Ali Naderzad, editor of Screen Comment, and Saïdeh Pakravan, film critic, discuss Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”
Saïdeh Pakravan: Your first remark about the film was about the distillation of images and episodes. You said you found great purity in that.
Ali Naderzad: Yes, in the sense that the filmmaker goes directly to the essence of each character but also to the representation of each character at different periods. Including the children, adolescents, the divorced parents, the single mother. These are all very pure representations, without clichés, very close to reality, with almost a documentary quality to them. It’s very well done.
SP: One critic said about “Boyhood” that where any filmmaker, whether indie or mainstream, would have traditionally ended a scene right after a crucial moment in order to give it more impact, Linklater lets it flow until it stops naturally, as it were. Which creates a particular rhythm.
AN: I don’t think so. I didn’t find the scenes flowing differently from what is usually done. Linklater follows tradition in the way a scene moves forward until the moment he stops it. But there is also the fact that there is no crucial moment, not many important things happening. What he does is leave a great deal to the viewer’s imagination. I found that very subtle. He treats the public as an intelligent one.
SP: Absolutely. And also as a public that can become involved, find itself both in the images of childhood, as everyone has been a child, and with parenthood. Identifying with both is easy and that may be why this film touches so many people. I’ve heard it said that it’s the best film of the year or that it’s at least the best indie film of the year. And truly, it doesn’t fall in any category. No one has ever made a film in these conditions. There is Michael Apted’s documentary series, “Up” (note: Since 1964, the British director has been following fourteen individuals who were seven years old at the beginning, with an update every seven years) but it’s not at all the same principle. “Boyhood” is not a documentary but a story, one that is developed over twelve years.
AN: It’s true that it belongs in a category different from all others. It’s like a passion project, something one keeps in mind, that is not central in the filmmaker’s life but continues until it’s finally completed. If the film can be said to be almost perfect, it’s because so much work has gone into it and Linklater has followed his initial thought all the way.
SP: He is labeled an indie filmmaker but this film is so different from everything that it’s hard to categorize… As we know, he shot three days a year for 12 years. But, as he says in interviews, even when he was not working directly on “Boyhood,” even when working on other projects, this film was always on the back burner, Linklater was always thinking about various moments of his characters’ lives. Also, he had two years of pre-production and two of post. So, although it was a film that took up little time every year, it still benefited from very elaborate preparation. Linklater thought about many details. For example, he says that he didn’t use digital technique as it would have evolved too much over twelve years, so he shot in 35 mm.
What I find very important in what he did is that he doesn’t simply tell a story. There are others who don’t tell a story. Jean-Luc Godard’s films, except the very first ones, don’t tell a story. But what Linklater does is tell a story without doing so. He says that thinking about childhood when he started this project, he wondered what remains of childhood or even, in general, what creates memories. Do we remember the important moments or the others, the lesser ones? It’s the smaller things, the fleeting impressions, that stay with us, a collection of those lesser moments. He says there is no story, no narrative, that we won’t find in his film the things that usually move a story from one scene to the next.
AN. That’s true, there is no conflict, no resolution, no goal, objective, destination, none of what you find in a story and, of course, in a film. It’s just life happening.
SP. What I find quite extraordinary in this project is how he lets people evolve. Between Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke) there is a story. When we meet them, they’re no longer a couple but we gradually find out about their past, that they married too young, had children too soon, separated. They weren’t able to have a life together. The intensity of youth, the clashes, wouldn’t allow them to. But there has been an evolution. At first, the relation is antagonistic, like when Mason goes to his mother-in-law to get his children for the weekend. As years pass, the relation becomes milder, more serene, as it generally does in life. At the end, at the celebration for young Mason’s graduation, the father is present with his new wife and on good terms with his ex.
AN: Yes. There’s no need to explain, to add details. Things just flow as they do in life. As a viewer, because things develop as they do in real life, you get it, it’s coherent. It’s flawless, the perspective is fundamental and very human.
SP. When we were getting the tickets, the cashier said that she had already seen it twice. Yet for me, she wasn’t the type I’d expect to like « Boyhood ».
AN: I think that’s because it’s a film that can work for all audiences, without seeming to aim to do so. It can speak to anyone. But I also find it rather a mysterious film. There are hidden aspects, it’s not simple. You see all these lives, a long overview of each one and its evolution. Yet there is also a social commentary and of course a very liberal point of view. There’s the almost cartoonish description of Ethan Hawke’s new in-laws, the Bible, the rifle, all that. Linklater has a very liberal vision— with an open perspective, not a traditional one—about marriage and the fact that it often falls apart and children have to deal with that.
People are constantly moving, the children fall in the hands of stepdads, one after the other, who are pretty awful. Poor Mason has it particularly hard with these guys. From that point of view, the social commentary is tragic, it’s depressing. You don’t know if Mason is going to be all right or if it’s going to affect him much. You never find out because the characters leave us when they’re not yet fully developed. An individual isn’t mature at twenty, sometimes not even at thirty. But the vision of the social situation is rather brutal and real. It’s scary. It shows the vulnerability of children, their utter dependency, in this case upon their mother.
SP: That woman is amazing. She starts out, before the beginning of the story, as a very young girl, a child still, who falls pregnant and has no idea what she’s going to do with her life. By the time we meet her, she’s taken things into her hands, she goes to college, she becomes a professor, she marries an alcoholic, gets rid of him, marries another alcoholic and gets rid of that one. As a mother, she’s both involved and distracted. Then one day she decides that’s it. She says, they’re old enough, I want a life of my own. I’m getting rid of the house, getting an apartment, getting rid of stuff I don’t need. For the rest, holidays and so on, things will work out.
AN: I think the mother is the most accomplished character in the film…
SP: They’re all accomplished. They manage to convey layers of complicated emotions in the simplest way. Ethan Hawke too is superb.
AN: He is, but the mother is like the sun that shines on all these characters. She’s the most developed. True, the character of the biological father has a lot of complexity and I don’t think there could have been a better choice than this for the part. It’s so well done… Ethan Hawke, at his age, is still living with a roommate, a musician, a handsome guy who does drugs. You can tell Hawke’s character has had problems, that he’s ill-equipped for life, a bit of a loser, though he has a good head on is shoulder.
SP: He’s not a loser, just not quite where he should be at his age. Then he finds his place. I think in the end everything boils down to a sentence (which I can’t quote exactly.) When the son asks his father, so what’s the answer to everything ? The father says, you think there’s an answer ? Actually, we’re all winging it. I find that the very definition of this film.
AN. What I like about it is not only that it gives a true image of American, which has been done over and over, but a very positive one. It’s a very American movie, it takes place in Austin, Texas, but you see a liberal America, more or less serene, which offers something better than Republicans do. You can see that beside the social commentary, Linklater has also wanted to be clear politically.
SP: Like the scene where he has his son steal a McCain-Palin sign from somebody’s lawn…
AN: Right. Then there’s a lot of great stunts. For instance, the way Linklater shows the passage of time through technology. Technology and haircuts. When you’re a filmmaker and make a film that takes place over twelve years, there are concerns regarding continuity, how to show that time passes. Hence, technology.
SP: But also people’s age. There’s nothing in common between a six-year old and an eighteen-year old, even though it’s the same actors.
AN: Actually, I didn’t see it that about Mason. His sister Samantha grows up and her appearance changes but I found Mason unchanged for a long time, so much so that for a while I wondered if he didn’t have growth problems. But the technology helps us get our bearings. You see him in school using an old Mac with a huge monitor, a computer that takes up the entire screen, and you know the year is 2000. Then, at a party, music is played on an iPod, one of the very first ones, on a dock. After that, when they’re visiting Ethan Hawke’s new in-laws, Samantha is working on one of the first Apple MacBooks. All that gives a sense of time. That and the haircuts. You can’t always tell the year but you get a sense of the passage of time, clearly Linklater has put a lot of work into that. It may not have been hard but you get the intent.
SP: He must have worked hard on many aspects. It’s not at all an improvised film even though he says in the end the dialogue is different from what it was originally. Scenes are tightly written but he gives his actors much leeway, he doesn’t ask them to repeat dialogue word for word. The other interesting thing is the importance of music. He asked people who were his characters’ age in this or that year what they were listening to back then and that’s the soundtrack. He didn’t just pick music. All that is very thought-through.
AN: The last comment I wanted to make is that in a man-to-woman comparison, who comes off best? Are the women in the film stronger, more resilient, more nurturing toward their families?
SP: Isn’t it a fact of life? Women take care of the nest, of kids, they don’t leave, they don’t let go. Don’t they have to continue, no matter the conditions, and isn’t that true no matter where in the world they are?