Richard Linklater: About a 'Boyhood'

How Oscar-nominated director Richard Linklater spent 12 years turning his life into a masterpiece

Ellar Coltrane in 'Boyhood.' Homepage photo by Matt Lankes/IFC Films

Memories of youth remain forever close and mysterious to most of us, but few recall the everyday moments of early life with the intensity of Richard Linklater. The 54-year-old Texas filmmaker still sees his initialed ID bracelet on the slim left wrist of Jill Hardy as she's telling him she no longer wants to be his fifth-grade girlfriend; his older sister Susan's face as she passed along word from their mother, Diane, that it was time to move again; what his mother looked like when things were working out with her latest man, and then when they weren't – it's all present for Linklater. So is the dull burnish of the restaurant tables he would bus after his wealthier high school friends had finished eating Sunday dinner with their mothers and fathers. "I really do remember everything," he says. "I see people I haven't seen in 20 years, and I can talk with them about what we talked about outside the high school."

Linklater has been drawing on the fine grain of his Texas youth all the way back to the no-direction travelers of Austin he portrayed in Slacker and the small-town adolescents who populate his ur-teenage rock & roll movie Dazed and Confused. His latest, Boyhood, is Linklater's 18th film, joining an eclectic body of work from the boy-meets-girl romance of Before Sunrise to the musical comedy of School of Rock. Linklater's films have an understated feel that can convey a certain directorial nonchalance. But to see the full Linklater in rapid succession is to appreciate the roughneck sweat of thought and detail that has gone into every one of them.

Boyhood recounts a boy named Mason's childhood from ages seven to 18. Linklater made Boyhood by regathering the same cast and shooting scenes every year from the time Mason enters first grade until he leaves for college. Watching someone grow up right in front of you is inherently compelling. So is the revelation that a man with a camera is confiding in you the truth of his early life. "I felt like I'm collaborating with the little boy I was, with myself as a parent and with my own parents," says Linklater. "My mom dated, as you can tell."

Linklater mostly grew up in Huntsville, a supermax East Texas prison town with a college where, like Olivia (Patricia Arquette, the mother in Boyhood), his own mother was a popular teacher. Linklater was a small-time pinball hustler, but Diane wouldn't allow him to talk like one: "She wouldn't let me have much of a Texas accent. She'd say, 'Don't say "ma'am." You sound like a hick.' " Diane was just 22 when Richard was born, joining Susan and another sister, Tricia.

Diane decamped for Huntsville two years after she and Linklater's father, Charles, an insurance underwriter, divorced. Richard was nine. Charles remained in Houston, where he was available for weekend bowling – a Disneyland dad. "My dad's chill," says Linklater. "He's the guy who, you wreck the car, he says, 'Well, nobody was hurt, it's just some metal.' "

Diane always was, he says, "a little radical," and as a younger person, Linklater's own institutional aversions meant "I had a blurry line. I had an outlaw larceny streak – theoretically. Could have been the guy moving marijuana, flying to Hawaii." Because Diane often changed addresses, Richard had many first days at new schools and also spent a lot of time redecorating. "I wanted my room perfect," he says. "As a little kid, you go where your parents drag you. You have no agency, no dominion." Walking around those houses was a succession of new boyfriends and stepfathers: "My mom's a pretty strong woman, but you might question her judgment."

Linklater says Boyhood is in large part about "adults sort of bumbling through parenting. Being a parent had not only dredged up my own youth, but it also seemed to have a self-conscious built-in auto-critique of all things to do with parenting. Who really knows how to do this shit?" One of Linklater's stepfathers was a corrections officer, not unlike a character in Boyhood, though the film is more sympathetic to the newjack than Linklater says he was: "To my self-absorbed junior-high self, I just came to resent his presence, but looking back, he was trying to help support a family he'd suddenly taken on."

Linklater grew up without many practical advantages in a part of the country he later sensed others looked down upon. "Took me a long time to know I was a nobody from nowhere," he says. All this created formative resentments that give subtle edge to his work. There were no summer camps for him. At 12, he was already in charge of upkeep for an apartment complex. "My whole life was called 'shit job,'" he says.

Charles says his son was "effortless, self-contained. He just did stuff. Then he'd tell you about it." Linklater had many girlfriends and many stolen bases. After a "full-blown existential crisis that was almost debilitating – very teenage," he moved to Houston for his senior year to live with his father and play for a better baseball team. "I don't brag about anything important," Linklater says, "but I will say I led the city of Houston in hitting." He won a baseball scholarship to Sam Houston State, and there were big-league dreams, though, his father says, "He was plenty good, but the arm would have held him back." When Linklater was discovered to have a heart condition, baseball was abruptly finished. "One day I'm playing," he says. "The next day I'm in the library reading and writing plays." Until he remade Bad News Bears, "nobody knew I was an ex-jock. It was bad enough being a guy from Buttfuck, Texas." While Pink, the socially fluid high school quarterback in Dazed, counts as a version of Linklater's athletic self – "He's a little bit of an anarchist and sees a world beyond a dumb game" – the director went the other way in Boyhood by casting Ellar Coltrane. "I had to make a choice which side of me," Link-later says. "I bet on the ethereal, arty guy as a more interesting kid."

Linklater eventually dropped out of college. He was 20, "an Emerson guy – self-reliance!" and went to work on an oil rig in the Texas Gulf, where he spent his downtime consuming novels, especially the Russians. On shore leave, he started watching movies, as many as four or five a day, and "began to realize that this was my medium, that I had films in my head."

It's always an insult when people think we improvised. Real talk would be horrible.

In 1983, he moved to Austin. He worked as a parking valet at a Doubletree and watched 600 films a year. He soon became a free-floating member of the University of Texas film community. Rather than enrolling, he pursued a self-designed study of film, right down to the technical manuals. In 1985, he founded the Austin Film Society with, as he would write in the 20th-anniversary program, "a loose coalition of freaks – asocial punks of various ages who wanted to live cinema." They showed movies that were then difficult to find: cult, experimental, underground, Super-8, foreign and banned films – the lonely place where Tarkovsky and Ozu met Fuller and Warhol. Soon the society became a nonprofit arts organization based above a cafe on the University of Texas main drag. All this revealed the sort of draft-horse entrepreneurial stamina necessary for getting first movies filmed and into theaters.

Slacker could have made Linklater a Gen-X spokesman – except that from the first he was ambitious, motivated and defined by his work. He just had a self-effacing way about him, as do his films, which are set in such low-key affect that people often believe the actors invent their lines. "It's always an insult when people think we improvised," Linklater says. "Real talk would be horrible."

"We're becoming Palo Alto," Linklater was saying as he drove through Austin in a little Honda Fit strewn with his 21-year-old daughter Lorelei's belongings. Linklater and Tina Harrison, his partner of 21 years, have three daughters. The 10-year-old twins dressed as "Sid and Nancy" for Halloween; Lorelei is now an art student in California. Because she was away, Linklater had the use of her car, which Lorelei had earned money toward by playing Mason's sister Samantha in Boyhood. Linklater's truck was in the shop, and anyway, as he noted, he'd paid for half the Fit. Linklater is proudly frugal – "I'm a Scot!" He dresses like a student, in shorts, sandals and T-shirts, every one of which he gets for free.

His manner is affable, complementing his broad, uninflected features. Only his dark, heavy-lidded, hangdog eyes suggest mischief and intent. He has a batting cage out at his Bastrop ranch, but is not a sports fan, he says, because that's "a pathology" as toxic as a cheeseburger and as depraved as conservative politics: "The GOP is a football team that'll do anything to win. To me, I'm a film fan. It's life-giving. Affirming."

He is a vegetarian, doesn't smoke or drink coffee and has a pet pig named the Dood. The Dood sleeps inside the house. Sleeping in the garage apartment at the moment is Bernie Tiede, a recently released murderer who was the subject of Linklater's black comedy Bernie.

Wiley Wiggins, who played versions of Linklater in Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, says Linklater has an easy manner that belies his steely discipline: "Rick is unable to hang up the phone or end an answering-machine message. I once had a collection of insane, rambling-Rick, weird Southern telephone goodbyes." Says Linklater with a shrug, "My films are the best of me. Hangin' with me, jawin' on, there's a certain random quality."

Like many artists who use their biographies in their work, Linklater seems to believe that making creative material of life's difficulties transforms and ennobles them. It also gives him belated control of what was once whanging out of it. "Just the right amount of trauma and volatility is probably a good thing for an artist," he says. "It exposes you to the frailty of life."

There seems to have been plenty of that, and the crucial explanation for why Linklater came to love films above all things is that here was something that could populate his inner self in thrilling, inspiring ways while also providing him with solace. "I prefer movies," he says. "I would visit a new town and go to the movie theater instead of sightseeing. Instead of India, I go to Satyajit Ray movies." Ethan Hawke, who has collaborated eight times with Linklater, can attest: "In Tangier, first thing Rick does is, 'Look at this! Brazil is playing!' "

Linklater makes movies because he believes their alternate world can compensate a little for the disappointments of this one. "I once got a letter from a guy who was a big Dazed and Confused fan," he says. "He'd had a head injury and forgotten his past. He thanked me for giving him a good feeling for what his high school years might have been like. If you put something out there tethered to your own memory and experience, people feel it almost subconsciously."

While filming Boyhood, Coltrane says, Linklater would give him "homework assignments to pull things out of my life. Bizarre things. He asked me the next time I was alone talking with a girl to write it down afterward." This helped form a Boyhood conversation between Mason and a character named Sheena. Making Boyhood with Lorelei meant Linklater watched his actual daughter going through both adolescence and a filmed simulacrum of the same. "Interesting life project we bit off together," he says. "Lorelei could say things an actor doesn't usually say to a director. The third year she said, 'I don't want to dress up anymore. Can my character die?' " He smiles. "You don't get too upset about anything if you step back far enough. I tell my daughter, 'The only important thing is your next breath.' "

Linklater is generally mild-mannered, but Hawke says that, on set, "there's something ferocious about Rick." He's fired old friends for having too much fun and a 12-year-old actor for a surplus of attitude. Hawke – "I've been playing Rick since 1994" – says Linklater quietly boils with both integrity and frustration. "What's he made, 18 movies? That's a lot of hustle. And he's fucking pissed off he hasn't made 18 more."

And now, even as he waits for Boyhood, a film that will most certainly bring him much greater renown, he's struggling to find financing for his next movie. "There's a weariness in Rick" that Wiggins has noticed. "But that isn't bad in a creative person, and he wears it well." When Linklater takes up the subject, he brings it all back home to childhood – to being a last-picture-show kid looking to get to a better place, even if he had to make it up.