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'Boyhood' director Richard Linklater versus time: the big stare-down

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In the film 'Boyhood,' the slippery nature of time once again is on Linklater's mind
'Time is all we're given in this life, the hours and what we do with them,' Richard Linklater says

NEW YORK — Richard Linklater is lunching on vegetarian pasta, as is his wont, when a nervous publicist walks over ‎to tell him he's running late for a broadcast interview, as is a film publicist's wont.

"No, I think the math is wrong," said the director, 53, shaking his head. "It doesn't feel like it's been that much time." A flurry of calculations are made; he (and a reporter) remain unconvinced.

It should come as little surprise that the slippery nature of time is much on Linklater's mind. Since he was anointed, not entirely willingly, the voice of a generation nearly 25 years ago, the philosophically inclined director has been exploring the subject both thematically and formally.

Watch a few of the Austin auteur's movies in a row and you'll see his preoccupations recur: consciousness, reality, mortality. But what will jump out most is the interest in time itself: the set-in-one-day conceit of his first four movies, including "Dazed and Confused"; the real-time relationship dramas of "Tape"; the temporal inquiries of "Waking Life"; and, of course, his Julie Delpy-Ethan Hawke "Before" trilogy, whose raison d'être is the effect that time's steady rain has on life and love.

No Linklater movie, though, is as fascinated with the clock's ticking as "Boyhood," his sprawling, poignant look at identity and maturation that, even before it hits theaters in Los Angeles and New York on July 11 before rolling out nationally, has been hailed as a landmark achievement.

The film is quite literally all about time, shot over and covering a period of 12 years. But in tracking a boy (Ellar Coltrane) as he moves from rock-collecting to Harry Potter to art photography, it also looks  more broadly at the ways time changes how we think and what we care about — and asks, rhetorically, if even the engaged and self-aware among us can stand in its way.‎

"I hit 50 and realized I'm probably past the 50-yard-line, and I started to think that time is all we're given in this life, the hours and what we do with them," the director said. "It sounds simple, but it's true, and it makes you realize that you have to pick the areas in your life that cause time to stop, that make you feel the fullness of the moment. Art can do that. Movies can do that. I mean, the best time exchange is a movie. You watch three hours and you get a lifetime, concentrated."

Certainly you get that in "Boyhood." By now you may know the basics of this unusual project. In the early 2000s, Linklater, father of then-8-year-old daughter Lorelei, decided to make a movie about the essence of childhood. But no period or moment seemed to capture the full experience; he had to cover, in short, too much time.

So he resolved to shoot all of it. He set about finding a young non-actor (a casting search led him to Coltrane, the son of a musician whose ethereal qualities he recognized even at age 7) and recruited Lorelei, the actress Patricia Arquette and his frequent collaborator Hawke. Then each year, Linklater would gather cast and crew in assorted Texas locations and spend nearly a week shooting a mostly fictional chapter from the life of Coltrane's on-screen boy, named Mason, as well as Mason's sister (played by Lorelei) and their divorced parents (Arquette and Hawke).

Linklater, who wrote the script, and the adult actors would talk to Coltrane over the course of the year, gleaning bits from his life they could then upload back into the film. The actors also suggested moments from their own experience.

The result is a movie that indeed seems to cover most of childhood, at least the modern working- and middle-class American versions of it. As the years unfold for Mason, there is first love and new schools and alcoholic stepfathers and a loving but distracted mother and a drifter father who soon becomes better than that, all told with an unfussy visual style and a leisurely, snapshot-of-a-life pace. Plot exposition, as is often the case in a Linklater movie, is beside the point. So are clear-cut lessons or morals.

"I don't have all the answers," Arquette's character says, breaking down crying at one difficult child-rearing moment. Many of the feelings in this movie are similarly gentle, but over the course of its 2 hour, 45 minute run time they add up to a larger encapsulation of childhood, an epic of the everyday.

The man behind the movie has had a remarkable up-and-down career — characterized by Hollywood embrace and rejection — packed with movies those early works didn't even begin to hint at. It culminates here, with what may well be the best coming-of-age film in years.

As a person, Linklater is also — perhaps fittingly, given his films' characteristic juggling of competing truths — his own unlikely mix. He is an extrovert with a solitary streak. He helped pioneer a free-form, structureless style in mainstream cinema yet likes a taut three-act thriller. And he is intensely interested in memory and nostalgia even though he says he tries hard not to look back.

How you see him, of course, may come down to when you catch him, and in what context. As Arquette's on-screen mother says late in the movie to Hawke's new wife: "You got him at a good time."

Changing industry minds

In 1991, shortly after the release of his debut, "Slacker" — a set of observation-filled vignettes with the breezy vibe of its Texas setting — Linklater met with then-attorney John Sloss, who would later become his manager. "Rick was like a character in his movie," recalled Sloss. "He wore a T-shirt and had this very laid-back way of speaking. If you said to me, 'This is the only movie this guy will ever make,' I wouldn't have been surprised."

Linklater changed Sloss' mind when he sent him a cassette filled with potential songs for his next film, which turned out to be "Dazed and Confused," a sideways comedy about the last day of school in a suburban Austin high school in 1976. He changed industry minds with that film too, kickstarting a career both extraordinarily diverse and filled with many jumps and falls.

Though a cult classic and a touchstone work for the director, its mix of casual inquistiveness and comedy a precursor of things to come, "Dazed" was a commercial disappointment. The news hit Linklater hard, who in his early 30s was already a critical darling and expected a little more.

He would soon make "Before Sunrise," based in part on his own brief but intense experience meeting a strange woman — the start of his banner franchise. But the rest of the '90s were filled with disappointments, particularly the 1998 Fox piece "The Newton Boys." In it, he tried to bring his understated style to the more hyperreal genre of the studio crime film. The movie bombed at the box office and didn't fare much better with critics. It also didn't get a lot of support from Fox.

"Early on, you think a lot of things are your birthright," Linklater said. "It's the same mentality a kid has. You think, 'My passion will automatically be rewarded.' And life doesn't work that way."

The series of failures led to his inability to get any of his own projects made in Hollywood. But rather than take a director-for-hire gig that could have burnished his industry stock, he decided to try the DIY thing once more--"something about me says, 'when I'm down. keep going down,'" he said, only half joking.

So he picked up a camcorder and shot "Tape," based on a play by Stephen Belber. He also brought the old-school animation technique Rotoscoping into the 21st century with the help of an MIT scientist and used it to make "Waking Life," cramming into it a lot of his own existential musings. Depending on who you asked, it was either brilliantly dreamlike or boringly pedantic. Either way, it was significant.

Linklater was honing a style, merging low-key philosophical and psychological inquiry with (more or less) conventional narrative film. If, like some of his other work, "Waking Life" was a tweener — too slick to be serious art, too discursive to be populist — he was also making a case that he was a singular filmmaker, one who could explore the meaning of life without making you feel like he was spoon feeding you medicine in doing so.

And, perhaps as the result of a more mellow Austin mentality, he was doing it all with a certain unself-consciousness. "Most directors try to control and manipulate every scene; they're signing every frame of their film," said Hawke, a close friend who has worked with Linklater eight times. "Rick is allergic to that."

Linklater would ride the career roller coaster again — up in 2003's "School of Rock," in which he harnessed his interest in slacker culture to broader comedic effect (and, he acknowledges, took the rare step of factoring in--slightly--how the job could boost his industry standing before taking it), and then down in 2005's "The Bad News Bears," in which the attempt to marry his love of sports and underdogs with studios' compulsive need for remakes yielded a less positive result.

But those lean indie years shaped him and paved the way for the mature strength of his most recent trilogy, what he dubs the "three Bs," "Boyhood," "Before Midnight" and the darkly comic faux documentary "Bernie," about a real-world mortician convicted of murdering a rich elderly eccentric. All three pictures, needless to say, are also about time; "Bernie" is in part about how we remember folk history through the prism of the years.

"I was sort of kicked out of the industry for a while. So I made 'Tape' and 'Waking Life' because I could," Linklater said. "Something like that never makes sense at the time. But you look back and it all makes perfect sense. History is always told just a little farther in the future."

Or as a new friend tells Mason in "Boyhood": "People are always saying seize the moment. But I think it's the other way around. The moment seizes us."

Close to the vest

Easygoing and engaged, Linklater nonetheless can be at times emotionally inscrutable.

Raised in Houston and educated at Sam Houston State before dropping out to focus on film, the director is eager to talk about ideas, not all that unlike his "Slacker" character who ruminates about alternate realities to a silent cabdriver. At a Sundance photo shoot, a casual question from a reporter about changes over the years shooting "Boyhood" led to a nuanced dissection about how shifts in technology in the 21st century mirrored how new clothes and hair marked time in the 1960s.

"His profundity sneaks up on you," said Jack Black, who has worked with Linklater a number of times. "He's super-meat-and-potatoes — like, you think you're having a straight-up sports talk and then suddenly you're having a conversation on a whole other level."

With a relaxed chattiness and a penchant for colorful Southwestern shirts, Linklater has the kind of manner that would put a Paxil patient at ease. But he's also more introverted than he seems.

The director often prefers to skirt details of his personal life; though this is a movie about childhood, he doesn't mention his 9-year-old-twins during several conversations about the film. Sandra Adair, a film editor who has worked with Linklater on almost all of his movies, said that for all their years in the edit room, they don't discuss personal matters much. His very sociable image, she added, is only partly accurate.

"He'll sometimes say, 'I just want to get this done so I can go to Bastrop,'" she said, referring to the small town 30 miles from Austin where he has a second home. It is there that the director says he most likes to retreat, to his library, to read and write. Slacker culture may be about hanging out, but sometimes it's also about holing up.

(One aspect of his personal life recently was thrust into the spotlight when the real-life Bernie was released from prison seventeen years into a life sentence in part on condition he would live in Linklater's garage. "My garage apartment, not my garage," Linklater corrected, laughing, noting a kind of guest house that several friends and family members had cycled through over the years. Then he went on to describe scenes that could make a compelling movie in their own right, such as one in which the man, Bernie Tiede, joined the Linklater family for Lorelei's recent birthday party. "He's just kind of back there, which is nice," Linklater said.)

It's no accident that Linklater never moved to Hollywood, and though represented by CAA, he noted wryly that until a screening of "Boyhood" a few weeks ago, he had never been to the agency's "new" building in Century City. (The agency moved there in 2007.) He has relationships in the industry, but he is more rooted in Texas arts culture; fellow Austinite Terrence Malick is a friend, and Linklater was a rare visitor to the set of "The Tree of Life," which also deals with Texas boyhood, though in a rather different thematic and visual way.

Linklater shrugs off Hollywood's ambivalent attitude toward him, saying, essentially, it's mysterious ("You just kind of get the sense from an actor or someone else that you're off the list, and you don't really know why") and thus not worth dissecting. But those who've worked with the director say he sometimes does carry frustration about the movie business, believing it hasn't always offered him a fair shake or supported his work — which, given Hollywood's frequent myopia, would hardly be an irrational thought.

Sloss, who also produced "Boyhood," said that Linklater's easy demeanor also belies an inner stubbornness. "He is one of the 10 most willful people I've ever met," the film veteran said. "He never loses track of what he wants. It's just so elliptical that he makes you forget what he wants." Added producer Jonathan Sehring, whose indie label IFC Films financed and is releasing "Boyhood": "I mean, who else is getting this kind of movie made?"

Nor are Linklater's tastes always what you'd expect. The filmmaker who helped popularize plot-agnostic musings in film said he loves a good three-act thriller and, as a child, at least, would grow restless watching slow-burn directors like Hitchcock. "It was, like, can we get to the first bird attack already?" he said.

Though interested in animal rights, Zen notions of spirituality and a kind of  broad-minded humanism--he'll often follow up statements about decisions in his film career with phrases such as "like in life in general"--he also remains a huge sports fan and often uses locker-room culture to make a point. He says, for instance, that he thinks filmmaker discontent operates similarly to that of a jock's — "Every good athlete hates to lose more than he loves to win."

Yet ultimately one gets the sense that it's time, memory and other Proustian concerns that galvanize him the most. "It's the mystery of the relation we all have with our past and ourselves," he said. "I mean, that's the constant we all have, isn't it? It's who you are at 20 or 30, or your abstract notions of who you were at 6; that's the one thing that doesn't change. You just add chapters."

Or as Mason says in the film of time, "It's constant. It's always right now."

In it for the long haul

Time really slipping away now, Linklater hurries from the restaurant site of the interview to the broadcast taping. As he walks, he fields a question about what it feels like to be in the rare position of doing some of his best work 15 films in.

"I guess I'm the Julio Franco of directors," he says, alluding to the baseball player who stared down the beast of time to play until he was 49. "I always imagined myself as one of those old directors, in it for the long haul." (One parallel might be Erich Rohmer, who with his young, articulate and often underachieving protagonists is a clear Linklater influence, and had a similar longevity.)

Despite a career of so many swings, Linklater says he diligently avoids thinking about ways he could have made past movies differently, and indeed doesn't believe any of them would have been better if he had another crack at them.

He does, however, pause to take stock of how a chapter is ending with "Boyhood" and says that this may necessitate a reset of sorts. There is already talk of him returning to make a studio movie. He and Black are in the early stages of planning a bowling-world piece with HBO. Hawke wonders if, after the intensity of the last few films, Linklater should try a broad comedy.

"Not enough time," Linklater says, then chuckles at how it all seems to come back to that. "Never enough time."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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