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