I made no secret of my admiration for director Richard Linklater. Over the course of 25 years, the self-taught auteur has been responsible for some of the finest, most human pieces of film to grace the silver screen. From his hauntingly perfect Before series to his most recent – and most ambitious – masterpiece Boyhood, Linklater is not a guy who plays by the rules. Where traditional films zig, Linklater zags.
In addition to introducing the world to Matthew McCougnahey in Dazed and Confused, making us fall in love with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy‘s star-crossed lovers in Before Sunrise, showing Jack Black could really act in Bernie (and – to a lesser extent – School of Rock) and turning an unfilmable Phillip K. Dick sci-fi caper into a astoundingly novel piece of fiction with A Scanner Darkly, Linklater has challenged audiences to expect more. More quality, more depth, more humanity. In a turnstile of film as product, Linklater churns nothing but art.
Last year, Before Sunset ranked highest amongst my top ten of the year. As I was putting together my most anticipated films of 2014, Boyhood ranked highest on the list… and for good reason. At this point in time, he’s directed by favorite movie of the year in Boyhood. Understatement of the day: the guy is on a roll.
Though it’s still early in the year, I would be astonished if Boyhood doesn’t walk away with directing nods for Linklater and some serious Best Picture play come Oscar season 2015. An accomplishment of this scope is just, well, unparalleled and we would be fool-hearty to soon forget it.
Naturally, I was rather delighted to actually get down and meet the man behind so many of my beloved films and got a good chunk of time to address some interesting questions with him about Boyhood, the Before series, his long-standing working relationship/friendship with Ethan Hawke, and how his next film, Larry’s Kidney starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, might just not be the done deal that the internet has made it seem.
You’ve made the “Before” films over an 18 year period and before you even started your second you started making “Boyhood” which was going to be a 12 year period. How does a production schedule that spans that long of time change the way you approach developing a story, developing characters and making a movie in a way different from doing a single feature?
Richard Linklater: Well, it’s funny, because committing to this for 12 years, back in the early century, I think it helped. Certainly Ethan and I. It sort of kinda emboldened us to jump into “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” You’re in it for this life project thing so it kinda gave us a little more courage, because that was scary— doing “Before Sunset,” going back into those characters. But very different, those aren’t really planned- it wasn’t a planned 18 year thing where “Boyhood” is a very planned 12 year consistent. And they’re both kind of longitudinal explorations I guess, if you think about it, but just kinda flip sides of one another I guess. You’ve got these 9 year gaps where they look so different, and here you’re kind of seamlessly trying to age the way time subtly moves. It’s capturing a whole different thing.
Did you have beats, certain elements, narrative ideas that you wanted to explore through the 12 years in particular as you started it or did you just wait to see how it came about?
RL: Certainly. Yeah. No, it was all planned out in a way. The structure, the family movements and all that. I knew I had this luxury of every year thinking- having a year to think about what’s next, you know- films don’t usually give you that. You’ve got a production schedule, post-production, script and you’ve just got to make it all work. And it made it feel like some life sculpture or something. You could just kind of sit with it. I could watch what we just shot and edit it with everything before it, this ever-growing thing. Watch it, re-edit it, think about what the film needed, what those relationships should be, and each year thinking like whatever age the boy- 7th grade, what was going on, what seems appropriate? And I’m dealing with real people like, “What’s going on in your life, Eller?” I never wanted to get too far ahead of him. I never would say like, “Ok, this is the year you get blank.” I was like, “What’s going on? What do you do on weekends?”
He’s like my nephew at this point so we could be pretty frank. And he said, “I went to this campout like in 6th or 7th grade and there were these older guys just talkin’ shit about girls—” I’d asked him about weekends, “Like if you’re out with the guys would there be like a beer? Or is anyone drinking here?” And he goes, “Well, we kind prefer marijuana.” I’m like, “Ohh, ok! Maybe you’re smokin’ a joint!” Developmentally I didn’t want to get ahead of him. I didn’t want to impose anything on him that didn’t seem like already kind of a part of his life. Same with how he emerges as kind of a visual artist, a photographer. Eller’s dad is a very good musician, he lives in Austin I think. When I made the choice, this kind of ethereal, interesting kid with arty parents, musician dad, growing up around music, I kinda figured he’d be a musician, by teenage years he’d be in a band or something, but he didn’t really go that way. He was taking pictures and painting. A visual artist. I like that too, that’s closer to me. I was the guy taking pictures, writing and things. His life went that direction so the film went that way with him. That’s a good example. You know there’s going to be a future.
In one hand, the structure of the family is planned but then it’s random, you know, this whole thing was a collaboration with the future or with time and an uncertain thing. Everything has a life analogy. We’re all working towards something or you’re imagining a future- that’s all we can do, right?- and ourselves in it, but does the reality always conform to that? To some degree if you’re lucky, and some degree not and it was just like that with the film. Like, I don’t know what the future is going to be but I think there is going to be a future. I think if we’re lucky we’ll all get “here.” I didn’t know what exactly it would be, but you work toward it.
Were there any challenges in making this film over the 12 years that you didn’t expect?
RL: Yeah. There are so many pitfalls. We got lucky, you know. When you work really hard, it challenges you. Every year it felt like making a bigger film. You had to cast and location scout and tech scout. Getting a crew together, it felt like such a big deal for like a 3 day shoot, you know. But it was like, “Oooh, here we go again!” The numbers are so out of wack. For a low-budget indie film epic – which those don’t really exist- but we had like a year pre-production. You would never do that. Who could afford it? Two years of post-production if you add up all of the time in the editing room. All of the numbers don’t really work. So it was like, “Oh, this is a grind” — it’s a lot of effort! It wasn’t like take a year off and then just work 3 days a year, it was like you kinda had to work several months a year. But it was always around our schedules. But I knew that would be a problem.
I knew scheduling and all that would be a thing, but there weren’t any hidden ones. I’d say all the things that were unknown that I know now were all kinda great. Just the feelings like, “Wow, everything’s different.” Everything about this is so different from all my other experiences and every crew or cast member. It’s not often in your world that you have a completely different experience you know you probably won’t have again or the circumstances are so rare that it would ever feel like that again. So it was just kind of wonderful, the odd nature of this, that it didn’t even feel like a film, like I said, like some kinda- something else.
Some people might say, or at least I would say that you do sequels unlike anyone else. Whereas a lot of sequels are studio dictated as, “Oh we need more money.
RL: Financial motivated, yeah. I’m the idiot who does it for fun.
But yours add significantly to the artistry of your films. What led you to want to experiment with this type of long-form storytelling that we see both in “Boyhood” and the “Before” series? Can we expect, 8 years down the line, another kind of follow-up, maybe another “Before” or perhaps you’re going to switch it to “After”? And finally, do you see “Boyhood” as something that might then be a continuation, say do “Manhood” somewhere down the line?
RL: Yeah, “Manhood”, hmm. The idea for this was so hinged on those years, you know, 1st through 12th, the grind we all experience- I call it the institutional sentence we get as a young person. You’re supposed to be in school until 12th grade. You have to live in your parent’s house, if you’re lucky to have a parent’s house to live in. It felt like a certain kind of imprisonment. I couldn’t wait to be free from that at a certain point. I imagine this maturation process encompassing those years, and I hadn’t expressed that in film- little bits and pieces- but so much of the other stuff I have been able to express, different stages of life. It would be totally different and it would be fun to work with these people again, but seriously there’s been no serious thought about that. I don’t know what it would be. As far as the “Before” things— we’re in that huge hiatus of zero ideas— whereas honestly, after “Sunset” I did actually have some ideas. I thought what it couldn’t be and it almost demanded another one in the way that that one is. It would have to be more domestic if they’re in their 40s. I had thoughts about it. I don’t really have any thoughts about it yet. The last one was kinda difficult.
But it was so wonderful.
RL: It was difficult to make. Fun, but they get harder. I don’t know. No idea. If it’s a trilogy, that’s pretty good. It’s weird that these two have come to the finish lines within a year of each other. That’s just how it worked. But again, the idea of “Boyhood” came before those two sequels, so it must have triggered something.
When you committed to Ellar Coltrain, you didn’t just commit to him basically hoping he’d be on for 12 years, but that he actually be able to grow as an actor- that he would be, as a teenager, he’d be interested enough to be an actor and he’d be good enough, which he is.
RL: I know! Yeah, hoping that he’ll be a subject that’s worthy, it’s a huge leap. I got very lucky with that guy. He’s an interesting kid and a pretty fascinating 19-year old guy now. A very unique cat. I think I was confident that I could do it his acting, you know. I’m one of those who think they can work with people and get performances out of them even if they’re not actor-actors, so, I don’t know, I had some kind of confidence that I would be able to pull off wherever he went the film would go— if he still did it. You know, you just hope it’d be a worthwhile thing, because contractually no one’s obligated. He could have just said, “I’m not enjoying this. I’m not going to come back this year.” I didn’t know this, but you can’t put anyone under contract for more than seven years. Did you know that? That’s why all of those TV actors have seven year and then can get off of the show. Patricia did that.
Year one she got on “Medium” for seven years, so we’re always working with here schedule. It makes sense, but I don’t think you could contract a 6-year old. That’s crazy and I don’t think that’s legal- you shouldn’t be able to. So it was all based on leap of faith and goodwill. But you know, think about it, film sets are pretty fun for kids; they get free food, adults doting on them, it’s fun. It took my daughter a little longer to realize than Ellar. Ellar was like, “Hey I’m going to get a new laptop” or “They have these iPhones now.” I remember the moment he had an iPhone. “I’m getting one of these too.” Every year. I think my daughter realized: yeah you can work at the sandwich shop all summer or you can work one week on this film and they pay about the same, you know, so… Minimum SAG is still some significant money, $1400 or something. That’s some real money for a kid.
One of the things I loved about the film was the musical queues. It was really the only thing that let me in to maybe what year it was.
RL: Yeah, if you’re young enough to even demarcate the years by songs. For me it’s all like, “That’s kind of a newish song.” But if you’re a kid it’s like, “Oh, that song! That was a lifetime ago.” But anyway.
I thought it was smart because I hate when there’s a time stamp on the screen. It’s just unnecessary.
RL: Yeah, I didn’t want it to ever feel like that. When I had the idea for the movie it was all there; the tone, the way it would flow from one year to the next, and you wouldn’t really notice those kinds of transitions. That’s why I didn’t scored it more. I tried scoring it but it felt too authorial, too much like putting a stamp. So as would have putting “2006” or “8th Grade” or anything— none of that. I wanted it to unfold like a memory. You know how you think back into your life it kinda blends, kinda meshes with other years and stuff. It’s not really too specific. But the songs are, even though the film is not saying, “Oh, it’s May of 2007.” We had that internally and I would use songs only up to that point. It’s not published exactly what date or what time but you might sense they’re in school and it’s summer. Someone could probably do some math there. I was dealing with songs that had come out at least before that time.
I think the biggest cue is the hair length, how his hair changes.
RL: Remember when you’re a kid, it so radical. Early on, she grew more. He didn’t grow much those first few years. “Just my luck, I picked the one kid in history that doesn’t grow up- my movies ruined!” and then eventually he starts. When she kind of stops, he starts. It was cool. As he hit those years, the make-up girl was like, “Hey you know he’s got these pimples on his forehead, do you want me to—” “Hell no, that’s what we’re here for! Show the pimples!”
You and Ethan Hawke have this great, symbiotic relationship with each other where you’ve worked together writing stuff and I would say some of your greatest work has been with each other. Not only have you collaborated on one or two projects, but you’ve been working together over 20 years—
RL: 20 years this summer!
Can you talk about the changing relationship and how it’s shifted over those years?
RL: You know, I don’t know if it’s changed or shifted much. We just hit the ground runnin’ together, you know. Ethan likes to talk about it and think about it, he’s really searching. I don’t know, we just sort of clicked, but I click with a lot of actors. He’s just unique in a way, he’s kind of voracious. He’s writing books, he’s directing theatre, he’s acting and everything. He’s just a full-on, full-blown artist. He’s making music, songs. It’s been fun to know him all of these years. When we left Vienna 20 years ago, we didn’t know but we hoped we worked together again. That was fun, but you don’t know how it’s going to work. It just worked out. It wasn’t a coincidence that he was the first person I talked about this idea to, because I knew Ethan was the kind of guy that would go, and sure enough he got a weird look
on his face, “That’s a fuckin’ crazy idea. Of course I’ll do it! Think of what you could do!” He was in. Patricia was in too. Comrades.
Toward the end, in his 15th or 16th birthday in Texas, his grandmother gives him a bible and the grandfather gives him a shotgun.
RL: 15. I believe that was 13 for me; my redneck Bar Mitzvah.
—And yet it is not presented as satirical, you’re not making fun of it, it is very sincere, and he’s actually touched by it because at least he understands what it means to them. I don’t know totally what it means to him, but I do know that he recognizes it means something to them.
RL: Yeah. Well, that’s pretty autobiographical in a way. I had these step-grandparents that were suddenly in our life and they just accepted us unquestioning and were so giving. It’s a little different culture, you know, the deeper you get into East Texas. But they were like the sweetest people. It was just a different culture, it doesn’t mean— I think the world has a view of these, you know, back-woodsey, crazies – not that there’s not dark sides in some of these territories— the whole country is a little scary in certain pockets. But, no, that was just my experience of it. Pretty soon, you’re shootin’. As a kid, it’s what’s coming at you. On one hand, it’s funny and real, but on the other hand it is done in a very sincere way. So, you see what you want to see in it, but I’m glad you appreciate it.
Was there anything that you weren’t able to put in the film that you wanted to?
RL: Oh. That’s a good question. Not really. In a way it was so kind of doable, it was so kind of humble. There were a lot of limitations, just budgetary and stuff, but I don’t feel frustrated— I think we were able to get most of it. We were often challenged schedule-wise, but pretty much got what I wanted.
Your next film, “Larry’s Kidney,” seems somewhat out of character but there’s something really exciting about you directing Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis together.
RL: I hope it’s the next film. It’s this thing I wrote. It’s adapted from a true memoir, which I like, I like kind of a true storied thing. It’s kind of a pretty off-kilter comedy. I don’t know if it’s happening. I don’t have financing.
RL: These things get reported. No one calls me, they just hear someone in Cannes is talking about something and someone feels like they can just write an article— but, whatever.
Okay. Well, if that does happen— can you tell us a little bit of where you expect to take it? Is it going to be a dark comedy? Is it going to be something new that we’ve seen from you?
RL: I don’t know. It’s something I’m interested in. I guess it’s new. Every film is new. It’s a new subject matter and a new something you’re interested in. But, there’s probably some DNA there that fits something else, but yeah I don’t know. I’ve been lucky, you know, I’ve made a lot of — on paper they look like a lot of wide range and different type of things, but they’re just all stories I was really interested in telling. It’s just a storytelling medium. I’ve been lucky to tell a variety of stories. I never put a limit on myself. We’re limited in the world enough as it is, you know, I didn’t want to say, “Oh, I only do this kind of film.” I do have friends who I think are really funny and their films are serious. The way you see yourself in the world, the way you are as an artist. I always saw film to express as much as possible. Any little thing I’m interested in I want to try to make a film about. It makes me frustrated that I can’t make more of them.
So The Black Album [a complication of post-Beatles solo work mentioned in the film]. Did you actually do the playlist and where can we find it?
RL: Yes. It exists. It exists. You know, I want iTunes to do a— you know, you can download The Black Album— it’s good!
Is there a listing somewhere on the web?
RL: I’m thinking there will be. I’m trying to talk them into it, to make that available.
Until then, we’ll be left hoping that we get to see the full Black Album playlist as well as Larry’s Kidney. Oakes, out.