It’s hard to avoid sounding like a pretentious arse when quoting a philosopher, but here goes anyway. “Originality,” Voltaire once said (chin-rub, ’tache-twist, smug look), “is nothing but judicious imitation.”
Sorry, but he had a point. It’s nigh-on impossible to compose a tune, write a book or invent a wheel that doesn’t resemble many before it. Director Richard Linklater, however, might have performed a miracle. He might have made a truly original film.
I say might. I haven’t seen every film ever made. But if there’s another film like Boyhood, I don’t know about it, and nobody else seems to either.
“I don’t,” says Linklater. “I suspect it hasn’t been done because we’ve had enough international recognition now and I think someone would’ve come out of the woodwork.”
You might be asking why Boyhood is so special. Well, it’s the story of a family in Austin, Texas: divorced parents and their two young children, a boy and a girl.
It centres on the boy, Mason Jr, as he grows up before heading off to college. Nobody dies, there are no explosions, he’s not possessed by the spirit of a 16th-century Carpathian tyrant. The drama is that of the familiar, of ordinary lives.
Nothing unusual, then, except for one thing: Boyhood was shot over the course of 12 years. It’s the story of childhood told through the eyes of a young man as he grew up for real. The characters are played by the same actors; a seamless maturation with no judders, no make-up, no CGI. It is exceptional in so many ways, not least its sheer ambition.
“We theorise we’re the longest scheduled production in film history,” says Linklater. “Someone maybe shot some footage and 20 years later put it in, but this was an official, union production schedule of 4,000-plus days.”
Other people may have had the idea before, but only Linklater went through with it. Two years of pre-production preceded annual shoots, for up to a week at a time, from 2002 to 2013. Finance had been secured by an act of faith from IFC Films, which invested in something that wouldn’t bear fruit for more than a decade. Faith based on Linklater’s track record that, at the time, included Dazed And Confused, Before Sunrise and his Sundance-storming debut, Slacker. Then there was the casting. Most actors would kill for 12 years of guaranteed work, but this occasional family gathering wouldn’t pay the bills. Patricia Arquette was recruited as ‘Mom’ Olivia and Linklater’s friend Ethan Hawke became the father, Mason Sr, and also custodian of the film.
“I got nervous in the last couple of years because it was working,” Linklater says. “I was thinking, it’d be so cruel if something happened to me. I told Ethan, ‘If I get hit by a bus, you have to finish this.’ I had it mapped out. It was kind of a joke, but it was kind of real, too.”
Choosing the children presented the biggest challenge. What if they grew up and didn’t want to be actors? Or grew up and were terrible actors? In the end, Linklater played it as safe as he could with the girl, Samantha, by casting his own 9-year-old daughter, Lorelei. The role of Mason Jr, the film’s fulcrum, went to Ellar Coltrane, who he describes as an “ethereal 6-year-old”.
Signing a barely-aware child over whom he had no parental influence was a risk, but with a supportive musician father and dancer mother, Coltrane’s artistic upbringing gave Linklater hope.
“Directors are notorious control freaks,” says Linklater. “You try to will something into existence on your terms. But to do something like this, you had to admit you’re collaborating with a very unknown future. If Ellar had grown up to be a very different guy, the movie would have met him. It would be different, but kind of the same. There’s a life analogy. Are you where you thought you’d be at age whatever? Kind of and kind of not. You accept it as the only way it could be.”
To counter his lack of clairvoyance, Linklater didn’t write a script. Instead he had this approximation of a vision; a structure with give. He rolled with the punches and even used Coltrane’s real-life experiences to shape the film. No child wants more homework, but Coltrane’s assignment each year was a bit more interesting than algebra. At the end of every shoot, Linklater would give him a rough outline of the next episode and ask him to write down any relevant conversations he had.
“I think what Rick was trying to take from my life was just the little things,” says Coltrane, “the subtle dynamics between me and friends and family. Talking to girls was definitely a big one.”
“I’d say, ‘Next year, you’re going to meet this girl and have this talk,’” adds Linklater. “’I want you to write down everything in these conversations.’ Then we’d work it up together. That’s why those scenes often seem fake in movies, because it’s an adult writing for a kid. It’s about the feeling between them, not the dialogue, but I do want that dialogue to at least sound real.”
Boy does it work. One scene in particular, at a party where Mason Jr declares to his future first girlfriend that “I just feel comfortable talking to you”, will give every man watching ego-slapping flashbacks to the days when we thought that everything we said was being said for the first time.
And this is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, one that both comforts and disquiets. It makes you realise that, while the decades may differ, most Western males alive today are connected by common childhood experiences. We thought we were original, but perhaps we were mostly our man Voltaire’s judicious imitations. No bad thing. Whatever happens, this remarkable film has a place in cinema history. As for its legacy, Linklater harbours modest desires.
“I hope it’ll be more than a curiosity,” he says. “It sounds pretentious, but you know how in sciences, if there’s a breakthrough, you just publish, then others read it and go, ‘This reminds me of something I was thinking. I’ll incorporate that into what I’m doing’? It’s the same in the arts.
I saw movies growing up that reinforce how you’re already thinking about cinema. It’s a wildly impractical way to make a film, but the fact that it’s perceived as a success would maybe allow it to happen more often.”
So while forever original, it might not always be unique. Except perhaps in one way: it’s probably the only film in absolutely no danger of being remade.
Boyhood is at cinemas nationwide from 11 July