The Boyhood FAQ: All Your Questions About How Richard Linklater Made His New Movie, Answered

Slate's Culture Blog
July 11 2014 6:18 PM

FAQ: How They Made Boyhood

Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
All your questions about Richard Linklater's new movie, answered.

© 2014 IFC Films

There’s never been anything quite like Richard Linklater’s new movie Boyhood, which was filmed with the same cast over 12 years. So how did they make it? We’ve compiled the answers to the most commonly asked questions below.

Did they write the whole screenplay ahead of time?
By the time Linklater started shooting, he had “a structural blueprint,” as explained in the film’s official press notes, but “certainly not the dialogue,” he told Indiewire. He’s said in many interviews that he knew the last shot of the movie by the end of the second year. Still, he told Vulture, “even though I had a contour for this movie, it was always gonna go where they went. If [lead actor Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason] grew up to be a wrestler, maybe that would have worked its way in.”

How much of the dialogue was improvised?
Contrary to what many viewers assume, Linklater doesn’t use improvisation in his movies. Instead he prefers to carefully rehearse and rewrite dialogue until it feels improvised. As explained in a recent profile in The New Yorker (subscription only), he generally schedules about two weeks of rehearsals before production starts, so that he can talk to actors about their characters’ motivations and get them to riff. These sessions are then drawn upon to rewrite the screenplay. Some scenes, like the final graduation party scene between the two parents, were written on the day of shooting.

Did any of the actors ever want out?
Yes. The movie’s young stars, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, were cast partly because Richard Linklater thought they’d stick with it, especially since they had parents who were artists and who understood the artistic process. (Lorelei is Richard Linklater’s daughter.) But Lorelei, at least, did at one point ask to be written out. Around the time of the sequence at the Harry Potter book release party, Lorelei asked her father, “Can my character die?” Linklater says that she came back around to it, in part because, as he explained to GQ, “SAG minimum is still pretty good money—beats working at the Burger King.” He says she’d later ask him, “Hey, when are we shooting? I want to buy an iPhone!”

Linklater has also pointed out in many interviews that what is really statistically unlikely is that the film company, IFC, was still around after 12 years and producer Jonathan Sehring still had the same job.

How did they make sure the look of the film stayed the same?
Linklater chose to shoot on 35mm film, reasoning correctly that digital technology would advance over those 12 years while celluloid would remain the same. “Towards the end of production, it became harder and harder to shoot on 35mm,” he says in the press notes, “but it helped give us that seamless flow.”

How much of the movie was based on Richard Linklater’s life?

The film is inspired by many elements from Richard Linklater’s life as well as elements from the lives of the lead actors. As explained in the New Yorker profile, Linklater’s parents “separated when he was in the first grade.” Linklater’s dad, like Ethan Hawke’s character, worked for an insurance company and lived in Houston, Texas. Linklater grew up in Huntsville, Texas (which is also where Dazed and Confused takes place), and his mother, like Patricia Arquette’s character, got a graduate degree while her son was in school.

Like Mason, Linklater was artistic—he was a writer in high school and won an interscholastic award. And also like Mason, he became a vegetarian as a young man. (The New Yorker profile notes that he  “hasn’t eaten meat since his early twenties.”) Linklater also drew on specific personal experiences: A profile in T notes that “Like Mason, Linklater was presented with a shotgun for what he calls his ‘redneck bar mitzvah.’ ”

Which parts of the film were based on Ellar Coltrane’s life?
Coltrane contributed more and more to the development of Mason as the years went on, and Linklater has described him as a “full artistic collaborator.” Linklater gave Coltrane homework, asking him at one point to write about what it was like to talk intimately to a girl. According to Vulture, two Coltrane riffs, about Star Wars and the dangers of Facebook, were incorporated into the movie’s dialogue. A graffiti-style painting that Ellar had done also ended up on Mason’s wall—Coltrane, like Mason, is interested in photography and visual art—and it was Coltrane who first took to wearing purple nail polish.

There were also differences, however: Coltrane was homeschooled, for instance, while Linklater wanted Mason to be more of an average kid. Coltrane’s parents were also divorced and, according to Vulture, he experienced tensions with a stepfather. “I don’t know how much I talked to Rick about that,” he said, “but I’m sure he saw it.”

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Which parts were based on Ethan Hawke’s life?
Hawke’s father, like his character (and Linklater’s father), was a “Texas insurance agent who found happiness in [his] second marriage,” as the Daily Beast points out. The songs played by Hawke’s character were songs that he wrote and played for his kids. Hawke told Vulture that the conversation in the movie about “the Black Album,” a collection of the Beatles’ best solo songs, grew out of a letter he once wrote to his daughter. Hawke is also divorced with shared custody of his children and has said that the movie is “like a portrait of their lives.”

Which parts were based on Patricia Arquette’s life?
Arquette based her character in part on her mother, who, like Linklater’s mother, also studied and taught “psychological sciences and therapeutic sciences” when she was young. Arquette says she remembers she would talk to her mother “about passive-aggressives and borderline personalities and different philosophies that later worked in this script.”

Were scenes like the Harry Potter release party staged, or did they happen because the kids were already fans?
The scene at the Harry Potter release party was filmed “documentary style” at a real event, Linklater told Slate, noting that the cast and crew insinuated themselves into it. (Lorelei was a huge Potter fan, while Coltrane was more of a Tolkien kid.) The scene at the Astros game, similarly, was filmed at a real game while using the proper permits, Linklater says—he felt lucky to be filming when one of the Astros hit a home run.

How hard was it to convince Coltrane to get his hair cut? Did he have to clear his piercings with Linklater?
Coltrane asked Linklater for permission before making cosmetic changes, including haircuts and piercings, and Vulture reports that Linklater “never objected.” When it came to the haircut scene, there was a disagreement between Coltrane and a producer, but it was over whether Coltrane would grow his hair long in the first place. He eventually did, of course, and he describes his sadness in the haircutting scene as a feat of acting: “That look of despair,” he says, “that was put on.” He was glad to be rid of the long hair.

How did they afford the soundtrack?
Linklater famously spent almost a sixth of Dazed and Confused’s budget on the rights to the ’70s hits used in the movie, but Indiewire points out that music licensing is less expensive now, with more artists eager to participate. However, there were songs included in the version of Boyhood shown at Sundance that he wasn’t able to secure for the final cut, including a song by Weezer as well as Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

What was the track listing of the “Black Album”?
A publicist for IFC tells us that they’ll be sharing the full tracklist soon, but it’s not online yet. We’ll update this post when it’s online.

Update, July 21, 2014: You can check out the full tracklist—along with Ethan Hawke’s liner notes, which he originally penned for his daughter—over at BuzzFeed.

Were there any references to Richard Linklater’s other movies?
The liquor store clerk in Boyhood is the same one from Dazed and Confused: They’re both played by David Blackwell and credited only as “Liquor Store Clerk.” As Manohla Dargis points out in her review in the New York Times, the Pontiac GTO driven by Ethan Hawke’s character is also the same make and model as the car driven by Kevin Pickford and prominently featured in Dazed and Confused, and the GTO also appears in Slacker. (The GTO in Boyhood is Linklater’s.) The seemingly unhinged “Guy in Diner” in Austin is also reminiscent of a character from Slacker, and indeed the same actor appeared in a similar role in the fan remake/tribute Slacker 2011.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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