Richard Linklater on ‘Boyhood’ and the Film That Shaped His Non-Hollywood Career
It might be a stretch to claim that ‘Boyhood‘ — one of the most remarkable films to be released in, well, ever — might not exist if it weren’t for Richard Linklater‘s 1998 box office disappointment, ‘The Newton Boys.’ The latter film — a true story starring Matthew McConaughey as the leader of a group of early 20th century bank robbers — was Linklater’s first and only one of a handful of his forays into mainstream Hollywood, a town that Linklater all but eschews these days.
Linklater had such a lousy experience with 20th Century Fox on ‘The Newton Boys’ (as he explains in this interview, which is a fascinating behind the scenes tale in its own right) that it truly did shape the path of smaller, more intimate films that the filmmaker would make over the next 16 years. (That doesn’t mean he doesn’t dabble here or there with studio movies; ‘School of Rock’ made a lot of money.) Four years after ‘The Newton Boys’ premiered, Linklater would start shooting ‘Boyhood.’
Filming on ‘Boyhood’ started in 2002. Then, Linklater filmed his cast — Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane and Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei Linklater — every year for 12 years, finally finishing in 2013. To put this in perspective, Coltrane was only seven when filming started…he turns 20 next week. I met Linklater on Monday at his Manhattan hotel room — a conversation that started with Linklater asking me about a quote of mine that’s used in the film’s trailer, a quote in which I wrote “a once in a lifetime experience” after seeing the film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It’s a quote I stand by wholeheartedly.
Richard Linklater: How is that, when your quote is being used?
In this case? I’m a fan of the movie, and that’s what I wrote at Sundance.
Yeah, but what would you think for a film that you’re kind of “eh” and they use a little bit? That must be an invasion or something?
That does happen.
That’s so unfair.
But, in this case, I wrote “a once in a lifetime experience” and I still think that. I’ve never seen a movie like this and I don’t know if I ever will again. I don’t feel that was hyperbolic to say “once in a lifetime.”
No, you’re right. And it felt like it. And everything on this film was unusual. There’s no one thing about this film that was normal. Even the way I feel about it now, people are like, “What does it feel like now that it’s over?” Is it over? I don’t even feel like it’s over. It hasn’t been a year since I quit shooting. I know people are watching the film now and it opens Friday, but I’m kind of like, “I don’t feel like this is over.”
Did you consider going a couple of more years?
No, no. It was always structurally, boom, first through twelfth grade. You know, I’m not a big plot guy, but I am a big structure guy. And I think structure is much more innate to the human psyche…we are pattern-seeking structure machines.
Speaking of plot, I’ve asked people if they would feel the same way about this movie if it was entirely filmed in, say, 2013, using a different actor to play Mason as he gets older. The answer is an overwhelming “no.”
Because one part of you knows it’s artificial. We accept storytelling, but the tone of this, what it’s going for, it would have been so disconcerting. And it works in storytelling when you go from kid to adult, because you’re casting someone else. Little Tommy becomes Joe Pesci — he was suddenly a lot older than Ray Liotta! He aged an extra ten years, but I bought it! So, you don’t question it. But with this, where would you do the jump? You couldn’t cast someone every year. It would be like a David Lynch film, “I woke up, and I’m someone different.” It’s a whole different movie.
When you first started, what percent did you give yourself as far as chances of finishing go?
This is going to sound completely crazy or arrogant or self-assured: 99 percent. I was that sure.
Why did you feel so sure?
It was the plan! Look at it like this, when you were in first or second grade, how sure were you that you were going to graduate from high school?
When I was in first grade, I thought seniors in high school were legitimate adults, so it was impossible to look that far ahead.
Yeah, that’s pretty far off. But I was age 40, so at that point I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to be around”… and I was confident I could deal with whatever little incremental changes were going on in the lives of the four people.
There’s a scene filmed in the mid-2000s in which Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane discuss ‘Star Wars’ and conclude there will never be another movie. In 2012, when ‘Star Wars: Episode 7′ was announced, were you like, “We just lucked into a funny scene”?
Yeah! It went from just kind of speculation in 2006 or 2007, whenever we filmed that. Isn’t that funny? But jump ahead 10 years when it’s all blurry, it will be like, “What are they talking about?” If you don’t do the math, it becomes, “Wait, are they stupid?”
You did have a reputation for making movies that take place over the course of one day. That’s gone forever now.
Well, I only did this to bring my lifetime average back to normal. It’s unbelievable to go from some of the technically shortest films imaginable — real time — but now the longest shoot in film history, we theorize. The longest scheduled shoot.
I still can’t believe this movie exists.
[Laughs] This was “the plan,” but, you know, as we all know, the best laid plans. Don’t get me wrong that I don’t feel extremely grateful and lucky. But, it was what I was visualizing.
The year before ‘Boyhood,’ ‘Before Midnight’ premiered at Sundance, also to great reviews. Do you want to keep doing those movies? Ethan Hawke mentioned maybe starting a new “After” trilogy…
[Laughs] The “After” series! The three “after” we take to the grave. Maybe so! “The After Trilogy.” Well, if we waited nine years, it would be 50…
As someone in his early 50s, I’m like, yeah, you kind of have to admit you’re kind of in the “after.”
There are still interesting things going on and people love these characters.
Of course, but I’m just saying, mortality schedule-wise, if you want to look at the big picture…
Then do them more often. I doubt many people will complain.
No, but to answer your question, no ideas about that at the moment.
But you’re not ruling it out?
No, of course not. Of course not. But, we just know we won’t have another idea for another five years. It’s happily on hiatus. And if it ends as a trilogy, that’s good, too.
Are you surprised at the continued popularity of David Wooderson?
Matthew McConaughey still loves saying those lines.
“Alright, Alright” or “They stay the same age”?
Both. He loves saying them.
Yeah, he does. He’s been doing that for years. It’s his first movie, he’s very upfront about that. There’s no film like your first. And that was the film that gave him a lot of confidence. So, it was fun for me to be sitting 10 rows behind him at the Oscars and be there with him that night. Being at the Oscars is like being at a fucking– you’re an extra in a TV show. So during the long commercial breaks, I’d walk up to him or he’d walk back to me and we were farting around the whole night.
That had to be nice that he’s quoting your movie in an Oscar speech.
Yeah. It was special.
Your next movie with him was a studio movie, ‘The Newton Boys.’ Did that experience turn you off to studio movies? Did something happen where you didn’t want to do many anymore?
I got that film made. It was very personal. Like, that was a film I really wanted to make and I love that film. But, I could tell the studio just didn’t like it and they never got behind it. So, it was all heartbreaking to make a film that I thought was so likable.
What made you think the studio wasn’t behind it?
You know something’s up when they don’t have an L.A. premiere. Or they don’t have a poster on the lot the week it’s opening. I kind of talked to an executive there and I was like, “What’s going on with this film, I like it a lot.” And they were like, “Hmm, not a lot of excitement here about it.” I’m like, “Why?” We did those test screenings where they ask, “Who here liked the film?,” and every hand went up every time. I said, “It’s a film everybody likes.” And they’re like, “Yeah, everybody likes it. They don’t love it.”
Did that leave a bad taste? ‘School of Rock’ did very well.
That wasn’t me giving up on Hollywood. That was Hollywood giving up on me, at that moment. It was kind of like, “Yeah, you’re films aren’t going to work for us.” I think if that film came out today, it would be a different thing. And Matthew was in backlash territory there. He had that quick assent to stardom and people were like, “Fuck that guy.” And then it was me, “Well, who are you stepping out of your league? Who are you? You’re the Gen X little pop culture guy. You don’t qualify to make a period film.” So, I felt a little backlash on me, for sure. People just didn’t want to like that film.
People forgot, but there was a little McConaughey backlash then. During the ‘Amistad’ era.
Yeah, yeah. It was like, “fuck that guy.” It was pretty fascinating. I wish they would re-release the film in the next year. You know who liked that? Just middle America. It was so funny at that time, it was like, “Who are you, thinking you’re making a period film?” And, “We’re sick of you already.” That was the attitude toward me and Matthew at that moment. He and I were on some show, we had done a little talk show together the week before it came out. And the host, he was like, “Hey, I really liked your movie. I thought I was going to hate it. But I really liked it.” I said, “Matthew, did you hear what he said?” He goes, “Yeah, he liked it.” I said, “No, what he said before. ‘I thought I was going to hate it.’”
What host was this?
It was like Carson Daly or something, one of those MTV things. But I said, “Matthew, fuck, did you hear what he said? Why did he think he was going to hate it? People want to hate it!” You’re dead. Nothing you can do about it.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.