Boyhood, as you've probably already heard, is a different kind movie. Shot over the course of 12 years with the same cast, filmmaker Richard Linklater's perceptive ode to family and the life of one specific boy (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18 is also about the simple passage of time — a topic most studios have little interest in exploring.
Of course, Linklater has never been much of a studio guy (IFC supported the project from the beginning, and is distributing Boyhood now that it's finally finished). His diverse films buzz with ideas and incessant talk — talk that often sounds off-the-cuff real (see Before Sunrise and its two sequels), not crafted by some overly structured screenwriter. Conventional narrative arc is of little concern to Linklater, and that's certainly the case in Boyhood, the languid story of a fractured family just going about their everyday lives in modern-day Texas. (Coltrane is joined by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who play his divorced parents, and the director's own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, as his older sister.)
CityBeat recently discussed Boyhood with Arquette, who took a serious leap of faith by committing a dozen years to make a movie she had no assurance would ever be released. Part of a large family of actors, Arquette burst onto the scene more than 20 years ago as Alabama Worley, one of many memorable characters in Tony Scott's Quentin Tarantino-penned True Romance. Since then, Arquette has acted steadily if discerningly, moving from work with high-profile filmmakers like David Lynch and Martin Scorsese to a six-year stint on TV's Medium, always delivering a rare emotional resonance along the way.
CityBeat: After 12 years, and not really knowing what you were making, what has it been like for you now that the film is out and getting such a positive response?
Patricia Arquette: It is really weird because we were making the movie that we wanted to make, we were telling a specific story, but Rick (Linklater) had thrown out all conventional wisdom about story writing, catering to a demographic, all that sort of thing that they teach you. I think because of that, it's affecting people of all ages, oddly enough.
Basically, it's totally blown my mind, the response. I had no idea. I've been shocked in the most beautiful way. Look, I know we did work our butts off, I know it really meant a lot to us and I know we showed up, but just to feel people resonate with this movie the way we did is amazing. Ellar (Coltrane) and Rick said, "We really made this movie with love, but it's really been matched with the same vibration, the same love that we made it with." We've received that back. It's crazy.
CB: I read that you were eager to work with Rick no matter what the project was going to be. Why were you so interested in working with him?
PA: I always really liked his work, and when he told me about his idea — I had a 12-year-old at the time — of watching a child's life rush by, I felt like I was already living that. I really wanted to see it onscreen. I also wanted to see Ethan (Hawke) and I get older. I wanted to see the life cycle of a human being and how fast it moves.
And then when Rick said he didn't really have a script — honestly, usually I would back away from that. As an actor, you depend a lot on your script, you make a lot of your character choices by your script unless you really understand the tone of it. I could have ended up in a really crappy situation, with a piece of junk that I ethically had given my word to for 12 years. There are times when it's really not great fun to work with certain people. But with this, in that first conversation, we spent a couple hours talking about moms and our moms, observations of different moms and who this mom was, who she was with her kids, and I really felt the movie when talking to Rick the first time.
CB: So there wasn't really a script at the beginning? What was the process like for you in putting the story together over the years?
PA: You know, the main changes of the family were in place, and at a certain age, your family is your whole world. Wherever they go, you go. That's just the way it is. Like, "Hey, we're living in Oklahoma. Nope, we're moving to Las Vegas now, surprise!" Then you start going to school and it's your peer group, you start breaking away a little bit from your family plot. And then you start making your own choices of where you're going to go on Friday night or where you're going to get a job or where you're going to start having outside influences that are more important than your family in some ways.
So Rick left a lot of room to see who they developed into (in real life), even though they were still characters. Ellar did say that he was interested in photography. Rick would ask him every year what he was going through, what he was doing. Rick didn't want him to do onscreen anything he hadn't already done (in his own life) first. So he'd check in with him and be like, "What are you doing, man?" And Ellar would be like, "Well, I have a girlfriend." So then Rick could introduce a girlfriend.
He didn't want Ellar's first kiss in real life to be in a movie.
CB: One of the other interesting things about Boyhood is its subtle use of what was going on in the culture and how things change over the years: music, technology, politics. But Rick also didn't overdo it on the cultural touchstones. It seems like he got a pretty good balance.
PA: Yeah, exactly. And if you removed all that it would seem like you weren't looking at a real life. Already so many things have changed. If you started this movie today, parental rights have changed — a lot of fathers have their kids 50/50. Kids are on their devices with their friends in the room. Families are texting over dinner. Already the world's changed so dramatically. In Japan, people's primary relationships are computer girlfriends. The birth rate's dropping by like 50 percent there.
CB: What was it like for you to play such a passive woman in the face of abuse from men?
PA: For me that was hard. We'd have a lot of discussions about that. A kid watching an abusive situation, and their mom being passive, that's damaging. If I were really in that situation, I would poke the man in the eye with a fork. That would also be incredibly damaging, but that is my nature. One guy pulled my hair once, and I left him and never went back. But that was part of what was fun — playing these blind spots.
CB: What was it like to come back to film each year? Did you have trouble getting back into the character's skin, getting back into the continuity of her narrative and emotional arc?
PA: It wasn't hard, because when we'd come back the first thing we would do is workshop all the scenes for that year. And there was something that was so intense and fun and interesting and exciting about the workshopping process, the way he (Linklater) would run it, that would get us all back into it. Also I felt like I had a strong handle on her. The weird thing is that when you're an actor you can access those characters again. You make them. I still have a little of (True Romance's) Alabama Worley in me. I still have some of all these characters in me. Given a few days, I could be any of them again.
CB: There's a scene near the end in which your character tells Ellar, as he's about to leave for college, that she thought there were be more to her life. What do you think she thought her life would be like? What was her expectation?
PA: I had a very different experience sending my kid off to college. This was more things Ethan's mom said when he went to college, things our producer, Cathleen (Sutherland), had said to her daughter when she went to college. My experience of sending my kid off to college, which happened during the course of this movie, was very different. It was more about me shoring him up. I didn't want him to be nervous. I didn't want him to be insecure. I wanted him to know it was OK — everyone was nervous, but it was OK. And then when he drove away I cried for nine hours, "My baby, my baby!"
But, personally, when I went through that, I was like, "What the hell is going on? I'm going to die tomorrow!" I had just turned 40. I was like, "What have I done, what haven't I done? My god — I've never been to Russia! What's happening! What am I doing with this life?" I was like, "What a waste of time! I need to do things!"
CB: I'm curious, since you mentioned True Romance, which came out more than 20 years ago, how you feel about your own career at this point? Are you where you thought you'd be when you started out? Did you know what to expect because you had an older sister who was an actress?
PA: I did know from my dad that a lot of it is out of your hands. If you get offered something, you can say yes or no to it, but there are a lot of parts you want that you don't get. Then there are a lot of parts where you work your ass off and it just falls apart and there's nothing you can do about it.
When True Romance came out, it was green-lit by someone else at the studio. He had gotten fired before it came out. The new guy didn't want to put a lot of money into promoting True Romance; he wanted to save his money for his own projects. And even though they were at the same company, and it would have done the company well to actually fully support the movie, a lot times they don't support it and just dump the movie because they want the success to be on their projects, not on their predecessors'.
One of the crazy things about this movie was that (IFC President) Jonathan Sehring never got fired. I mean, those guys really get fired a lot, but he had his job for 12 years at IFC. It was unbelievable. I kept waiting for the year where we were going to lose our financing.
CB: You mentioned that True Romance didn't do all that well at the box office when it came out, but it has had a healthy afterlife on home video. It's pretty much a cult classic at this point. I'm sure you get people all the time who tell you they love that movie and the character you played in it.
PA: Yeah, I do, and that's beautiful. Art wins in the end.
CB: Shortly after True Romance you said that you had no interested in playing the ingenue onscreen. Why did you want to run away from that in such an overt way?
PA: Well, it's a very short shelf life to be like a very beautiful peach or something. If you want to have a lifetime career, do you want to have the career of Angela Lansbury's, or do you want to have the career of Marilyn Monroe's? I know Marilyn Monroe had this big career, but it was so difficult for her when she started getting older. People are trapped in this expectation thing. It can be brutal. And also it is part of the story of man and woman, this like desirability issue. It's part of this life force and mating and desire, but it's not the whole story of human beings. If you really want to have a long-term career, it's pretty boring ultimately.
CB: You've worked with a lot of interesting directors over the years: David Lynch, Marty Scorsese, Michel Gondry, David O. Russell and others. How is Rick both similar and different than those people in his approach?
PA: All those people have an amazing depth of knowledge about film. They are all true film lovers. They will reference everybody else's work all the time. They'll talk about movies they saw. They'll talk about how shots were done. They have a voracious appetite for the technical, but then also as a moviegoer. They are real students of film, and Rick is very much that. He's been running the Austin Film Society for a long time. He's a real champion of other filmmakers. He's a fan of other filmmakers.
He also has a very cool disposition. It would take a lot to ruffle his feathers. He knows what he is doing. He's a very calm captain of the ship. There were things that went on with this movie. One year it was like IFC had closed their books and forgotten they were making this movie. When we needed money Rick was like, "Well, luckily my house just burned down. I'll use the insurance money for now." He was like, "Don't worry about it; it will work out." There were moments we we'd be like, "Man, what are we going to do? Are we all going to take out loans?" And he was like, "No, no, no, I got it. It's cool."
The other thing that was incredible about him was that he knew when to assert himself and when to be specific, and when to back off and let other people bring things. Then he would choose from there. It was never like this, "I'm the director, and therefore I must be uptight about everything and we have to do this shoot every July 4 and I have to insert myself everywhere or it won't feel like I'm the director."
He would talk about things. He would have you bring things. We would all improvise. He'd be like, "That's really interesting, but it's not right for this movie." He was curating all the time, but it never felt like you weren't allowed to be free.
CB: How was his way of working different than other filmmakers? It seems like his tendency to use long takes is something most actors would cherish.
PA: The way that I look at his work is that there is no more intimate filmmaker in America, or maybe anywhere, working right now. To have, like in the Before Sunrise series, a 15-minute one-take argument with a married couple, trying to get to the nitty-gritty of their stuff together. That is intimacy. He also writes complicated women, and he likes women.
Oftentimes as an actress, frankly, you feel so many false notes in characters that are written. They're very stunted characters because they don't have all the things in life. They don't have a sense of their own humor. They don't have a sexuality, or if they have that they never do anything wrong. Are they the good mom or the bad mom? So many projects have to take sides, when in reality it's probably a little bit of both.
CB: Speaking of the Before Sunrise trilogy, do you see you guys getting together again at some point to make another movie with these (Boyhood) characters?
PA: I don't know. It's sort of like asking a woman right now who just got of labor, "Hey, are you ready to have another baby?"
CB: Well, it might be interesting to come back 12 years from now and see where these characters are.
PA: Yeah, of course it would. The crazy thing is that the second installment of Before Sunrise (2004's Before Sunset), they thought about making that while shooting this movie. They thought, "We should go back and revisit Jesse and Celine." So even though everyone thinks, "Oh, that's in the past," this movie and that thought process was already leading that. People were like, "What did you think when you saw those movies?" I thought, "How can I kill Julie Delpy (because she got such a good part)?" Just kidding! I like her a lot.
BOYHOOD opens locally Friday at Esquire and Kenwood theatres.