This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap magazine.
Ellar Coltrane, who was six years old when he was first cast in “Boyhood,” stood at TheWrap’s Oscar party in early February, all grown up and more than a little worn out. “It’s going to be weird,” he said with a slight grin, looking ahead three weeks to the day after the Academy Awards.
“For the last year, I’ve seen these people almost every week. They’re some of my best friends. And when it’s over, I don’t know …” He stopped. He smiled. And he shrugged, suddenly at a loss for words.
As the charmed run of Richard Linklater’s improbable Oscar contender approaches ground zero at the Dolby Theatre on Feb. 22, a couple of significant journeys are coming to an end. There’s the journey that resulted in the movie itself, of course — an audacious, much-told tale of how Linklater decided to film a boy’s childhood from first grade to the eve of college, getting together with his cast for a week or two every year to let his actors age naturally over a dozen years.
He and editor Sandra Adair put it all together into a lovely, wise and heartfelt chronicle of four lives, showing Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater age from kids to young adults, and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke do some of the best work of their careers as the parents.
But since then, there has been another journey. That second journey took Boyhood from a crazy idea to a festival hit to a solid commercial indie to a real Oscar contender for IFC Films — with a boost from Universal, which took worldwide rights to the film, and Paramount, which released it on home video.
That journey has found Linklater, Coltrane, Arquette, Hawke and the rest of Team “Boyhood” getting together constantly for film festivals, premieres, Q&A screenings and receptions and, in recent months, for one awards show after another. That journey will come to an end on Oscar night, win or lose, and it may leave the entire “Boyhood” family wondering what they’d just been through, and whether they’ll ever have another experience remotely like it.
“I’ve been in this business long enough to know, it’s an incredible thing we have achieved, a mind-boggling thing,” Arquette told TheWrap. “In this business, where it has become harder and harder to make a small movie, it’s a miracle that this movie got made, and a miracle that people showed up to see it.
“And really, it could only have been Rick.”
Linklater, though, comes across less like a miracle-worker than the low-key Texan he is, bemused by the wave he’s been riding since the film debuted at Sundance a year ago and pretty laid-back in the face of critics’ awards and Golden Globes and the like. If the underlying strategy of the “Boyhood” campaign has been to sit back and let flashier movies grab the spotlight, it’s a strategy that suits the guy behind the movie.
So if you dare tell Linklater that he could be a frontrunner, as I did in a conversation that took place before “Birdman” edged into that position with wins at the Producers Guild, Directors Guild and SAG Awards, expect some pushback.
“I’ve gotta say, if we step back just a little bit, that’s insane,” he said with a smile. “How can we be anything but a David to someone’s Goliath?”
David, though, has been working steadily to stay in this battle. “I think we’re in our fourth phase now,” admitted Linklater. “There was pre-release, Sundance and Berlin and South By [Southwest]. Then the July release. Then DVD, VOD and iTunes. And that sort of slid right into the awards stuff.”
That journey began at Sundance, where the film screened out of competition, and where Arquette saw it for the first time since she’d watched a rough cut after year five. (“It was really, really surreal on many levels,” she said.) Then the Berlin Film Festival, where Linklater said he was amused to find his daughter Lorelei suddenly getting a kick out of posing on the red carpet. Then SXSW, where he brought the film to his hometown of Austin to a hero’s welcome.
But Linklater always had his doubts about how the adventurous, slow-paced film would be received, which he’d tried to communicate to Coltrane. “I’ve worked with actors, particularly young actors, who think, ‘Oh, the film’s gonna come out and it’ll be a hit,’” he said. “I remember trying to prepare Ellar for the film being out in the world — but I wasn’t preparing him for success, I was preparing him for disappointment.
“Honestly, I was telling him, ‘Don’t go thinking this thing we’ve done is going to be a big deal.’”
To show Coltrane what he was up against, he added, he asked the young actor to describe “Boyhood.” When Coltrane started talking about the film’s themes in some detail, Linklater told him to stop.
“I said, ‘This is the reason no one’s ever gonna see this movie. Because people go to movies when there’s an idea that can catch them, and this movie doesn’t have that. It’s too hard to describe life and time and growing up — there isn’t enough of a narrative, not enough of a specific dramatic thing.”
He shook his head. “I was completely oblivious to the fact that the making-of story, the fact that we spent 12 years making it, would be the compelling pitch.”
The backstory got lots of attention, and the reviews did the rest. “As an actor, you can have a love-hate relationship with critics,” said Arquette. “But with this movie, its success has so much to do with the critical support that it had, especially early on. I don’t think we’d be getting any awards if it hadn’t been for so many critics coming forward and being moved by the movie, and talking about why this movie was special.
“Look, I’ve been a part of many beautiful movies that were bombs. ‘True Romance’ was a bomb. ‘Lost Highway’ made a little ripple, but mostly it was an underground cult thing. ‘Flirting With Disaster’ was a little more popular, but still it was a small, quirky movie. Even though these movies went on to have solid followings, at the time they didn’t. So something like this is weirdly new, and it started with the critics.”
After a flurry of Q&As when the movie was released, Linklater and his cast laid low for a couple of months, letting the fall festival movies grab the spotlight. In the interim, the director went off and shot another film, a comedy that he calls “a spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused,” financed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna for Paramount.
“IFC was funny,” said Linklater. “They said, ‘Well, we can’t keep you from doing what you do — but as soon as you’re done, we own you.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I guess I’ll never see my kids again. But it’s cool, because it let me come back to “Boyhood” in a more reflective way.”
As the year-end approached, “Boyhood” became by far the most popular film among critics’ groups, scoring rare victories from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, as well as the lion’s share of other regional groups.
Its winning streak continued through the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, until “Birdman” scored an upset victory at the Producers Guild Awards and seized some momentum in the Best Picture race.
All of which doesn’t change the fact that Linklater is still the calmest guy in every room, with two pretty groundbreaking achievements under his belt — “Boyhood” and the completion of his “Before” trilogy in 2013 — and a few other ambitious projects lurking in the wings.
“I was confident in the film itself, that it was what we set out to do,” he said. “But I had no confidence in everything else lining up. It’s rare that you get audience and critics and boxoffice, so I’m telling Ellar and Lorelei, ‘This doesn’t happen that much.’ You have to appreciate it when it does, because this is kind of the best response you can visualize.”
Added Arquette, “As we were making this movie over the years, there were times when I thought, philosophically I agree with Rick’s concept, which was to pare everything back to its most essential and simple elements. But having been in this business as a business for so long, I knew that that was totally unconventional.
“It was breaking every rule of storytelling. There were times when I thought, I think that’s beautiful, and you think that’s beautiful, but I don’t know if anyone else will understand the subtle beauty of it.”
A pause, and a grin. “But it’s so lovely to be proven wrong.”