Raising kids can be a blessing and a burden, but it’s also, the filmmaker Richard Linklater points out, a nostalgia trip: “Being a parent, you relive your childhood through your kid. You think, Oh, they're 4, they're 5—I remember that year.”
That’s why, in 2001, a few years after his eldest daughter started elementary school, he felt compelled to make a movie about growing up. But focusing on any one facet of the passage through youth would require “trumping something up”—exactly the opposite of what worked in his unfussy observational classics Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise.
So, long interested in research like the famous Grant Study, which has tracked 268 Harvard students’ development over 76 years, he devised a longitudinal method: film a single child actor for a few days each year for more than a decade, resulting in a fictional coming-of-age story whose star actually comes of age onscreen.
Pulling off the “12‑Year Project,” as the production crew called it, required long-range planning and ad hoc creativity. Early on, Linklater determined core story elements—divorced parents, drunk stepdads, an eventual departure to college—and wrote a synopsis for each annual “episode.” But he scripted the individual scenes shortly before filming them. Linklater wanted the movie to “unfold like a memory,” in a series of small, almost banal moments. The core cast—Ellar Coltrane as the boy, Mason; Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as the sister; and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as their father and mother—contributed material from their own experiences as kids or parents. “So much of this movie happened to somebody,” Linklater says. He told his cast, “You’re gonna leave some pieces of yourself behind.”
Likewise, the actors’ fictional lives crossed into their real ones. A year before filming a scene in which Mason chats with a girl at a party, Linklater gave Coltrane an assignment: “When you’re in those situations, write down what you’re talking about. Good. Bad. Banal. Interesting. Whatever.” But Linklater tried to keep the story line from rushing Coltrane through his actual adolescence. “I never wanted Ellar to do anything developmentally that he hadn’t already done,” he says. Before writing a scene in which Mason arrives home at midnight drunk and high, Linklater says he asked, “ ‘You guys are riding around. Do you think you have a beer?’ He says, ‘Well, I kind of prefer marijuana.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, maybe they’re smoking a joint.’ ”
Logistics presented a separate set of challenges. The annual production budget allotted by the studio, IFC, remained constant; thanks to inflation, its value didn’t. Some shoot locations had to be selected with an eye toward whether the team could return to them year after year. In the later years, the producer, Cathleen Sutherland, says, it got harder to find technicians who knew how to load 35 mm film—the industry standard when shooting began—because a lot of the younger crew members had only ever worked with digital cameras.
The finished product, Boyhood, got rave reviews at Sundance earlier this year. But the director always saw the project as more or less a sure thing: “I trusted that once you identify with these people, the essence of a few days in their lives here and there would take on cumulative power.” Coltrane, whose character transforms from an adorable and pensive 6-year-old to a lanky but still pensive 18-year-old, says he can already tell that viewers experience the same nostalgic recognition that inspired Linklater: “The look I see in people’s eyes when they walk up to me after seeing it—it’s very strange.”