Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.
Any feature filmed over 12 years that chronicles the journey from boy to man requires a big leap of faith from all involved, in particular the filmmaker.
Lucky for Richard Linklater, who has had some experience with filming over time with films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, it’s a gamble that has paid off spectacularly, with the coming-of-age drama Boyhood receiving almost unanimous international critical acclaim since premiering at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
With a 99% certified "fresh" rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes (based on 187 reviews) and a perfect score on similar site Metacritic, Boyhood seems to have captured the imaginations of even the toughest critics, a feat which can be attributed not only to Linklater’s direction but also to the boy at the centre of the film – Ellar Coltrane.
The audience meets Coltrane’s Mason Jr. at six years old – a cute looking kid who lives with his sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) and single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) in Texas. We then follow him throughout his journey from childhood to adolescence to manhood, meeting a host of characters along the way; including his cool-but-unreliable dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a string of unsuitable step-fathers, his high school sweetheart and eventually, new friends at collage.
It has been a surreal experience for Eltrane, now 19, who, after a decade of filming in relative anonymity now has stepped into the spotlight.
“It’s strange,” he tells IF when in Australia for the Sydney Film Festival. “I’ve seen that [filming] side of the industry for so long and this [promotional tour] is entirely new for me. I’ve been acting for a while, but I’ve never been an actor for a film that people are seeing.”
Because the story spanned over so many years, Linklater would adjust the script according to what was going on in Eltrane’s real life at the time of filming; adding a personal touch to what was already a very personal tale.
“There was a synopsis from the very beginning, which was really for the first year and Rick had everything else in his head,” says producer Cathleen Sutherland. “He just kept it there and then we’d finish a year and he would be think, ‘ok here’s what I’m thinking of for the next part’ and we’d talk about that and get that synopsis done. Then, right before going into actually filming in those weeks before he’ll talk about Ellar, talk to him about what’s going on in his life, and talk to Ethan and Patricia too.
“We would have rehearsals and workshop that material, and work out some of that dialogue, he’d get it down on paper and we’d have pages. We’d have a script for that year sometimes the day before.”
Asked if the content ever got too close to home, Coltrane replies: “Very little of it was that direct. It was more situational, subtle things, working out the subtleties of the way I was interacting with people, the way I felt about things. As far as specific story elements, none of that really came from my life. It’s strange – this character who has so much of my personality projected… there is just so much of it that’s just entirely fiction.”
Coltrane does agree that watching the film – and himself maturing without – is an unusual experience.
“The stuff from when I was younger was definitely interesting and bizarre because I don’t remember shooting a lot of the first couple of years,” he says. “It’s just this tiny person. Intellectually I know it is me. Even there are parts of my personality that I see in this tiny person and that’s bizarre to see how little I changed from six or seven but then there was this person doing things that I don’t remember. Intellectually I know I did them.
“I mean it’s all a trip to watch, to watch myself. I think the kind of times in my life when I felt more – when I was more – lost or insecure or unsure of my own existence. It’s interesting to kind of see myself during those periods – that I went through this and factored this. That I was a real person even if I didn’t feel like it.”
The overwhelming positive response to the film has also been an eye-opening experience, with Coltrane admitting he is often approached by people who struggle to believe Mason is indeed all grown up. What about the film, in his opinion, has been so successful in connecting to its viewers?
“The most powerful thing to me is how precious our time is – how important it is to appreciate the great moment of your existence,” he says. “A lot of people these days kind slip into apathy towards reality. It’s a lot more fun to appreciate things. That’s what I hope what people take from it – that it’s your job to appreciate your life – that’s what growing up is– that’s what the final moment is.
“I’m kind of realizing it at the same moment and I can see that in people when they watch it as well. Because it’s very important to see that.”
Boyhood hits Australian cinemas on September 4.
View the trailer below.