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Director Richard Linklater collaborates with the future in ‘Boyhood’

As a storyteller, director Richard Linklater likes to play with the passage of time. For his acclaimed recent film "Boyhood," shooting lasted 12 years in order to tell the story of a boy who ages from 6 to 18. The director tells Jeffrey Brown why his conversational movies aren’t improvised and how he’s built a career by making small-budget, personal films.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    One of the most honored movies of the year, and a leading candidate for several Oscars, is "Boyhood," a film by an independent director with a unique style of telling stories.

    Jeff spoke with him recently, as part of our occasional feature, NewsHour Goes to the Movies.

  • ELLAR COLTRANE, Actor:

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

  • ETHAN HAWKE, Actor:

    All right. All right. Don't worry about it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In most films, the aging of characters is a slight of hand, suggested through makeup of using multiple actors.

    In "Boyhood," the passage of time is real. Director Richard Linklater shot the film over the course of 12 years, annually gathering his four leading actors together for a few days to shoot scenes to tell the story of a young boy named Mason played by Ellar Coltrane from ages 6 to 18.

    RICHARD LINKLATER, Director, "Boyhood": It was planned as much as it could be. It's kind of like your life. How much can you really plan for the next 12 years?

    You can have your goals and your outline of what you're working toward, which is certainly what the film did. I knew the last shot. I knew where I wanted it to end, but I didn't really — you know, I'm collaborating here with an unknown future, like we are all at all times. So it had to incorporate — it had to incorporate that into the actual storytelling.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Linklater, age 54, has played with time and storytelling often in his career, notably in the so-called "Before" trilogy, "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight," which tells the story of a romance between two characters played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, as they grow older.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    I think the book I wrote in a way was like building something, so that I wouldn't forget the details of the time that we spent together.

  • RICHARD LINKLATER:

    I have always been obsessed with cinematic narrative and storytelling. The artificiality of so much plot always bugged me, so I think I have kind of naturally tended toward time structures, because I think that's closer to how we actually process time and the way we perceive the world, and even our own — the way we drift through, you know, a day, a year, or a life, you know, is it's kind of time-based.

    I think it's one of the fundamentals of kind of my cinematic thinking. It must be because I keep kind of playing around it. I don't intellectualize it too much.

  • PATRICIA ARQUETTE, Actress:

    You know what I'm realizing? My life is just going to go, like that, a series of milestones, getting married, having kids, getting divorced.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What does that mean, though, the artificiality of film?

  • RICHARD LINKLATER:

    It's not inherent to film. It's inherent in storytelling in general. It depends on how you approach it. I think the three-act structure is an artifice. A lot of plot points that work so well in a thriller, you know, that doesn't happen in most of our lives, but there are these beautiful constructs.

    But all film is a construct. It's just what you want, how you want to be perceived and how you want an audience to take in your particular story. And if you're not — I'm often going for a very realistic — I want an audience to lose themselves in the story I'm trying to tell and make it feel like it feels like your own life, to some degree.

    So, cinema can be anything. Let's face it. And it's wonderful. It's the greatest storytelling medium ever. And it can be so many things. And I have done a lot of movies, so each one kind of has its own requirement.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Boyhood" is filled with scenes that feel like real life, sometimes in all its awkwardness, as here, when Ethan Hawke, playing the divorced dad, picks up his two children.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    How about you? How was your week?

  • LORELEI LINKLATER, Actress:

    Fun.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    What you been up to?

  • LORELEI LINKLATER:

    Nothing really.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    You still working on that sculpture project?

  • LORELEI LINKLATER:

    Yes.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    Yes.

  • LORELEI LINKLATER:

    I'm all finished.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    What's it of?

  • LORELEI LINKLATER:

    Nothing.

  • RICHARD LINKLATER:

    It comes from myself as the kid I was once, talking a lot with my dad, who would pick me up on a weekend. And we — our best conversations were in the car, because you're just in a car. I lived an hour-and-a-half away from him, so we would spend three hours a weekend driving. And that was the best conversations.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    That is not how we are going to talk to one another. All right? I will not be that guy. You cannot put me in that category, all right, the biological father I spend every other week with and I make polite conversation, you know, while he drives me places and buys me — no.

  • RICHARD LINKLATER:

    It's fun to see him sort of figuring out fatherhood and being a very conscientious parent and trying so hard. It's endearing.

    So, and Ethan and I are very similar in that way, that, you know, our parents were divorced, and we have these relationship, both in our past and to varying degrees in our present. So, you know, a film — a scene like that comes up pretty natural for us.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Linklater works collaboratively, getting ideas from his actors, including his young ones. But, he says, this is not improvised.

  • RICHARD LINKLATER:

    I never really improvise. I never have.

    There's a couple of moments even in "Boyhood" where — I knew what they were going to say. We were on subject. And I had two cameras, and I let — in one case, it's a campfire scene, where Ethan, as dad, and Ellar as son are — they're talking about a potential future "Star Wars" movie, if there ever was going to be one.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    You think they will ever make another "Star Wars"?

  • ELLAR COLTRANE:

    I don't know. I think if they were to make another one, that the period where this game is set is where it would have to be, because there's nothing after, really.

  • ETHAN HAWKE:

    Yes. "Return of the Jedi," it's over. There's nothing…

  • ELLAR COLTRANE:

    Yes, there's nothing else to do there.

  • RICHARD LINKLATER:

    And we had talked about it. I knew what they were going to say in general, but I didn't think it had to be scripted specifically.

    But, other than that, everything is very scripted and very rehearsed and planned out just to — it has to be very tight for me to make it seem loose. I wouldn't know how to turn on the camera and see what happens.

  • ACTOR:

    One time, I had lunch with Tolstoy. Another time, I was a roadie for Frank Zappa.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Richard Linklater came out of the independent film world, scoring early hits like "Slacker" in 1991 and in 1993 "Dazed and Confused."

  • ACTOR:

    I want that piece of paper on my desk before you leave here today. Do you hear me?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In a world of blockbusters made for far more money, he has continued to build a career of smaller, more personal films.

  • RICHARD LINKLATER:

    Look at the end of the year here. A lot of the films that people are talking about would definitely fall into personal visions from directors. And, you know, they're not big, manufactured entertainments, but they are — you know, they succeed in their own way.

    So there's always a lot of films like that. Hollywood is more — I would think their business model changed. They're structured because of the cost to only do bigger films, so they have kind of abdicated the middle ground of the films they used to do — are completely done kind of outside their system.

    They will still distribute them, though. So, it's always changing, but the bottom line, it's always a good year for movies. There's always a ton of great movies, more than you will have time to see, worldwide, and people will always want to make movies that mean a lot to them personally.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the film is "Boyhood." Richard Linklater is the director.

    Thanks so much for talking with us.

  • RICHARD LINKLATER:

    Yes, good talking to you, man. Good to be here.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Jeff continues his conversation with Richard Linklater online, where the director recommends five of his favorite films.

    Find that list on our home page, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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