How one man pushed film to its epic limits

Must read

Emmanuel Lafont Richard Linklater against Boyhood movie art (Credit: Emmanuel Lafont)Emmanuel Lafont

(Credit: Emmanuel Lafont)

In 2014, no one had seen anything like this film following a family in real time over 12 years. The director ponders pulling off a unique feat – and the toll it took on some cast members.

Richard Linklater’s new comedy, Hit Man, isn’t actually about a hitman. It’s about someone who pretends to be a hitman in undercover police operations, and who becomes a happier, more rounded person in the process. This kind of thing happens a lot in Linklater’s films. From Dazed and Confused to School of Rock to Everybody Wants Some!!, he can’t resist stories about people learning and evolving, especially during the formative years they spend at school and college. 

“I don’t know how conscious it is,” Linklater tells the BBC, “but certainly I must be interested in people becoming who they’re meant to be, or questioning who they’re meant to be in the world. I always had a soft spot for young people figuring it out, and now I’ve got a soft spot for older people figuring it out. I got lucky, because I knew that I wanted to be in cinema from the age of 20. But I meet a lot of people who are still figuring out what the hell they’re doing.”

Alamy The iconic poster shot of lead Ellar Coltrane, playing Mason, who the film follows from the ages of six to 18 (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

The iconic poster shot of lead Ellar Coltrane, playing Mason, who the film follows from the ages of six to 18 (Credit: Alamy)

Linklater’s finest treatment of this subject is Boyhood, a revolutionary masterpiece that was released 10 years ago, in July 2014. He had wanted to make a film that chronicled a child’s time at school, but it seemed impossible until he had “one of those crazy ideas”. The idea was to shoot scenes near his home in Texas for a few days every year, in 12 different years, starting in 2002 and finishing in 2013. He would then put the scenes together to cover a boy’s life from the age of six to 17. And so it was that we saw Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, getting older and taller and edging towards college, alongside his big sister, Samantha, played by the writer-director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater. And we saw their estranged parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, blundering in and out of jobs and relationships as they, too, figured out what the hell they were doing. “I remember showing Ethan a cut,” says Linklater, “and he said, ‘Oh, the kids are growing up and we’re ageing’. They don’t tell you when one ends and the other begins, but you know it when you get there.”

The shooting process

Audacious in its methods, and uniquely touching and even magical in its results, Boyhood was quickly recognised as a modern classic, and it garnered six Oscar nominations, including best picture (Arquette won the best supporting actress award). Some of the only films that compare with it are Linklater’s own Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, a trilogy which checks in on Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s characters once every nine years. But shooting footage over 12 years for a single film was something that had never been attempted before, and it’s still amazing that Linklater pulled it off. 

I didn’t really know what it would add up to. Even as I made it I thought, is it too low-stakes? Is that a mistake?

“The only time it felt kind of laborious was the first year or two,” he says, chatting about Boyhood in a London hotel. “The second year, everyone got busy, Patricia had a kid, I did School of Rock [released in 2003] and Before Sunset [released in 2004], so we were having trouble connecting. It was more like 18 months before we got the second part done. But after that it was always great fun to get together, and every year it got a little better. And by the time [Mason and Samantha] were in high school, you could feel the end getting closer. It must be like running a marathon – not that I would ever run a marathon – and you’re 24 miles in. You think, ‘we’re not there yet, but we might just make it.'”

Despite the time encompassed and the variables involved, Linklater’s finished film was remarkably similar to the one he had first envisaged. The shape of the story was there, he says, from that first “a-ha moment”, not least because Mason’s parents had some similarities to his own. “I had the outline, the architecture was there. I could tell the adults what they were doing. But I left some of the specifics undone. It was like the music was written but the lyrics were being filled in. I was collaborating with time and the world and the kids growing up and the adults changing.”

Alamy Ethan Hawke and Coltrane as father and son – the film is simultaneously about growing up and ageing (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Ethan Hawke and Coltrane as father and son – the film is simultaneously about growing up and ageing (Credit: Alamy)

What that meant was that he would adapt some of the details of Mason’s life so that they corresponded to Coltrane’s, thus helping the young actor seem authentic on screen. The casting of Mason, then, was crucial. “I auditioned some little athlete kids, but Ellar was kind of an arty kid. He loved stories, he loved movies, his mum’s a dancer, his dad’s a musician. I thought, that’s the path. But it was a year-by-year process of checking out where he was at. I thought he would become a musician rather than getting interested in photography, so there were little changes I incorporated. I would have gone wherever Ellar went.”

Its view of the 2000s

Linklater also shot sequences which referred to events in the wider world, because he knew they would resonate with viewers years later. In 2005, for instance, the youngsters queue at a bookshop at midnight to buy their hot-off-the-presses copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In 2009, the family supports Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. But Linklater’s “own little anthropological takeaway” is that while Boyhood shows computers and phones becoming ever more sophisticated, nothing much else changes during the period. “When I was a kid, it was like, ‘Here are Buick’s new cars this year! Here’s the new fashion! Bellbottoms are in!’ So when I started Boyhood, I was like, ‘Look at how my life changed from 1969 to 1981 – a completely different world’. And I thought that’s what we’d see. But it didn’t happen. Fashion, cars – it all looks the same. The only thing that changes is technology. Laptops and smartphones. Everything else is stasis.”

Still, Boyhood was never meant to be about major upheavals. Arquette’s character has a bad marriage to a violent alcoholic, but Mason gets through his largely ordinary school years without any of the traumatic twists or weighty life lessons which would feature in a conventional coming-of-age tale. It’s this quotidian approach that makes Boyhood so relatable and so heart-grippingly poignant. All that happens is that the years go by – but what could be more important or profound than that?

Lorelei being a young woman, having those body issues, and seeing how she looked every year, it kind of did a number on her

“I didn’t really know what it would add up to,” Linklater admits. “Even as I made it I thought, is it too low-stakes? I’ve created an epic structure, but I’m not meeting that epic structure with epic subject matter – really, I’m going the other way, I’m making this about the most banal shit! Is that a mistake? Am I missing an opportunity? That thought would float through my consciousness for seven seconds at a time. But then I was like, no, no, have the courage of your convictions. We’re taking a ride on the power of cinema, identification, time passing, all that. I thought maybe the sum would be bigger than the parts, and the cumulative experience would be powerful.”

Alamy Linklater's own daughter Lorelei – pictured left, with Patricia Arquette – starred, and struggled with seeing herself on camera (Credit: Alamy)Alamy

Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei – pictured left, with Patricia Arquette – starred, and struggled with seeing herself on camera (Credit: Alamy)

In some ways, the actors’ childhoods had more emotional struggles than their characters’. “He’s been through it,” Linklater says of Coltrane, adding he didn’t anticipate how Coltrane and Lorelei would be affected by having their formative years put on screen for mass scrutiny. “Even though it’s not a documentary, it’s still a document of those years, so it’s not an easy thing to go through. Lorelei being a young woman, having those body issues, and seeing how she looked every year, it kind of did a number on her. But anyway,” he sighs, “they survived”.

Lorelei Linklater has kept working as an actress ever since Boyhood, and Coltrane used his pay cheques to buy a house near Austin, Texas, which he then sold at a profit. “He made a lot of money from it,” marvels Linklater. “I said, ‘Jesus! You’re a real estate mogul in your twenties!’ He’s got a pretty good spread in New Mexico now, and he’s a poet. Literally, he’s writing poetry. He’s a thoughtful, wonderful human being.”

Linklater has a cast and crew reunion in mind for the film’s 12th anniversary, to echo the 12 year duration of the film itself, but he says he has no plans to follow Mason’s life into adulthood. However, he does have another project underway which explores his favourite themes in an even more ambitious fashion than Boyhood. Merrily We Roll Along, an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical comedy, charts the friendship of a songwriter, a playwright and a theatre critic across 20 years, running backwards from their disillusioned middle-age to their idealistic youth. Linklater, who is now 63, is committed to filming it with stars Paul Mescal, Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein in segments every couple of years until around 2040. If Boyhood was a marathon, Merrily We Roll Along is an ultra-marathon. “People ask if Boyhood was risky, but no, it’s Merrily that’s definitely tempting fate on the actuarial timeline. I’ll be pushing 80 when we’re done. But I don’t know – I’m feeling alright. So far, so good!”

Hit Man is available to stream on Netflix internationally now

If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news, delivered to your inbox twice a week.

For more Culture stories from the BBC, follow us on FacebookX and Instagram.

More articles

Latest article