Making of 'Boyhood': What You Don't Know About Richard Linklater's 12-Year Shoot

A Director and His Star
Kendrick Kidd

"We all have that choice. Everyone thinks that they had a tough childhood, even if they came from the most privileged means, but it's tough to be a human being," says Linklater. "I wanted to portray someone who'd been dealt a hand. It wasn't a great hand, but it's the hand that he's dealt. And he handles whatever comes his way."

The director — and his stars Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane — reveal secrets from the set of their critical darling, about a regular kid growing up

This story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The clock was ticking: It was the second year of production on Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Ethan Hawke, who had been filming Assault on Precinct 13 in Canada, had managed to get a few days off from that film, so he'd headed down to Austin, Texas, to shoot a sequence in Boyhood in which Mason Sr. — the divorced dad he plays — takes his kids, Mason Jr. (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) and his big sister, Samantha (Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei), on an outing to a bowling alley. Hawke had just gotten word, though, that he was needed back in Canada the next day, and as the hours passed, he knew he was risking missing the last flight out of town that night. Still, Linklater wanted to capture one more shot, a complicated bit of business: Sam bowling a strike. "Oh, shit," Hawke thought, "this is going to take six hours." But Lorelei stepped up to the line and, against all odds, mowed down all the pins in just the second take. "There is a shot of me being so elated with the strike, and it's probably related to knowing I could make my flight," laughs Hawke. "But that's the way Rick works ­— he is so open that wonderful bits of life sneaked into the film."

Read more Are Pundits Underestimating the Awards Potential for 'Boyhood' Star Ellar Coltrane?

It was just one small, serendipitous moment in a marathon of a sporadic movie shoot whose 39 filming days stretched from 2002 all the way through 2013. Similar strokes of serendipity — a fortuitous home run hit while the cameras were rolling at a Houston Astros game, a glorious sunset captured during the final shot of the final day of filming in Texas' Big Bend Ranch State Park — seemed to bless the production. It even carried over into the film's reception at its debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Boyhood has become one of 2014's best reviewed movies (with a nearly unanimous positive rating of 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and a major contender this awards season, a potential David among a field of Goliaths.

That same serendipity also reflects Linklater's own, essentially optimistic worldview. During the course of the movie, young Mason certainly gets knocked around a bit: His parents separate and divorce; his mother, Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, struggles between single motherhood and a couple of abusive relationships; there are minor childhood traumas (an unwanted haircut, a new school). In one scene, Mason, a young teen, and some of his pals play around with a circular saw blade. The audience collectively holds its breath. In a different movie, something terrible would surely happen. But not here. By the end of the film's 164 minutes, Mason doesn't just survive but proves himself to be a really resilient kid, ready to strike out on his own as a young adult.

"Kids are pretty strong and adaptable," Linklater, 54, says. "If you don't have debilitating problems — mental problems, addictions — people kind of persist through anything. That's my view of the world. At some point in life, if things are not going well, you can see yourself as a victim. But other times, you can see yourself as someone who persists through it all. We all have that choice. Everyone thinks that they had a tough childhood, even if they came from the most privileged means, but it's tough to be a human being. I wanted to portray someone who'd been dealt a hand. It wasn't a great hand, but it's the hand that he's dealt. And he handles whatever comes his way."

Read more IFC Films' Jonathan Sehring on 'Boyhood's' Oscar Campaign and 'Crouching Tiger 2' Backlash

As for the unprecedented route the movie took to reach that point — no other dramatic film has ever taken a dozen years to slowly track its characters through the passage of time — Linklater says, "It came to me in a flash." In the beginning, there was no script per se. Instead, each year he'd sit down and write 10 to 20 pages before each three- to four-day shoot. But he did have an overall outline in mind from the start. The film would follow young Mason from first grade to his high school graduation. Linklater knew the individual arcs that both Mason Sr. and Olivia's lives would take as well, and, he says, "When you're a kid, you're locked into your parents' lives, whether you like it or not." As for young Mason, the writer-director continues, "I took my cues from Ellar's own development. If he had grown up to be a different person — say, an athlete and not an artist — it would have had different shadings."

"When he came to me with the idea, it seemed crazy and very cool," says John Sloss, who has been Linklater's attorney since 1991's Slacker. And so the two sat down in 2001 at the Venice Film Festival with IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring, who also sparked to the proposition. "It was just an easy yes. Rick is somebody who, I think, can touch upon humanity better than any other filmmaker," Sehring offers. "And so we talked about the structure of the deal." The bare-bones budget allotted about $200,000 for each year's shoot. Actors basically worked for scale with a promise of a share in any success. In the end, music rights and postproduction would bring the total cost to just under $5 million, while the movie's worldwide gross to date is $43 million.

Casting the two principal adults was easy. Linklater and Hawke had already worked together on 1995's Before Sunrise and 2001's Waking Life. Both were native Texans; both had soft-spoken fathers working in the insurance business; and they'd begun to develop a real bond. The movie, says, Hawke, 44, "came to me in the guise of friendship. It was never something I approached like a job." Linklater then placed a call to Arquette, now 46, whom he didn't know well, to ask her to play the mother. Five minutes into the conversation, as she retells it, she was on board. "I've seen this mom, and I've been this mom, not knowing if I could buy my kids diapers and food at the same time," she says. "And I think Olivia goes through tremendous growth, discovering who she is, becoming self-sufficient without needing a man."

Read more Could ‘Boyhood’ Have Happened if Filming Had Begun Today?

But the most crucial decision was casting Mason Jr. After looking at dozens of young performers, Linklater settled on Coltrane, "the kid who I felt was the most interesting thinker. I just liked that he was this thoughtful, analytic little artist kid, who was very enthusiastic about movies and music." Coltrane's parents are artists — his mother a dancer, his dad a musician — with strong roots in Austin, which provided some insurance that the family wouldn't suddenly pick up and leave town midway through the project. Coltrane, now 20, confesses, "I definitely remember meeting Rick, getting the part, but a lot of stuff on the set those first couple of years is pretty foggy. I understood to some extent what Rick was trying to do, but I don't think there was any way I could understand at 6 how the decision would impact my life."

The actors gelled immediately. "The first time I went to Austin, I hung out with the kids for a weekend, playing with them, making breakfast," Arquette recalls. But the unusual three-days-per-year shooting schedule created real challenges for the production team. "We tried to create as much continuity from year to year as we could," says producer Cathleen Sutherland, who had to line up locations that would be available in subsequent years without knowing exactly when the production would need to return to them. And so, for example, she turned to her own cousins, whose home doubled as Mason Jr.'s grand-mother's home. "And we're still related," she quickly adds. Casting director Beth Sepko also relied on the local talent pool around Austin and Houston to increase the likelihood of finding actors who would be available to return each year.

Everyone pitched in: The 1970 Pontiac GTO that Mason Sr. drives belongs to Linklater — it was first used in 1993's Dazed and Confused. "That car was a thorn in my side," jokes production designer Rodney Becker, who had to get it out of storage and tune it up each year, only to have to replace all the tires when they blew out on the drive to Houston for the Astros game. Becker also zeroed in on elements that would be specific to each year, like the Obama lawn signs that show up in year seven — "Even if he had lost," Becker says, "I thought it would be an interesting footnote." Costume designer Kari Perkins says she "tried to pick things very much of-the-moment, so as the time passed, you could see the definition." In the end, though, it was technology — from an old bubble-style iMac computer to the flip phones that figure in a key scene midway through the movie to the arrival of iPhones — that proved the real signifiers of time passing.

Read more New York Film Fest: Ethan Hawke Reflects on His 'Boyhood'/'Seymour' Moment

Linklater purposely chose not to label the arrival of each new year onscreen, but instead let one year blend into the next. Initially, he and editor Sandra Adair experimented with a transition between years one and two that showed the kids arriving at a new home, heading to their bedroom, and then cut to the next year as they walked through the bedroom door. But then, "We decided to make the transitions as seamless as possible," Adair explains. "We wanted the viewer to get swept up into the film because it is cumulative, not just one chapter after another." Similarly, Linklater and the two cinematographers he worked with during the shoot, Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly, decided to use film rather than go digital; Linklater felt the Kodak stock they used throughout would ensure a consistency that then-rapidly changing digital cameras couldn't guarantee. "Rick also liked to give the actors space to work in," says Kelly. "So I would light a room very naturally to allow the actors to move within that space."

Cast and crew alike compare the whole process to a series of family reunions that they looked forward to attending each year. The castmembers also attest it was one of the purest acting experiences they have ever had, since for more than a decade they didn't even have to think about how their performances would be reviewed.

And, of course, somewhere along the way, Ellar wasn't so little anymore; he grew up and started to take an active role in the production. Hawke points to the campfire scene they shared in year seven, explaining, "He had a lot of interesting things to say, things he thought were corny or dumb and things that should go into the movie. That was the only time we played around with improvisation. He wasn't a nervous kid, he came to set wanting to accomplish something." Looking back, Coltrane, having literally watched his younger life pass before his eyes, sums it up this way: "It's strange. We put so much effort into crafting Mason and his family. But they are a vessel for the passage of time. And that's what the experience is about for me: exploring how time passes and how we perceive it, how we change over time and how we don't. I look at that 7-year-old and I know it's me."