Director Richard Linklater’s epic-yet-quiet coming-of-age tale, Boyhood, has increasingly become an awards season contender on the strength of a “best picture” nod from the New York Critics Circle (in the same week that The Washington Post and Sight and Sound also put it atop their “year’s best” lists).
The main device – the storytelling ultimately becomes too profound to merely call it a “novelty” – is that it was filmed over a 12-year period, telling the story of a boy, played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane, who goes, as his film dad Ethan Hawke described it, from being put in a car seat as a kindergartener, to driving off in a car of his own at film’s end, when he leaves his nest to head out to college.
Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, plays Coltrane’s sister, and Patricia Arquette is their mom, as she and Hawke, long split, struggle to raise children, and in a sense, themselves, in the first years of the 21st century.
“I started prepping in 2002,” said production designer Rodney Becker, undoubtedly the only potential design nominee of 2014 who could make such an assertion. Linklater’s process was to gather cast and crew together for a short period in each year of that decade-plus span, to make a short film, essentially, about what kids and parents were up to and how they were faring, leaving everyone to “work on other movies with Rick, and without Rick” in the meantime. So not only was the crew constantly breaking up and reassembling, but so were things like costumes, and props.
“I collected things,” Becker said, “like a hoarder.” He and the director didn’t want anything to look like a set or even a location – they were going for “the feel of a documentary, with every bit being ordinary and mundane,” in terms of the objects surrounding them.
There’d be maybe a month of prep before each year’s shoot, and the director and PD would go into apartments, or houses – usually around the director’s native Austin, where most of the film was shot – and get them “completely empty, and dress them.” Over time, the locales of each of the kids’ parents would change, as would their circumstances.
“It was a very difficult process, because we had such a lack of money,” explained Becker. “Everything I owned was in the movie.” Indeed, so was his house in one sequence where Hawke’s character is sharing digs with a musician pal, and his kids sleep over for a weekend visit.
“We ran without a prop master,” he added. “We ran without an art director.” He does however give “hats off to everyone” on the small crew, (Becker himself had to help build sets and paint), particularly singling out producer Cathleen Sutherland and costume designer Kari Perkins, with whom he’d keep long lists going of what was relevant to the story, over the years.
This also includes a canny use of personal technology to mark the passage of time, as the Nintendo DS’s played used by the kids in the early 2000s give way to iMacs at school, and eventually laptops and cell phones at home. But Becker also worked with director and crew to figure what these parents – who were “sometimes a little lower, sometimes a little more in the middle,” depending how the economy was faring – could actually afford in a given year.
So the flip phones might persist for a couple years after iPhones first came out, and then later, refurbished iPhones would become feasible, along with slightly better used cars and roomier houses and apartments, where the now-old technology would eventually “be on a shelf somewhere.”
But it wasn’t just technology that changed in that time. The filmmakers themselves were transformed by the experience. Becker noted this was the “first year we hadn’t done the movie – in 12 years.” In other words, this was the first time since the project began that they didn’t have what he described as their recurring family reunion for each year’s shoot. He mentioned that cast and crew “went through marriages, birthdays, and holidays” together, and “several of us got divorced in the making of it.”
Through it all, the collaborative Linklater, who “expects you to do your job, and do it professionally,” also “allowed everyone to evolve over time.”
Which, given the amount of time involved for Boyhood – that evolution seen through an entire childhood, along with changes in the terrain, rooms and objects around them – turned out to be a particularly apt way to work.