Ever since Boyhood made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s been earning high praise – at times seemingly-hyperbolic praise – from critics. Phrases like “film of the decade” and “unlike anything ever seen before” have been attached to descriptions of it. But there’s good reason for that – 12 years’ worth of reason.
In making Boyhood, a passion project for one of America’s most idiosyncratic filmmakers, Richard Linklater truly has created something never before seen in a fiction feature film. In documentary form, the novelty of filming people as they grow older has, to a degree, been used, as seen in the long-running series Up, which follows real-life subjects as they age (and in the South African version, Mandela’s Children) but up until now, the idea of ageing a fictional cast on film – without special effects or make-up was a palette untouched.
In 2002, Linklater, with the surprise success of now cult-classics Slacker and Dazed & Confused behind him, began making the film, casting 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane in the lead role. The free-spirited Coltrane seemed ideal to play the son of divorced parents, alongside Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, with the director’s daughter Lorelai Linklater taking on the role of his sister. For the next 12 years, they’d film bits of the movie – vignettes that would eventually come together to make the 2 hours and 45 minutes of the film that is wowing those who see it today.
“I knew how bizarre and interesting it was going to be,” says Coltrane, thinking back to the first few days of filming. “But I don’t think I knew exactly. I mean, there’s no way to grasp how long 12 years is when you’ve only been alive for half that amount of time. It was a gradual thing for me to realise what I was really doing.” For Linklater, it was more about having Coltrane’s parents, the ones who’d be bringing him to set, on board with the idea and committed to the long haul just as much as the eager youngster.
“Ellar is in a unique position,” says Linklater. “No other actor has had this kind of experience.” For film-goers, it’s one thing to feel like you know an actor watching them on the screen take on different roles, but it’s another thing entirely to see the lines on Coltrane’s face deepen and his eyes become more used to the world around him. “Everyone that comes up to me has this amazing kind of familiarly and warmth,” says the 20-year-old. “It’s not me but it is me they’re interested in.”
Building the momentum and planning for a 12-year-shoot brings with it its own challenges. “You don’t plan,” says Linklater. “You just take it one step at a time. It’s a great life metaphor. You do your best but you live in the moment. You march towards the future, and move as the reality shifts.” Co-ordinating the schedules of his adult actors was one of those challenges posed by his unique endeavour.
Hawke, who has been everything from a writer, theatre star (alongside South African actress Bianca Amato for more than one production) and director himself, over the time it took to make the film, says once he became committed he found it natural to make space once a year to give time to Linklater. “I made it a priority because this is the kind of work I want to do,” he says. “It’s like Dead Poets Society (his 1989 film debut), one of the few times in my life I’ve got the chance to be part of something bigger than me.”
Linklater says while he wasn’t sure exactly how it would all pan out at the end of the project, he knew where he wanted to end up – creating something bigger than just a clever technical feat. “I bet everything on the cumulative effect that these intimate moments over the years would have; that they would all add up to a deeper feeling of what people go through in life. You’re watching this one family so intimately, it makes you reflect on them, yes, but you also reflect on your own,” he adds. It’s exactly this feat – as scene after scene mirrors year after year and elicits deeper personal recognition – that has had people still buzzing about the film for months after its initial screening. It’s enough to make sure it’ll land on many yearly ‘best-of’ lists, and beyond.