'Boyhood’: The Real Story Behind the Cinematic Event of the Year

Richard Linklater’s film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) over the course of 12 years, from the age of 6 to the age of 18.

NEW YORK — Filmmaker Richard Linklater cast Ellar Coltrane, now 20, for the lead role in his opus “Boyhood,” which debuts in Israel on Thursday, when Coltrane was six.

Linklater was looking for a boy from Texas whose family would agree to take part in an unprecedented project that would be filmed over a 12-year period. He was introduced to Coltrane on the recommendation of an agent who saw the boy featured in an advertisement. Linklater hesitated at first but was won over after seeing a drawing of a monkey that Coltrane had made. And so, in the summer of 2002, he began a gripping journey in Texas that ended only recently.

“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” admits Coltrane, who in an interview with journalists in New York last month came across as a modest, handsome young American with a silver nose ring and a quiet, winning charm. “The idea of 12 years was a pretty abstract time at that point. I mean, it’s difficult now, even, to fathom the next 12 years. But, at that point, I understood as much as I could, but I had no idea where we were heading.”

Now, a few months after “Boyhood” made its world premiere at the latest Sundance Festival, Coltrane is beginning to get used to his new status as a film star.

The critics — who gave the film a rare 100 on Rotten Tomatoes and vied with each other over superlatives — tend to compare Linklater’s ambitious project with Michael Apted’s “Up” documentary series, which followed a group of 14 Britons from childhood to age 56, in gaps of seven years. But unlike that series, “Boyhood,” which follows an American boy named Mason (Coltrane) from ages 5 to 18, is a scripted feature film. In this regard, it is closer to the classic series of films in which audiences watched the French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud grow up before Francois Truffaut’s camera, beginning with “The 400 Blows” in 1959 and ending with “Love on the Run” in 1979.

The Truffaut comparison is not by chance. “Boyhood” is Linklater’s most ambitious project. Linklater is one of the most respected American indie directors, and it is obvious that this is a conscious attempt to create a cinematic classic. Likewise, it is more ambitious than the romantic trilogy that won Linklater millions of fans around the world as well as an Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay: “Before Sunrise” (1995), “Before Sunset” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013), starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

Coltrane, who is 34 years younger than Linklater, says it was only recently that he grasped the full significance of the project. “The first few years felt like a summer camp,” he explains, stealing a look at Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason’s father and joins him for the interview. “Rick [Linklater] has an incredible balance of very specific structure and incredible vision, where he knows very much what he wants and never wavers from that. Each summer we would meet for pre-shooting improvisation and rewrite the dialogue together. The actual shooting normally lasted three or four days. We grew to love this process more and more as the time went by. We were always prepared to play.”

The dynamic between Hawke, 43, and Coltrane is very reminiscent of a family dynamic. Hawke — who catapulted to stardom at age 18 thanks to “Dead Poets Society” — gazes on his colleague with quiet admiration, while Coltraine seems much more comfortable and chattier when he responds to Hawke than when he provides relatively concise answers to journalists.

Hawke says it was not easy to decide on a title for the film. “As far as I’m concerned we could have called it ‘Motherhood’ or ‘Fatherhood.’ It is as much a story about Mason’s mother,” who is played by Patricia Arquette, “as it is a story about Mason. It is a portrait about growing up, but it is also a portrait of parenting. You do not quit growing up when you become a parent, particularly when you’re a young parent. Patricia’s character is not only a mother. She is also a lover, and a teacher, and she is more than one thing. It is so real and so true, but we don’t see that woman in movies.”

What does Hawke consider good parenting? “Allowing your children to pursue their passion, whatever it might be,” says the actor. “I can wish for two things for my kids: decent friends and a passion. You can be creative in athletics. You can be creative in different ways once you find your passion. You could express yourself with baseball, mathematics, or the arts. As long as it leads to creation, it doesn’t really matter.”

While working on the project, Linklater spoke at length with Coltrane and weaved into “Boyhood” elements from his life and those of his parents in the film, Hawke and Arquette. Like Coltrane, whose parents divorced when he was 9, Mason’s parents are divorced. His mother raises him and his sister Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), and in the course of the film she dates a string of violent men. The father who left the home when Mason was a baby, played by Hawke, barges into his children’s lives sporadically to try to make up for months of absence.

Linklater says he took care not to write scenes in which Mason experienced things that Coltrane had yet to experience in real life. He said that he did not want him smoking or drinking for the first time on the set, or being in a sex scene before he had the chance to have these experiences on his own.

This unique realism turns “Boyhood” into a deceptive film. It’s a project that redefines concepts like the progression of time on film and narrative, but as a feature it is a small, intimate film with very few dramatic events.

“I think that there is this tendency or need to gravitate toward hyper-drama, as if that’s the only thing that makes a story worth telling — these big, fantastical moments that don’t happen to most of it. And I think it’s really powerful to dwell on the little things,” says Coltrane. “Growing up is not something we experience as a Greek drama. It’s a series of vernacular moments without a narrative structure. We can’t really pose and reflect on the process as it happens. It’s a lot of small things that build up to something after 12 years, but day to day you’re just one day older.”

Hawke, who listens in and nods, adds: “It’s interesting that the movie gets a lot of power of our preconditioned experiences of the cinema. There’s an unbelievable tension in the heart of the movie because we are so conditioned to think ‘something horrible must happen,’ ‘we wouldn’t just be watching these people drive back home if there wasn’t a car accident about to happen. But what I love about this is that it is exactly how I feel about my life. A lot of life is wasted worry, and the movie actually captures that feeling. There’s something about the way the movie works — it’s relationship not just to its own storytelling, but also as a response to other things.”

Linklater did not let Coltrane watch any of the footage during the shooting, to protect him. When the film was ready he gave him a copy and asked him to watch it alone a few times to form his own opinion before the flood of reactions and critical reviews began. Coltrane says that the first time he watched his adolescence spread out over three hours he was fairly indifferent, but he couldn’t stop crying after the credits and music ended.

Since then, he has seen the film at various festivals, and says it remains a jarring and ambivalent experience. He adds that when he watches young Mason, at 8 or 10, it is like watching somebody else.

Coltrane admits that he still mourns the end of the project and says that Rick, Ethan and Patricia are like a second family. He got involved in photography and thought about being a photographer, but now he is thinking about scenery designing, with acting on the side.

And what is the main thing he learned from the project?

“I realized that being lost in an artistic process is a very therapeutic thing, and it is extremely valuable,” he replies. “This ability to create something is extremely fulfilling. Rick gave me this gift, and I will take it wherever I’ll go.”

Matt Lankes/IFC Films
Matt Lankes/IFC Films
Matt Lankes/IFC Films