On Friday, May 2nd, the 57th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival presented director Richard Linklater with their Founding Director’s Award. The San Francisco Film Society decided to make a night of it, with “An Evening with Richard Linklater” at the Castro Theatre. The packed-to-the-gills event sandwiched a screening of his latest film, “Boyhood,” between two Q & A sessions. Longtime friend and colleague, Parker Posey, moderated the first segment with a casual familiarity. Posey was among many actors to hit it big after appearing in Linklater’s second film, “Dazed and Confused,” including Matthew “Don’t Call Him Matt” McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Renée Zellweger. The cult classic, released 27 years ago (holy crap), also helped to kick start Linklater’s fertile career.
Posey and Linklater reminisced their way through his catalog, spending ample time with “Dazed and Confused.” Linklater revealed that the iconic music for the film came before the story. When he finally got around to casting, he made mix tapes (that’s cassette tapes, kids) for all of his actors to get them in the correct headspace. His auditions included a brief interview about their high school experience, wherein he promptly dismissed anyone who claimed to have had a good time.
He also admitted that the beloved “Before” films, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, were never meant to be a trilogy. But he found himself revisiting those characters and every 5 or 6 years wondered, “What they were up to?” Those ruminations would turn into a script. Fortunately, Hawke and Delpy were always game to reprise those roles as well. He’s not sure there’s much left to tell of their story, however as “meeting briefly becomes less and less age appropriate.”
In her introduction, Posey called Linklater “a voice of my generation,” but with his diverse body of work, that title seems too limiting. In addition to writing about youth culture, he’s also made films about bank robbers, music teachers, the fast food industry, a man driven to murder and Orson Welles. Linklater seems game for just about anything, so long as there’s a good story in it. As he put it, he’s, “Always channeling things through the filter of cinema.”
Despite his prolificacy, Linklater confessed to frequently spending years with an idea before bringing it to fruition, so that he could be sure to get it right. “Waking Life” came from a real dream he had, but he didn’t make the film for another 20 years. He wasn’t even sure that the idea was filmable until some of his friends began experimenting with Rotoscope technology. It was then that he finally understood how to make it work.
The way he tells it, he’s “had two good cinematic thoughts all these years”. One was his first film, “Slacker,” which told a complete story by following one character to the next. The Austin, TX native culled the story from real people who populated his neighborhood in the 1980s. “Slacker” was the film that launched his career and it is also heralded as one of the great pioneer independent films.
His other “good cinematic thought” was to tell a story by following one actor through his formative years in order to create an honest and illuminative narrative about childhood. This film became “Boyhood,” a bold experiment in filmmaking that could have easily fallen apart at any point during the 12 years he spent on it. He didn’t just follow the lead actor, Ellar Coltrane. He also employed Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, to play the family. Year after year, the actors agreed to come back and shoot for one week, until he had a complete story. The end result is astounding.
Though “Boyhood” is a tad on the long side, I have to forgive Linklater because I imagine that putting that much of your life into a film would make it very difficult to cut. The running time is a minor criticism, as is the imprecision of the title. Coltrane’s Mason is our guide, but everyone in the family grows and changes in profound ways throughout the story. This is some of the best work that Arquette and Hawke have ever done. Every beat of their performances feels authentic and personal. Linklater also struck gold with Coltrane and his daughter, who remained natural (and reliable) throughout. The film also serves as a sort of time capsule, since the “period” scenes were actually shot in the eras in which they take place. Technology, fashion, pop culture and politics evolve organically. Arquette’s mother character, the children’s primary caregiver does the best she can to provide for her children, getting a psychology degree and attempting to find them a reliable father figure. Her faulty spouse selection causes much of the drama over the years, but she eventually finds the confidence to raise them on her own. Hawke plays the absentee dad who ultimately comes around to fatherhood, trading in his muscle car for a mini van and attempting to incorporate his original children into his second-chance domesticity with another woman.
There aren’t many films out there than can satisfy everyone, but surely “Boyhood” comes close. If you are a human being who grew up in America, some part of the film will resonate with you. If nothing else, the scale of the experiment is a sight to behold. “Boyhood” will certainly remain a highlight in Linklater’s career, even if he continues to make films for another 27 years.
(Photo by Pamela Gentile, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society)