately a very thoughtful six-year-old and that’s what I liked about him.

Q: Did it take a long time to find him?
A:
Yeah! Talk about a big decision. I met a lot of people. I met families. I had to consider a lot of things. I really hung out with the parents quite a bit. I knew that was very important that the family be behind it. He has very cool parents; they’re both artists. Ellar was pursuing acting at that time and they thought it would be a cool thing in his and their lives. And I think it was.

Q: What was it like working with one actor on one role for all those years?
A:
It was a collaboration. I was always in touch with him. He was almost like a nephew. I was always going to work material around his own experience. I made that vow early: If he was a real straight-laced kid I wasn’t going to be having him get drunk. I wanted it to be developmental. I didn’t want him to be doing things he hadn’t already done in real life. So I just thought I would take my cues from his development and then add all these other ideas I had in mind. It was a cool, ongoing collaboration. I don’t know how else to put it.

Q: With regard to story, how much did you have planned out at the start and how much was a jazzy riff?
A:
Jazz is probably the right analogy. I did have a beginning and an end and every year I did have points I wanted to hit. I had what I felt was a long structure. We could be working on scenes the night before but there was a lot of thought and planning that went into it. It was both spontaneous and planned. It’s kind of how I work in general. It was just 12 years, but I kind of had the end in mind the whole time.

Q: And you were specific with the dialogue? I remember talking to you about Before Midnight and you said those digressive riffs are actually precisely planned.
A:
Same thing. We weren’t improvising on camera. This is looser than the Before movies just because there were all these moments that were less verbal. It was just kind of attitude. So a lot of the time I was trying to conjure real emotion that wasn’t dialogue based. It’s not stuff that you rehearse a lot. You kind of just capture the situation.

Q: By the way, I love Hawke’s fatherhood speech.
A:
That was the second-to-last thing we shot. Ethan and I worked on that scene for months before. It was like, your character’s come this far, what does it all add up to? It was one of those moments between a father and a son, something the son would remember but not necessarily the father. I wanted the film to work like a memory; things you remember that aren’t that official. It’s often those moments when someone is really kind of sincere, you know? We go through life with all these superficial interactions but some of the stuff you remember is where people are genuine. Like my own daughter [who has a role in the film]: We’re now much closer. There’s a friend element there.

Q: Do you think this slow-boil process of creation affected the writing?
A:
It was incredible to have that kind of gestation period—to be able to really think a year in between shoots and to spend that time editing and looking at the work. It was like this massive sculpture. We would edit what we just shot and I would stick it on everything that came before. So it was this growing thing. I’d watch the whole movie several times and think about it as I started planning the next year. It was an ongoing process. It could go dormant for months at a time, but it was always in my mind and everybody’s mind.

Q: It sounds like an absolutely singular approach to filmmaking.
A:
Most films are manufactured like a product: Here’s your schedule, production, post-production, final mix. Done. Within those boundaries you have to make everything good happen. In this case, it was sort of the opposite. We had all this time. There was no pressure, no one over our shoulder. There weren’t expectations really. I can’t emphasize enough the complete freedom. But nothing’s totally complete. We were hindered by a low budget and a tight schedule. Every year was a hustle. And we got the same money at year 12 that we did at year one even though it cost more to make the movie a dozen years later. So it got even tougher each year.

Q: Would you encourage other filmmakers to give this a try?
A:
Yeah! It’s potentially a pretty powerful way to tell a story. Again, it’s not practical from a financial point of view. No studio is going to say, we’re going to spend $5 million and sit on it for six years. The patience required makes it impractical. I think at Sundance someone said, “I hadn’t seen it before and I probably won’t ever see it again.” I don’t know about that last part, but it’s not for everybody. I’m a really patient guy. And you kind of have to believe in the future a lot. It’s ultimately a very optimistic film. We thought, 12 years later, it would all be worth it.

Q: How do you top yourself now? What could you possibly come up with that would be crazier and cooler than this?
A:
[Laughs] I don’t know! I don’t really think in those terms. I’m just trying to get the next one made. It’s weird: The Before trilogy came to an end and then this. They were kind of at the finish line within a year of each other. So I guess this is some kind of turning point, but I don’t really think about it.