The Making of ‘Boyhood’: Richard Linklater’s 12-Year Journey to Create An American Masterpiece

Filmed off-and-on over the course of 12 years, Boyhood chronicles the growth of a young boy from first grade through entering college. The cast and crew discuss how this groundbreaking movie came to fruition.

There’s a scene toward the end of Boyhood that seems prosaic, even hackneyed. An absentee father is loitering about with his son and namesake, Mason Jr., at a deserted concert hall. The young man’s just had his heart clawed out by his first love, the sunny yin to his sardonic yang, who ran off with a generic lacrosse stud. He’s a gloomy, hormonal mess. After waxing on and on about losing “the one,” he seeks his Dad’s counsel. “What does it all mean?” he asks. The housebroken fella, cradling a beer, shrugs. He tells his son that, whatever the answer, he should thank his lucky stars for all those firing synapses because as we get older, we become number to the world around us. Savor every time you find yourself, in the words of Vonnegut, “trapped in the amber of the moment.”

Now, few filmmakers are as preoccupied with time as Richard Linklater. Six of his films, Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Tape, and the Before trilogy, all take place within the course of a day; Tape is shot in real-time; and the Before films tracked a relationship over 18 years. But Boyhood is something else entirely: a fictional narrative feature tracing the growth of a boy from the first grade through to his first day of college and shot sporadically over the course of 12 years, with filming beginning in the summer of 2002 in Austin, Texas, and the final product being completed in October 2013.

Part bildungsroman, part allegory on the fragmentation of the American family, and part monument to the follies of youth, the “life project”—as Linklater calls it—is told from the ever-evolving perspective of Mason Jr. (newcomer Ellar Coltrane), who ages before our eyes from a 6-year-old boy into an 18-year-old. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play his parents, Mason and Olivia, who are divorced when the film opens, while the boy’s older sister, Samantha, is portrayed by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter.

“It had been growing in me in ’99 and 2000,” says Linklater. “I’d been a dad for a while and seeing a kid growing up is a very intense thing. It made me think, ‘What about my childhood? What is childhood? Maybe I’ll make a film about childhood.’ But I was frustrated because I couldn’t pick a moment. It became a storytelling challenge and I’d almost given up, and then in 2001 the idea hit me in one big moment: We’ll film a little bit every year.”

During those gestation years, Linklater and Hawke, who’ve collaborated on eight films together, were engaged in “an ongoing dialogue about time in movies.”

“I knew Rick wanted to make a movie about childhood and growing up, and right around the time my son was born, he came to me and said, ‘What if we didn’t make it one moment,’” says Hawke. “The first couple of times he batted the idea out it had more dramatic turns, but then he thought, ‘What if I just got rid of all the plot? What if it’s just growing up?’ And I fell in love with the idea.” With Hawke onboard, the mother came next. Linklater recalled meeting Arquette at a cocktail party shortly after the release of True Romance. She told him how much of a fan she was of Slacker and Dazed and Confused and how much she wanted to work with him, and he asked her about what motherhood was like, since Arquette had her first child at 20.

“Years later, he called me and asked, ‘What are you going to be doing for the next 12 years?’” recalls Arquette. “I thought, ‘Is he asking me to marry him for a period of 12 years and then divorce him?’ And then he said, ‘I’m thinking about shooting this movie where you see a boy starting first grade and it ends when he graduates high school.’ Everything in my body was like, ‘Yes!’ He said, ‘You know, there’s no money in it.’ I was like, ‘I don’t care, I’m in!’”

As a child, Lorelei was much more extroverted, so once Linklater determined that there would be an older sister, and his daughter was that age, he cast her without a moment’s notice. “She sort of demanded that part,” he says with a chuckle.

But the key to the film was casting the boy at the center of it, Mason Jr. Linklater held an open casting call in his home of Austin, Texas, and auditioned hundreds of young kids for the role. He eventually landed on Ellar Coltrane, whose father was in an Austin-based band, Joe Rockhead, that he’d been a fan of. “I think I got cast in this because Richard thought my Dad was cool,” jokes Ellar.

“Finding Ellar was the big moment,” says Linklater. “It was one of those go with your instincts moments. I remember telling people at the time, ‘This kid is so ethereal and interesting.’ Plus, he had cool parents—his Dad was in a band that I liked. He seemed mysterious. He wasn’t reading, but he had a lot of ideas about film and music. He was a little rock star, too. I noticed how kids drifted towards him.”

The actors all took a leap of faith and came onboard. They couldn’t even sign anything, since movie contracts don’t extend beyond seven years. And, as far as financing goes, Linklater had had a series of discussions with IFC Films President Jonathan Sehring—including at the Venice Film Festival just prior to 9/11. Eventually Sehring, along with Linklater’s longtime pal John Sloss, who served as a film sales agent on Before Sunrise, agreed to go in as producers on Boyhood, and AMC Networks (which owns IFC Films) agreed to finance it to the tune of $200,000 a year, or $2.4 million total. “They just kept writing checks without needing to see a return on investment,” says Sehring at the film’s New York premiere. “Of course, when you deal with lower-level accountants, it’s not quite the same story.”

After a year of pre-production, filming began in 2002. And the cast would meet once—sometimes twice—every calendar year over the next 12 years and shoot for three or four days at a time. When Arquette was cast as the lead on the CBS series Medium, Hawke and Linklater worried about scheduling, but the actress made it work, filming her scenes over four-day weekends. She’d fly in on a Thursday, rehearse until 1 a.m., and then shoot from Friday to Monday.

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“The shoots were pretty limited—maybe three days,” says Linklater. “But to do a three-day shoot, you’ve got to cast, scout the location, get an office, crew up, get the film stock. It’s like making 12 films since you’re originating 12 films. Everything was times 12.”

“People always talk like we shot a bit of it once a year, but it was all random,” adds Hawke. “Sometimes we’d do one scene in November, and then shoot another three days in April, and then do another scene the following August.”

There wasn’t exactly a traditional script, either. Linklater began the project with a skeleton of sorts. He had each character’s main plot points mapped out, and knew how the film would end—as well as its final shot—at conception. According to Linklater, he’d watch and edit the footage he’d shot from the previous year several times before starting an outline, which would later evolve into a script, for the following year. Sometimes, the script wouldn’t fully materialize until a few days before shooting.

“I got to watch my film, think for a year, and re-script it,” says Linklater. “I could never re-shoot anything, but could re-script it, which is where I’d incorporate the incremental changes of my four actors growing and changing, and where I could adjust any ideas I had to the reality in front of me.”

The actors filled in the free-form “unconventional script” with their own life experiences. Linklater and Hawke based the latter’s character on their fathers, since both men were Texan insurance agents who found happiness in their second marriage. Arquette based her character heavily on her mother who, like her character in the film, went back to school, got her degree, and became a psychiatrist. Ellar, meanwhile, seemed to gain more and more confidence in his acting ability as the “living project” progressed, and it shows onscreen.

“Somewhere early on in the scene where we go camping together, the young man that Ellar is now was born,” says Hawke. “He went from being a kid to someone who’d seen Waking Life, liked Radiohead, and had opinions about what was a good movie or what was a bad movie, and how to do a scene. It was very exciting because he was starting to have agency and creativity in his acting.”

One of the scenes a young Ellar suggested—which is, according to Hawke, “the only honest-to-god improvised moment in the movie”—is a fireside chat about how it would be impossible to extend the Star Wars movies past Return of the Jedi. It’s one of many prescient cultural moments scattered throughout the film, including Mason Jr. attending a Harry Potter book signing and, in one prophetic scene, Hawke’s character watching the charred bodies of Blackwater security contractors being strung up on a bridge in Fallujah, and going on a rant about how the Iraq War is Bush’s “big lie.”

“That was me and Ethan at that moment,” says Linklater. “I wanted to go on record saying, ‘This is bullshit.’ I was in New York one afternoon with 4 million other people marching on the U.N. saying, ‘Hey, this is a really dumb idea. They didn’t attack us, and they’re no threat to us.’”

Another funny moment involves a joke at the expense of Bristol Palin, with Hawke’s character struggling to deliver a safe-sex talk to a teenage Samantha. “What’s the one thing you know about Sarah Palin’s daughter?” he asks her. “She’s pregnant.”

In addition to the myriad cultural moments and the actors aging in front of your very eyes, Boyhood uses musical cues to let you know what year it is. The film opens with young Mason Jr. lying in a field, as Coldplay’s Yellow booms, followed by tracks from Blink 182 and Sheryl Crow. Later years incorporate tracks like Soulja Boy’s Crank That and Phoenix’s 1901. “Music’s going to stamp your life from a young person’s standpoint,” Linklater says.

Since the film’s budget was just $2.4 million—along with some change from Linklater’s piggy bank to help finish the project—a lot of favors had to be called in for hit songs. Hawke rang up his pal Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco), and a producer-friend of Linklater’s knew Britney Spears.

“One I was worried about was Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, which really informs the final part of the movie,” says Linklater. “Win Butler’s from the suburbs of Houston, like the family. I’d never met them but I ran into them at an Oscar brunch and they were nominated this year for Spike Jonze’s movie Her, and I said, ‘Hey, man! I can’t tell you how much I need a couple of your songs!’”

Boyhood is, at its core, a celebration of the quotidian. It’s a film devoid of cliché coming-of-age flashes—the first kiss, losing your virginity, etc.—instead focusing on the smaller victories or losses in between, so that it mirrors the way we proceed through life, the way time unfolds, and how we slowly change with time. “Collaborating with something as fleeting as time and trying to capture how that’s represented in all of our lives was the essence of the whole film,” says Linklater. “We bet the farm on the power of that—the cumulative effect of all these intimate moments over time equals an emotion, or a feeling. But we all live that way. We’re living our lives and we have feelings about everything that builds up to this moment. It was very much trying to be in touch with how we process life.”