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.”