Linklater’s acclaimed ‘Boyhood’ film fueled by his life, career

Michael Cavna (c) 2014, The Washington Post. WASHINGTON — To understand how one of the best American directors working today began to discover his myriad gifts, Richard Linklater takes us back to Texas circa 1970.

“My mom, ’cause she was in academia, I was kind of the guinea pig,” Linklater says, smiling between sips of sparkling water. “They do tests on kids — I was always the first kid — because she was in that world. You know? She was in speech and hearing, but she was also in psychology. I was always thrown into tests. It was kind of fun.”

On this particular day, when Linklater was 9 or 10, the researchers asked him — in a test of swift mental agility — to repeat numbers in reverse order.

“They would read numbers just to see recall — say, five numbers in a row, and the kid has to say them backwards and see how many you could go,” Linklater recounts. “And they did me, and I just kept going and going and going, and pretty soon, there were all these, like, adults around me, and they’re reading me numbers, and I remembered saying the numbers backwards. And the adults all burst into applause and said: ‘What’s the deal, how are you doing that?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m just reading the numbers — I can hear them and just read them backward,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, so you’re a visual learner?’

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“I realized I had that. But then, I put that away and didn’t think anything about it.”

An especially sharp memory. Keen visual recall. The art of performance on command. The dynamic of kids eagerly engaging in the elaborate tricks of adults. The unfolding of time as viewed from reverse.

There, in a single test, Linklater was flashing hints of so much that has characterized his work as an Oscar-nominated writer, a king of cinematic experiments and now, at age 53, the director of one of the most acclaimed movies in years. “Boyhood,” Linklater’s 17th film and opening in wide release Friday, is being praised as a “masterpiece” and a “miracle,” hailed as a rare achievement in both approach and execution. Shot several days per year over the course of a dozen years, the 166-minute movie follows the maturation of one boy (Mason Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane) from first-grader to college freshman.

“This is a film about remembrance,” the director says.

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Linklater utters that line like a mantra. And because this is a film about remembrance, he trusts the viewer to engage in it as such. In an early scene, Mason Jr. paints over some marks tracking height measurements, a classic technique to chart a child’s growth. The signal is clear: There won’t be many traditional demarcations of time in this movie; we’re whitewashing the rules. We can assess the passage of time through music and fashion and gadgets, but more truly by how the kids can grow in each time jump within the narrative. Viewers are beguiled by the audacious stunt of the thing. Then they become mesmerized by the undeniable emotional force of the content.

A quarter-century after he burst out of the Austin, Texas film scene he helped nurture with the indie hits “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” — and after such wide-ranging successes as “School of Rock” and the “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” trilogy — Linklater seems to have scaled a career pinnacle. Just how did he get here?

“I was feeling ashamed”

Linklater, who was born in Houston in the summer of 1960, vividly recalls the feeling of not having a father in the home .

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“Ethan [Hawke] and I talked about that a lot while making ‘Boyhood’ — the effect of divorce,” Linklater says of conversations with his frequent collaborator (they’ve done eight films together), stroking the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin while in conversation at the Capella hotel in Washington. “We had similar things: Dad left when we were about the same age. We were with Mom — strong, youngish moms who were still making their way.

“I swear to God, I had two older sisters who caught the brunt [of the emotional fallout]. I didn’t feel that affected. I know looking back, I was, but I don’t even really define myself [that way]. If people ask about my childhood, I say: There was some weird stuff going on, but I don’t ever remember thinking: ‘Oh, my parents got divorced.’ “

Yet he recalls the pain of one particular moment. “Remember, this is the ’60s, so [divorce] was rare,” says Linklater, who was raised partly in East Texas. “I moved to a small town eventually, and I was the only kid in my class, out of all the classes, that had divorced parents. Eventually, others ‘caught up,’ but I was feeling ashamed that my dad wasn’t living with us. People would say, ‘Hey, I’ve been over to your house and I’ve never seen your dad.’ And I’d say: ‘Oh, he’s working.’

“I just couldn’t say: ‘Oh, he doesn’t live with us.’ “

Linklater holds that thought for a beat.

“Now it’s just no big deal. That’s why I think [in ‘Boyhood’], I showed a divorced family. . . . All my daughters’ friends have stepsiblings,” notes Linklater, who has 10-year-old twin daughters and a 20-year-old daughter, Lorelei (who plays Mason Jr.’s sister Samantha in the film).

The filmmaker thinks about how so many kids shuttle between their divorced parents’ homes — one week with Mom, one week with Dad. “They’ve done studies that say it’s better for kids to have a primary home,” he says. “Meanwhile, we have a half-generation of guinea pigs.”

Over the years, the boy at the center of “Boyhood” endures two stepfathers who drink heavily, while his biological father’s romances remain more of a mystery. Then one of these women suddenly becomes Stepmom.

“I never knew who my dad was dating,” says Linklater, whose “bio-dad” lived in Houston while the boy lived with his mom in such Texas towns as Huntsville. “I never met a woman he was dating until she was my stepmom. It just went from my mom to radio silence and then — boom — she was my stepmom. There had to have been with others. But you know, I didn’t see that.

“Likewise, on weekends, he was just all fun. Ballgames and museums and movies — fun stuff,” Linklater says. (In the film, Hawke, as the fun-loving weekend dad, takes his kids to a Houston Astros game.) “It wasn’t like, do your [expletive] homework.”

The film, though, is “kind of from the mom’s side,” he says of the role played by Patricia Arquette. “And the primary caregiver, they can’t hide who they’re dating.”

“Boyhood” may be “from the mom’s side,” but the perspective, Linklater says, is clearly that of the kids. So the director plumbed his own memories to depict the shift when a parent’s romantic partner suddenly becomes an authority figure.

“With my mom, I didn’t approve that,” Linklater says of his childhood reaction to his mother’s remarriage — and a sudden stepfather. “I resented him having authority over me. It’s like: Wow, you haven’t earned the right. Even if you’re a little kid, it feels awkward — the authority they’re wielding. Your biological parents, [you] just admit there’s something kind of natural — you kind of have to deal with that. But [with a stepparent] it’s like: Who the [expletive] are you? That’s a fraught relationship.”

As a filmmaker, Linklater often says that he’s a “no-plot” guy — character, mood and emotion are more important. He thrives on the moments that some would call banal, because that’s where he finds resonance.

“What am I thinking about is the memory of what feels real,” Linklater says. “The big moments, they’re not even yours. Ultimately, your own funeral is not even yours. You’re not even there. So it’s like, your birth, you don’t remember. Your death, you’re not there. Your wedding, you’re so angsted-out — not that I’ve been married — but I don’t know anyone who had fun. . . . Graduation is strictly an institutional thing. . . . Even your first kiss. It’s so fraught, it became inconsequential really fast.

“This movie,” Linklater says of “Boyhood,” “is simply a collection of intimate little moments. No one much bigger than the other. . . . All the kind of stuff that would get cut out of other movies.”

One milestone Linklater does mark in “Boyhood” is a birthday celebrated with older relatives.

“It really happened to me,” Linklater says of the celebration with grandparents. “But I was 13, not 15. And it was Christmas, not a birthday. I always say: It was my ‘redneck bar mitzvah’ year.”

The scene, dramatized without judgment, reflects how love can be expressed across generations. “The grandmother gave me the Bible, because she cares about my soul in that way,” Linklater says. “And from the grandfather, I got the gun, and he taught me stuff — you know, his realm. And I got to go out and shoot at some food or whatever. I never liked hunting, but I liked target practice. . . . It’s fun for a little boy to shoot a damned gun. I enjoyed that gun culture. . . .

“And it’s such a cultural divide — religion and guns,” says the director, moving to the larger social implications. “I think the left really lost Southern white people. Which is a shame, because economically, they hadn’t, but they lost it over these two things. And if you have a little bit of understanding and say: ‘You know, there’s nothing malevolent here.’ General sportsmen, just like general religion — in the movie, they’re such sweet people.

“My stepgrandparents accepted us and loved us immediately into their family. And I have such warmth for them. But that was their culture. They were Southern Baptists. My dad was more of a Unitarian. . . . We were being part of a family. I’m glad I was exposed to it.”

In the mid-1970s, for his senior season of high school baseball, Linklater moved to Houston, where he could live with his biological father for the first time. Linklater had channeled much of his boyhood energy into sports, and now, at Houston’s storied Bellaire High, Linklater could play for a past state champion.

Linklater, who is 5-foot-9, was a lean speedster in left field and on the base paths. “I hit .400, stole over 100 bases in my career. I was fast; good bunter; average arm,” he says with a no-nonsense clarity, breaking down his strengths and weaknesses like someone who sizes up talent for a living.

Linklater says he almost broke the school’s single-season record for stolen bases until the coach, Ray Knoblauch (father of eventual major-leaguer Chuck Knoblauch), stopped giving him the “go” sign. “I wanted to show off for the scouts, swing away more instead of bunt,” he says, “but I was willing to play my role.”

Linklater accepted a baseball scholarship to Sam Houston State University, where he started for one season before an infection led to an irregular heartbeat: He was forced to quit the game. He left school, worked on an oil rig for a couple of years, and saved his money for his new passion: filmmaking. He would co-found the Austin Film Society in 1985, which dedicated itself to showcasing all varieties of experimental and independent film.

A dozen years ago, as Linklater set about casting his “Boyhood” star, he sought to avoid any kid who reminded him of the athlete he himself had been.

During his playing days, “I was out in left, having an existential crisis, trying to clear my mind,” Linklater says. “You try to bring [your game] and get everything else out of your mind. If I could take my mind now back to when I was 17, 18. . . . I’m much more calm now. You hit a Zen calm.”

In casting Coltrane, the director chose a boy who wasn’t a professional kid performer; they tend to be people-pleasers, the filmmaker says. He chose the home-schooled Austin kid “with arty parents.”

“I wasn’t going to find someone who represented all these facets of me,” Linklater says, “so I chose the sensitive, artistic kid — not the competitive athlete; that’s not my best side. I picked the better part of myself.”

Linklater’s mother recently watched “Boyhood” for the first time.

“I was a little nervous,” Linklater says, particularly given the autobiography running through the film.

He called her. “I was like, ‘Hey, Mom.’ She said: ‘It was beautiful. I saw it twice.’ I was like, ‘Twice?’ And she [said] her Blu-Ray just played it again [when it was over], ‘So I just watched it again.” I was like: “Wow, you don’t have much to do these days? Five and a half hours of screening.”

“She was like: ‘Aww, it reminds me of all the times [in your youth] — like, we would coerce you to move, like: ‘Oh, it’s got a pool.’ I was like, ‘Oh, look at the upside. We’re going to have a pool.’ You know? And she remembered all that.”

Yet Linklater was relieved for another reason. “She didn’t really see [and get] everything.” Not every bit of autobiographical detail was surfaced so directly.

His reaction? “Good. I thought I had kind of nicely weaved it in.”

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R. Contains profanity, including sexual references, and teen drug and alcohol use. 166 minutes.