Director Richard Linklater saw opportunity, not risk, in ambitious 'Boyhood'

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If moviegoers across the country are calling their moms -- or dads -- after seeing "Boyhood," thank Richard Linklater.

That's been one of the common responses to watching his portrait of a family, filmed over 12 years with the same core cast and opening Friday at the Regent Square Theater. It stars Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the divorced parents of a girl, played by Lorelei Linklater (yep, the Texas filmmaker's daughter), and a boy, Ellar Coltrane.

"It pulls everyone into their own life. I've had people say, 'I saw the movie and I just went and called my mom. I said I didn't know what you were going through,' " Mr. Linklater said in a recent phone interview.

"The film is interesting that way. Even though it's primarily the boy's point of view, it's this portrait of a family, so you can't watch this movie and not fully feel the weight of being a mom."

Or a dad who vows, "I will not be that guy." You know, the biological father who spends every other weekend with his children, drives them around and buys them stuff but never knows what they are doing or thinking in their time away from him.

"We want to think our parents are perfect, and they've all come up short in this category. You just see the utter complexity of well-meaning, loving parents who are doing their best, and yet still the kids are being buffeted around. It's still a rough ride.

"And you realize, it's just tough being a human being on this planet." Any time his daughter suggests someone "has it made," he reminds her, "Nobody has it made."

Forget Dwayne Johnson. Mr. Linklater's task was Herculean: Over 12 years and 4,200 or so days of production, he shot 143 scenes on 39 or 40 days and filmed the maturation of a boy from age 6 to college.

The world learned that his experiment had succeeded, in a glorious way, in January when "Boyhood" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He knew early on. Very early on. "I felt it was working the way I wanted it to work in year two," he said.

"To see it with an audience of a thousand people and to feel that connection they were having with it was special. It was the spirit of what we were trying to do, so, yeah, it was kind of great. Kind of wonderful."

The filmmaker gave Matthew McConaughey his indie debut and signature line of "All right, all right, all right" with 1993's "Dazed and Confused," and he collaborated with Jack Black on "School of Rock" and "Bernie."

He and Mr. Hawke and Julie Delpy created the trilogy "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight," introducing and revisiting a couple during an 18-year period. Here, he reunited with Mr. Hawke and with Ms. Arquette, who appeared in his "Fast Food Nation," and rolled the dice with Ellar, who will turn 20 in late August.

Mr. Linklater could deny his daughter's early request to kill off her character, but was there a loophole if the director or the Coltranes changed their minds? No, they didn't need one and couldn't have forced anyone to sign a contract for a project that's longer than seven years.

"We were just all in. Everyone was committed. It was just one of those life projects, you just have to jump in and commit."

Others viewed "Boyhood" through a prism of risk. What if Ellar quit the project? Grew up to be a jerk?

"Fill in the blank. What if, what if. We all saw it as this kind of extraordinary opportunity to tell a story," Mr. Linklater said, with characters who had 12-year arcs.

"It was just part of our lives. It was designed to, incrementally, go wherever the kids went. Adapt to who they were becoming. Ellar, I told him, it was going to go where he went. That's not him at the beginning of the movie but, by the end, that's kind of him, to some degree."

He wasn't starting college as his character, Mason, is, but it was the "essence of him."

The director had no special ritual when "Boyhood" shooting resumed each year, typically in the summer to accommodate schedules. "It just wasn't hard. We just picked up right where we left off.

"Like you have friends and family, maybe you don't see them for a year, five years, the older you get and then, just, boom! One sentence in, you're back on the same page you were on when you last spoke."

Besides, he said, the project was never on a "super back burner."

"At the end of every year, I would talk to everyone and say, 'Here's what happens next year, be thinking about this or that.' Give little assignments and a heads up on what's coming next."

It was incremental but persistent with, essentially, a dozen different scripts for each slice of filming. "It was using the luxury of time that was offered us in this production, by its very nature. It wouldn't have made sense to be trying to adhere to something that was written years before."

The idea behind "Boyhood" was beautifully simple and yet complex: Tell a story about growing up, the slow emergence of self and how things change.

Most movies about children are limited to a moment in time, as with stories about a special summer or defining event. That's because you cannot say to a 7-year-old, oh, in these next scenes you will be 17 the way an adult can age years or even decades on screen.

"I kind of had given up on the idea when this big idea hit me. If we shot a little bit, we could cover the whole thing." A broader cinematic canvas would allow him to show the process of how you change as you grow up and how you mature as a parent.

The calendar year 2014 was the first in a dozen years that Mr. Linklater hasn't reunited with the characters of Mason, sister Samantha, their parents and assorted partners. The last scenes were shot in October 2013.

"We haven't even been a year of not shooting. We haven't even processed it. People ask me, what's it feel like to be over?

"I go, I don't even know if it's over. It doesn't feel over. It will have to be more than a year goes by where we don't shoot that I will maybe accept that the film's done. Even though it's in theaters."

Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri:

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