Ellar Coltrane (left) connects to his dad, Ethan Hawke, over the course of Boyhood’s 12-year shoot.
BOYHOOD written and directed by Richard Linklater, with Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and Lorelei Linklater. A Mongrel Media release. 165 minutes. Opens Friday (July 18). For venues and times, see Movies.
My Boyhood interview with Ethan Hawke is capped at 12 minutes - one minute of phone time for each year the project was in production. We end up running a little long, of course; he's been waiting to talk about this for more than a decade.
"It's been our own little secret project," he says, just a couple of days after Boyhood makes its Canadian premiere at NXNE. "Everything has just been through this filter of always trying to make this movie work."
In 2001, Hawke was approached by director Richard Linklater - with whom he'd already made Before Sunset, The Newton Boys, Tape and Waking Life - about a weird little concept.
Linklater wanted to make a movie about a kid growing up, shooting it in pieces so the actor could age along with his character. The kid would be played by Ellar Coltrane, his mother by Patricia Arquette. Would Hawke be interested in playing the father?
"I remember when he first said it, I couldn't believe nobody'd done it already," Hawke says. "And I kind of knew he was just the person for it. He's so interested in life's minutiae; the idea really played into his strong suit."
The result is a singular accomplishment. But it's one thing that Boyhood was made at all, and quite another that it's one of the best American movies I've seen in years.
So, um, how the hell did they do it?
"Rick would usually shoot somewhere between, like, three and six days a year," Hawke says. "So basically for the last 12 years, every time I took a job I would call up Rick and say, ‘Looks like I'm gonna do Macbeth for six months. Rehearsals start in X days.'"
And then Hawke tells me the most staggering thing: Boyhood was unscripted. Linklater and his cast felt their way through the movie one year at a time.
"When I signed on, I signed on to a conversation, to an idea," Hawke says. "So did Patricia. It was something we all worked out together, you know? [Linklater] would say something along the lines of, ‘Okay, you're gonna take the kids bowling,' so we knew we were shooting in a bowling alley.
"He basically always knew the tone and mood. The time and place. He knew the music of the movie, but not the lyrics. What we were gonna say would start in rehearsal: ‘Okay, well, how would you guys greet each other? What would happen there? What are you thinking about?'
"And as we all would get to know each other through the rehearsal process and talk about the characters, a scene would kind of unfold in front of us."
Over the years, Hawke would work with Linklater on other projects - including two Before sequels, each of which resulted in their sharing Oscar nominations for best original screenplay with co-star Julie Delpy. But he always came back to Boyhood, partly to work and partly, as time passed, to check in on his family.
"You know that expression ‘You can't make new old friends?'" he asks. "It's kind of true about this movie in a strange way. Because you see these characters over time, you really start to trust them. You believe in them."
And I know exactly what he means.