Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane, the stars of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” age in real time in this one-of-a-kind nearly three-hour film. It was shot in short annual increments over a dozen years so the effect as you watch the actors change slowly is like watching time-lapse photography.
This approach would come across as a gimmick or stunt if the movie wasn’t so good. The real magic of the film is that as you watch time pass and the way the characters live their lives, you can’t help looking back and contemplating your own.
The stars and the director of “Boyhood” participated in a lively press conference Monday afternoon to promote the film at the Crosby Hotel in SoHo. Ethan Hawke, who has made eight films with the director, notably the “Before Sunrise” trilogy, was sort of elder spokesman for the group and did most of the talking.
“Boyhood” tracks the life of Mason (Coltrane) beginning at age six, and his older, bratty sister, Samantha, played by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, as they grow up and experience life. The story focuses on Coltrane’s character who evolves from boyhood to early manhood amid personal and family dramas, including family moves, family controversies, faltering marriages and re-marriages, new schools, first and lost loves, and good and bad times.
Children of divorce, Mason and Samantha are raised by their beleaguered but devoted mother Olivia (Arquette), a hard-working woman with terrible taste in men, and her ex, an immature man with a good heart but little sense of responsibility (Hawke).
One of the first questions to the filmmaker was whether it was fun to meet every year and if they ever had doubts about whether they wanted to finish the project? The production notes stated that one year Linklater’s daughter wanted to bail out of the project. “Had she not been my daughter, I don’t think she would have approached the director and asked, can her character die?” Linklater deadpanned.
He added, “It was really special for us to get together every year. The crew, the cast felt it. We never felt like anyone waivered.”
Hawke said after eight films with Linklater, he could speak “collectively” for the group. “We all only grew to love it more and more and more. At first it seemed a little bit like a fun experiment, and then it turned into something I loved so much.”
The movie’s power is both in its intimate portrait of a family and its universal message of revealing what’s important in life through events every audience can relate to. “It’s interesting the movie actually does get a lot of power off our preconditioned experiences of the cinema of thinking something big is going to happen,” Hawke said. “There’s an unbelievable tension in the minutiae of the movie because we’re so conditioned to think, well something horrible must happen. We wouldn’t just be watching some people drive to this university if there wasn’t going to be a car wreck, right?”
Hawke added, “But what I love about that is that’s actually how I feel about my life. A lot of my life is wasted worrying. And the movie actually captures that feeling of, like, well he’s spending the night, he’s camping and they’re building a house and it’s so scary, but it gets like that. How do any of us survive those nights? But there’s something about the way the movie works, its relationship, not just to its own storytelling but the storytelling doesn’t live in a vacuum. It’s in response to other things.”
As to whether the director meant the film to be an intimate character study or a sweeping family epic, it was both, he said. “It’s very specific and intimate but universal within that specific world. It could have been made in any country and any time. There’s such a commonality here.”
Then there’s the matter of the title of the film, which changed over time.
“We didn’t call this ‘Boyhood’ for 12 years,” Linklater explained. “It was (only) the name on our call sheet.”
“Sometimes it was ‘The 12-Year Project,’” Arquette said. “We never knew what the hell it was supposed to be called.”
Some years it was even called “’Boy’s Perspective” Linklater said.
It could just as accurately been entitled “Motherhood” or “Fatherhood,” Hawke said, but “it’s an epic about minutiae. 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 sense as any other.”
As for whether it was difficult for the actors to get back in character every year for the brief period they shot their roles, Coltrane explained, “It was a very long build up every year. We’d have a couple months to think about what we were doing and then a solid week of kind of work shopping and building the character and figuring out where the characters were that year. So by the time we got to filming, we were kind of just already there.”
What facilitated the process, Hawke said, was that Linklater “speaks to people the way they need to be spoken to. That’s what helps you get ready to play.”
Arquette, who is terrific as Olivia, turns in an awards-worthy nuanced and complex performance. Hawke, who was generous in his praise to everyone on the film, singled out her efforts. “I’m just throwing props your way,” he told her. “I’m surprised that people don’t write more about how awesome it is to see Patricia’s character be in this movie and to see a real woman who is a mother and a lover and more than one thing in a movie. I feel so proud to be a part of a movie that respects her character the way this movie does.
“It’s true in life. We see it all the time, but I don’t see that woman in movies. I don’t see her. She’s in the background. One of those characters or just kind of in the background or ancillary elements to give some encouragement in some way to some scruffy guy. This is a real, three-dimensional human being, and it was so exciting and the women in my life who see the movie so appreciate it.”
Hawke added, “I just love her. You can’t pin her down. Oh she’s a good mother! No, wait! Actually that was not a great decision. She’s not just good, she does stupid things and smart things. We’re used to people in movies being one thing, all the time.”