The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Boyhood.
This is a huge movie. What was it like to begin this process and how did your relationships to each other develop?
Linklater: Well, we’re not speaking to each other now.
Hawke: [Laughing] Address us individually, please.
Linklater: It was just like setting sail for uncharted territory. There was a plan there. We were going to see this kid grow up from first to twelfth grade.
“We had as big a cinematic canvas as you could imagine.”
Was there a structure to at the beginning?
Linklater: Absolutely, very structured. I think it comes down to this. This film takes conventional plot – the idea of plot, which let’s face it, plot is kind of fake, kind of a man-made, human creation – and it replaces plot with structure. Which is more innate. If you look back on your life, there’s a lot of structure there. Structure is more innate to time and the way we perceive life. So, the initial idea was the structure of twelve years, how we all go through the school system and how there’s freedom on the other side of that.
Within the structure of shooting once a year, did you know what the content of the scenes would be?
Linklater: There was this overall structure, even with the characters. I mean, you guys feel free to jump in.
Hawke: I don’t know if this was your experience, Patricia, but since we’ve been talking about the movie, it became obvious to me, while there wasn’t a script so to speak, there was like sheet music. The music was done and we were to add the lyrics, and the ancillary elements to the sheet music. For example, we’d talk about this great scene in a car and say, we should throw in a riff about childhood or something. And Rick would say, no, that car scene is actually only like 30 seconds long. So I’d say, maybe we could talk about that when we’re at the children’s museum and he’d say, no, when you’re at the museum you’re looking at butterflies. But there’s going to be a really long birthday scene so you can have the speech there.
Linklater: What he’s saying is that we had this tremendous canvas before us. We had as big a cinematic canvas as you could imagine, and there was a place for everything. We all got to throw in so much of our own experiences. It was just about finding the right place for it.
Hawke: I’ve done a bunch of movies with Rick and people often think there’s an improvisational element to the movies, and there never is. With all the movies we’ve ever done, there’s only one time I’ve ever improvised in front of a camera and had it end up on screen. And you [Linklater] knew it when we did it. Oh there’s this camping scene and it’s by the fire, that might be a place we can actually try some improv. And that was because you [Coltrane] were in the mood for that then. You at that point in your life were really starting to have agency with the movie. That was the shift.
Coltrane: That was the big moment that year.
Hawke: You understood what improvisation was. That’s a big thing. You were also surviving adolescence, which was a danger for the movie. Adolescence is a big creativity killer. You were surviving that and you were wanting to contribute to the movie.
Linklater: And that came out just talking about, what would you be talking about around a campfire in your own life? Let’s build a scene around that.
Arquette: I had a totally different experience (laughs). I feel that Rick had a really beautiful balance of structure and he also knew what he was looking for. But he also had a real openness that can be rare in movies. So he would say a few weeks before, here are some of the important plot points so start thinking about that. He would say, you guys are going to be leaving, there’s a dramatic scene with your husband and he’s violent with the kids and it’s kind of a scary dinner scene. So I would talk to friends of mine and I would remember a friend who I helped move when her husband was violent, and I would collect these life stories of people and other friends would contribute. Rick would write the scene and we’d read it, and then we’d improvise it, and then we’d all talk about the different things that we’d heard from people we knew. And Rick would be like, yeah, that second thing you said, let’s use that piece and add it in. It was many people’s contributions of many real life scenarios that Rick wove into the film.
Linklater: And this was all happening at 1:30AM in a hotel room the night before we’re shooting.
Arquette: Even that creative process was a re-bonding experience. It would build on last year as you saw the kids contributing. And Rick made sure the kids contributed from the very first year. He’d say, you guys are fighting in the backseat of the car, what would you fight about?
Coltrane: It was very much an amalgamation. My experiences with childhood and [Arquette’s] memories of childhood and your experiences with your own children and my experiences with my own parents helped contribute.
Linklater: I don’t think there’s anything in this movie that isn’t connected to something that actually happened in life. Everything seems tethered to the reality. We had twelve years to think about it! It made it such a wonderful life project. Like growing up, being a parent, that’s a deep well. You’re never going to find the bottom of that. We were really able to use that gestation time to include so much of what was going on in the world.
Arquette: I think this is another testament to Rick – that you had twelve years to second-guess yourself. I think in this industry we’re pre-programmed to think what entertainment is supposed to be. What storytelling devices are supposed to happen at what point. And what demographic you’re supposed to sell a movie to in order to have x amount of success. The fact that you held onto this idea that life held itself, and that those were the moments you wanted to talk about, instead of feeling like you had twelve years to talk yourself out of it and play the game, and you didn’t.
How did your relationship to your characters and your craft evolve over the course of the film?
Linklater: That’s a professional question for all of us, and a life question for Ellar!
Coltrane: For me it was definitely very gradual. When I was young, I think it was more a matter of these people setting a place for me to be comfortable and be able to act naturally. It was gradual and I don’t know if there was a certain point where there was a big shift. Looking back, the year with the camping trip was a big moment, and I think around there I became more invested and wanted to put myself into it. I saw it as a valuable outlet to express myself. Growing up and having this focused process, reunited by Rick each year, I learned how to be part of the creative process.