"Boyhood" star Ellar Coltrane, back when he was still outgrowing his pants.
Richard Linklater is having a San Francisco moment. He's riding high on a wave of interest in his new film, Boyhood, which follows one actor growing up across twelve years. He's always liked the city, and resolved to shoot a movie here one of these days, if only the right project would come along. (He did shoot the inaugural episode of his 2012 web series Up to Speed in the city, though he admits "no one" watched.)
The perpetually-rumpled, easy-going Linklater is a good fit for San Francisco, as are his laconic, counterculture-oriented films: Before Sunrise, Slacker, A Scanner Darkly. In an elusive but tangible way, it really feels like the Austin auteur ought to be one of our guys by rights. He has family in the Bay and, given prodding, cites obscure Beat filmmakers like Chris Maclaine as influences.
Certainly he's influenced us. Movies from local makers of naturalistic, intimate films like J.P. Allen smack of the Linklater style from 20 years ago. Boyhood screens tonight at 7 PM at the Castro Theatre, where the SF Film Society will honor Linklater with the Founder's Directing Award, an accolade he shares with Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Werner Herzog. Boyhood tells the simple story of a boy (actor Ellar Coltrane) who becomes a man. The catch is, this movie doesn't fake it. Rather than cast multiple actors in the same role through an onscreen lifetime, Linklater just decided to spend 12 years shooting—so that Coltrane would literally grow up before the audience's eyes in a vaguely Truman Show-like spectacle.
"I had something I wanted to say about growing up, but my ideas were scattered, and the movie would seem fake if I were recasting actors [or] aging them artificially," Linklater says of his first inklings of the project back in 1999. "I almost gave up on the whole thing before we started because I couldn't figure out how to do it. One simple idea fixed every problem. It was a practical solution."
That practical solution birthed what Linklater calls "this impractical behemoth," a dozen-year commitment to an annual filmmaking pressure cooker. Hundreds of crew members, twelve rounds of casting and location selection and permitting, and a yearly game of scheduling Tetris to get his principle performers (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Linklater's own daughter Lorelei fill out Coltrane's onscreen family) in the same place at the same time yielded an intense three to five days of shooting that resulted in, on average, less than 14 minutes of the final film. "It got a little harder to make every year. Our budget never went up to keep up with inflation."
2001, when Linklater and company kicked off production, seems like a different universe now. It was two presidents, two wars, and two different economic crises ago. For Linklater, it was nine feature films ago. And of course, for Ellar Coltrane, Linklater's furtive, genial-seeming leading boy turned leading man, it was an entire lifetime. At the start the whole project hinged on the casting of a star who, in effect, did not yet exist, and wouldn't until the movie was already over. "Ellar wanted to make movies, that was the important thing," Linklater says of the fateful decision. "He had a headshot and a resume at age 6. Of course, he didn't really understand what we'd all gotten into until about halfway through. But I had a strange degree of faith about the future. If Ellar had grown into a 250 pound football player, the movie would have found a way to meet him on it."
Instead Coltrane grew into a figure eerily like a Linklater character in his own right: boyish, laid back, slouchy, slightly stoic, and highly sensitive. "It's hard to say how the experience shaped him," says Linklater. "Ultimately we just hoped it would be good for him, and I think it was. He's got a passion for visual arts, and he's trying to find his voice." Coltrane never got cold feet as he grew up, though Linklater's daughter did. "She came to me one year and said, 'Can my character die?' She just didn't want to do this anymore, but back when she was 8 she was bouncing around and demanding to be in the movie. Well, too late now."
Boyhood is also, in a strange way, a documentary made out of fiction. Or as Linklater calls it, a period movie shot in the present. Critical events of the 21st century play out onscreen not as recreations or as something remembered but as what was at the time simply the present. Coltrane's father (Hawke) rails against, and his stepfather (Brad Hawkins) serves in, a war that hadn't even been declared when filming started. A teenage Coltrane declares his independence from social media in terms that would do any Bay Area anti-eviction shock trooper proud, in the course of a movie rooted in the days when Mark Zuckerberg was a college freshman. The music, fashion, and pop culture on display are all frozen in time, both contemporary and anachronistic.
Beginning the film as they did in the immediate shadow of 9/11, the filmmakers wondered and perhaps worried if they wouldn't be telling a story about life during a new World War by the time they finished. But the movie might not have fundamentally changed if they had because, as Linklater reminds us, life always goes on.
Everyone who made Boyhood is aware of its built-in irony. Everything changes, but the film itself is fixed and static. Linklater grins and admits that, in effect, he gets to have things both ways. "Film is for people who like to have something finished they can point to. I've always been a little envious of theater and performance artists, people who get to do something creative in the moment and then it's gone, because that's how life is. Memory is not film, memory is theater, in that we change it all the time."
Linklater has seen his boy make good this year, winning him the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and Special Jury Recognition (along with what Indiewire called an "awkwardly long" standing ovation) at SXSW. The SF Film Society presents Boyhood and Linklater himself during "An Evening With Richard Linklater" tonight at the Castro Theatre, and the film opens in general Bay Area theaters in July.
Believe it or not, he insists that the movie he ended up with is almost exactly the movie he imagined back in the 20th century, down to the final shot. "People say, 'It can't possibly be what you set out to do,' but yeah, it kind of is. Everything about it's out of whack and nothing about how we did it makes sense, but here we are."