“Boyhood” is the ultimate time-travel movie. Tracing the life of a Texas boy from age 6 to 18, it was filmed in just 39 days — in sequence, at regular intervals, over 12 years. We witness Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, as he grows through new schools, new friends, first love and young-adult angst into a good guy with integrity and a point of view.
The extraordinary nature of the decade-plus production exposed it to all manner of potential mishaps. The backers and stars could have tired of the project, or even died.
Putting their trust in one another, and in fate, director Richard Linklater and his stars (Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) completed the longest feature film shoot on record. “Boyhood” celebrates life and records its slipping away, method and meaning inseparably fused.
Speaking by phone recently, Coltrane, now 19, and Linklater, who turns 54 this month, said they developed a familial bond over the years. Coltrane said he looked forward to the annual weekend shoots like a homecoming or reunion.
“It was always a really pleasant environment on set and more of a learning experience than anything. It was an incredible process to witness and learn from these incredible people,” Coltrane said. As a home-schooled child, he didn’t have much structure in his life and enjoyed the discipline of filming. “I’ve found that process is the only thing that makes me really feel good. It was a gift to have that outlet growing up, very therapeutic.”
Linklater said, “You can’t contract anyone to do anything, particularly a minor, for a long period. So we took a leap of faith that the project would be something everyone felt it was worthwhile doing. It ended up that way.”
Coltane: “There were certainly years when I was apathetic, but, if anything, that works for the film.”
Linklater said Coltrane evolved as an actor throughout the production, adding more of his own opinions and feelings to the character as he matured. “It was a fictional thing, but it was always the essence of Ellar.”
Because the film could be only loosely scripted, who he was year by year, from dreamy “Star Wars” fan to smart, self-sufficient adolescent, played a large role in the story’s design. In 2008, when Coltrane declares “Tropic Thunder,” “The Dark Knight” and “Pineapple Express” the best movies of the summer, he was expressing his own opinion, Linklater said.
While Linklater couldn’t predict what would be going on in the world at the outset of the project, he knew early on that his last shot would put Mason, a college freshman, in a vast Texas landscape with new friends, musing about time’s passing.
“It was a luxury to shoot a segment, edit it, and have a year to think about what’s next, the narrative arcs and character development,” Linklater said. “It was about them getting older but also what’s going on in the culture” from Harry Potter mania to chunky iMacs evolving into sleek iPhones. “What will we remember?” It was never intended to be an exercise in nostalgia, however. “It’s a period film,” Linklater said, “but shot in the present tense.”