"Boyhood" premiered 368 days ago at the Sundance Film Festival, "sneaking up on people," as writer-director Richard Linklater puts it, despite the fact that he had spent the previous 12 years making this singular coming-of-age story.
Now, after winning the Golden Globe Award for best picture drama and countless prizes from critics' groups, Linklater's $4-million movie isn't taking anyone by surprise. Nominated for six Oscars, including nods for picture, director, screenplay and actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, "Boyhood" stands as the award season's kingpin, a distinction that still blows Hawke's mind.
"It never occurred to me that this would be more successful than something like 'Waking Life' or 'Before Midnight,'" Hawke says, naming two of his many collaborations with Linklater. "I figured it'd play in a few art house theaters and then 30 years from now I'd be doing a Q&A at the Berlin Film Festival saying, 'But the film I really liked was 'Boyhood.'"
Why did Linklater's experimental film, which follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade to the moment he arrives at college, connect with audiences now and not decades later? Linklater, Hawke, Arquette and Coltrane all believe it has to do with relatability, something they understand innately as they each brought so much of their own lives to the movie. "Boyhood" hits universal truths about family, but for this quartet, the 12-year journey of making the movie was a deeply personal experience.
Linklater: "Boyhood" came from my own relationship with my mom, who Patricia's character is based on. She's a passionate woman who just followed that passion and took her kids through it. She was a young mom who went back to get her graduate degree, started teaching and, yeah, didn't have a whole lot of luck with men, though a lot of that is me reconciling. Don't forget: "Boyhood" comes from the kid's perspective.
Arquette: When Rick offered me the movie, I had already lost my mom. I was mourning her. Like the mom in the movie, she had gone back to school and had gone on to teach. Like so many mothers, she was taken for granted, including by me. But so much of that doesn't dawn on you until you become a parent yourself.
Linklater: You need a generation to go by before you can fully grasp a moment from your past. You have continuing conversations with your parents — even if they're no longer around — when you start parenting yourself, where you think, "Ah. So that's what they must have been feeling then. I get it."
Hawke: My father and Rick's father are both extremely soft-spoken men from Texas who are both in the insurance business, and both found happiness in a second marriage. My father is a huge part of my own psyche.
Linklater: My dad was a super go-with-the-flow guy. The dad you see in the movie is probably closer to me, the guy who's pulling the car over and saying, "Hey, we're going to talk to each other!"
Hawke: Starting the movie, I thought, "If I could take that man I remember when I was 5 years old and then take that man that came to my high school graduation and show the maturing process, that's a portrait that's never been done on film before."
Linklater: Ethan and I talked about how you look up to your dads as a kid, and then you get older and you see them in middle age, a life of doing what they had to do to raise your ass. The corporate suit. The slow change in vehicles. My dad had a cool car when I was young, a big, old, beautiful Chevy. That gives way to a more practical choice. And, speaking from experience, minivans are great! But that transition's a sad moment on the cool scale.
Arquette: We have these goodbyes in our lives with people we love. Every time somebody dies, even though it's a natural event, we're still shocked. And the moments of breaking away are also shocking and hard to move through. You grow up and have kids and then they go off to school and you think, "Oh, my poor mom. I remember when she started crying and I said, 'Well, I gotta go.' I should have hugged her right away."
Linklater: That image of Patricia sitting alone at the table when Ellar's leaving came from my own memory. When I left [my mom] for college, she was just sitting at a table alone, smoking a cigarette. She seemed odd, and it took me years to realize it might be some emotional deal. Then when my own daughter [Lorelei, who plays Mason's sister in the movie] was leaving, I realized, "Oooooh. Now I understand." And I knew my daughter had no idea what I was feeling. She couldn't. She's 18. That's not the way it works. Parenting is a one-way thing.
Arquette: When Mason leaves, she rattles off all these memories because she's seeing him in all these periods of his life. When I look at my grown son today, it's almost like different people — who he was as a baby, who he was at 8, 16. Saying goodbye to your kid is like seeing a flash-forward of all these different little persons. "You're leaving? All of you?"
Coltrane: It's the first time Mason sees his mom as human, which is a pretty powerful moment growing up. I was in a similar place, healing my relationship with my mother, so it reflected that. It's a great moment when you're able to see your parents as flawed and forgive them for it.
Linklater: Editing the movie, I'd be going back in time, looking at something with little kid Lorelei and 20 minutes later, I'd be sitting at the dinner table with this much older girl. Usually, you never want to watch your movies again, but this one, as a parent, I go along with it. I made a film that works on me, which is impossible as a filmmaker. Watching it at a film festival, I get a little teary because this movie was so all-encompassing.
Hawke: My oldest is 16 now. She doesn't remember a life when I wasn't making this movie. You know what she said? "It's so weird that a movie of my generation, you're the dad. It's just so weird!"
Coltrane: Even though I didn't entirely realize it as a child, I was very vulnerable on the screen in a way that people don't often see. And now when I meet people, they reciprocate that, expressing these beautiful, tender things to me. It's exciting. I hope it gives filmmakers fuel to be more brave. People are ready for it.
Arquette: I've had people love my movies. Many people have showed me their "True Romance" tattoos over the years. But "Boyhood" ... people tell me the wildest things. Twice I've had girls tell me they turned to their boyfriends right after the lights went up and said, "I want to have a baby." Who knows? A few months from now, we might have a lot of babies named Mason running around.