The first thing that catches you about Richard Linklater‘s new movie, Boyhood, is the gimmick: It took 12 years to make. And this wasn’t some Orson Welles-like fight with a studio or money people or an artistic fugue state like those afflicting early Terrence Malick or late Stanley Kubrick. It was done on purpose. And the studio behind the project, IFC, was all for it, doling out about $200,000 a year so Linklater could annually gather his cast and crew to shoot a few days at a time for a dozen years followed by, as Linklater put it, “a big chunk at the end” to finish the film.
But here’s the other thing: The movie is really good. And taking all that time might be part of the reason. The film follows the life of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane in his long-developing but remarkable debut) from age 5 until his first days in college at 18. It also tracks the twists in the lives of his two parents (Patricia Arquette and Linklater regular Ethan Hawke), who split before the film’s start, when Mason and his older sister (played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater) were very young.
The film debuts Friday in five L.A. and New York theaters but already has racked up a lot of favorable notice, collaring a Silver Bear for directing and two other prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, plus four more awards from the South By Southwest and Seattle film festivals. It’s also scored 100 percent among critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Just as important, it’s getting notable social-media attention for an indie release, says Marc Karzen, CEO of RelishMIX, which tracks online engagement for films and TV shows.
“What’s impressive about this picture is that they decided to drop only a small amount of trailers and spots and make the 12-year experiment the big hook, which fans are sharing,” said Karzen. “It was made before social media existed, but you can see how a good story has an even better chance to find its audience.”
Those few official trailers are getting shared heavily, with an international trailer racking up 3.2 million views, ”very high for an art film,” Karzen said. Fans also have been sharing Coltrane’s interviews about growing up with the movie. It’s doing well otherwise on social media, despite the fact that Linklater, Arquette and Hawke have very small social-media presences. “While (those three) are not social superstars, the buzz is making its way to film lovers, especially on YouTube and Facebook,” Karzen said.
The film itself tells a fairly ordinary story about the kind of extended family of split parents and multiple step-families that’s all too common these days, but it tells that story in an engaging and intimate set of snapshots and interactions between the characters over time.
Along the way, the film casually tracks the technology (Gameboy to Xbox to Wii to iPhone) and the music (Coldplay’s “Yellow” really was omnipresent back in the early Aughts, wasn’t it?) that dominated culture over those years. There are moments of drama and conflict (those questionable choices in men by the mother), and moments of humor and sweetness (that inscribed Bible from the grandparents). But in a lot of ways, it’s the sheer normality of the lives being shown that makes the movie as relatable as it is, certainly for anyone who grew up over the past 15 years, or raised a child or two in that period. It feels like real lives, and in many substantive ways, it is, especially compared to films that attempt to convey the passage of time with makeup or actors of different ages playing the same character.
“The filmmaker’s dilemma is you’re stuck with the physicality of the moment (that you’re shooting),” Linklater said during a recent Q&A with principal cast members after one of several screenings around Los Angeles. “I thought that by letting everyone grow up, I would show that.”
And Linklater acknowledged he got “lucky,” keeping the same studio, the same executives, even the same bones of the script that he fleshed out year by year, adding another segment as he went.
“The last shot I kind of knew by the second or third year,” Linklater said. But the leisurely approach allowed some luxuries of creation not afforded in most films. “I had time to edit and think. Usually, by the time you get to production, you just go. We spent 4,200 days in production and only shot on 39 of them.”
Each year, he would gather the cast and pretty much the same crew for a few days to shoot that year’s segment of the film. It became like summer camp, gathering the familiar faces for another run, then he would edit together the results and add them to the existing work. In between, Linklater might connect with Coltrane a couple of times a year to check in, then write and think some more.
“The design of the film was to go where Ellar went,” Linklater said. “The film was bending toward” Coltrane’s life developments. But that process went the other way too. “Working on the project inevitably shaped the person I became and am becoming,” said Coltrane, now 19 and figuring out his life’s next steps. “I wouldn’t be the person I am if I weren’t in the movie.”
The long development process was a gift in some ways, especially for the cast’s two youngest members, said Hawke. “They didn’t have that thing of the world judging you,” Hawke said. “That’s what’s so hard about child acting. The release of the film was kind of fictional: ‘Oh, it’ll come out in 10 years.’ Both Patricia and I feel a sense of loss (with the film done). It’s a very powerful experience.”
Linklater got lucky in other ways too. For instance, in having a cast willing to stick it out despite all the shifts in their lives. Arquette, for instance, spent about half the shooting period as star of Medium, logging 130 episodes and wedging in short trips to Texas each year to shoot another round of Boyhood. Hawke frequently was busy making a big batch of films and occasional TV projects, including Waking Life, Before Sunset and Before Midnight with Linklater. And then there were the second thoughts that Lorelei Linklater started to have as she got three to four years into the project. “I guess it was an uncomfortable year,” she said of that time. “It’s hard to have your awkward stages documented and I was realizing that.” Looking back now, though, she said, “I was really grateful to be part of the project in later years.”
Yet they all managed to come together, time after time, to make a little movie over a dozen years. “You’re collaborating with an unknown future,” Linklater said. “You don’t know what it’ll be, but you know it’ll be there when you get there. Filmmakers are control freaks by nature. This approach meant you were giving up control to these unknowns, predictable statistically maybe, but unknowns.”"