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The Yahoo Movies Interview: Richard Linklater on 'Boyhood,' Hollywood, and His 'Spiritual Sequel' to 'Dazed and Confused'

July 25, 2014

I meet Richard Linklater on the day his movie Boyhood opens; he arrives a few minutes late, carrying a vegetarian sandwich that he’s trying to consume as he walks. “Sorry I’m late,” he says. “I just got corporatized.” Meaning what, exactly? “I had to make an appearance in the IFC Films boardroom, looking like this,” says the 53-year-old writer-director, pointing with bemusement at a faded black T-shirt, which tops a pair of well-worn jeans. Linklater — whose filmography includes the revered high-school comedy Dazed and Confused and last year’s stunning portrait-of-a-marriage Before Midnight — has been subjected to a morning of non-stop interviews about Boyhood, his masterpiece of naturalism, which follows a family over a dozen sometimes turbulent years. “The problem is there has been no food all day, which always happens on press days,” he says. “I told them, ‘Even a camel needs water.’” 

The boardroom appearance is to be expected: Though Linklater has always been a critical favorite, Boyhood is easily the best reviewed in his decades-spanning career, which began with 1991’s Slacker, a rambling tour de force that, along with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, is credited with kicking off the indie film movement of the ’90s. But while the prolific Soderbergh frequently played in the big studio sandbox — dipping in and out of genres like a modern-day Howard Hawks — the Austin-based Linklater has remained a Hollywood outsider, rarely venturing into the studio system, and making films at a relatively leisurely pace. Slacker was followed by the one-two punch of 1993’s Dazed and 1995’s Before Sunrise, the first in a trilogy that began Linklater’s collaboration with actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Other highlights include 2001’s rotoscope masterpiece Waking Life, 2008’s charming period-piece Me and Orson Welles, and 2011’s gothic comedy Bernie

IFC Films took a rare and, it must be said, enormous leap in agreeing to finance Linklater’s project. As the name implies, Boyhood is about a boy, Mason (played by non-actor Ellar Coltrane) who we literally watch grow up, from 6 to 18, in just under three hours (Linklater shot it over the course of 12 years, one week at a time). The film also stars Hawke as the boy’s dad, Patricia Arquette as the mom, and Linklater’s eldest daughter, Lorelei, as Mason’s sister, Samantha. The payoff has been big: In addition to the rave reviews, the film — which was made for $2.4 million — has earned nearly $2 million dollars in a little over one week of limited release. Even Linklater — an unfailingly laid-back guy — is wearing a little flush of excitement as he digs into his sandwich, and our interview (which, fair warning, contains a few Boyhood spoilers).

You’ve said that you were surprised by the reaction to Slacker — particularly that the name came to mean something negative, when you were making a film about people you considered somewhat heroic. Have you been surprised by any of the reactions to Boyhood?

Well, I’m always surprised in life — I’m surprised that I’m here! [Laughs] I guess I’m somewhere between surprised, relieved, and gratified that the film works the way I wanted it to work. This is an epic of the intimate. It’s not like it’s boring structurally; there’s a narrative life flowing through this. But we’ve had trouble showing clips, because if you see a scene without any context, it looks really banal, like, “That’s it? That’s the whole movie?” It totally relies on the cumulative effect of people giving themselves over to [the movie], and finding the way into the reality of it.  

Possibly my favorite moment in the film happens very early, when Samantha — played by your daughter Lorelei — breaks into an impersonation of Britney Spears. You could have easily called the film Girlhood.

Yeah, yeah. Or Motherhood.

True. Though I think she resonates more for me, because it’s so rare that you see a film that so precisely captures the disturbing thing that happens as girls mature. As Mason grows up, he goes from a quiet, introspective kid to someone bold and experimental. As Samantha ages, she gets quieter — you can almost see her personality dimming as his brightens. It’s really poignant and so familiar to me.

It was the reality that was in front of me. Lorelei went from this very exuberant, unselfconscious kid to that more sullen adolescent, disgusted with her body — that was all real. It was so easy for me to get a naturalistic performance from her because I know every bit so well.

There are so many things that are unusual about this film — including using a non-actor for the star, and shooting over 12 years. What was the most surprising thing for you?

I’ve never done a film that felt so much like parenting — you know, “Okay, this is what it wants to be.” Even with the running time I was like, “My kid is a little chubby, but that’s his set point.” This movie is a little long, but that’s who it is. Boyhood is not a minute longer than it could be, or a minute shorter.  

And you also had a lot more time to think about what you wanted to do between each shoot.

Right. And, again, I’ve never been so guided by what was happening. Twelve years is 4,200 days of production, and we only shot 39 days total. So on all those other days, you’re really thinking about the film, [even while] doing other movies. But that gestation time was absolutely key to the process. You have that [time] to think, think, think.

I was struck by the similarity between Boyhood’s ending to the endings of Slacker and Dazed and Confused. All of them end on notes of promise, that anything is possible.

It’s the end of something, but the beginning. I very much felt that. This ending came to me almost at the conception of the movie. [I knew] it would last 12 years, until he goes off to college, and I thought, “What will he do at college? What will that denouement be?”And then it became that he would meet this young woman, and something might happen.

I thought of it like this mirror: At the beginning, he’s alone, in first grade, waiting on his mom. Now he’s a free adult, and he’s with another young adult; he’s not alone, and he’s looking to the future. That idea hit about year two or three in production. So I always knew that’s where we were heading. It’s always good when you’re sailing uncharted seas to at least have that direction.

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood.

I think my favorite ending to a movie is Before Sunset, when Julie Delpy is dancing to Nina Simone as Ethan Hawke watches her, falling hopelessly and helplessly in love. It felt absolutely authentic and completely natural, as if she just started doing that and you happened to have film in your camera. Was that the intended ending?

Yeah, yeah. It was in the outline phase, before we’d even written the script.

I don’t know if you have this problem with films, but I find that few directors know how to end their movies. Either they feel unsatisfactory or confusing or — and this is a particularly irritating trend — there are four or five endings, like the filmmakers couldn’t make up their mind.

Endings are tough. The thing about Before Sunset or Boyhood is that you have to earn the ending. If you have a contrived plot, and that’s what your house of cards is built on, then the ending is going to end up contrived. I’m always just trying to be close to life — to be true to how life unfolds.

You’re also adept at capturing really torturous fight scenes or disagreements between men and women. I appreciate that they never feel like anyone wins or loses.

Those three movies — Before Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight — are pitched, as much as possible, at gender neutrality. Most movies have a strong POV; Boyhood has the boy’s POV.

Which is why there are some characters, like the two stepfathers, who do come across as bad guys.

Right. But the choice with the Before trilogy was to always make it both of their stories, equally. In a fight in real life, nobody ever wins. You think you win, but they’re not giving you that.

I saw a seed of it in Slacker. One of the vignettes is a guy and a girl walking along the street, getting into a disagreement about something. They weren’t actors, so it didn’t have the power of a Hawke and Delpy scene, but you could see the start of your fascination with the tangled ways in which men and women communicate.

I’ve always sensed about relationships that these are two fundamentally different people on different tracks. So the questions become: How long will it last, and what’s keeping it together? And how much are you willing to compromise or adjust?

Patricia Arquette in Boyhood.

You’ve talked in the past about how you cast your films — that naturalism is critical, and that you look for “a spark.” To illustrate that, walk me through the process of choosing the wonderful Patricia Arquette for Boyhood.

I had briefly met Patricia 18 years ago, at a film after-party thing that you tend to end up at in L.A. She was going out with a buddy of mine for a second. And I knew she been a mom really young, and that was a big part of her life. There was an earthy quality about her. I called her up and we had a two-hour conversation about our moms, and that relationship. We were collaborating almost immediately. She’s funny and quirky and all that, but it’s really kind of a ferocious performance and really vanity-free, and that’s what I appreciate about it.

She doesn’t strike me as an actress who spends a lot of time worrying about her appearance.

She never was that one who asks, “Hey, how do I look? How’s the lighting?” In fact she was the opposite. She’d tell us, “Oh, it’s Saturday morning. I’m [playing] a teacher. I don’t need to do [make-up] today.” Here’s a woman in her forties not giving a shit how she looks on camera? That’s pretty un-Hollywood. It was all about her character. In real life, Patricia wouldn’t have gotten into the position of being with an abusive man — like [her character] does. But Patricia also didn’t think she was betraying womanhood by showing a weak moment. Some actors are theoretical about representation.

Or more concerned with representing their theories.

Yeah, and Patricia accepted and liked that there would be weak and strong and emotional moments. It’s the rollercoaster of parenting. Being a mom, and bearing the brunt…. God, my mom saw this movie a few days ago. I was really nervous, but she loved it. And I thought, “Okay, phew!” She said, “I watched it twice. It was wonderful!” She didn’t recognize some things, which was good. [Laughs]

A friend of mine is particularly fond of what he calls “The Hawke N’ Talk” — those moments in your films when Ethan Hawke’s characters are philosophizing as they amble along.

“The Hawke N’ Talk.” That’s funny. I’ll tell him when I see him. [Laughs]

Does he do that in real life?

We both do. When I first met Ethan, we just started talking, and we’ve been talking ever since. You go there with him, and he goes there with you. Ethan is a really substantial, amazing guy. He’s good looking and all that shit, but I think people are picking up on how smart he is.

Perhaps because of you?

It’s because of him. When I first met him [when he was 23], he’d been doing films for almost ten years, he’d started his own theater company, written a novel, had a career — he was at the top of every list for young male characters. He had the biggest music video that summer, with his friend Lisa Loeb. He’d made a short film that he wrote, directed and edited. And that’s who he still is today — an artist in process. Ethan has somehow managed to get this substantial body of work in all these different areas.

I don’t think people would have predicted that he’d be one of our great theater actors. But that’s a choice. He could have just hung out in L.A. and done a bunch of crap. But then you have to maneuver through life — you’ve got kids, you’ve got an ex-wife. A lot of what we talk about is the practicality of how you keep things going — how to stay artistically ambitious through the drudgery of trying to make it through the world half alive.

So it was natural to choose him to play Mason’s father in Boyhood.

The key there was that Ethan had become a father by the time I was casting the film. If that hadn’t have happened then, he wouldn’t have been right for this. And it’s fortunate, because he really helped shape the film. Our relationship is very process-oriented: He pushes you, and you push him. For Boyhood, we’d start thinking a year ahead. He’d say, “Hey, that last scene with Mason, Jr. — that’s gotta be something.” He’d jab me, and make me confront my ideas.

What I particularly love about your films is that you manage to animate and energize the mundane. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but what I mean is that you make what’s right in front of our noses fascinating.

That’s why you do this: To be in a process of potentially incorporating anything you’re observing or taking in — whatever catches your attention. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson talked about that a lot, way back when, about just being open to everything and incorporating anything that strikes you — your view of the world as it’s coming at you. It’s great to be in that zone where everything is relevant to what you’re doing. You know you’re on the right track when it’s all sort of flowing and you go, “Hey, that fits this.” Your filter is acutely attuned.

And in this case it was twelve years of, “Hey, that could fit into [the Boyhood project]!” And these are pretty deep areas: Maturing, growing up, and parenting. That encompasses everything practically.

There’s a Norwegian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, who’s doing virtually the same thing through a massive six-volume autobiography called My Struggle.

[Laughs] Could not every human write that book?

They could, but you actually want to read his books. Oh, and his third volume is called Boyhood.

Really?  He does sound like my kind of guy, doesn’t he? I think my life project has been similar. Documenting the way the time flows or the mind works — the digressions. To me, it sounds harder to write a novel than to make a movie. I do kind of envy the novelist’s openness — you can just keep writing. Boyhood came out of that limitation, and that’s part of the beauty of it, the challenge. 

Linklater directing last year’s Before Midnight.

You might not be able to answer this, but why do you think you get best-in-career performances from so many actors? Does it have something to do with the collaboration you insist upon?

I think so. I try to do that with everyone. But you can only be collaborators as much as the two parties are willing. So I collaborate to the degree that I’m allowed. I think with the actors I’ve worked with numerous times — Ethan and Julie, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey — it’s really based on trust, especially in the actor-director relationship. You have to be able to bend toward what’s working for them, and their point of view. That was always my instinct from the beginning.

You trained as an actor before directing, right?

Yes, but never to be one. I trained because I knew that what I wanted to do with my films had a huge acting component. I wanted to tell stories about people. A lot of filmmakers consider actors a different breed. I never felt that way. I was in college, I was in and around drama, I was writing plays, and I liked performers. I often think of my job as the same as a coach who sees greatness in a player, which maybe [the player] doesn’t see.

It’s knowing someone well enough that you can see the big picture.

Yeah. If an actor trusts me, I can work with what they’re bringing, and get to somewhere that we’re both happy. That’s the goal. And that takes time. One of the braver things I’ve been around is Jack Black agreeing to do Bernie. That role is pretty scary; it could go in any number of directions. But I had a hunch that Jack could do it. There’s a part of him that’s kind of like [the character] — the nonconfrontational people-pleaser. But he had to trust me. I don’t think he would have done it with a director he hadn’t worked with. That could have been bad.

I was going to mention Black as one of the people who has really benefited from working with you.

Some of it, too, is that if you give out a lot of confidence, you get that back. If an actor has confidence in you, they don’t want to disappoint. I love that feeling. I guess it goes back to being a team sports guy [Linklater went to college on a baseball scholarship] — everybody’s al -in.  And that applies to any work environment. There’s no room to feel sorry for yourself or be a prima donna. And as a director, you just have to outwork and be ahead of everyone you’re working with. The only thing that turns me off about anyone I’m working with is if I think they’re lazy. It’s like a player who hits well, and thinks he doesn’t need to practice. You do need to practice. It doesn’t matter how good you are.

Is that the reason for the extensive rehearsals before you shoot a film?

That’s one reason. To some people in our industry, that’s a foreign concept, but it’s also a personality thing. There are some directors who have gotten career performances out of actors with no rehearsal. And that just takes a perfect script and perfect casting, and that can happen. I also like to rehearse a lot because it helps me feel my way through the movie I’m trying to make.

How much changes during rehearsal?

A lot of little things, hopefully, but not much big stuff. Like, I’d never reconceptualize a whole scene. I’ve put all that thinking in earlier. So at rehearsals, it’s more like “Here’s the scene, here’s the thing we’re going for.” But I value those little things more than I value the big things. It’s kind of like life in general: If you can’t value your day-to-day moments, what else is there?

Are there any directors who influenced that approach?

What first tipped me off to that was the way Scorsese worked with actors, and the way he continues to work with them. The thing that forever floors me about his films — from the first time I saw Raging Bull when I was 20 — is his nuance of character. He’ll add a little gesture or line or something that is so fucking real to a person. And all his actors talk about how free they felt with him. I read an interview with Peter Boyle, who was in Taxi Driver, and he had some ideas about his character that Marty included.

You know, you start out with a playwright mentality, like, “Oh, authorship!” But for a film to work and be entertaining and believable — and depending on what kind of story you’re telling — it’s like, “I need you to feel something.” So whatever I’m doing, I’ve got to feel like it’s real, and these people are real. Not all movies are like that — certain genres don’t need real people, they need representations. But it’s a hard thing to conjure up a replicated reality. It takes years to do that.

How have you managed to make film after film that defies box office logic? Many of your movies have no stars; you consistently stress the inner life of your characters — frequently not much happens beyond conversation; and, other than using rotoscope, you avoid special effects. 

I do spend a lot of time thinking about how cinema works, and the outer boundaries of narrative and story telling, and how cinema is different from other art forms. And I kind of bet everything on the identification that we have as we watch movies. If we never break our trust with the audience, people can find their way in. If we don’t trump films up with a lot of unbelievable stuff, audiences will go with things, as long as you’re consistent with it. I’ve done a lot of movies that make no sense on paper, and I’m sort of proud of that.

You used to make musical playlists for your characters. Do you still do that?

It depends on the movie. Period films are the main ones — you have to get them in the mood. I did that a lot with Dazed and Confused and Me and Orson Welles.

What are you listening to now?

Boyhood was fun, because I was capturing what was on the radio through the years. A lot of it wasn’t what I was listening to. I was ready for when Mason got a little older, when he could start liking things I like, such as Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. That album really informed the last stretch of the movie. I was lucky to meet [Arcade Fire’s] Will Butler last year. I was like, “Hey man, I know how you don’t let your music into movies, but I can’t tell you how much your music is in the head space of the high-school portion of my movie.” Will grew up in the suburbs of Houston, and I just got what they were doing.

But my iPod has everything: Ella Fitzgerald, Rodgers and Hart — I’m trying to make a film about Lorenz Hart. I’m working with the same guy who wrote the novel Me and Orson Welles. He’s a real historian and musicologist and we’re developing this thing. So that would be one of those little night-in-the-life kind of things. 

Linklater directing 1998’s The Newtown Boys. All photos copyright Everett Collection.

Do you see a lot of new movies in theaters?

I sure try to, but I’m not in the demographic anymore. When you have kids and you’re busy, you go less and less. I never thought there would be a time in my life when I wouldn’t be able to go to every movie made, but it motivates me a little less [these days]. There are certain genres I’ve just dropped. You hit 50 and think, “I’ve only got so much time left. Do I really have two and a half hours to see what everyone else is seeing, just to be knowledgeable?”

There was a time in my twenties when I really got something from seeing every movie, but now I know what people want to see, and I know what my own limits. I like a clean, straightforward story. I’m not relying on twists and turns. I can appreciate intrigue when it’s done well, like Hitchcock or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But The Lord of the Rings movies? My brain just can’t process them at all. I kind of like them, but I don’t pretend to understand what any of it means. 

Are there any directors you particularly follow — whose every film you have to see?

Oh, yeah. There’s a long list.

So you’re not in the camp that believes that films suck now?

No, never. They've never sucked. Every year is a good year for film. For a critic who has to watch twelve films a week, it’s a little different. But as a fan of film, there are 50 a year — at least — that everyone should see for various reasons. I found a Pauline Kael quote once, and the gist of it was that films kind of suck now — that studios are run by business people not real filmmakers, that commerciality has won, that we’re doomed. That was Pauline Kael in 1970! And she was kinda right. But we were also on the verge of a pretty interesting decade. And I have to say that there’s never really been a bad decade of cinema.

You don’t strike me as a doom-and-gloomer.

No, I’ve never been. And where was this pact that every movie has to be great? Is every book great? Is every painting great? Why is the bar for cinema so much higher than for everything else? That said, I can still kind of complain. [Laughs.] When I can’t get financing I think, ‘Things really do suck!’ [Laughs.]

I interviewed Soderbergh not too long ago, and he actively dislikes critics. How do you feel about them? Do you pay attention to what they say?

Yeah, I respect the profession. Once I was all-in with film, I read everything, and I really appreciated anyone who had a great knowledge of the subject. My film consciousness is based on that. One of my mentors, George Morris — I dedicated Slacker to him — was a really smart, hard-core Film Comment critic.

There’s a difference between criticism and reviewing. Reviewing is tough: You’ve got those six films you have to do, and you [only see them film once] — it’s a challenge. So I never hold it against anyone if I think they’ve missed the boat on my film. But no one could complain less than me. I’ve always had a fair shake.

Are there any films you you’d like to change, or that you wish you’d done differently?

I wish [1998’s] The Newton Boys would come out now. I think it would be seen in the spirit that it was made.

Which was?

A fun romp at an interesting time in history, with guys who weren’t psychopaths. Matthew [McConaughey] is fucking good in that. Ethan [Hawke] is excellent. Skeet Ulrich, too. I was really happy with that movie because it was what I set out to do. But it fell into a crack. Matthew was in kind of a backlash; his star had risen so much after Dazed and people were like, “I’m sick of this guy.” And then me — what was I doing? I was kind of pigeonholed at that moment, so the attitude was that I didn’t qualify to make a period genre film. It was a blessing to me that, by this century, people were saying, “Oh, you do different things.” I was always trying to, but in 1998, no one wanted me to make that kind of film. It was exactly the film I set out to make, but no one wanted to see it. [Laughs] I’ve done that a lot, actually.

I’d say you’ve had more success than failure.

You know, I’m not Mr. Box Office. In the industry, you’re supposed to acknowledge a failure, and [explain] why it didn’t work. But I kind of don’t. I’m stubborn that way, and that worries the studio guys. They want you to learn from your mistakes and be a good boy. To me, a film is a success if it’s the movie I wanted to do.

Are you still making The Incredible Mr. Limpet?

Um, am I? That movie has been in development for three years now.

I know, and your name came up again with the announcement that Jon Hamm is attached to the project.

I think someone leaked it because Boyhood was coming out. But there are no talks or deals. It’s frustrating. It’s the studios, man. I have a cautious thing: If the planets align perfectly [for a movie], and I think it will be a fun creative thing and we can get away with making a quirky film, great. But the second I feel we’re in another thing, I have a self-preservation instinct. But no, I’m hoping to shoot a college comedy next — the college experience compressed into one long weekend.

Does it include any actors we’ll know or recognize from your other films?

That’s what has been so hard about getting this made — it’s mostly a cast of lesser-known actors, like Dazed. Strangely, [the new film] is a continuation of Boyhood — that film ends with him at college, and this one starts with a guy going to college. I want to make a real raucous, inappropriate, crazy comedy.

Sort of your Animal House?

Yeah! [Laughs] It ventures into Animal House territory. It’s set in 1980. [He adopts a self-serious tone] It’s my spiritual sequel to Dazed. You know the camp-out scene in Boyhood? Some people really don’t like that scene because: A) they think something bad is going to happen; and B) they just don’t like the way the older guys are talking about girls. This movie is going to be kind of like that.

So not a date movie, in other words.

I mean, is Wolf of Wall Street a date movie? It can be. [Laughs] It’s my Wolf of Wall Street meets Animal House. It won’t be quite that debauched. I’ll be so happy to jump off the Boyhood train for a few months and shoot that. 

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