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Sundance 2014

Sundance: In Richard Linklater's 12-year 'Boyhood,' a profile of a man

By Steven Zeitchik

11:03 AM PST, January 20, 2014

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PARK CITY, Utah -- About three years into the filming of the ambitious fictional film project "Boyhood," the movie's then-11-year-old actress, Lorelei Linklater, went to her father, the movie's director Richard Linklater, with an impatient request.

"Can my character die?" she asked.

The younger Linklater had reason to want out -- she was on the hook for nine more years of shooting.

The elder Linklater told the story good-naturedly Sunday night at the Sundance world premiere of "Boyhood, a movie that, with its look at the evolution of a family over a period of more than a decade, might be described as a sprawling epic of the intimate. (Linklater's daughter, now nearly 20, was at his side and laughing with him; her character is alive and well by the movie's end.)

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It's not a stretch to say that there are few films ever made like "Boyhood,” or that there is a very small chance any like it would be made again. Shot for just several days a year over a gargantuan period of 12 years, the production followed every actor -- but particularly the children, Linklater and Ellar Coltrane -- as they evolved. The movie is entirely scripted, but its story was adjusted over time, depending especially on how Coltrane changed.

Linklater then blended it all seamlessly into a finished three-hour film, such that while the movie was essentially made as a series of snapshots, it plays as it would in real life, with everything happening in a graduated manner. Changes in personality and appearance are largely imperceptible, and understood only in retrospect. Basically, you're watching the aging process naturally, not with the makeup, swapped-out actors and other Hollywood fabrications.

Coltrane is both the film's eyes and its narrative center; the movie follows him as he moves from the blissful ignorance of first grade (rock collecting is a passion) to the more hard-bitten swagger of his early teenage years to a more mature state as he prepares to depart for college (when photography and girls having long ago entered the picture). That the film does this, exploring the question of time itself -- the phrase is woven in cleverly throughout the film -- while also tackling themes of innocence, meaning, love and family, is what makes it stand out, and what had audiences raving upon walking out of the theater at nearly 1 am Monday morning.

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Hawke has described “Boyhood” as a kind of "human time-lapse photography.” A more narrative, real-time "Tree of Life" may also fit the bill.

At 7 years old, Mason (Coltrane) is smart and a little spacey, with a rich inner life that makes his teachers and mother a little nervous He is seen in his Texas home with his theatrical sister (Linklater), resourceful single mother (Patricia Arquette) and, when he shows up from his wanderings, his drifter father (Ethan Hawke).

Over the years that follow, Mason's relationship with all three morphs, as his own interests and circumstances change too, particularly as his mother enters several questionable relationships. At some point, the focus shifts to Mason's school and social life, as it does in adolescence. One gets glimpses of a life via its defining moments, but far from a disconnected series of events, it combines to form a composite whole and complete story. "Boyhood” is a portrait of someone becoming who he is, underlining, gently, what made him that way.

Linklater described the movie as springing from a desire to capture the transition from youth to adulthood. But he was initially unsure of how to do it.

"I wanted to do something about childhood. But I couldn't find one moment I had enough to say about," he said after at the screening. Then he had a thought "'Why couldn't you just film a little bit each year and encompass all of it?'"

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It was hardly easy. Actors could have changed in ways that took the story on wild turns, or perhaps even evolved in a way that made it impossible to shoot. Planning a movie 12 years out is an enterprise filled with uncertainty.

"It's simple in a storytelling way, but the practicality of how you make a movie like this is the difficult part," Linklater said. Not least of the issues is keeping your financiers happy. The movie’s backer, IFC Films (it will release the movie at some point this year), found executive Jonathan Sehring justifying to his bosses an expense on the balance sheet every year that had no apparent tangible result. (That the company is still around and still run by the same executive is nothing short of an accomplishment in its own right in this modern indie-film climate.)

At the start of the screening, Linklater laughed that shooting began "4,207 days ago." So long a period had elapsed since this all started that Linklater and Hawke collaborated on not one but two of the "Before" movies (another film interested in how the passage of time works on us) in the period it took to make this movie.

Coltrane, who at his current age of 19 speaks with a mixture of deliberateness that can sound both deep and surfer-y, said the process snuck up on him too. "At seven, 12 years is more than twice my life, so it's really hard to imagine," he said when asked what he initially thought of the project. "Around 12 or 13 it began to gradually dawn on me what was actually happening." His maturation was experienced by the cast too; Arquette said some years before they shot she would spend a weekend with the boy and Lorelei Linklater, watching them grow up the way any parent would.

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In spanning such a large period, the movie also takes a look at the changing culture. Music evolves over the course of the film -- from Coldplay's "Yellow" at the start to Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" at its end.  The War in Iraq gives way to Obama’s election. Mason's Gameboy subtly evolves into a Wii and then into an iPhone. (There is something a little bittersweet about seeing an epic cover this period of time, at least for the great majority of us who were already adults in 2002; this kid has lived a lifetime since then and what have we done, really?)

Many movies about the recent past can have an air of falseness about them because they were made with the wisdom of hindsight. But in this case when Linklater shot a scene in 2005, he only knew what we all knew in 2005. (This has an occasionally comedic effect, as when Mason about five years ago asks his father skeptically if they'll ever make another 'Star Wars.")

The cast said that the film’s authenticity came from both its scope and its attention to detail; "Boyhood" has an interest in the sublime via an immersion in the mundane. “A lot of filmmakers aren't interested in a lot of the things that interest Rick.” Hawke said.

Given the director’s penchant for returning to a story — the “Before” series, conceived as a one-off youthful romance in the early 1990's, yielded two sequels over the next 18 years — will the director follow Mason's tale again?

“Maybe,” Linklater said wryly. “we'll pick him up as a young parent.”

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