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Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane & Richard Linklater – Boyhood Is About Grow

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane and Richard Linklater at the New York press day for "Boyhood."

Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane and Richard Linklater at the New York press day for “Boyhood.”

Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane & Richard Linklater

Boyhood Is About Growing Up

by Brad Balfour

Far too much of the buzz and ballyhoo about this season’s indie awards darling Boyhood has focused on the fact that the film was made in real time – sort of. Director Richard Linklater took his core ensemble – Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelai Linklater – and reconvened them once a year for a few days over a 12-year span to shoot this family drama of a divorced couple and their two kids going through life’s ups and downs. Shot intermittently from 2002 to 2013, it depicts a young boy in Texas growing up with divorced parents, ending with adolescence and the advent of adulthood.

Linklater is a native of Houston, Texas. So he told a common story about an ordinary family in a relatively conventional place. This might not have merited all the attention had not media and taste makers seized on its unique process of construction. The reaction has been so arch that it’s  overshadowing other, more subtle but equally important, qualities of the film.

Yes, if this 2-1/2 hour story had simply documented a family’s disarray and aftermath with its eye-opening dissection, it might have earned as much praise. However, the film did something far more essential when it changed focus from the family dynamic to Mason’s (Coltrane) personal evolution. He takes up photography, which helps define himself beyond the family’s trials. That move distinguished the movie from being just another domestic drama.

Creating Boyhood seems perfectly in character for a such a unique creator as this distinctly Texan director. His second film, Slacker, established his approach to filmmaking. Linklater worried less about plot and action than taking his audiences along a voyage into his consciousness, whatever it was into at the time.

As Linklater has moved along, his storytelling skills evolved while his films have retained a certain signature tone and attitude. Often working with the same actors such as Hawke (who has done the Before Sunrise series with him), Linklater has put his faith in his actors and they in him.

The 44-year-old Hawke – one of his most veteran collaborators – helped anchor this project as he took risks with the two younger actors who played the kids. Both he and the 46-year-old Arquette have done the breadth of work in acting from television series to a range of indies and major studio movies.

Of course all have been rewarded for this unique venture. The film was then nominated for five Golden Globe Awards, winning Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Arquette. It has also received six Oscar noms, including Best Picture, Best Director, and acting nominations for Arquette and Hawke.

After Boyhood‘s 2014 Sundance Film Festival premiere, it competed in the 64th Berlin International Film Festival’s main section, where Linklater won the Best Director Silver Bear. Once it was released in July, 2014, it was declared a landmark film by many notable critics, who praised its direction, acting and scope.

This Q&A is culled from a press conference held at The Crosby Street Hotel in 2014 just before the film’s initial release.

Has Boyhood changed the way you think about cinema, what cinema could and should be?

Richard Linklater: Embarking on this, I had never seen this type of film before. I figured that by this point, people would be pointing out to me how this type of film had in fact been made before in some country, but it’s never has happened. No one came forward with the film that felt original to me that I had never seen before. It felt like a huge idea – very simple – but an idea I had, based on years thinking about it.

Cinema in general, narrative storytelling, the possibilities of it in, relation to time and structure – I had spent my for my adult life thinking about that kind of stuff. With this film, I was solving a particular problem, so I liken it to – it sounds arrogant – a scientist who goes to sleep at night and then dreams of the formula for his whatever that solves his problem.

If you’re a scientist and you’re thinking of a problem, you get the answer that’s obvious. I’m kind of in that same boat, but I’m a storyteller who was trying to figure out how to tell the story, given the limitations I was confronted with. I think about this all the time in cinema: boundaries of narrative and filmmaking. I was excited about it. When I first got involved with film, it had all these really unique storytelling possibilities. I loved the medium so much. I think film is still a wide-open frontier for storytelling.

Patricia Arquette: As far as cinema goes, I feel like I’ve watched a really strange shift over the course of my career. I’ve seen it become the business of bankers and spreadsheets. I feel like with the restraint in which Rick directed this movie – the structure coupled with the collaborative openness and the balance of those two things – he didn’t tell the obvious dramatic story. Most people would say, “You’re not following the formula of storytelling. You’re not catering to this demographic.”

There’s a philosophical element to the human connection and communication and space for the human relationship. If this movie does well, first of all, financers will have to re-examine and be a little more supportive of exploring. I also think young film audiences actually enjoy this. The more we move towards technology in our human communications, the more we need as human beings to see movies that are about humans.

Ellar Coltrane: There’s this tendency or need to gravitate towards hyper-dramas as the only thing that makes a story worth telling – these big, fantastical moments that don’t happen to most of us. I think it’s powerful to dwell on the little things.

Ethan Hawke: It’s interesting that the movie actually does get a lot of power off our pre-conditioned experiences at the cinema of thinking something big is going to happen. There’s unbelievable attention to the minutia of the movie because we’re so conditioned to think, “Something horrible must happen. We wouldn’t just be watching some people drive to this university if there isn’t going to be a car wreck, right?”

What I love about that is that’s actually how I feel about my life. A lot of my life is wasted worrying. The movie actually captures the feeling of, “Well, he’s spending the night camping and it’s so scary.” How do any of us survive those nights? But there’s something about how the movie works, in its relationship not just to its own storytelling. The storytelling doesn’t live in its own vacuum. It’s in response to other things.

Despite its 12-year spread, there’s a really consistency to the arcs of the four main characters in the film. What did you see as the subtle and big changes to these characters?

Ethan Hawke: It depends on how you define big or small. They’re certainly small, by any normal standards of storytelling. My character goes through some pretty significant changes: who he is and the end, versus who he is at the beginning. Certainly we all do, but they’re very humanist changes.

Ellar Coltrane: There are a lot of small things after 12 years. Like, you age 12 years, but day-to-day, you’re just one day older.

Ethan Hawke: If he wanted to do a movie about transsexuals, he did a bad job. (laughs) I was trying to be funny, but that really wasn’t. Now it’s going to be all over the Internet. Please forgive me. Delete that comment.

Richard Linklater: The whole movie is this little collection of intimate moments that probably don’t fit into most narratives. They’re not advancing the character or story enough or the plot that it would all add up to some things that are much bigger. That was the feel to the whole movie – but that mirrors our lives. Everything has a life corollary in that way.

What was the experience of meeting over the 12 years to film Boyhood? Did any of you ever have any doubts about making this movie? Apparently, Lorelai Linklater reportedly had her doubts…

Richard Linklater: That was kind of a fleeting thing. Had she not been my daughter… She approached the director and asked if her character could die. I explained to her it was a little dramatic for what we were trying to do. But that was a fleeting thing. She really enjoyed the movie. It was special for us to work on it. It was special to get together every year. The crew felt it and the cast. We all committed. It was a life project. It never felt like anyone wavered, ever.

Ethan Hawke: I think I can say that we collectively grew to love it more and more and more. At first, seemed a little bit like a fun experiment, and then it turned into something I love so much. I remember years ago being in a rehearsal room with the great Tom Stoppard, and he was talking about how plot is this unfortunate device that the audience just needs. What’s funny about plot is that over time, you don’t even remember it. He talked about the obvious example of Lawrence of Arabia.

You can watch that movie and 25 years later you still remember him [Peter O’Toole] standing on top of that train, expressing this feeling of power. What happens as he was becoming fully actualized of who he wanted to be in this kind of close-up. I couldn’t even tell you where in that story that is, or what’s going on. I just remember that I was moved by it. He cited Gena Rowlands in a certain movie. He couldn’t remember the plot.

Rick was daring with this movie to forego what [Tom] Stoppard thought was necessary, a bogus plot. Our lives don’t have plot, but he felt the narrative does. This movie skirts around that.

Richard Linklater: I replaced the plot with structure. I think it’s much more innate to how I think. We’re more adept to think, “Structure is plot.” Humans put structure in everything, [such as] time.

Ethan Hawke: Structure often doesn’t have line to it, whereas plot often does.

Richard Linklater: It’s not so much a construct. It’s innately human.

Do you see Boyhood as an intimate character study or something more sweeping than that?

Richard Linklater: Both. It’s very specific and intimate to this family and to Mason and all that. It is intimate, but it’s very common. I always thought it is very universal, within that specific world. This could have been made in any country, at any time. There’s such a commonality there. I’ve always thought of as a very universal, big story about life and time and all that.

Patricia Arquette: Also, Boyhood was not the [original] title.

Richard Linklater: No, we didn’t call this Boyhood for 12 years. It was a name on our call sheet.

Patricia Arquette: Sometimes it was The 12-Year Project.

Richard Linklater: Or Growing Up. We thought that was a little too vague. It was from a boy’s perspective, but it could be everything.

Ethan Hawke: This question even illuminates the answer, which is: it’s an epic about minutia. That’s what it is. It’s difficult to title because of that. It’s a family seen through one boy’s eyes, so that title makes as much as sense as any other.

Richard Linklater: Titles are difficult.