“Nothing much happens anyway.”
That may seem an unlikely statement from a director on his films—unless he’s Richard Linklater, of course.
Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell began the Evening With … Richard Linklater event at Film Independent at LACMA last night with a featurette on the making of Boyhood, which he introduced by noting that Linklater once told him, “All movies are about time.”
“That’s what his movies are,” Mitchell said. “That’s the plot, that’s the narrative that holds them together, that’s where the tension comes from.”
“I have sort of gotten rid of plot to some degree,” Linklater later said. “To me, movies are very much about characters, story… but plot… I’ve realized, I have a little bit of an allergic reaction to over-plotted movies,” he said, explaining that he’s replaced plot structure with time structure. Boyhood was made by shooting the same actors for three days each year over the course of 12 years.
“Plot is not really missed, you’ll notice, if there’s something else to grab you,” said Linklater. “I think you’re more likely to get naturalistic performances from actors,” he added, “if they’re not having to act plot.”
When Mitchell asked about his tendency toward “open-ended endings” the director joked, “that’s a weakness in my narrative structure, all of them could continue. I could make a sequel to every damn movie I’ve ever made. Nothing much happens anyway… so yeah, we could just keep doing that.”
As with his Before series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight), in Boyhood Linklater took a naturalistic approach, giving his actors the creative freedom to help steer—and wander away from—what’s written in the script.
“The director in me fires the writer in me really early,” Linklater said. “You’ve got to be open for all the real life that comes into your project. If you’re going for something that feels real, you’ve better have a way to get there, and doing the exact words written on the page the exact way you thought about it two years ago can sometimes be putting a straight jacket on your best assets.”
Boyhood stars Linklater’s long-time close collaborator, Ethan Hawke, who plays the father alongside Patricia Arquette as the mother, Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the boy we see mature from age five to 18, and the director’s daughter Lorelei as his sister, who goes from age nine to 21 in the film.
“We started talking then and we haven’t shut up since,” Linklater said of his very first meeting in the early ’90s with a then 23-year-old Ethan Hawke when he was starring in his own theater company’s production of Sons and Fathers in New York City. The two began discussing the director’s idea for “a movie about a couple walking around in Europe.”
He praised Hawke as “one of the greatest collaborators of all time.”
“Ethan thinks big,” he said. “He’s pushing me. ‘What’s this scene about? Why’d you make the movie?’ This is 11 years in. He’d look at me, going, ‘What are you trying to say?’ And I have to confront that.”
The extraordinarily long production process of Boyhood brought with it distinct challenges, as well as advantages. “Casting is fraught enough. You’re making a huge decision on this movie, wondering are you right for the part. With this kid it’s, ‘Who are you going to be 10, 11, 12 years from now?’ When he cast Coltrane, Linklater said, “I’m staring at this kid, [thinking] ‘Who are you going to be?”
On the plus side, all that time gave Linklater the unusual luxury of have long periods of time for contemplation— after each year’s shoot and before the next year’s. Usually, he said, “Films are like runaway trains. You’re trying to keep up with them. By contrast, on Boyhood, the write-shoot-edit process took place each year, which gave Linklater’s long-time editor Sandra Adair the rare opportunity to play a more collaborative role in shaping the story than the typical post-production process allows an editor. “He needs to get his heart broken,” Adair told the director at one point.
Turning to Linklater’s 1993 cult comedy Dazed and Confused, Mitchell showed the “Alright, alright, alright” scene—in which Matthew McConaughey delivers the now-beloved line—his first-ever words spoken on film. Calling McConaughey “a great character actor,” Linklater revealed that his first impression of the University of Texas student when he cast him, was that he was too clean cut, too frat-boy handsome for the role. “I’m not this guy, but I know this guy,” said McConaughey, who then proceeded to morph into the now-iconic stoner before the director’s eyes. Linklater also shared the story of casting McConaughey’s mom in Bernie. He asked the actor’s permission first, but purposely left out the detail that they’d be sharing a scene. McConaughey’s character was especially annoyed by his mother’s character. Chalk another one up to naturalism.
Bernie, Linklater said, is the perfect example of the way his long-term, close relationships with actors can help a film that would otherwise be difficult to get financed. “When an actor has fun working with you and they like the film, they’ll take that leap of faith,” he said. “Bernie was a really hard film to get made. The industry had sort of really dried up at that point. I got Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey… and I still couldn’t really get much money to make it.”
Showing the clip from School of Rock where Black’s teacher character first hands a rock guitar and keyboard to his uptight classical music students prompted Linklater to tell the story of getting the band and Black back together for a 10-year reunion performance in Austin a little over a year ago. They did a Led Zeppelin medley. “They’re still talking about it in Austin,” Linklater said. “It was amazing.“
“What is it about that idea of having to accept maturity?” Mitchell asked, pointing out that School of Rock, like so much of Linklater’s work, explores that theme. “I’ve always thought of Boyhood as a film about childhood ending by a thousand blows,” Linklater said. “With adulthood, and all that responsibility… can that overwhelm your youthful passions and what excited you to be alive? The adult world is kind of there to grind you down. I’ve always personally felt that was a challenge, and wanted no part of it, and found a parallel world in the world of cinema, which is a good world to escape into.”
Linklater revealed that he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of making a film one day that revisits Mason as an adult. He’s got at least one supporter. 7 Up director Michael Apted, whose documentary tracked the same 14 people over five decades, whispered in his ear, “Keep going.”
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