Programs Thu 2.19.2015

Boyhood Director Richard Linklater on Balancing Collaboration and Control

“Always control everything when you can,” said Boyhood writer/director Richard Linklater at last night’s Directors Close-Up. He and his longtime editor Sandra Adair were discussing a scene from Before Sunset, a scene that Adair called the most challenging she’s ever cut.

In the scene, Julie Delpy’s Celine admits to Ethan Hawke’s Jesse that reading his book has ruined love for her. It’s the scene on which the rest of the movie hangs and it was shot in a moving car weaving in and out of traffic along the winding streets of Paris. “It looks really simple, but it really sucks when you can’t control all of the elements,” said Linklater.

“The car was stopping, starting, turning corners, and there were cars in the back or no cars in the back,” added Adair. “And then at the point when Julie was really bringing it with her performance…”

Linklater finishes her sentence: “…the car stops.”

Filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown, Twilight), who served as production designer on Linklater’s films SubUrbia and The Newton Boys, moderated the conversation. When she asked if he would shoot the scene on a green screen if he were to do it all again, Linklater shrugged.

“Probably not. [Shooting the scene in the moving vehicle] felt real to the actors, but it was a pain.”

So much for controlling all of the elements. All night, the director went back and forth as to what was more important, dictating exactly what you want as a director or allowing for maximum creativity from your cast and crew. Here are some memorable observations from Linklater on the slippery subject of collaboration vs. control.

“This is how the studio screws over your film.”
Early in his career, Linklater worried a lot about losing control of his projects. When he was making Dazed and Confused at Universal in 1992, he was told he needed to hire an editor. Linklater resisted. “I was paranoid. You know, this is how the studio screws over your film.” Adair had just moved to Austin, having spent several years in Los Angeles rising up the editing ranks. For Linklater, the timing was perfect.

“I remember thinking, at least you were already in my camp because we were locals,” he told Adair. “I would have more luck with you than with someone in the industry.”

And what luck they’ve had. The two are nominated for Film Independent Spirit Awards and Oscars for their work on Boyhood, their 18th project together. They’re currently in the cutting room working on their 19th, That’s What I’m Talking About.

“I can’t impose something on actors if they don’t understand it.”
While shooting Dazed and Confused, two members of the cast, Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams, came to him asking for more scenes. Linklater’s response: Write some. He gave them a situation—“She’s in the car with you, what would you say?”—and the two actresses did the rest. One of their scenes made it into the final film. And Linklater’s been working that way ever since.

He co-wrote the Before trilogy with Delpy and Hawke. On Boyhood, he said he often would take things that Ellar Coltrane and his daughter, Lorelei Linklater, were doing in their every day lives and put them in the movie. Is there improvisation in his films? Not a lot. Instead, the rehearsal process becomes a re-writing process. The goal: to prevent any false moments from reaching the screen.

“I’ve found as a director, I can’t impose something on actors if they don’t understand it,” said Linklater. “If it just doesn’t make any sense to them it’s not going to work in the movie.”

“Audiences don’t need all that stuff.”
Linklater said that over the years he’s gotten better at exhaustively preparing in order to capture something authentic.

After cutting large chunks of filmed material out of the final cut of Dazed, Linklater felt the need to better hone his screenwriting craft. By pinpointing where the story actually starts, where the audience first engages with the narrative, he’s been able to pare down his scripts and waste less time on set.

“Even on something like School of Rock it’s like, ‘Okay, it starts when he shows up, once he’s in the classroom. So you can cut ten pages of exposition [before that]. Because audiences don’t need all that stuff.”

While he’s revered for his naturalism, Linklater doesn’t like surprises. “I know some directors just like to show up and maybe not even go to the location beforehand. Just show up on the day and make it happen. I like to be able to sleep at night before.”

“The one time I cast a kid to grow up…”
But when you’re working on projects that take place in real time, or that transpire over the course of several years, you can’t prepare for everything. Early on in the filming of Boyhood, Linklater remembers being worried that he’d made a casting mistake.

In the gap between their first and second years of filming, Lorelei Linklater grew a lot. Coltrane, on the other hand, stayed about the same size. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, the one time I cast a kid to grow up, he’s the kid who never grows up.’”

“I’ve never been that wrong before.”
And that wasn’t the only time that Boyhood presented challenges. It took a couple of tries before Linklater and Adair landed on a soundtrack for the film.

Linklater said that for years he imagined the movie with a full score—they even hired frequent collaborator Graham Reynolds to work on one—but whenever they laid it over the picture… “It was not working,” said Linklater. “That was kind of a surprise. I’ve never been that wrong before. But Boyhood did that. Everything was different.”

“We realized there could be nothing outside the film imposed on top of it,” said Linklater. “It had to feel completely organic. So songs were the only thing that would work.”

“Clever works once.”
But it wasn’t often that Linklater’s handle on Boyhood eluded him. He and Adair cut only one full scene from the completed film.

What got cut? A transitional scene between the first and second year. Linklater explained: “There was this scene where they came into an empty apartment, and they’re carrying their stuff and they’re tired. They run down the hall to see their new rooms… And [Ellar’s character, Mason is] running down an empty hall and then he comes through the door and that’s the next year, where we cut in.”

Linklater said the-stepping-through-the-door-into-another-year gimmick was just a little too cute to make the final cut. “Transitions are everything in the film. The prose style of the movie is so much about transitions,” said the director. “And that’s what I learned from that because it was so on the nose and so in your face and kind of clever. Clever works like once.”

He realized then that Boyhood was about experiencing the passage of time in a much more immediate way.

“You’ve just got to feel it from your own observations like when you run into an old friend or something. What’s the same and what’s different?” he said, cocking his head to the side as if examining himself in a mirror. “It’s so incremental how we change and grow up… So I just wanted the audience to just feel it just by their own observations.

“I want it to feel real.”
For Linklater, filmmaking is about doing his best to let everyone—the actors, the crew, and the audience—take part in the re-creation of reality.

“If you want it to be natural, it has to be written and performed, and it’s not just the actor performing it, it’s at the conceptual level. What are they saying, and how do conversations flow?” said Linklater. “In a film like [Dazed, Sunset or Boyhood], I want people to feel like they’re witnessing reality. That’s how people talk, that’s how people react. I want it to feel real.”

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger