How to Write a Movie That Takes 12 Years to Shoot: Richard Linklater on Writing 'Boyhood'

Richard Linklater Writing Boyhood 1Now that Richard Linklater's film Boyhood has expanded to 771 screens across the U.S. and cracked the top 10 at the weekly box office, I had the opportunity to see this 12-year opus on its opening weekend here in Albuquerque. After watching this boy grow up on-screen in what feels like a blink of an eye -- sometimes actually seeing him change dramatically in a quite literal blink of an eye over a cut -- the screenwriter inside me wondered, "How do you write a movie that takes twelve years to shoot?" Here on No Film School, we've explored Linklater's overall approach to filmmaking and screenwriting as well as his particular relationship with film and time via his Before trilogy (thanks, V Renée!). Now, thanks to many resources, we hear from Linklater himself on how he tackled the challenge of finding and writing the story of Boyhood over the course of its 12-year production.

A Year to Write the Next Sequence

We begin with a Film4 interview with Linklater talking about the journey of making Boyhood. If you have nine minutes to spare, it's definitely worth watching to understand the entire creative process behind making this film over twelve years. From a screenwriting perspective, Linklater talks about the luxury of having a full year in between the shoots to think about what would be happening in his character Mason's life at that particular age. He also reveals that as the actor Ellar Coltrane got older, Linklater would ask Coltrane to write down bits of his actual conversations so Linklater could incorporate real dialogue into the script. Here's the complete Film4 interview:

Searching for a Story Over 12 Years of Real Life

Back in February during the Berlin Film Festival, Indiewire interviewed Linklater and specifically asked the filmmaker how he approached the writing process for Boyhood:

I knew the structure. Like, I knew the last shot of the movie eleven years ago, let’s say. But I was playing off everything that was happening in front of me, collaborating with Ethan [Hawke] with Patricia [Arquette] and the kids, who, as they matured, they become even more collaborative. It was always this open process and anybody could contribute.

Linklater is known for working closely with his talent on his screenplays, most notably collaborating with Hawke and Julie Delpy to write the sequels Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Watching the early years of Boyhood, I could certainly see the collaboration between Linklater and his adult characters played by Hawke and Arquette.

Honestly, though, those early scenes really seem to be searching for the story, much like the young boy Mason is looking at the wonders of the world around him and the older kids in his life for some sort of guideposts. These scenes also bring up questions like, "Is there really a specific story here, or is the story just a collection of moments and memories from one boy's life? And isn't that enough to tell a story?" If you're willing to let go of the big moments that we're used to seeing in films and look, really look, at the in-between moments in this boy's life, the story appears as the film unspools. And this is why I can't stop thinking about Boyhood and how Linklater along with his cast and crew created this story out of life's lesser moments.

Those early scenes also offer viewers a peek back into the world of Richard Linklater as a storyteller and filmmaker in 2002, and they remind us how far he has come in the past twelve years. The storytelling style, shot compositions and camera movements all evolve as our protagonist grows up, and the visual metaphor will take you from wondering why everyone is so excited about this movie during the first few scenes to wondering how on earth Linklater and his team managed to capture this honest, heartfelt journey in two hours and forty-two minutes.

Richard Linklater Writing Boyhood 2

A True Collaboration Between Filmmaker and Actors

For me, the film hits its stride after a few years zip by and Mason is a little older. At this point, Linklater and his editor Sandra Adair had already cut together 10 to 15-minute segments from the previous years' shoots, so everyone had a better sense of how the story was coming together and where the characters could go. The film is strongest when Mason reaches his teenage years and we hear him express his own ideas, trying to figure out his own philosophies even as they spill out of his mouth, half-formed and yet still poignant. From ages 16 to 18, I could really see some setups and payoffs in the writing because Linklater could see the finish line and could fine tune the end of Mason's journey.

Not surprisingly, during these latter stages of filming, Linklater collaborated more closely with his young talent Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, his daughter, to learn about their current life experiences and how those real-life moments could be worked into the narrative of the film. As Linklater says in the Film4 interview above, he asked Coltrane to write down any intimate conversations he had with a girl at a party so Linklater could work those words into Boyhood.

To learn more about Linklater's creative process behind Boyhood, check out Vulture's article from the Sundance premiere of the film, and Slate's excellent compendium of articles and posts from around the internet about Boyhood that answer virtually any question you may have about the film.

Finally, here's the trailer for the film if you haven't already seen it.

Have you written and shot a film over the course of several years? What takeaways do you have from your own long-term projects or the experience of Linklater tackling a 12-year film?


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Thanks for the post Chris, it could have arrived in a better moment for me since i watched the movie yesterday and really liked. I was wondering all the time how organic the script might be to be ever-evolving depending of the ongoing events around the time they shot it.

August 23, 2014 at 4:55AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


You´re like Schroedingers cat...

August 23, 2014 at 7:51AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


That one took me "only" 2 years, but it felt like 12 ;)

August 24, 2014 at 1:53PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Thanks for the post Chris, it could not have arrived in a better moment for me since i watched the movie yesterday and really liked. I was wondering all the time how organic the script might be to be ever-evolving depending of the ongoing events around the time they shot it.

August 23, 2014 at 4:55AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Boyhood is one of the most unbelievable films I have ever seen. It's everything that an art film should be.

August 23, 2014 at 7:29AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Great Concept. Looking Forward to seeing this.

August 23, 2014 at 11:18AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


All for your article and take, and I even agree that the film finally picked up in the late teen years. However, despite the seemingly universal praise this very overrated film has generated, largely due in my opinion to peer pressure, it is because the film takes 2 hours to get to the good parts makes it a failed experiment.

Like PayDro, I was looking forward to watching this "great concept," and yet that's where it ended for me, as a concept. It was largely uncinematic, very few visual pieces in those first 2 hours are memorable. The acting never takes flight, mainly because the characters don't really change. Patricia Arquette comes closest to an actor's performance, followed by Coltrane in the later years, but every other actor sounded awkward and, again, uncinematic. Like we haven't seen Hawke play man-child before. Can't even get started on the overabundance of ill-chosen pop music throughout.

Honestly, I challenge anyone who can, outside of nostalgia for the 00s or memories of their own boyhood, can argue for the formal greatness of BOYHOOD. I've largely heard about concept and audaciousness and occasionally performance, but not why this film is better than the Big Brother message in THE WINTER SOLDIER, more thrilling for actual teens than GUARDIANS, more artful than BUDAPEST, or more honest than LOVE IS STRANGE. For me, all this love for BOYHOOD has more to do with a pose than a real deconstruction of its alleged greatness.

August 25, 2014 at 11:43AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


It doesn't have to be better to be good.

So often I hear (read) the argument that, "It's not as good as [insert name here]!' But the truth is it is its own story. It has its own heart and reason for being. Statements such as yours come from a critic's mind, which is closed by nature. Critics create themselves by forming rigidity and rules. If something "doesn't fill out the form" as expected, it comes up lacking in the critic's eyes. Everyone does this to some degree, hence the phrase "Everyone's a critic". But the professional critic (such as yourself) rarely keeps that criticism to one's self. Now the questions are, "Is my criticism of value to those that are exposed to it? In what way does my criticism help those involved? What is my personal motivation for giving the criticism?"

As for my criticism of your post :

I feel it adds value by perhaps allowing you to readdress your possible contempt towards a story told in a novel way.

I hope to help you give more weight to your criticism.

I enjoy opening a dialogue with others in order to help refine communication if/when I can.

August 25, 2014 at 3:14PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Novelty is not equal to greatness. It may be for pro critics, who have the (boo hoo) tough job of watching terrible film after terrible film and then swoon at anything non-formulaic. I appreciate Linklater's commitment to his project but his experiment should not come with a guarantee of a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet more than 1 person I know has admitted to cringing that they didn't like BOYHOOD either, and felt they could not admit it to friends or post that opinion online.

All this waxing rhapsodic for a film did not grab me until a point when most films have already run the credits leaves me wondering what y'all were watching while I was still trying to figure out why "Yellow" needed to be playing as a 6 year old looked up at a cloudy blue sky instead of, you know, stars. I can watch a film which disappoints and simply move on, and yet I'm left scratching my head why the reaction to this rather damning portrait of the American family, filmed blandly, resonates as it does.

August 25, 2014 at 4:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


humans meet mountains and great art ensues. boyhood is one of those movies to which this truism applies.

November 23, 2014 at 9:39AM